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What Are They Thinking?

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(From left) The Metanexus Institute’s Kathleen Duffy, Varadaraja Raman, Erica Vinskie, Gregory R. Hansell, Kathy Siciliano, Edward J. Devinney Jr. and Eric L. Weislogel. (Photo by Shane McCauley)With an entity as cerebral as Bryn Mawr’s Metanexus Institute, it’s easier to establish what the member-based, grant-driven think tank is not before attempting to explain what it is.

First off, it’s not a know-it-all or an end-all, be-all. It’s not an arm of the John Templeton Foundation, but another of its grantees. It’s not necessarily seeking to create another academic discipline, nor start some new universalist or New Age religion—nor is it a religious organization. In fact, it poses far more questions than answers.

Metanexus, a made-up word, combines the Greek prefix meta, meaning “through,” “between,” “beyond,” “with” and “after,” with the Latin root nexus, signifying connections and relationships. Its vast global network of scholars, researchers, teachers, students and everyday folk is committed to a diverse marriage of intellectual, cultural and spiritual perspectives. As an institute, it supports the constructive engagement of science, religion and the arts in a philosophical way to gain deeper insights into the profound questions of life, the cosmos and humanity.

So says its vice president for academic affairs, Eric Weislogel. A real-life philosopher, Weislogel has grounded himself by working in the steel business and information technology. Metanexus’ current president is Villanova University-based astronomer and astrophysicist Edward J. Devinney Jr., and its academic board of directors includes professors from the University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse University, Arizona State University, Northwestern University, Princeton Theo-logical Seminary, the University of Trento in Italy, the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and other institutions.

Last July, 250 interested parties attended Metanexus’ annual conference, “Subject, Self, and Soul: Transdisciplinary Approaches to Personhood,” in Madrid, Spain. This summer, “Cosmos, Nature, Culture: A Transdisciplinary Conference” will be held July 18-21 in Phoenix. Metanexus’ online publication reaches upwards of two million readers. It also hosts local lectures and would like to begin offering reading groups and courses.

Weislogel is director of the Metanexus Global Network Initiative, a massive grant program with hundreds of projects in more than 40 countries. Its first deadline falls this month, when as many as 25 scholars (faculty and students) will be awarded three-year grants. Its initial Local Societies Initiative grant program already involves 240 transdisciplinary programs and projects in 42 different countries.

When William Grassie founded the institute in 1997, he did so as a discussion-based e-mail network centered solely on the intersection of science and religion. The organization was then called the Philadelphia Center for Science and Religion, but given its evolving goal of promoting worldwide discussion on a wider range of topics, that name became too parochial. Focusing only on science and religion was limiting.

“A lot goes by the names of science and religion, and many try to jam the two together,” says Gregory R. Hansell, managing director of Metanexus’ Global Spiral, a monthly online publication. “The ideas here at Metanexus go beyond the jamming. Questions develop from the overlap. It’s not a simple matter of trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.”

Plus, Metanexus doesn’t necessarily “foam at the mouth” over controversy, says Weislogel, a much-published academic who serves as senior contributing editor of the Global Spiral. “As long as [it’s] engaging. I think there’s a bit of truth in everyone’s position. What we do takes subtlety, and so we want to be more subtle.”
 

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Metanexus’ main interest is in seeing the world’s wonders. “You can only be in awe if your eyes are open to the cosmos,” Weislogel says. “We’re providing a forum for those passionate about discovery and cosmic fine-tuning. What we really need to know is: How do things hang together?” says Weislogel. “How does it all fit? There might not be a scientific answer, but we may need science to answer it.”

These days, the Metanexus Institute centers on a trans-disciplinary approach. “‘Meta’ means you have to branch out,” Hansell says. “We began with two dialogue partners, but we couldn’t stop at just science and religion.”

Discussions are almost always international, intercultural and inter-religious. Members aren’t interested in looking at issues side-by-side, but rather in seeing the threads between them. “It’s not a cocktail hour,” Weislogel says. “These are serious elements and a serious search.”

The fragmentation of academia worries the institute. Everyone is an expert, but no one knows the answer to anything. That in mind, Metanexus seeks to develop a rigorous approach to research and teaching that respects and utilizes disciplinary expertise while addressing broader questions.

“We’ve become really good with all the small parts, but at synthesis—or seeing the forest through the trees—we haven’t,” Weislogel says.

Metanexus focuses on the relationship between “town” (community) and “gown” (the university). And on the Main Line, with its concentration of prestigious colleges and universities, that makes its locale all the more significant.

“This is a wonderful place with fine academic institutions, cultural opportunity and resources,” says Weislogel, who currently teaches philosophy at Delaware County Community College and is a former assistant professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “We’re always glad to have rich resources. Maybe there are none like we have here, but we’re still interested in these questions, and I’m convinced they should matter to everyone—academics and non-academics, young and old, the boy who works at Borders and also runs his high school philosophy club, and the churches and libraries.”

Metanexus wants to foster the intangible pursuit of wisdom, wholeness and the synthesis of thought. “Wisdom is ongoing,” Hansell says. “Questions like ‘What does it mean to live a good life?’ are timeless.”

“Real wisdom is a collective thing,” Weislogel adds. “You draw out wisdom. The search for it is a form of intellectual and spiritual tourism—and the sun never really sets on such things.”

Among Metanexus’ mottoes is “seeking the whole story of the whole cosmos for the whole person.”

“Finding the whole person equals finding the whole community,” Weislogel says. “The time is ripe. If we’re not going to become more certain, at least we need to learn how to cope with the uncertainty.”

One thing the institute is sure about: There can’t be solutions without a transdisciplinary approach. “We didn’t create the word, but we’re moving it onto the map,” Weislogel says. “It’s what interdisciplinary was, but it moves horizontally rather than vertically in a silo.”

Admittedly, Metanexus struggles with establishing a way to refine, discern and articulate its message to serve a world with many seemingly intractable problems. “Until we have a new way of viewing and questioning, or of knowing ourselves better, we won’t solve any of them or help each other—and that should be on everyone’s agenda,” Weislogel says.

For his part, Hansell speaks of a second Age of Enlightenment. “We need a sense of awe again,” he says. “It comes at a time when the whole world is demanding it.”

Weislogel suggests rethinking Aristotle in the likelihood that his ideas and solutions could propel us to new ones that help the world move forward. “We just want to leave the campsite better than we found it,” he says. “Although we’re not offering answers, we’re hospitable, so it’s OK to hang around with us.”

To learn more, visit metanexus.net.
 

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