Scientific and Medical Network:
Towards a New Renaissance: World-Views, Spirituality and the Future
Pari, Italy, 12-15 October 2007
Diana Clift, Godalming, Surrey
The location for the second conference on the theme Towards a New Renaissance could hardly have been more appropriate. Pari is a tiny mediaeval village perched on a hilltop surrounded by the vineyards and olive groves of Tuscany and the glories of the Italian Renaissance. Most of the participants were able to visit Florence, Pisa, or Rome on their way to or from the event. Martin Redfern, Michele Robinson (‘Kanga’) and I rented a car at Pisa and treated ourselves to a day in San Gimignano en route and after the conference a substantial group had a wonderful outing to Siena. The weather throughout was perfect: warm and sunny in the day with magnificent cool clear starry nights. Pari itself was just too perfect to be believable (more like ‘TuscanyWorld’, a possible Disney theme park!). But it is a genuine village with a population of 200, benefiting from the Pari Centre run by David and Maureen Peat and family who hosted the conference. So small is the village that most of us were billeted outside in converted farmhouses in the depths of the countryside down appalling roads. I like to be at the centre of things so I was disappointed when we set out for our lodgings – Martin magnificently negotiated the road, or rather the rocks, potholes and stream beds which made up our route to a remote farm. However, the discovery that we were sharing with Leszek Sosnowski, who had organised the first conference on this theme in Krakow in 2004, made up for it all!
The participants numbered about 40 from around Europe, East and West, North America and New Zealand. Henryk Skolimowski opened the formal proceedings with a talk which set the agenda for the conference.
He considered the achievements of the classical Renaissance, that great burst of creativity in the arts and sciences, and its limitations, and proposed some essential ingredients for a new renaissance: cosmic optimism, creativity without borders, all embracing love, participatory thinking, courage and vision.
Ervin Laszlo presented a summary of the current ecological crisis and the need to change the trajectory from breakdown to breakthrough which will require a revolution in world view, similar to the shift from Mythos (the prehistoric view of a living universe) to Theos (the age of religion and patriarchy) to Logos (the age of reason). What must follow, he suggests, is Holos, the age of holistic vision.
Tony Hodgson provided a view of the Universe as an intelligent holarchy, a nested hierarchy of conscious systems, each level containing in some sense all the others. Annabel Shaxson in a way continued this theme with a neoplatonist view of the cosmos. Both these views are highly anthropocentric and suggest that humanity is in some way essential to the fulfilment of some cosmic purpose.
The predominant view of many of the speakers seemed to be that spiritual experience was essential to furthering a New Renaissance.
Paul Devereux commended the spiritual world view of certain preindustrial cultures, suggesting that the altered states of consciousness induced by certain drugs might help induce appropriate changes in world view, a controversial claim needless to say! David Lorimer discussed the conflict between direct spiritual experience or Gnosis and ideological orthodoxy whether religious or scientific. Philip Franses tackled the same issue from the point of view of physics and quantum theory. John Caddy also considered the divide between reason and spiritual experience suggesting that the latter is an ability we have mostly lost, and John Kapp stated categorically that the only way to achieve positive change is through meditation.
Saturday was an intense day and we welcomed an afternoon free for some direct experience of the sheer beauty of the area and an evening of food and wine with the sort of informal discussions which are the great strength of Network meetings…networking in action!
The following day I had the privilege of chairing a particularly diverse set of presentations. Max Payne was in his customary style entertaining and succinct, analysing the deficiencies of both scientific reductionism and religions and pointing out that a New Renaissance must be inclusive of other cultures and traditions such as Taoism and Sufism. David Bell, a charismatic Methodist minister from New Zealand, considered the hidden geometrical relationships he believes are encoded in the Gospel of St John. It was pointed out in discussion that similar mathematical and geometric relationships are to be found in much of Renaissance art.
In a complete departure from the lecture format, Florence Meyer told us a story, an ancient Sumerian legend of the goddess Inanna and her journey to the underworld, demonstrating the importance of the feminine in Sumerian culture and how their pantheon of deities created a living and sentient cosmos.
Leszek Sosnowski returned to the theme of myth and legend and the insights provided by the persistent theme of Arcadia in European culture, the garden for which we yearn, a place, like Paradise, where nature is beautiful but tamed.
The story telling continued with a moving presentation by Maura Conlon-McIvor, a personal memoir of childhood but in the context of myth. She invited us to consider an encounter with ourselves at age ten.
By complete contrast, Ove Sviden looked at the practical benefits of microloans and new technologies such as mobile phones in transforming economic prospects for the very poor around the world, essential for promoting peace. Dick Vane-Wright presented the results of his recent research into values and world views concerning biodiversity in different cultures. This is highly relevant if attitudes are to change in response to global threats. Perhaps unsurprisingly most cultural/religious approaches are anthropocentric, valuing other species only in terms of their usefulness to humanity. A recognition of the intrinsic value of nature would require a major change in attitude not only to other species but to ourselves. This was the conclusion of Hardin Tibbs’ contribution ‘a return to the value of being human’.
As a Network experience the conference was a resounding success. Several people, including Andrew Stone from the House of Lords, were new to the Network and impressed by the way we do things. The quality of the friendships generated, the sharing of experience in a beautiful setting, the freedom to consider unorthodox ideas and moving personal experience in the same context, to enjoy immersion in history and art, interludes of peace and evenings of food, wine, laughter and music. This is Network magic! Thanks to Eleanor Peat’s tireless organisation (helped by her three young children) we enjoyed wonderful meals at different locations around the village and on the Sunday evening we went to a neighbouring hamlet and were entertained by live musicians. David Peat and I sang along with the band and we all danced. Letting off steam with music and dancing is always cathartic after the intensity of the meeting On the Monday evening we were all in high spirits. Some of us had had a wonderful day out in Siena and others had been tasting olive oils and wines all day. We dined in a local restaurant where the manager sang operative arias. I brought my guitar which was passed around and Philip Franses made up a hilarious parody of Bob Dylan on the theme of the conference.
However, did we advance the subject in any way? Stefan Kraall and Hans Kortekaas felt frustrated by the lack of hard science. They felt the content was wild and woolly supposition. From the selective nature of the conference – a limited number of places and considerable expense – it was reasonable to assume that this was a meeting of experts with new and original research to present who could set an agenda for action. Instead it was not unlike our many other continental meetings. Does that matter? Should the Network be setting an agenda for a New Renaissance anyway? We do not have corporate views after all.
I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I did feel – as I often do at Network gatherings – that there is something of great value in the way we do things. The classical Renaissance was experienced by a privileged few. A handful of talented men were allowed to be creative while funded by an autocratic nobility and church. The vast majority of people, especially women, continued to live in poverty and ignorance.
The freedoms that enabled this gathering to occur at all are unique to our time and our culture. How many women throughout history have enjoyed the opportunity to travel, to mix freely and on equal terms with people of many nationalities, all of us able to criticise religion and government without fear of persecution and explore ideas that do not comply with orthodox science or religion. At a time when these privileges are under threat from religious fundamentalism, the Network guidelines of open-mindedness, rigour and respect have never been more important.
Both Henryk and Juanita Skolimowski have written reflections following the conference and the last word should lie with them: “We need to think high and aspire to what is best and highest in us. We must be able to imagine things which are presently impossible. Imagination is the key to everything.”Diana Clift is a Vice-President of the Scientific and Medical Network