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YDS Initiative in Religion, Science and Technology surges in 2007-08

By Kedo Peseyie '08 S.T.M.

The Yale Divinity School Initiative in Religion, Science and Technology (IRST) has taken on new life this year, after a relatively quiet time following founding director Wesley Avram's departure of at the end of 2005-06 to take a pastorate in Bryn Mawr, PA.

In addition to an impressive menu of events this year, the IRST leadership has been strengthened with the addition of Willis Jenkins, the Margaret A. Farley Assistant Professor of Social Ethics, who joins Denys Turner, the Horace Pitkin Professor of Historical Theology, as co-director of the initiative. Jenkins's specialty is environmental ethics, while Turner is a world-renowned authority on the history of Christian theology.

IRST is resurgent in 2007-08 with a whole series of events, lectures and conferences aimed at sustaining and enhancing the basic objective of the IRST: to provide a space for interdisciplinary conversation about issues in religion and science.

“My main contribution toward that objective this year will be leading a course in religion and science that models interdisciplinary exchanges with professors from around the university,” said Jenkins, who joined the YDS faculty in 2006-07.

IRST Program Coordinator James Clement van Pelt, '03 M.A.R. and 2004-06 Divinity School Research Fellow, believes the program should be much stronger with the joint leadership structure, which couples Turner's worldwide renown and influence with Jenkins's hands-on experience in science.

Among the big challenges facing the IRST are to convince scientists at Yale to learn about religion and to persuade the Divinity School community to learn about science and technology, including the latest trends and developments, noted van Pelt, whose own area of expertise is in theologies of technology and spiritual anthropology. Interested faculty from many departments advise the Initiative, including Astronomy, Philosophy, Epidemiology, and Medicine.

Founded in 2003 by Dean Harold Attridge and his predecessor, Rebecca Chopp, the IRST's stated mission is to “engage the Yale Community in interdisciplinary consideration of contemporary encounters between religion, science and technology” through activities such as public lectures, seminars, publications, and website-based resources.

This year's programs include a symposium on material reality from Christian and Buddhist perspectives, lectures on spiritual implications of cognitive science and the ethics of experimentation on animal subjects, a conference called "Consciousness and Spirit," and forums at which students and faculty present their own work related to the science-religion encounter. The Initiative also operates the University's Science & Religion in Dialogue working group and a working group on Spiritual Perspectives on Bioethics sponsored by Yale's Bioethics Center. A Divinity School course is being proposed for the spring semester, along with a national conference to be held at Yale in 2009.

Past programs have focused on issues such as definitions of life; consciousness and the spirit/mind/body connection; health and healing; human nature, incarnation, and spiritual anthropology; nature, animal rights, and environmental ethics; and art and literature as mediating discourse between religion and science.

These concerns have been explored through lectures and presentations on bioethics and genetics; purposes and outcomes of technology; models of reality that encompass both science and spirit; and evolutionary and cosmic origins. Recent programs have touched on religion's influence on people charged with making life-or-death issues, and ethical concerns about scientific research on prayer and similar religious practices. The Initiative has co-sponsored programs presented by the Technology and Ethics working group at the Bioethics Center, such as the recent meeting with inventor and technology prophet Ray Kurzweil.

The Initiative has been funded by the Divinity School, the Bioethics Center at Yale, the Metanexus Institute (Philadelphia), and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (Berkeley), with material support from the Episcopal Center at Yale, the Institute for Sacred Music, and interested individuals.

Click here for for the IRST website.

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