The following is a paper I presented to the Theological Study Group East of the Northern Illinois Conference of the UMC on September 26, 2013.
There are precious few scholars in the dialog between science and theology that are experts in both disciplines. Lee Silver is not one of them. A few such notable scholars come to mind: the late Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne, Alister McGrath, and the granddaddy of science and theology, Ian Barbour. Silver does not cite or list in his bibliography any such scholars in Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life. Silver’s lack of awareness or outright avoidance of integrative thinkers in the realm of science and theology is a serious hindrance to the persuasive power of his arguments for sequestering “God” and “soul” talk from public discourse and debate about the ethics of biotechnology because, like it or not (and obviously Silver does not like it), theological concepts are highly relevant to bioethics because such concepts remain pregnant with cultural imagination and value. Concepts like human “personhood” and “rights” are still steeped in theological concepts, traditions, and history. Of course this is why Silver wrote his book, which is an attempt to untangle bioethics from “spirituality.” The relevance of theological concepts to public debate about the ethics of biotechnology is thoughtfully and prodigiously engaged by integrative thinkers far removed from the fundamentalists Silver so prominently engages in his book. Silver’s avoidance or outright ignorance of integrative science and theology is an issue to which I will return at the end of my commentary and critique. For now, let us appreciate Silver as an expert in his specialties–molecular biology and biomedical ethics–and give him enough grace in his treatment of theological concepts, such as “soul,” that go little beyond Aristotle, Aquinas, and Descartes. His main objective is to argue “that all naturalistic arguments against biotechnology are actually spiritual arguments in disguise.” He writes further: “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” (xiii). [Read more…]