Mark C. Taylor of Williams College is among the most nimble of nimble minds perched on the cutting edge of whatever, just possibly, might be the next big thing. His many books over the years on religion, philosophy, economics, architecture, and whatever have in common a neophiliac's conventional delight in debunking what he takes to be conventional wisdoms. He was a friend of the late Jacques Derrida. (Earlier this year, The Onion ran the headline "Jacques Derrida 'Dies.' ") Taylor is most noted for his conjoining of postmodernist a-theology with the "death of God" and a deconstructionist employment of the hermeneutics of suspicion. Older readers will no doubt remember the death of God. Taylor's newest book is After God.
In any event, Mr. Taylor's op-ed (requires subscription) in the New York Times raises the alarm about the growing number of college students who "seem to be practicing traditional forms of religion." These "fundamentalist" and "chauvinistic" students, we are told, do not take kindly to having their faith criticized. Even "distinguished scholars" are burdened by a new regime of "religious correctness" and some are "even subjected to death threats." Mr. Taylor does not say whether he personally has been treated to the frisson of a death threat, but an administrator did once ask him to apologize to a student who complained that Taylor had offensively attacked his religion in class. Mr. Taylor writes, "I refused." There are no doubt those who will admire his courage in the defense of professorial bad manners.
Of course, he does not see it that way. Mr. Taylor writes, "For years, I have begun my classes by telling students that if they are not more confused and uncertain at the end of the course than they were at the beginning, I will have failed." Imagine that. A man who embraces as his life's work instilling confusion and uncertainty in undergraduates. Challenging work, that.
His vocation "in an age of emergent fundamentalism is to cultivate a faith in doubt that calls into question every certainty." Well, at least he's cultivating faith, if only faith in doubt. Except, of course, when it comes to doubting the certainty that the highest intellectual good is confusion and uncertainty. On that score, Mr. Taylor is a true believer. One might almost say he is a fundamentalist.
What should be done with those hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos left over from in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures? They can be maintained in quasi-perpetual suspended animation, they can be permitted to die, or they can be "adopted" by women who are prepared to carry them to term and then, with their husbands, care for the children as their own. The last is a course of life-saving love that is being followed by a small but increasing number of married couples.
Serious moral objections are raised to such adoptions, however. The Catholic Church is clearly opposed to IVF but there is as yet no authoritative magisterial teaching on what is to be done about the "extra" embryos resulting from IVF.
Most welcome, therefore, is a new book, Human Embryo Adoption: Biotechnology, Marriage, and the Right to Life, produced by the National Catholic Bioethical Center and the Westchester Institute for Ethics & the Human Person. In a careful, civil, and clarifying manner, proponents and opponents of embryo adoption make their case. In the end, I believe that those who contend that embryo adoption is morally licit, even morally admirable, have the better part of the argument. But, as the editors say in the afterword, there is no authoritative church teaching on the question, and couples considering embryo adoption "should be reminded to act only on the firm and serene judgment of conscience that, all things considered, this act is morally licit." (Human Embryo Adoption is available through the websites of the abovementioned institutes.)