The New York Times regularly serves up a target-rich supply of news and commentary and, as with shooting fish in a barrel, pointing out its gaffs is a sport of which one can quickly tire. Yet from time to time there is an item that makes irresistible the question, “What on earth do these people think they are up to?” Such an item was given prime space on the front page of last Sunday’s “News of the Week in Review.” The story was that the word “abortion” does not appear in the Bible, and that there are different and sometimes conflicting interpretations of the Bible passages conventionally cited in support of the prolife cause.
That’s it. That’s the entire story. Who was this story intended to persuade or instruct? Certainly not the typical reader of the Times who, according to the Times’ self-published readership profile, doesn’t give a fig about what the Bible says about abortion or anything else.
It is true that, until the late 1970s, many evangelicals and fundamentalists resisted the prolife movement because “the Bible never mentions abortion.” That was a long time ago. Most evangelicals now understand and articulately contend that all life is to be cherished as a gift of God, and that is a grave evil to directly and deliberately kill an innocent human being, which the unborn child from the very beginning of its existence certainly is. Anyway, one expects that relatively few evangelicals or fundamentalists read the Times .
So what did the reporter and editors think was the purpose served by the story? Maybe it was to ridicule the “inconsistency” of Bible-believing prolifers. That would provide the satisfaction of pandering to the sense of intellectual superiority entertained by the readers of the Times . More likely, I expect, is that the story is further evidence, were further evidence needed, that the paper’s editors don’t have a clue as to the state of the argument over abortion and related life questions.
When I was a Lutheran, I quite regularly received honorary degrees from Catholic colleges. Giving me an honorary degree was thought to be a very ecumenical thing to do. After I became a Catholic, it was a very controversial thing to do. I’m not complaining, mind you. Honorary degrees are of limited utility, although I am still thinking that something nice could be done with all those wonderfully colored hoods. A very large quilt?
A long time ago I spoke at the commencement and received an honorary degree from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, about an hour from Kansas City. I had rather lost track of what was happening there, but after Mass last Sunday the new president, Stephen Minnis, came by with several faculty members for brunch. It seems a great deal has been happening with Benedictine.
Enrollment, now at about 1200, has almost doubled in the last few years, and a big draw is Benedictine’s palpable seriousness about being a throughly Catholic school in line with John Paul the Great’s exhortation Ex corde ecclesiae (from the heart of the Church). Of course President Minnis and his colleagues were making a pitch. That’s their job. And it is a very impressive pitch indeed. In any event, when students and parents ask about seriously Catholic colleges, as they regularly do, I’ll be suggesting a careful look at Benedictine in Atchison, Kansas.
As witness his Tuesday posting here, FIRST THINGS editor Joseph Bottum is somewhat more skeptical about the Intelligent Design movement than I am. He’s right about the service that ID renders in debunking the philosophical fraud perpetrated by dogmatic evolutionists. Such debunking clears the air for exploring first principles (as in “first things”) with respect to the nature (as in “creation”) of which we are part.
No doubt the arguments get dicey at times. For instance, the main ID proponents insist that they are speaking only as scientists¯with all the strictures attending the conventional notion of “science”¯and have no religious or theological agenda. As scientists, and carefully attending to the evidence that counts as scientific, they conclude that the orthodox neo-Darwinist account is unconvincing. Good. There’s a lot there that calls for honest discussion and debate, also in the classroom.
There is also the fact, however, that ID proponents tend to be believing Christians and want to make the case that good science is consonant with the understanding that the creation has a Creator. This should not be treated as a dirty little secret that their opponents delight in exposing. By putting on their scientific caps so firmly and publicly eschewing a Christian interest in the arguments they are making, the ID side may be inadvertently reinforcing the religion/science divide that has produced what might be called the naked scientific square.
Maybe that is the risk that has to be run in challenging the insufferable arrogance of the science establishment. Pressing that challenge may be the work of a generation, but it is only a first step. It took 200 years for the Western world to get itself into the bind of institutionalizing the idea that the only form of real knowledge is reducible to the empirical and what can be subjected to controlled experiment.
Scientia means the state of knowing as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding. When it comes to the origins and nature of life in all its forms, many ways of knowing come into play. What qualifies by an excruciatingly narrow definition of science is joined by life experience, historical witness, signals of transcendence, reliable testimony, and an eminently reasonable understanding of revelation. Knowledge well employed leads to wisdom. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, and natural philosophy¯which is what today’s “science” was called until the late 19th century¯is an important part of the search for wisdom. Among the best texts on these questions is Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge .
The ID movement is a critical part of a necessary corrective of a stiflingly reductive view of human knowing. The hysterical reaction to the movement by some in the science establishment is a sign of their desperation. They cling to neo-Darwinist orthodoxy in the way that others clung to Freudianism and Marxism, screaming in protest until, under the weight of cumulative evidence, the plausibility of their belief systems collapsed and they were finally forced to release their grip. Like dogmatic neo-Darwinists, they were in thrall to a powerful myth.
If we are fortunate, many years from now people will look back and see that the ID movement played an important part in alerting us to the many-splendored ways to knowledge, in which what we now call science¯then more modest in its claims and more open to critical reason¯is an irreplaceable participant.