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Spring Meeting 2012

April 13-14, 2012

Honoring Huston Smith: Mythology in Theology and Science

Tucson Room at Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP), Berkeley, California


Friday, Apr 13
2-5 pm - Paper Session - Relating Mythology and Theology
5-7 pm - Business Meeting, Social Time, Dinner (Cost for Dinner = $25, RSVP)
7-8:30 pm - Public Lecture, Gaymon Benett (Fred Hutchinson Center for Cancer Research)
"The Making of Secular Salvation: How Myth and Metaphor Can Shape Laboratory Practice, and with it Our Shared Biological Futures"

Saturday, Apr 14
9–9:30 am - Continental Breakfast
9:30 am-noon - Paper Session - Myth in the Heart of Science

Note:  Starting time has changed for Friday evening lecture and Saturday morning start time since last meeting. They are each 30 mins earlier (and have reverted to the times they were a couple of years ago).


It the Society's great pleasure to celebrate the lifetime of achievements of Professor Emeritus Huston Smith by considering the relationship between theology, mythology, and science.  Huston Smith writes:

A symbol such as a multi-armed image, graphically portraying God's astounding versatility an superhuman might, can epitomize an entire theology. Myths plumb depths that the intellect can see only obliquely. Parables and legends present ideals in the ways that make hearers long to embody them--vivid support for Irwin Edman's contention that "it is a myth, not a mandate, a fable, not a logic by which people are moved." (The World's Religions, 50th Anniversary Edition, pp 34-35.)

What is the relationship between mythology, theology, and science? Where do we find myths which reveal the psychology in our theology? We find these stories in the images we offer others, for instance through theory, public policy, and media, and also in the private places where we are moved by our conscious and unconscious convictions. Can we find myth right in the heart of science? Yes, at least in some sciences. The word 'myth' can be helpful to use when trying to understand the overlap between laboratory science and cultural understandings of our human reality. Sometimes it is possible to perceive myths that are invisible to believers by attempting to step outside customary frames of reference. When one probes one's own belief systems in general, one may then wonder about the specific convictions behind, for instance, the assumptions of science. When theologians probe the assumptions and self-understandings of scientists, they can sometimes perceive myths that are invisible to the scientific believers. With this--and with the lifelong work of Huston Smith in mind--this meeting of the PCTS will undertake an imaginal exploration of the heart of belief, from the origins of theology to the heart of science.

Paper Session - Friday, April 13, 2-5 pm

Relating Mythology and Theology

Brandon Williamscraig (Association Building Community)

"Theopoetics and Mythopsychology" (pdf, doc)
Respondent is Robert Walters (Joseph Campbell Foundation, wikipedia bio)

Durwood Foster (PSR, Emeritus)

"Huston Smith’s Princely Path" (pdf, doc)
Respondent is Phil Cousineau (bio)

Public Lecture - Friday, 7-8:30 pm

Public Lecture, Gaymon Benett (Fred Hutchinson Center for Cancer Research)

The Making of Secular Salvation: How Myth and Metaphor Can Shape Laboratory Practice, and with it Our Shared Biological Futures

2012 marks the 10-year anniversary of the articulation and rise of “synthetic biology.” Synthetic biology’s advocates promise a future for biological engineering in which organisms can be made from scratch, complex systems can be redesigned and set free from evolutionary constraints, and in which an ethos of design and know-how will begin to displace the need for discovery and understanding. Synthetic biology has become a prominent feature of governmental discussions about how to leverage and regulate contemporary biology. It has become a darling of venture capitalists who cast it as the means to a hoped-for biotech revolution. It has been institutionalized by elite research universities. And it has become the target of anti-globalization and civil society activists worldwide. Curiously—and crucially for theological reflection—for all its profile and prominence, synthetic biology is really more brand and manifesto than new scientific discipline. It can claim few significant scientific and technological breakthroughs as warrant for the attention it has received. Its status, rather, has turned on the ability of its advocates to become masters of myth and metaphor—combining the myth of secular salvation that underwrites investment in the life sciences today, with the metaphorical equivalence of biological and computational technology, an equivalence which assures us that living systems, like computers, can be programmed to meet our functional specifications. The twist is this: ten years in myth and metaphor have become constitutive elements of laboratory practice in synthetic biology; they have become more than extra-scientific assumptions and figurative means of communication. The question is: how has this internalization happened? What does it achieve? And, most importantly, what is the price to be paid?

Gaymon Bennett is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Biological Futures in the Basic Sciences Division of the Hutchinson Center in Seattle. Previously, Dr. Bennett helped create and direct the ethics component of the Synthetic Biology Research Center (SynBERC), a collaborative enterprise of UC Berkeley, Stanford, MIT, UCSF, and Harvard. He is the co-author of Sacred Cells? Why Christians Should Support Stem Cell Research and Designing Human Practices: An Experiment with Synthetic Biology. He received a PhD in Systematic Theology at the Graduate Theological Union and a PhD in Socio-Cultural Anthropology at UC Berkeley.

Paper Session - Saturday, April 14, 9:30 am-noon

Myth in the Heart of Science

Ted Peters (PLTS)

"Myth in the Heart of Science: Evolutionary Progress as Myth in Astrobiology and UFOs" (pdf, doc)
Respondent is Lou Ann Trost, San Jose State University

When we define myth as an extra-scientific set of assumptions that picture the world in comprehensive or ultimate scope, then this term can help us uncover and identify myths lying at the heart of science. In particular, scientists working within the field of astrobiology frequently work with an evolutionary myth, a metanarrative that assumes biological evolution is progressive, leading to increased intelligence, to science, and to secular salvation both on Earth and elsewhere in outer space. Curiously, this myth is shared with UFO aficionados and the wider culture. This ETI Myth reflects a pre-modern religious impulse distorted in its modern secular disguise. Even if we encourage and celebrate the hard work of SETI scientists who are valiantly searching for new space neighbors, our diagnosis is that myth can be found in the heart of this science.

Lisa Stenmark (San Jose State University)

"Diving for Pearls:  Myth in an Age of Technology" (pdf, docx)
Respondent is Braden Molhoek (GTU)