Yale Initiative in Religion, Science & Technology: Re-visioning a Dialogue of Wisdom for Our Culture

By Travis Helms ’13 M.Div.

A glance into most any Yale classroom reveals the extent to which technology has been integrated into the experience of on-campus learning. Laptops, PowerPoint, micro-recorders—all seem geared toward a common end: to facilitate the transmission of information as efficiently as possible.

van PeltThe utility seems self-evident. Still, the constant whir of keyboards clicking, as students transcribe notes and consult online references and texts, seems more natural in a course on, say, applied physics than biblical exegesis.
But James Clement van Pelt, program coordinator for Yale’s Initiative in Religion, Science & Technology, stresses that it is important not to neglect the place of technology in the religious landscape— as perhaps the most palpable locus in which one can encounter the intersect between science and religion. The whir of keyboards in Yale Divinity classrooms serves as a graphic reminder.

Founded in 2003, and currently directed by YDS Professor Denys Turner, the IRST is specifically concerned with what can be described as a threefold-dialogue between these two unique ways of seeking truth: specifically, the ways in which religion is using, existing with, and critiquing science.

For van Pelt, the question is an ontological one. Citing the evolution of humankind’s modes and tools of knowledge-acquisition as an example—from oral transmission to the use of stone tablets, papyrus, paper, wires, to today’s universal Wi-Fi—van Pelt asserts, “As technology progresses, its instrumentality becomes increasingly ephemeral. It endeavors to do more and more with less and less (an idea proposed by Buckminster Fuller); and if you project that reality ultimately, then you are doing everything with nothing—(and that’s) to be as gods.”

Epistemological concerns are at the heart of theological speculation. The entire YDS community, one might say, is about the business of growing into light and truth, in engaging ever-deeper experiences of knowledge. Van Pelt, however, is careful to distinguish between knowledge and wisdom, properly speaking, in the context of technology.

As an example, van Pelt cites the story of the Tower of Babel, when, according to the biblical account, humanity sought to bridge the gap between mortality and divinity—choosing, through the use of “technology,” to strive to become as gods, rather than to abide with God.

Observes van Pelt, "Science and religion are characterized by two competing truth claims: the former relying on strictly empirical data to explain the world, the latter allowing myth and meta-narratives, at times, to explain our state of being.” 

Religion, he claims, can play a crucial role in carrying the experience of knowledge forward, past the threshold where science often fails, into a more lasting and advanced degree of cultural understanding.

 “Science,” van Pelt believes, “should not be accounted separate from, but considered within, religion’s purview. It is often too eager to incorporate—or worse, explain away—religion. This really hurts in the realm of ethics. Technology is a common tool to be shared by both science and religion—to the common purpose, namely, of making our contemporary civilization into one that is sustainable."

"This task is one particularly charged to those engaged in works of ministry,” van Pelt asserts.  “People in a place like YDS ought to be especially interested in and committed to this dialogue. Any actual change—we are talking about shifts in paradigms—is only effected by a change in the consensus. Revelation, prophecy, and the priestly function of 'gathering people together' are the only ways through which to bring about that change."

Van Pelt sees this as one of the main purposes of IRST and its work at Yale. Funded by the Metanexus Institute, a global interdisciplinary organization, and YDS Dean Harold W. Attridge, IRST sponsors 6-8 speeches, conferences, and films each year, intended in part to motivate a wider interest in religious-scientific dialogue amongst the Yale community, or, as van Pelt puts it, "to challenge those who haven't had to think about these issues."

This month, one aspect of the intersection of science, religion and technology will be explored on the Yale Divinity campus during the Oct. 15-17 "Synchro Summit," a series of dialogues and symposia sponsored by the Synchro Project and IRST. For three days, some of the country’s leading thinkers in the fields of psychology, philosophy, spirituality and cognitive science will gather to discuss ideas relating to “synchronicity," the concept of "meaningful coincidence" first proposed by C.G. Jung.

While working sessions of the summit are by invitation only, the presentation “Can Synchronicity Reveal Life’s Meaning in Ways Science Can’t Yet Understand?" will be free and open to the public.  That presentation will be held 7:00-10:30 pm, Saturday, October 16th, in Niebuhr Hall.