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Pari Center Dialogues in Religion and Science

Pari Center Dialogues in Religion and Science, 2003


Report for the Templeton Foundation

Following the Pari Center for New Learning being welcomed into the Metanexus fold and receiving a Local Society’s Initiative grant, the Center began a series of roundtable discussions with the people of Pari as well as representatives of the various associations connected with the nearby towns and villages: Don Roberto (the village priest), the monastic community at Siloe, members of the University of Siena and others on how best to run our Pari Dialogues in Religion and Science. One member of the village said, ‘We  always used to meet and talks about these things together. We even used to read books and discuss them. It would be good to meet like that again and talk about really important things.’

The Center therefore decided on two pathways—one that would involve public talks to the people of Pari (and the many other villages in the area, including people from the cities of Siena and Grosseto). The other route would be smaller roundtable meetings held at a more intense level and involving participants from the universities and other institutions. In addition, the Center began a small collection of books, in Italian, on religion and science.

Program for 2003

War Yesterday and Today
18 January

This afternoon-long meeting involved two representatives from Amnesty International, an economist, two physicists and Don Jose Adriano Ukwatchali, a priest who had saved the lives of a number of children and other civilians children during the civil war in Angola. The meeting addressed the issue of the whole culture of war and asked what alternatives are possible. It explored the paradox that religions, which preach peace, are so often the cause of tension and conflict. It asked how science, which is supposed to be truly international could produce such terrible weapons of war.

Father Adriano who had experienced civil war in Angola. ‘I saw a great pile of dead bodies,’ he said, ‘but then I heard someone cry out. It was a like a miracle. These people were wounded but they’d managed to hide under the bodies to avoid being shot. But because the government had changed these people were now called rebels, but I found some nuns who were willing to treat their wounds and we managed to save their lives.’ Father Adriano also spoke saving young children during civil war. ‘When I set out in the truck the people said, “Please don’t go Father, you’re going to get killed” but I told them, “Don’t worry, the soldiers won’t even stop me and so we brought all the children to a safe village.”’

Virginia del Re spoke of the origin of the ‘Women in Black’ movement in the Middle East. ‘These women just said “no” to war. Now we too stand in silent witness in several Italian cities.’ Silvia Landi (Director of Amnesty International for Tuscany), Egidio Grande (Director of Amnesty International for Siena), spoke about the international efforts of the Amnesty movement. Prof Roy McWeeny from the University of Pisa noted, ‘These is a deep paradox here. Science is supposed to be truly international but it’s also producing the most terrible weapons of war. And religions preach peace, but they are so often the cause of conflict.’ The meeting also looked into the economic roots of conflict and the whole culture of war.

The meeting ended with the proposal to present these issues to the young people of the area and, with the cooperation of Pugwash, Amnesty International, Doctors without boundaries and Emergency, to plan an ongoing project for youth.

A Voyage Around God
Dr Shantana Sabbadini 15 February

Dr Shantana Sabbadini described his own personal journey in search of truth. His religious upbringing led him to a passion for discovering truth and he chose theoretical physics as his particular pathway. But increasingly his reliance on rational thought and analysis caused him to question his faith and eventually to turn to Marxism.  Moving to California to carry out research on Black Holes he became involved in the student movement of the late sixties. From California he moved to India and joined an Ashram, giving up for a time his research in physics.

The final chapter of his journey involved a return to Italy and the discovery that truth can only be found within and not by journeying to other places. He has now made a bridge between faith and science. On the one hand he is carrying out research on the measurement problem in quantum theory. On the other, he is the organizer of the annual Eranos conferences in Switzerland (first founded by Carl Jung in the thirties), which deal with myth and religion.

Dinner with EFA (Etica, Finanza, Ambiente)
Friday 28 March

Ethics, Finance and Environment is an association of economists, directors and board members of Monte dei Paschi (one of Italy’s largest banks) as well as from the faculty of economics at the University of Siena. The group met with the people of Pari to discuss the need for an ethical basis to economics and the marketplace. They explained how they were drawing upon research in complexity theory and were using artificial intelligence for their economic models. Their aim is to develop a sustainable economics for the future and to make a deep enquire into an ethical basis for action.

Music, Mathematics and God
Maestro Hans-Eberhard Dentler
Sunday, 30 March

Han-Eberhard Dentler, a cello virtuoso and musicologist, spoke of the deep spiritual sense that pervades J.S. Bach’s work. Less well known is Bach’s interest in Pythagorean theory which led him to join the Societät der musikalischen Wissenschaften, a group that devoted itself to the study of the union of music, philosophy, mathematics and science. The group studied the works of the mathematician, John Wallis, as well as Leibniz, Fludd and Kepler. Kepler himself had expressed the ‘harmony of the spheres’ mathematically with his description of planetary motion and Wolfgang Pauli had shown how Kepler was inspire by the archetype of the Trinity in arriving at his insights on the solar system (Father, Son, and Spirit = sun, earth, and attractive action.)

Quoting from his recent book, L’Arte della fuga di Johann Sebastian Bach, Dentler argued that Bach’s Art of Fugue is both a religious and a scientific work since the various contrapunti express the notion of Kepler’s harmony of the spheres and well as involving the use of Pythagorean number symbolism and the underlying principle of the soul’s ‘flight to God.’

The Future of Agriculture and Biotechnology
Prof. Amedeo Alpi, Department of agricultural plant biology, University of Pisa 5 April

Professor Alpi began his talk by showing an image of Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis spoke to the wolf of Gubbio and wrote a canticle in which he expressed his relationship to all aspects of the natural world from Brother Sun to his sisters the birds and his brother the fire. Alpi asked how we could preserve Francis’ spirit in a modern world of biotechnology and genetic engineering. In the light of an expanding population and the erosion of arable land he believed that feeding the world could only be achieved through the careful employment of technology. Yet there could be no facile solutions. Genetically modified plants, for example, may not be at first vulnerable to insect attack, yet insects constantly mutate in the war between plant and insect life. Certainly plants can be modified to produce, as with ‘yellow rice,’ badly needed vitamins in certain areas, or to improve yields and resistance, yet at the same time this can make Third World countries and their farmers dependent upon multinationals. Clearly serious ethical and social problems must be taken into consideration.

On the following day Dr Alpi spoke with some of the village leaders exploring how a community that had traditionally relied on farming through small family plots would survive in a changing world. The solution seemed to be to move towards a mixed economy of farming, crafts and newer electronic work. Such insights will be helpful as Pari becomes the first Italian ‘laboratory’ for Renaissance Europe. (A program where communities can be studied as models of change for other similar communities in different countries.)

The Blackfoot Sun Dance
Dr F. David Peat
26 April

David Peat spoke of his work organizing circles of Native American Elders and Western Scientists in Canada and the US (funded by the Fetzer Institute). He focused on the Blackfoot people and their process philosophy of a world in constant flux. This was reflected in their very rich verb-based language, one of the Algonquin family of which Cree, Ojibwaj, Cheyenne, Mic Maq and Naskapi are all members (and who share similar worldview). The Blackfoot are children of the creator Napi (the Old Man) who walked the land and left the imprint of his body on the earth with its energies and powers.

Ceremonies of renewal are required in a world where everything is in constant transformation. Such ceremonies maintain harmony and balance so that events on earth harmonize with those in the heavens. Peat emphasized how this participatory and process vision of the world had much in common which that of quantum theory as well as the process philosophy Whitehead. As the in-depth discussions with physicists had shown, such similarities are no means superficial but led to an entire way of life that had been based on harmony, balance and respect for all living creatures. In this sense there was no division between the sacred and the secular in the Blackfoot world where all things are alive.

David Peat spoke in April of his experiences organizing the Native American Elders/Western Scientists dialogues in the USA and Canada. Each of the dialogues lasted for several days and explored in considerable depth the respective worldviews. Within such a genuine meeting of minds, in which participants respect each other’s position it is also possible to make frank critical assessments. The Elders had questioned a science that is based on total objectivity and omits a discussion of qualities. While admitting the enormous technical advances of Western science they also wondered of the West had lost touch with a sense of the sacred and animate in nature. For their part several of the scientists spoke of their own personal sense of awe and wonder and what they felt to be the sacred or transcendent within the cosmos. The local people had great sympathy with the worldview of the Native Americans and spoke of their own tradition of seeing the land as sacred.

April also saw the first meeting with (EFA) Ethica, Finanza, Ambiente—a group concerned in particular with the social and ethical impact of economics. EFA is composed of directors and staff at the Monte dei Paschi di Siena bank (the third largest in Italy) as well as staff from the University of Siena. Later, during their annual meeting, EFA resolved to make a formal collaborative association with the Pari Center and even plan for cooperative international activities.

Religion and Peace
Dr Edy Altes
17 May

Dr Altes began by relating how he had resigned as Dutch Ambassador to Spain in order to make a public statement about what he felt was the unreality and ‘madness’ of the current attitude towards national security; one which involves the constant development of new weapons of war. ‘So many countries speak about security in terms of weapons of war,’ Altes said, ‘But that is the old Roman mentality of “if you want peace you must prepare for war,” the new mentality must be “if you want peace, you must prepare for peace.”’ He gave examples of his approach with religious groups in Bosnia, Kosovo and Sierra Leone, pledging them to work together and refrain from encouraging hatred. He also explained of his work with the Pugwash organization (‘scientists for peace’). ‘Several of these scientists have no particular religious affiliation,’ he said, ‘but in each case I have found something in common and that is a deep love for humanity and a deep sense of awe and reverence for the universe. This is what links us all together.’

Altes went on to speak of his work as President of the World Conference on Religion and Peace and the way religions had worked together in a spirit of dialogue in Bosnia, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. He ended by presenting a copy of his book A Heart and Soul for Europe: The need for Spiritual Renewal to the Pari Center library.

From Certainty to Uncertainty
23-24 May

May also saw a day-long meeting with Notai from all over Italy. (A Notaio is a type of lawyer concerned with such transactions as property transfer. As an organized group they have an enormous influence on the Italian legal system and any projected change in the law must first meeting with their approval.) David Peat gave a daylong seminar on these topics which ended with the group attempting to integrate these new concepts along with traditional ethical and religious considerations in Italian society. On participant remarked, ‘I like these new ideas from physics about self-organization and complexity. Here in Italy the law is built up of separate pieces and is so fragmentary. We are going to have to rethink things in radically new ways.’

During the first half of the meeting David Peat discussed the change in European consciousness from the early Middle Ages to the present day. He began with a period in which time was considered as belonging to God and the world was thought of as sacred. Aquinas’ doctrine of participation, for example, argued that a stone exists because it is present in the mind of God. Peat then pointed to the secularization of time that began in the 14th century with the creation of mechanical clocks, the adoption of Arabic numerals and double entry bookkeeping that gave merchants tools with which to predict and control their world and to envision the notion of  ‘progress.’ With the Renaissance and the rise of science, Europeans increasingly had the ability to abstract, control and objectify their world. This reached its culmination around 1900, a period in which the seeds of uncertainty were also sewn with quantum theory and chaos theory. Today we have learned to accept a degree of uncertainty; we live in a participatory universe and are learning about self-organized systems and the complexity of ecologies. Our thinking is moving away from a world of objects to one of processes.

During the second half of the meeting the Notai discussed the implications of this revolution in thinking in the context of their own world. They felt that a major change should occur in the structure of the law and in the court system. The law had been created piecewise, as a mechanism, and something more organic and holistic should be set in place. They also discussed concepts of ethics, justice and equilibrium. Peat then spoke about the Blackfoot notion of justice—as the restoration of equilibrium within a society—and about their verb-based or ‘process’ language. The Notai felt the need to explore a process approach within the field of the law. The meeting ended with a visit to the monastic community of San Antimo. This was particularly symbolic in terms of the transition from tradition to modernity, since by legend the monastery was founded in the early Middle Ages Charlemagne and has been revived in a modern context by monks from France.

In May, David Peat attended the Works of Love conference at Villanova University, Pennsylvania as representative of the Pari Dialogues in Science and Religion and was pleased and surprised to learn that the Center had been give one of the $10,000 awards. These will certainly help next season’s activities. From Philadelphia Peat made a side trip to New York to visit the Interfaith Center. He met primarily with Bruce Kiernan of the Pontifical North American College who made a number of contact introductions, in particular to Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, Head of the Pontifical Congregation for Interreligious Dialogue.

In the same month Peat also attended the first meeting of Renaissance Europe, held in Brussels, as the Center’s representative. Renaissance Europe is an NGO of private individuals and politicians concerned with the economic, ethical, moral and social dimensions of a new and expanded Europe, beginning in 2005. Pari was chosen as one of their ‘laboratories’ to see how small communities can face change in a sustainable way.

July saw a number of visitors to the center including Dominican Nuns from Australia who were interested in how our programs were progressing. During a three-day visit to Pari, Bodhisattva Productions (UK) filmed several hours of interviews for two documentaries on the connections between Buddhism and ideas in modern physics.

July also saw a roundtable and dinner on ‘The Human Face of Globalization’ with a group of international economists, some of whom who were particularly concerned with an integration of the Islamic perspective into economic practice. During the meeting the group discussed the possibilities of future conferences to be held in Madrid, New York and Pari.

Professor Fernando di Mieri visited in August from the Dominican university San Tommaso Aquino in Naples and discussed ‘The relationship between Faith and Science.’ He also explored the possibility of setting up a Local Society in Naples, planning cooperative events with Pari and ways to involve scientists and theologians in other parts of Italy.

August also saw a cooperative meeting with EFA at which Dr Arnold Smith of the National Research Council of Canada first gave a general overview of complexity theory and then applied it to notions of consciousness and society. He also remarked, ‘I remember when I first used to go to conferences on Artificial Intelligence. So much was going to be achieved in the next five years. But twenty years later people none of these great goals had been achieved. I believe that there are very deep questions that must be faced about the nature of human consciousness and what it means to be embodied. I don’t think that science in its present state will be able to answer these. Maybe we should turn to the wisdom traditions and see what they have to say about what it means to be human. I think we are also going to have to question the way our society has been putting so much faith in logical reasoning. This is necessary but we also have to understand the power of intuition and our other faculties. I believe that the science of the future is going to look different.’

The year ended with an open-air meeting held in the piazza in front of Pari’s Church of San Biago. The topic was ‘Symbols of the Sacred’ examined from various perspectives by Dr Susan Scott and Manuela Minacci. David Peat remarked, ‘In the art of Duccio and the other Sienese masters, space and time were perfectly integrated. But then came the Renaissance and artists adopted the device of perspective. That’s like seeing the world through a window. Art became distanced from the world in the same way that classical physics saw the world as an object. I find it really fascinating that just as quantum physics now tells us that we live in a participatory universe, so too an artist like David Hockney says, “I want to enter the landscape and walk in it and not just not see it from a distance.”’

Conferences in 2003

During the year 2002 the Pari Center for New Learning held a number of conferences.  Con le mani non armati (Hands without Weapons) involved women’s groups and associations in various parts of Italy. The meeting questioned the whole idea of a culture of war and introduced the theme of the ‘Women in Black.’ This movement began in 1998 in the Middle East when a group of Jewish and Muslim women called for a stop to war and terrorism and stood in silent witness in the center of Jerusalem. They take as their symbol the Hand of Fatima. (Fatima, daughter of the prophet was said to have stopped a battle by holding up her hand and saying ‘NO.’) Several of the groups present are now also standing in silent witness in the centers of Italian Cities.

The summer saw a conference A Dialogue between Jews, Christians and Muslims and Science.

As a scientist, John Avery felt that, even with its shortcomings, science celebrates the cosmos and has a deep belief in its underlying order. This is its meeting place with religion, for both share the symbols of Truth, Goodness and Beauty.

Therese Schroeder-Sheker spoke of her work in palliative medicine in which there is a strong intersection of the sacred with the scientific (in the sense of medical research). Therese argued that death should be seen not as a medical failure but as a transition and told how this approach had led to transformations within the medical establishments she has worked with.

The meeting heard from Adriaan Keller of the strong collaboration between Arabs, Jews and Christians in medieval Spain.  Keller argued true cooperation between religions becomes possible when all are working towards a common goal or need. In the case of medieval Spain, it was the love of knowledge and its dissemination through the creation of books.

Rabbi Craig Miller spoke of the Hebrew tradition of knowledge in which the book of nature and the book of the Torah each informs the reading of the other.

Neil Maroni addressed the need for ethics within the world of business and Siraj Izar argued that new institutions need to be created for our age. Both issues are related in that people have lack of trust in our present institutions. Saraj also felt that a catalogue of human needs should be created. His feeling was that while some can be fulfilled by the commercial market, the most important were non-material.

The issue of education or ‘formation’ was also discussed. It was felt that in the fields of science and medicine, for example, students are given an excellent technical background yet without any wider context of ethics and morality, or even the history of their subject and its place in the wider context of society. The result is that brilliant minds can operate within a moral vacuum and areas of knowledge can exist without any accountability.

The fall saw an international meeting on Corporate Ethics, Globalization and Economic Uncertainty. Participants were particularly concerned with the issue of ethics in the marketplace and business, the development of new economic models, and ethical issues concerning the impact of the industrialized nations on the Third World. The question was that of discovering rules for ethical behavior that would apply in a multicultural world. Ethics was first discussed from the perspectives of religion and philosopher in order to discover what rules could be called universal. Then the scientific perspective was added, that of studying the behavior of self-organized systems such as ecologies that are able to sustain themselves by supporting diversity and a degree of competition. It was argued that a change of world view is needed on the part of businesses who must begin to see themselves as embedded in a non-linear landscape (the market) and rather than seeking short term profits that of being drawn towards their strange attractor.