BOSTON — What blew away Anne Foerst's fellow techies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge was not her desire to build a thinking robot. Many had pursued that quest for years.
But Dr. Foerst, also a Lutheran minister, crossed a delicate line last fall when she proposed a course called "God and Computers: Minds, Machines, and Metaphysics" to look at how assumptions about God and religion affect artificial-intelligence research.
What followed was a spontaneous campus discussion about whether the world of faith - long seen as a threat to serious scholarship - and the world of higher education should dance even a tentative pas de deux at MIT.
Growth of student interest in spirituality and religion on campus has been widely documented. Now, discussions are emerging over whether spiritual or religious views have a place in the curriculum - in literature, physics, or computer science.
"There is a quest in higher education for deeper religious underpinnings of not only how to live life, but what constitutes the academic mission: knowing, learning, teaching," says Parker Palmer, senior associate at the American Association of Higher Education in Washington.
Richard Hughes, professor of religion at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., has conducted several studies examining that pursuit, which he says is going on to a limited degree at public universities but is most prominent at the 200-plus universities and colleges in the United States founded by religious communities.
"There is a significant new movement, especially on the part of church-related schools - those with Catholic and Protestant ties, not just evangelical - to integrate faith and learning," he says. "We are asking: Is it possible for these schools to be good academically and at the same time tap into their faith tradition?"
Warning: Despite the 1990s growth on campus of interest in spirituality and religion, such discussions can be volatile.
The sudden leap of religion from campus chapel to the wired world of MIT's Artificial Intelligence (AI) Laboratory was too big a jolt for many. An intense e-mail debate, or "flame war," erupted.
Prof. Marvin Minsky, an MIT legend in AI research, wrote that the course was likely an "evangelical enterprise." Some students protested it as unscientific or tilted toward "Judeo-Christian views."
"God and computers has no place ... and is an insult to MIT, one of the last bastions of rational thought," wrote J. Ryan Bender, then a sophomore computer-science major, in an article in MIT's student newspaper. Undeterred, Foerst taught her class, and a sequel is scheduled this fall.
Is there a role for religion inside the classroom in higher education in America? A century ago, this would have seemed an odd question. Most college and universities founded in the 18th and 19th centuries were founded by Protestant or Roman Catholic religious communities.
In those days, at Harvard, Yale, Notre Dame, and elsewhere, it was assumed that religion fitted naturally with the aims of education - and that education fitted the aims of religion, says Michael Beaty, associate professor of philosophy at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
"They were attempting intellectual, moral, and spiritual formation," he says. "You formed a complete person who could live well in a democratic culture - and as a citizen of the church."
But under pressure from modern science, including the challenge Darwin's theory of evolution posed to biblical accounts of creation, most schools began early this century to split religious traditions from the curriculum - moving them to separate spheres of the life of the mind and the life of the spirit, he says.
Freeing the academic pursuits from religious dogma achieved huge advances in knowledge and established colleges in a strongly empirical framework. But the effort to improve research also led many colleges to "slough off" faith traditions, Dr. Hughes says. As a result, some students and professors now complain they are unable to find a deeper spiritual dimension in their academic experience.
"I came from a public high school where talking about religion in class was always a constitutional thing, a legal matter for parents to get angry about," says Carey King, a senior majoring in religion and minoring in anthropology at Wake Forest University, in Winston-Salem, N.C. "I think that's why I became a religion major, because I was starved for it."
The big question, Hughes says, is whether colleges can reintegrate faith traditions with integrity "so academic work does not become merely provincial."
Intense debate on this question flared after Notre Dame scholar George Marsden's 1994 work, "The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief" - and his 1997 rebuttal to skeptics: "The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship."
The academic arena has hosted a growing debate since then. But schools are going in very different directions.
Last year at Wake Forest University, a historically Baptist school, William Leonard, dean of the divinity school, organized a "Year of Religion in American Life," bringing a Buddhist monk, Sufi Muslim whirling dervishes from Turkey, a Trappist monk, and other visiting scholars to Wake Forest for classes and talks. It was a celebration of diversity and a leap from the academic high dive since it was not clear if students would rebel. To Dr. Leonard's great relief, "most loved it."
On the lighter side, a year-long series on films with religious themes included "Dead Man Walking" and the De Mille classic: "The Ten Commandments."
Claudia Highbaugh, a chaplain at the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., who spoke at Wake Forest as part of the event, says colleges are being driven by an increasing intensity of student devotion on campus.
"You get Muslim students coming to school with the idea that they have to pray and go to school - and others without any religious tradition who are seeking," she says. "The curriculum of colleges is only going to change and broaden when people teaching it realize the integration of mind, body, spirit, is crucial to students."
But many students and professors distrust anything labeled "religion," preferring to explore a more nebulous and ill-defined "spirituality" instead, many say.
"I don't really see myself as religious," says Allaire Diamond, a sophomore from Springfield, Vt., at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. "I'm more spiritual - seeking truth is my thing."
At Wellesley, students and faculty are engaged in debate about how and whether to bring spirituality - very broadly defined - into the classroom. The college is hosting a national conference on "Education as Transformation" Sept. 27-28.
Leading the Wellesley charge is Victor Kazanjian, dean of spiritual life. Since 1993, he has been recasting Wellesley traditions like Flower Sunday, a ceremony rooted in the college's Protestant history, to reflect religious diversity on campus.
He also began speaking last spring with students about "moments of meaning" - any moment of higher clarity or higher truth - they might have experienced in class. Then, last fall, he brought together groups of students and the professors whose classes had provoked those moments to discuss them.
"They began asking questions about the meaning and relevance of their learning as it relates to their living," Dr. Kazanjian says. "So we began to ask another question: "What does a more holistic educational experience look like?" Students, he says, were "wild about it." Ms. Diamond, the linguistics student, is charged up.
"There's a tendency to avoid the subject of religion and spirituality because people don't want to offend - or be vulnerable," she says. "The spiritual should be given an important place in academic learning."
Some faculty are intrigued, though many remain skeptical. Sally Sanford sees possibilities. As a voice instructor, she often struggles to get promising students with little or no religious background to convey the necessary emotion when performing religious pieces.
One student was having difficulty with a religious chant. The student had no religious background and found it hard to sing with the depth of feeling the piece demanded. Finally, Ms. Sanford showed her a picture of Bernini's "Ecstasy of St. Teresa," a visual representation of the same religious sentiment she was seeking. The student finally got it.
"I'm trying to encourage an awareness of how spirituality plays an important role in opening up the full self and not just the intellectual and academic self," she says. "I've spent most of the last 20 years finding a balance of heart and mind. I get into this stuff with a student when it's appropriate."
Lidwien Kapteijns, a history professor and women's studies chair, was part of one student-teacher meeting last fall to discuss "moments of meaning" in class. She's skeptical. "My worry is that I find it extremely difficult to define spirituality," she says. "I sympathize with the desire to engage not only the brain but values. The question is: Can you do it in a way that still has an argument with a beginning and an end? I will be first to say not everything is touched by human reason. But if you give up on that, where do you go after?"
For Yasmeen Golvar, however, it is important to give spirituality a try. "We were talking about how we can put this into a classroom setting, and there was a lot of conflict over that," says Ms. Golvar, a Muslim student on the student multifaith council. "A lot of people worried that if they introduced 'spirituality' into the classroom we would lose objectivity and logic."
In the end, the group defined spirituality in the classroom as something like "wonder" or "meaning," she says. "I'm cynical about the whole idea of religion in class," Golvar says. "But I think spirituality in class would contribute to the whole person. To me it means a sense of wonder, a sense of purpose. I would like to connect my academic life to the rest of the world."
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