Metanexus: What's In a Name?

Opening remarks at the 2006 conference

The juxtaposition of the concepts “science” and “religion” in our civilization is a kind of Rorschach Test for all kinds of deeply held prejudices and beliefs. The terms are often thought of almost as antonyms and reflect a profound cultural ambivalence in our postmodern civilization.

That is why we decided to create a new term, a neologism that in our wildest dreams will eventually work its way into the English language and perhaps other languages as well. We took the Greek prefix, meta-, meaning “transcending or transforming,” and combined it with the Latin noun, nexus, meaning “connection or core.” Philologists say that one should never combine Greek and Latin. Similarly, it seems the terms science and religion should not be in too close proximity in our culture.

The term “metanexus" means “transcending and transformational networks”, and that is precisely what we hope to build with you. The world needs bridges between different academic disciplines, different institutional forms, and different religious and cultural traditions that will help us transcend and transform our thinking and doing in wholesome and creative ways.

Of course, Metanexus is also a proper name for this remarkable organization, the Metanexus Institute on Religion and Science. Founded in 1998, it has grown beyond its humble beginnings here in Philadelphia to become an international network of tens of thousands of individuals and over 300 partner organizations at colleges and universities in 40 countries. Our website contains over 8000 essays, receives some 120,000 visitors and some 370,000 page views each month. We are committed to being interdisciplinary, international, and inter-religious, without flattening difference or reducing rigor.

All of this is the result of the leadership of a remarkable board of directors and a highly dedicated and effective staff. All of this is the result of all of you, our many members and partners throughout the world. And all of this is the result of the vision and generosity of Sir John Templeton, whose Foundation makes much of this work possible. Metanexus is nothing without each one of you, contributing in your own ways to making this complex distributed system transcend and transform itself and the world.

Different Approaches

Religion and Science means many different things to many different people, even here at this conference. One can approach the topic with general philosophical and metaphysical concerns – what is religion, what is science, how are they similar and different, how do we know, what are adequate metaphysical categories? These are great questions and will be discussed and debated in many presentations and papers over the next few days.

When we consider science, we are compelled to quickly breakdown it down into different disciplines and subdisciplines. One can approach the juxtaposition with special reference to physics and cosmology. Many books have been penned and conferences held to delve deeply into the appropriate interpretation of contemporary physics and cosmology.

When we turn to evolution and biology, different entities and systems govern the sciences of life. Many words have been used to explore the implications of the life sciences on philosophy and religion. Given the continued debate over evolution, we will host an all-day “teach-in” tomorrow entitled “Beyond Intelligent Design, Science Debates, and Culture Wars” with the emphasis on moving beyond. This symposium will be available after the conference in video as a DVD box set.

When we turn to the Human Sciences, there can be no easy boundary drawn between the domains of science and the domains of religion. More than anything, religions are about what it means to be fully human. From the human sciences come many new discoveries. Disciplines as diverse as the neurosciences and economics offer important new insights into what it means to be human. When we are ourselves the subject of scientific investigation, this inquiry must also impinge upon and be informed by the world’s cultural traditions and the acquired wisdom of our ancestors.

As subsets in the Human Sciences, we must consider both the scientific study of religious and spiritual phenomena, as well as, the dynamics of religion, spirituality, and health. Both of these interdisciplinary specializations have compelling practical and clinical relevance for human well-being.

The point of entry into this larger conversation varies for each one of us. Many will have a particular interest and expertise in one of these areas and have little interest or expertise in another area. “Science and religion” is a big tent. So too is this gathering – our seventh annual conference – that has brought all of you here. We expect you to chart a course through this gathering based on your particular interests, but also to be surprised and delighted by exposure to other ways of formulating issues at hand.

Moving away from the more scholastic concerns, we confront the domains of science, technology, and human ethics. Let us call this the “power paradox.” Humans have enormous new powers that would have appeared God-like and magical to our ancestors even 100 years ago. What is not clear is whether we are any wiser, more compassionate, and more moral, than our ancestors. Only more powerful, it seems. We lack historical perspective. We think nothing of flying around at 30,000 feet, complaining about uncomfortable seats and bad food. We think nothing of cheap cell phones and “Googling” for truth on the Internet. We have life, more abundantly perhaps, but there are also dark and dangerous challenges presented by all of this progress – the possibilities of global environmental and economic collapse, the dangers of virulent new diseases, the horrors of modern warfare – it could be a long list. The nuclear bomb is perhaps the most poignant icon for the modern power paradox. As Einstein warned “the splitting of the atom has changed everything except our ways of thinking, and thus we drift towards unparalleled disaster.” The world needs the best of science and the best of religion to adequately address these challenges.

When we consider the conflicts ranging in the world today, we find that science and religion have supporting roles to play in crafting healthy civil societies. Free, prosperous, and peaceful societies will not long thrive or even survive in our global civilization without an adequate understanding of the sciences, as well as diverse religious traditions.

Finally, we recognize that most people do not approach their spiritual life with the sciences as the point of departure. Most people begin with a profound commitment to a religious tradition in which they were raised and of whose profundity they have been convinced through community worship, meaningful stories, deep study, and personal experience. If one believes in a God, for instance, who is a Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the Universe, than he or she is also obligated to take science seriously as part of God’s revelation. What we don’t agree about is how to appropriately incorporate contemporary science into the interpretation of our traditions. Here is another great opportunity in the mission of Metanexus, the opportunity to engage in deep, enriching, and transformative intra and inter-religious dialogue.

International, Interdisciplinary, Interfaith

Represented in this growing network and present at this conference are delegates from Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Croatia, Colombia, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Netherlands, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, Uganda, United Kingdom, Ukraine, and the United States. We honor you all and especially thank our international guests, who have traveled long distances to be with us.

Highlights of this year’s conference include tonight’s stellar panel on “Spiritual Capital.” Tomorrow we launch into an all-day teach-in “Beyond Intelligent Design.” We begin with a keynote by Ian Barbour, have three dynamic panels on various aspects of the debate, and end with a keynote by John Haught. Parallel to the panels, we will also host discussions of:

  • Indic Religions in an Age of Science
  • The Emergent Mind
  • Positive Psychology and Character Strengths
  • Unselfish Love and the Pursuit of Happiness
  • Worldviews in Mathematics, Physics, and Cosmology

This will be a rich banquet indeed. It will be followed on Monday and Tuesday by some 100 paper presentations in four parallel sessions. We will also host a keynote on Monday evening with Ursula Goodenough on “Teaching the History of Nature” and a Tuesday keynote by Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams on “The View from the Center of the Universe.” We close on Tuesday evening with our very special awards banquet at which sixteen groups in our Local Societies network will be recognized for excellence.

This is all by way of welcome and introduction. Let me now offer a few reflections on the challenges and opportunities that lie before us.

The Present Moment

The more humans learn about the universe through science, the more we must look anew at ourselves. Science is a kind of “magic mirror” for human identity. As science helps us to better understand the world and ourselves, it also transforms us through remarkable new technologies and discoveries. The appropriate integration and interpretation of these new scientific insights and technologies requires the creative collaboration of the world’s wisdom traditions. This is one of the core assumptions that guide the work of Metanexus.

Today, humans can gaze out upon the fascinating complexity of the universe with the Hubble Space Telescope, even as we discover that the elemental components of our bodies are recycled stardust.

Today, humans can explore and edit the intricate chemical structures of life, even as we understand that the cellular structures of our organs are condominiums for DNA-replicating microorganisms.

Today, humans can ponder anthropogenic global climate change, even as we recognize that the chemical composition of our bodies is a complex manifestation of ocean water - thinking about itself.

Today, we can log on to the Internet and share in rich technological and cultural legacies, even as we learn that this negentropic exchange of information is as ephemeral as the vibrating subatomic particles which beam across fiber-optic cables and bounce off satellites.

Today, vast global markets are transforming how we eat, live, work, love, fight, and think, economic markets which are governed by a merely symbolic system of value, i.e. money, that nevertheless radically changes the material world.

The New Cosmology

Certainly, the modern scientific account of physical, biological, and cultural evolution is an extraordinary discovery of our times. Many different scientists in diverse disciplines have pieced together the “Epic of Evolution” over the last few decades, but it really represents a cultural achievement spanning the millennia of human existence.

Science gives us every year exponentially more seemingly disconnected facts. The university becomes a new Tower of Babel organized around increasing specialization and divisions of labor, also within the humanities. It is no longer C.P. Snow’s “two cultures;” instead we are confronted with thousands of disciplinary cultures within the academy. All is not lost though, because in spite of the lack of a universal scientific or cultural framework transcending our disciplinary differences, the threads of scientific facts are nevertheless woven on the warp of time and the woof of scale like a magical Persian tapestry. Science has given us a chronological narrative of an evolving universe of emergent complexity, ordered in the scale of entities from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic.

In brief outline, this omnicentric universe began some 13 billion years ago as infinite heat, infinite density, and total symmetry. The universe expanded and evolved into more differentiated and complex structures – forces, quarks, hydrogen, helium, galaxies, stars, heavier elements, complex chemistry, planetary systems. Some 3.5 billion years ago, in a small second or third generation solar system, the intricate processes called “life” began on at least one small planet. Animate matter-energy on Earth presented itself as a marvelous new intensification of the creative dynamic at work in the universe. Then some 2 million years ago, as if yesterday in the enormous timescales of the universe, early humans emerged on the savanna of Africa with their enormously heightened capacities for conscious self-reflection, language, and tool making. And this unfolding leads us all the way to today, to this conference, to tonight, with people gathered from the four corners of the world in order to consider “Spiritual Capital.” Truly astonishing.

I am reminded of an early Doonesbury cartoon. A news crew was going to interview a man who had successfully reduced the English language down to 74 essential words. The man, a long-haired hippy with beads sitting cross-legged on the ground (reminiscent of me as a high school student in the early 70s), was about to give a reading of Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abby.” He said one word. “Wow!” Thus concluded the reading.

I too am at a lost for words to describe all of this, though not for a lack of vocabulary or an inability to speak at great lengths. Wow! It is really great to see you all here tonight. It took 13 billion years for this particular assembly of atoms and thoughts to come together at this conference.

Homo religiosus

The word “myth” is popularly understood to mean an idle fancy, a fiction, or a falsehood; but there is another meaning of the word in academic discourse. A myth, in this latter sense of the word, is a story that serves to define the fundamental worldview of a culture by explaining aspects of the natural world and delineating the psychological and social practices and ideals of a society. Using the original Greek term mythos is perhaps a better way to distinguish this more positive and all-encompassing definition of the word.

So the question now becomes can modern science provide a mythos for our times? On the one hand, the modern scientific enterprise has assiduously sought to avoid such questions of meaning, values, and purpose implied by the term mythos. Science is about describing reality as it really is, not how it ought to be. This is the famous Is/Ought distinction in the philosophy of science. Indeed, many of the descriptions of how nature is in reality would be horrific guidelines for how humans ought to think and behave. Using a description of nature as a prescription for human behavior is called the Naturalistic Fallacy. In the ought-world of our moral imagination, for instance, we should not have famine, death, predation, and extinction, though this is true and necessary of natural processes. The is-world of nature should not become normative for human behavior.

Furthermore, the objection to our enterprise would continue, the history of combining science with preconceived ideals and ideologies for how the world ought to be has resulted in bad science and bad societies. So the plea from this camp is to leave science alone to do its methodical and myopic work of figuring out the intricate details of how reality really works. No good will come from asking hese big mythological questions in the context of science.

On the other hand, it can be argued that science is necessarily and always important currency in our cultural unfolding. It is not the least bit clear how the rest of society can leave science alone to do its work in isolation. Nor is it clear that a mythos free society is possible or desirable. Indeed, humans might better be classified as Homo religiosus, in our seemingly universal need to discover, create, and tie-together a seemingly chaotic reality into ordered and meaningfulnarratives. In the name of demystifying one religious story, we always seem to create new religious stories. For some, salvation through science, which we shall refer to as scientism, is also one of these stories, another un-provable faith among many. Nietzsche’s famous aphorism applies: “he who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” Humans are hard-wired, beginning some time around two years of age, to ask why. We must develop deep cultural structures that are filled with profound stories and meaningful symbol systems.

Interpretation Matters

Modern science is an important part of this cultural process today, even as it discovers new aspects of reality. Science itself is imbued at every level, consciously and unconsciously, intentionally and unintentionally, with meanings, purposes, and values. This is as it must be. Let us begin to talk about this as a global civilization by rigorously examining both the content of science and the interpretation of science. As we traverse the sequential changes in time-space and matter-energy that have brought us to this moment of consciousness, let us ask the question why. Is it so preposterous to think that the biophysical processes that gave rise to our purpose-seeking species might themselves be processes imbued with purpose? God’s purpose?

The universe and life that I experience through reason and faith is overflowing with meaning, order, and values. Perhaps it is a peculiar kind of modern cultural autism to think of nature otherwise. Science is begging for this kind of philosophical, mythopoeic, moral, and cultural treatment today. From general science education in public and parochial schools to the most advanced levels of research, science and society will be left increasingly sterile and barren without such an engaged discussion.

Religionists have something important to teach the scientists in how to interpret this marvelous new story that they have quite unintentionally put together in bits and pieces. Clerics and educated laity understand the importance of interpretation, though they frequently disagree about how. All believers confront the problems of interpretation in revealed scriptures, mystical epiphanies, and evolving traditions. Though mystics seek a direct connection with the spiritual core of the universe, God by whatever name, they are also necessarily nurtured and limited by communities of interpretation. While the Divine can powerfully manifest itself in human lives, humans are nevertheless finite in their ability to embrace this fullness of Spirit. For better and for worse, our understanding of and access to the Divine is always mediated by an interpretative tradition, living community, and finite individuals. When religious people are at their best, they engage in vigorous dialogue about their differences and are enriched by this diversity. “The truth is one,” reads the verse from the ancient Rig Veda, “but the wise call it by many names.”

There is not yet an interpretive tradition about science in our global civilization. Neither scientists, nor the educated public, tend to understand the difference between the facts of science and the interpretation thereof. If anything, there is an anti-interpretation tradition. This is actually a dangerous situation, because cultural beings, like other beings in nature, can be rather opportunistic and lazy when not challenged to be otherwise. Precisely because science is a powerful revelation for our time, it is also dangerous. As the saying goes, even the Devil quotes the Bible. Here I am referring not to technology per se, which can be very dangerous indeed, but more to the cultural appropriations of science. To the extent that science is used to justify an ideology of cosmological meaninglessness, it undermines the pursuit of noble purposes in human life. It is widely taken for granted in scientific culture that science has somehow proven that the universe, evolution, and human existence is devoid of meaning and purpose, even if the actual practices of scientists belie this purported conclusion. Indeed, science is itself an example of the possibility of self-transcendence and thus opens up a possibility space for other kinds of transcendence.

Insurmountable Opportunities

We are at an extraordinary moment in the natural history of our planet and the cultural evolution of our species. The exponential growth in human population and consumption patterns, empowered in part by science and technology, is significantly altering atomic, chemical, genetic, ecological, and geological processes on Earth. Humans are a Lamarckian wild card in the Epic of Evolution. Our desires and abilities, our intentions and unintentions will significantly alter the future evolutionary trajectory of our species and the planet as a whole. The present moment and future challenges hold many known and unknown dangers and opportunities.

I have long cherished the wisdom of a Walt Kelly cartoon, in which Pogo announces “we are faced with insurmountable opportunities.” It feels like that most days around the office. So many opportunities, so little time. Friends, there is much important work to be done. And we must use the best of science and the best of religion, if we are going to succeed.

How to interpret science as it continues to unfold and accelerate is neither obvious nor simple. It requires knowing science in its complexity and diversity. The details matter; so the challenge is something like acquiring fluency in Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Hungarian, and English, all at the same time.

The educational, dialogue, and research programs proposed by the term “metanexus” assumes not that we possess truths at the outset, but that truth may emerge through a rigorous, open and exploratory encounter between the domains of science and religion. We assume that a “fusion of horizons” is possible, even as new horizons of human discovery and right livelihood appear.

We believe that the new view of the universe and ourselves offered by modern science tends to minimize human ideological and territorial disputes, and so also help promote peace and conflict resolution. Friends, let us stand shoulder-to-shoulder exploring and celebrating the many mysteries of the universe, rather than going head-to-head in escalating conflicts.

Continuity + Change

In pursuing this vision, we will also need to reinvent the university. Humanity has made tremendous progress through specialization and division of labor, but we need a new breed of intellectuals, scientists, clergy, and citizen alike, who are broadly trained in multiple disciplines and able to do and teach difficult and creative integrative work without collapsing disciplinary rigor. Interpreting science and religion in the 21st century will also require romantic vision and philosophical rigor. It will require appropriate metaphysical concepts and inspiring artistic forms. The challenge is really too much for any individual, so we must build interdisciplinary communities for integral studies. These interpretative communities must seek to integrate knowledge and wisdom from across disciplinary boundaries of our compartmentalized modern university and our fragmented postmodern society. The solution is evolution. Adapt!

In cultural evolution, as in biophysical evolution, there is both continuity and change, which is the theme for this conference. New adaptive structures are built upon the old structures. Critical components of the continuity needed to face the challenges of the 21st century and beyond are surely to be found in the religious traditions of the world. A blanket rejection of the spiritual insights accumulated over the centuries of human experimentation in diverse contexts is cultural suicide. Indeed, many of the frameworks best able to interpret science are already present in the world’s spiritual traditions. Successful adaptation is built upon creative replication. We need ancient wisdom upon which to build this new world.

The Charge

And hence the mission of Metanexus and the charge for this conference is to build a community, to dialogue and debate, to hold each other accountable to rigorous standards of scholarship, but also to learn from each other. To this we must add the challenge for many of understanding and expressing oneself in a foreign language. For some that foreign language will be English, for others it may be a different religious tradition, for others it may be physics or economics.

In this difficult endeavor, let us take comfort and hope in the presence of a power and personality greater than us. Muslims characterize this Presence as compassionate and merciful. Jews and Christians characterize this Presence as just and loving. All religious traditions affirm these insights with different words and in different ways. Albert Einstein also suggested that “the curve of the universe favors us.” We may take comfort that the Universe, God by whatever name, seems to favor elegant improbabilities.

Our mission is also improbable, some would say impossible, but it is most assuredly elegant and beautiful. The contemporary encounter between science and religion is intrinsically one of the most fascinating conversations going on in this corner of our galaxy. It may also be one of the most important for our future well-being.

On behalf of all of us here at Metanexus, I want to welcome you to this gathering. We wish you much learning, great conversations, and maybe even some epiphanies to help you in the challenging work ahead.

Thank you for being here, for sharing your knowledge and expertise, but also for adding your wisdom and spirit, to this extraordinary endeavor.


Published 2006.07.26©2006Metanexus Institute

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