Herewith an item from "The Public Square" in a forthcoming issue of First Things:
It has been almost fifty years since C.P. Snow fixed the world's attention on the way in which there are "two cultures," with scientists living in one and humanists in the other. Snow's argument has come in for withering criticism from many quarters, but Ramesh Ponnuru suggests that it really holds in some instances. For instance, Lee M. Silver, a molecular biologist at Princeton whose book Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life, which Ponnuru is reviewing in the Claremont Review of Books.
In Silver's view, neither philosophy, morality, aesthetics, history, nor any other considerations should be permitted to get in the way of what he understands to be scientific progress. And that is most emphatically the case if such considerations are tainted by religion or spirituality. Admittedly, Silver might not be happy with that description of his position. He writes: "I do not claim that all expressions of spirituality are harmful or bad. Nor do I think that all biotech applications are inherently good, ethical, or risk-free." Ponnuru observes that, without that disclaimer, the thoughtful reader would conclude that that is precisely what Lee Silver claims and thinks.
The book, which, not incidentally, is blurbed by the notorious Princeton ethicist Peter Singer, celebrates the "new frontiers" of cloning, embryonic stem cell research, inter-species hybrids, and, it seems, any other tinkering prompted by scientific curiosity. "Human being" is a very pliable concept. As Ponnuru writes, describing Silver's argument: "Evolutionary theory debunks the notion that there are clear boundaries between species. There are only populations with overlapping traits we classify together for convenience. When we start creating human/non-human hybrids, Silver writes, we will have to draw 'arbitrary' lines to determine which ones will have rights. He breezily approves the prospect." On the basis of my limited personal contact with Prof. Silver, breezy is the right word. He reminds one of the undergraduate who, upon reading a little Nietzsche, looks over the abyss into nothingness and exclaims, "Wow. That's cool."
(Incidentally, the arbitrariness of species classifications in some theories of evolution is a point nicely developed by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn in his article in the April issue of First Things, "Reasonable Science, Reasonable Faith.")
In his review, Ponnuru is particularly exercised about Silver's being obsessively exercised with the doleful influence of religion. Silver complains, writes Ponnuru, "that many of the people who make secular-sounding arguments are in fact religious." With specific reference to his Princeton colleague Robert P. George, Silver says this is unfair and misleading. "He seems to think," observes Ponnuru, "that such people are being deceptive whenever they make their arguments without disclosing their religious commitments. Were this standard applied evenhandedly, Silver would be unable to write an op-ed on biotechnological issues without mentioning up front that he is an 'extremely skeptical agnostic deist' (as he describes himself), and his arguments could be dismissed as a product of his theology."
It is one of the less charming oddities of our time that, in many circles, atheism, or at least a declared agnosticism, is assumed to be the default position of disinterested ethical discourse. As though proceeding from the assumption that there is no God is less consequential than assuming that there is. Neither is a neutral position. More to the point, however, is that it is possible to prescind from what John Rawls calls "comprehensive accounts" of reality in advancing philosophical and moral arguments. Christians have various ways of accounting for this possibility, whether in terms of natural law, general revelation, or, quite simply, a capacity for thinking possessed by all rational beings.
In the absence of being able to conceive of such a possibility, and in the intellectual habit of assuming that their own comprehensive accounts are neutral, Lee Silver and those of like mind are reduced to name-calling. Those who disagree with them are religious obscurantists, fanatics, or, as Silver says, practitioners of "stealth extremism." In sum, Christians can readily engage the rational arguments advanced by atheists and agnostics, while atheists and agnostics disallow arguments, no matter how rational, advanced by Christians. That is hardly neutrality.
One quickly adds that this is not true of all atheists and agnostics, but it does seem to be the case with Lee Silver, who gives renewed credibility to C.P. Snow's depiction of scientists locked into a culture whose hostility to the humanities, and to philosophy in particular, is matched only by their ignorance of ways of thinking that challenge the technological imperative by which they are driven.
In response to inquiries, I can only say that I do not know the "inside story" of what happened leading to the abrupt dismissal of Fr. Joseph Fessio as provost of Ave Marie University (AMU) by Mr. Tom Monaghan, founder and chancellor. The curt statement issued by AMU, referring to "irreconcilable differences" and noting the contributions of Fr. Fesso to the university, reads like an agreement worked out by lawyers.
I have been supportive of AMU from its launching in 2003, albeit not without misgivings. And I am glad to count Fr. Fessio as a friend. As usual, Amy Welborn has some useful links on this latest development over on Open Book.
I had initially agreed to serve on the board of directors of Ave Maria, but after a time it became apparent that the rapidity and complexity of decisions necessarily involved in establishing such an ambitious project demanded much more time and attention than I could give. So it was very amicably agreed that I and several others would be moved from the board of directors to a board of regents, which is a more nominal association with the enterprise.
I continue to be very supportive of Ave Maria University. It is a very important part of the mix that is required for the revitalization of Catholic higher education in this country. AMU has attracted some very impressive faculty in its first three years, and hundreds of students have enrolled despite the fact that the school is not yet accredited. There are questions still unsettled, and they no doubt have a bearing on leadership disputes, including the dismissal of Fr. Fessio as provost.
One important question is framed this way: Should AMU be "Steubenville South" or "Notre Dame South," or something quite different from both. Denigrating in no way the notable achievements of Steubenville, my view is that AMU should aspire to being Notre Dame South on the way to its likely becoming something quite different from both.
But such decisions will be made most importantly by Tom Monaghan. Without his inspiration, determination, and generous funding, there would be no AMU. This is also as good a place as any to make clear that my comments about Mr. Monaghan in a recent profile in the New Yorker were not intended to be critical, although I am told that some took them that way. On the contrary, to say that he is as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove is to say that he exemplifies Our Lord's counsel to turn worldly means to apostolic ends.
As for Fr. Fessio, he is routinely described as "controversial." Few people of great achievement are in their obituaries described as "uncontroversial." And, please God, we are many years away from the writing of Fr. Fessio's obituary. The Church in America and the world owe him an inestimable debt for his founding of Ignatius Press, of which he continues to be the editor. Almost singlehandedly, Ignatius has made available in English some of the most important Catholic thinkers of our era, most notably in publishing the works of Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar.
At the University of San Francisco, where he taught for years and established a pioneering Ignatius Institute, Fr. Fessio was treated shabbily by his fellow Jesuits, finally being exiled to a perfectly superfluous post as chaplain in a small nursing home that already had a chaplain. With notable constancy, he has been obedient to leaders in the Society of Jesus who hold him in obvious contempt. Despite all, I hope and expect that he will be making further and important contributions to the renewal of the Church in the years ahead.
There is no denying that these are unhappy days for Ave Maria University, for Tom Monaghan, and for Fr. Fessio. One prays that out of the clash of great visions and great talents all three will emerge the stronger in their manifest devotion to Christ and his Church.
(For the latest developments, in which it appears Fr. Fessio will continue teaching at AMU while having no administrative responsibilities, see here.)