What Are They Thinking?

Bryn Mawr’s Metanexus Institute taps some of the world’s top minds.

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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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