University, Atlantic Monthly to Launch Annual Forum

University, Atlantic Monthly to Launch Annual Forum

Nov. 14 symposium will spotlight "Challenge of Medical Knowledge"

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Boston College and The Atlantic Monthly will launch the nation's first annual symposium on belief and non-belief in American culture with a dialogue on Nov. 14, "The Challenge of Medical Knowledge," featuring physician-authors Jerome Groopman and Sherwin Nuland.

University President William P. Leahy, SJ, will present opening remarks and Commonweal Editor Margaret O'Brien Steinfels will moderate the program, which takes place at 7:30 p.m. in Boston's Copley Theater, 225 Clarendon Street. The event is open to the public as seating permits.

The presentation is the first in a series of annual symposia that will examine questions of purpose and meaning raised by modern life. The symposium is modeled on a series of public conversations established in Milan by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, SJ, based on his supposition that within each person lies "a believer and a non-believer," each trying to convince the other.

Over the years, Cardinal Martini has invited philosophers, psychiatrists, poets, politicians and artists to talk in public about their work, always with an eye to a conversation between belief and non-belief. These conversations have evolved into a public event at the cathedral in Milan with the overarching title "The Chair for the Non-Believer."

Atlantic Monthly Managing Editor Cullen Murphy said the idea for the event was planted when Cardinal Martini spoke at Boston College and Harvard University in 1998.

"I had been participating for several years in an ongoing seminar at BC's Jesuit Institute on the estrangement of intellectuals and religion, and Cardinal Martini's remarks were thus of special interest," recalled Murphy. "With its intellectual and religious and cultural resources, Boston seemed like fertile territory in which to plant something like Cardinal Martini's symposium."

The magazine broached the idea of a public discussion to Jesuit Institute Director Canisius Professor Michael Buckley, SJ, who had long and personal familiarity with Cardinal Martini and his efforts, Murphy said. With the help of Center for Ignatian Spirituality Director Howard Gray, SJ, the proposed symposium found support from many quarters at BC, he said.

"This was a case, in sum, where Cardinal Martini's good ideas were deemed compelling by a number of separate groups that had the good fortune to be put in touch with one another," said Murphy. "The dialogue arose organically and naturally from the first discussions."

The theme of the first Boston dialogue will be the practice of medicine and, more specifically, how issues involving religious belief or non-belief, and divergent understandings of the meaning of life, intersect with medical decisions.

Two medical doctors who have come to prominence as best-selling writers will explore these topics. Groopman, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief of experimental medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, is author of The Measure of Our Days: A Spiritual Exploration of Illness, the best-seller that inspired this fall's new ABC television series "Gideon's Crossing."

Nuland, clinical professor of surgery at Yale School of Medicine, authored How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter, which won the National Book Award and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 1995.

Steinfels is editor of Commonweal, an independent biweekly journal of political, religious and literary opinion published by Catholic lay people, and is co-directing a Commonweal project on American Catholics in the Public Square funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. She is married to Peter Steinfels, who writes the "Beliefs" column for the New York Times.


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