If you stroll across the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., and want a mind-blowing experience, look at the student events board. Countless postings vie for the extra-curricular attention of MIT’s already over-extended best and brightest.
Even so, for more than 40 years, the Episcopal Church has managed to make its presence known, not by stationing a priest in the chapel to wait for students to show up, but by stepping into the fray of academic debate.
Since 1964, the Episcopal chaplaincy at MIT has sponsored the Technology and Culture Forum, which brings together experts for public conversation about the role of science and technology in achieving positive social change.
T&C is not a decades-long faith-science debate — creationism versus evolution, for example. Programs this year will cover topics ranging from the future of water to the militarization of space to the theology — and neuroscience — of depression.
“We’re much more about the future,” says the Rev. Amy McCreath, Episcopal campus minister and T&C coordinator. “We’re more about how we can transform the world and really bring about a civil society.”
It’s a tall order, but perhaps not too tall when taken in its context: “People at MIT are the future,” says T&C Associate Coordinator Patricia Weinmann. “They are going to be our leaders and policy makers and inventors.”
Space to reflect
T&C provides something ordinary MIT training may not. “What students here really need is time to reflect on and begin to articulate values at a time in their lives when they are asking, ‘What kind of people do we want to be?’” McCreath explains. “A majority in this generation did not grow up with faith practice to help them name their values. Our programs, we hope, give people the space to consider whether the way they’re using their skills meets the world’s greatest needs.”
In valuing reason as a gift and seeing the created order as fundamentally good, she says, Episcopalians always have engaged in discourse with science and technology. T&C’s organizers believe that its church sponsorship gives it the freedom to present topics central to the debates of the day that might be too political or considered too far out on the scientific fringe for academic departments to take on.
They further added that most other campus groups, for example, wouldn’t think to include a theologian on a panel, let alone sponsor a program titled What Good is Evil? On the eve of war in Iraq, T&C brought in an outspoken critic — former U..N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter. When MIT made the controversial decision to invite the head of the World Bank [at the time the World Bank leadership was under some fire] to speak on campus, T&C organized a forum in which differing viewpoints were presented. The event drew a standing-room-only crowd of 450 students.
It is not uncommon for T&C events to draw hundreds of students, yet that always seems like a small miracle to organizers. “Two hours is a huge commitment in this high-intensity place, and so the people who show up are the ones who are really looking for meaning in their work and are not finding it elsewhere. We feel so blessed that we get those students,” McCreath says.
Student Kristen Bethke says the Forum offers an abundance of opportunities. “T & C provides an example of a church community bringing conversations about justice, peace, and ethics, out into a larger community, rather than waiting for that larger community to come into the church to have those conversations.”
T&C depends solely on the financial support of individuals who care about its mission, and so a secure future means continually reaching out.. The program has evolved from the faculty seminars of its earliest days to the public forums of recent decades and now hopes to become better equipped to help students step from ideas into action. Weinmann, who has been with T&C for more than 20 years, describes presenting highly regarded programs on major world problems year after year and coming away feeling “just stunned, paralyzed by the weight of the issues.
“‘There has to be more to this,’ we’d say. ‘Now what?’” In answer, T&C has set strategic goals for the next several years that intend not only to broaden and deepen its impact but also to fund and facilitate vocational discernment through which MIT students might become “transformative leaders.”
It’s an incarnational ministry, McCreath says — “becoming what you are by taking seriously where you are and who you are with and then responding accordingly” — and diaconal, too, as it brings the concerns of the church to the world and vice versa.
“We occupy an interesting space here at MIT” McCreath says. “We take the values of the church and voice them in the language of the institute in order to get people to think about their work and its potential impact in the world.”
“And then hopefully to act,” adds Weinmann, “outside the walls of the laboratory.”
To learn more about the Technology and Culture Forum at MIT, visit http://web.mit.edu/tac/www/