Athens, Jerusalem, and Modern Science: An Interview with Leon Kass, Amy Apfel Kass, and Francis Oakley

The Cresset LXXII (1): 27-33 (Michaelmas 2008).


Those who, like Andrew Delbanco, advocate renewed efforts to bridge the gap between the “two cultures” of the sciences and the humanities as part of a larger endeavor to renew liberal education in our time, or those who, like Bruce Kimball, Chuck Foster, and Carol Schneider, note critical points of convergence and affiliation between professional study, liberal education, and religion, need sooner or later to reckon with certain fundamental questions. If we think of liberal education as a kind of quest for wisdom, can we or should we assume that the kind of wisdom sought through liberal learning is compatible with the kind of wisdom sought in the great religious traditions of the world? And what about the relationship between the humanities and the sciences with respect to wisdom? Do we have simply a plurality of ideas and methods, or do we have ways of thinking and living and understanding that are deeply antithetical to one another, leading to an education that would be incoherent at best, destructively corrosive at worst?

Few contemporary thinkers have explored these questions more persistently and more deeply than Professor Leon Kass, the Addie Clark Harding Professor in the College and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. In the introduction to his careful and deeply thoughtful The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (University of Chicago, 2006)he examines the relationship between the wisdom of Athens and the wisdom of Jerusalem as both of those traditions are related in turn to the project of modern science. Professor Kass earned his Bachelor of Science degree in biology with honors from the University of Chicago in 1958, his MD from the School of Medicine at the University of Chicago in 1962, and his PhD in biochemistry from Harvard University in 1967. After some years of research in molecular biology at the National Institutes of Health, Professor Kass served as Executive Secretary of the Committee on the Life Sciences and Social Policy of the National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences, whose report Assessing Biomedical Technologies provided one of the first overviews of the emerging moral and social questions posed by biomedical advance. On the basis of this early work, his extensive publications, and his outstanding teaching, he was named in 2002 as the Chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics. I talked with Professor Kass on 26 October 2007. His wife, Amy Apfel Kass who also teaches at the University of Chicago and who has written about both the ancient Greeks and about American higher education, was also part of the conversation.

The Cresset