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A Dialogue Between Three Communities and Science – Conference Report

28-30 June, 2002

On June 28, 2002 a number of participants gathered in the small village of Pari, Italy to take part in a dialogue surrounding the traditions of science and the three Abrahamic religions- Jews, Christians and Muslims. At a time when religions are so often seen as instruments of discord and the seat of violence it seemed important for the three communities to dialogue together in a spirit of tolerance and open enquiry. Meeting together not only celebrates what we share in common but also explores and respects our differences with the acceptance that the world of the future must be capable of containing multiplicity within its unity.

The Origin of the Meeting

In originally calling for such a meeting the Pari Center had in mind a celebration of that great vision of a unity of purpose that began in the kingdom of Andalusia and, in particular, the city of Cordoba, in Spain between the 9th and 13th Centuries. At that time Cordoba was the key city of Europe and the origin of what was later to become known as the Renaissance. Cordoba was home to such outstanding thinkers as Averroes and Ibn bin Arabi, Maimonides and Judah ha Levi. Under Arabic rule it developed great religious tolerance and, thanks to Arabic scholars, the writings of Greek philosophers such as Aristotle reached the West. Under the Christian king, Alfonso X, a university was established where Jews, Christians and Arabs could study side by side. Alfonso also had the Torah and Koran translated into Latin so that Christian scholars could study these sacred texts. Tragically this vision was shattered at the end of the fifteenth century when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled the Jews and Arabs from Spain.

Viewed from the perspective of the 21st Century, the vision of people like Alfonso X along with Jewish, Christian and Islamic scholars still seems advanced for even our times. It is a vision based on tolerance, a deep respect for learning, and a desire to create a just society in which each person can develop his or her full potential.

Our Present Position

The twentieth century is the era when the world moved from Certainty to Uncertainty. It took us from an abiding faith in progress—the limitless increase in knowledge, the unchallenged benefits of science and technology, a faith in human improvement brought about through increasing efficiency, control and prediction, the eventual resolution of all social and human problems, and the limitless resources of the earth—to a realization of our limits and our need to live in greater harmony with the Earth and each other. In this sense, the dream of the infallibility of reason and knowledge has come face-to-face with its hubris.

It could be argued that elements of this shattered dream had their origins in the vision of enlightenment that took place in early medieval Europe whose values came from Greek, Jewish, Christian and Arabic thinkers. (Christian teaching, for example, emphasized human domination over the Earth and its creatures—a viewpoint it had inherited from Judaism.) The vision itself may have been valid but certain aspects were taken too far and in doing so people began to distance themselves from the earth and each other. And so we moved from participators within the natural order of the world to more isolated observers. Therefore it is both important and topical that the Three Communities should meet to discuss their common values and consider the future ethical basis for social and environmental action.

Why did we meet in Pari?

Pari is a tiny spark, one amongst many, that we hope will illuminate our world. The Pari Center for New Learning was created in the medieval village of Pari as a place of tranquility where people could come together to think and talk about values, meaning, the impact of the new paradigms of science and the directions societies are taking. The maxim of the Center comes from the writer Carlo Levi who said that ‘the future has an ancient heart.’ It is particularly appropriate to consider our common future from within a place that stretches back over three thousand years and a community that has been established for at least eight centuries.

To visit Pari is not to inhabit an anonymous hotel or conference center. The entire village is the Pari Center. Participants stay in the small family hotel or one of the furnished houses, sit in the square at night and eat traditional meals prepared by the local people. In this respect they are being constantly reminded that their deliberations must include not only the global but also the small and local.

The Meeting

The first morning began with some words from John Avery, a professor and quantum chemist. Avery suggested the development of a long-term plan for the elimination of war. He spoke about the level of instability that we have now reached, as a society, resulting from the practice of war. At this point members of the group explored the tradition of science. Some noted a lack of accountability within the discipline. It was stated that:

Often, scientists are educated without any sense of the history of their subject or it’s ethical and social impact.

It seemed to be echoed that even with its shortcomings, science has had the tendency to celebrate the cosmos, as, for many, it contains within it a deep belief in an underlying order of the universe. This was noted to be a common point of intersection. The symbols of Truth, Beauty and Good were recommended to be a guide in many disciplines, including science.

Later in the afternoon Therese Schroeder-Sheker spoke about her work within the field of palliative medicine and its grounding within spiritual practice. This particular branch of medicine utilizes a very specific form of music as prescription for those dying. Therese addressed some of the issues she has faced within the field of medicine. She spoke of death as transition instead of a medical failure and the transformations that have taken place within the medical establishments she has worked with.

The following day Rabbi Craig Miller spoke on the Hebrew tradition of knowledge, which he explained in terms of nature and the Torah. He emphasized that one book informs the reading of the other.

Continuing with the theme of religious texts Adriaan Keller talked about cooperative efforts made between Arabs, Christians and Jews on the creation of the Alba bible, which was a collection of the different spiritual texts. Keller said that it is this sort of work that will bridge gaps and, that

These relationships arise out of necessity, not luxury.

The following portions of the Dialogue were introduced by Neil Maroni who spoke to the issue of ethics within the business world. This concept was opened further by Siraj Izhar who also addressed the possibility of new organizational forms. The two approaches appeared to be deeply related. Participants stated that people in current society hold a deep lack of trust for many institutions and corporations. Siraj expressed that he wanted to create a sort of catalogue of human needs so as to identify that, which can be fulfilled without the commercial market, the idea being that most needs are, in fact, non-material.

The conversations that took place over the weekend combined many different viewpoints and seemed to draw upon the particular wisdom of each. There were many conversations that crept far into the night and one particular night of song that proved fruitful. Songs from different spiritual traditions were lifted with wonderful enthusiasm that spread to those of the village who even joined in with their own singing!

The Next Steps

Our first Pari meeting, in 2002, serves as a starting point for wider discussions. At one level discussions on Science and Religion continue on a monthly basis thanks to support from the Metanexus Institute. We would also like to have a further conference that would include representatives of other faiths, belief systems and communities.


We are left with a number of questions:

  • What is the role of knowledge and scholarship in the modern world?
  • What ethical limits should be placed on the advancement of technologies?
  • What are the deepest values inherent in the scientific quest and how do they accord with religious values?
  • How can the arts be used to enhance humanity? What is their role in expressing the transcendent?
  • What are our obligations to nature and the environment?
  • What ethical and moral guidelines should be followed in the market place and board room?
  • How best can society be organized for the good of all its members?
  • Should we be focusing on our potential contributions and obligations to society rather than always insisting on our rights?
  • How can religions best dialogue together and what will be their role in the multicultural societies of the future?
  • What is the future of the sacred in our lives?
  • Are there alternative ways to resolve national differences without resorting to endless cycles of violence?
  • What values and meanings would we like the generations that come after us to respect?