Last year, seven Divinity School alumni were awarded two-year grants to conduct research in a cutting-edge new field: enhancing life.
The Enhancing Life Project, supported with a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation and led by William Schweiker (PhD ’85), the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor at the Divinity School, and Günter Thomas, professor of theology at Ruhr-University Bochum, brings together 35 scholars from around the world and across a wide range of disciplines to study the essential aspirations of human beings. During the grant period, the scholars gather for three, two-week residency seminars that will allow for collaboration and the exchange of ideas across disciplinary boundaries. They will each write a major monograph and teach two courses on enhancing life.
Scholars were chosen in a two-step application process, and proposals were reviewed by both an international, interdisciplinary Advisory Board and an international, interdisciplinary Selection Committee. Because Divinity School alumni were unusually well-represented among the scholars, we asked them to talk about the ways that their work for The Enhancing Life Project was influenced by their time at the Divinity School.
Maria Antonaccio (MA’85, PhD’96) is Presidential Professor of Religion at Bucknell University. In her research for The Enhancing Life Project, she is engaging the diverse cultural meanings of sustainability.
Questions of environmental ethics and sustainability weren’t really part of my program of study at the Divinity School. But even without a direct connection to my current work, I have been influenced by my time at the Divinity School because it’s a place that forces anyone who goes there to dig as deep as they can into the fundamentals of the questions they’re asking. You can’t be satisfied with a superficial or even a partial approach to the problem. And you’re constantly asking—what’s the significance of what I’m doing? What’s the contribution I can make? Those are questions that always guide my work, especially this current research.
Elizabeth Bucar (MA’01, PhD’06) is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Northeastern University. She is exploring the divergent responses to sex reassignment surgery in two religious contexts: the Roman Catholic Church and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The original idea for my project came to me while I was still a graduate student at the University of Chicago. I was in Tehran, Iran conducting research in the Ayatollah Khomeini Archives when I discovered—by accident—a legal opinion supporting transsexual transitions. Inspired by this 2004 discovery in Iran, I designed a research project on comparative religious ethics to explore disagreements over whether bodily modifications enhance the human condition or violate it. The project was between constructive studies (ethics) and history of religions (comparison), which many other programs would not have allowed me to do.
Kristine A. Culp (PhD’89) is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is exploring the possibilities of glory as a resource for understanding the enhancement and endangerment of life.
I wrote my dissertation with Anne Carr and James Gustafson as co-advisors. At that time, Gustafson had just published his two-volume masterwork, Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective(1981 and 1984), and Carr was writing the essays that would comprise her pivotal feminist theological text, Transforming Grace (1988). In those works and in their teaching, each affirmed, indeed insisted, that other disciplines—biological and social sciences as well as the humanities—were crucial to theology. The phenomenon of life was inescapably important, whether biological and social life or the lived experiences of women. In addition, each minded the long arc of ideas and worked to critique, extend, and redirect those trajectories through constructive theological work. They insisted, though in different ways from each other and not necessarily in these terms, that theology must “enhance life” and resist its endangerment. For those emphases and much, much more, I remain indebted to them.
Michael S. Hogue (MA’00, PhD‘05) is Professor of Theology at Meadville Lombard Theological School. In his work for The Enhancing Life Project, he is developing a political theology through a dissenting tradition that emphasizes pluralism and collaboration over sovereign power.
I learned from my professors and classmates at the Divinity School how to read more deeply, critically, and constructively, not only texts, but also thinkers, histories, and traditions. I also learned how to think through different levels and forms of normativity, from methodological and epistemic, to moral and aesthetic. While I entered graduate studies with a personal and academic interest in the relationships between religion, ethics, and the environment, my training at the Divinity School gave me the tools to transform that interest into a scholarly vocation.
Anne Mocko (MA’04, PhD’12) is Assistant Professor of Religion at Concordia College. Her project is a comparative, ethnographic investigation into the concept and practice of merit in Theravada Buddhism and Jainism.
My research is a pretty significant shift in area focus from my doctoral work at the Divinity School, and yet I think that my education at the Divinity School prepared me for exactly this kind of expansion of my research interests. For my dissertation, I wrote about Nepal. So a project about merit in Buddhism and Jainism demands a shift in the countries where I do my fieldwork, the kinds of practices I am examining, and the languages spoken by the people I’ll be interviewing. Because I trained in the Divinity School’s History of Religion program, however, I was taught to follow questions, rather than to define myself relative to any particular area or set of data. Since I am interested in how religious practice both creates and reflects ideology, my project is actually part of a clear theoretical trajectory.
William Schweiker (Phd’85) is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago. His research for The Enhancing Life Project is on the integral flourishing of life.
My graduate studies at the University of Chicago decisively shaped my intellectual self-understanding and scholarly agenda in ways that naturally led to my work on The Enhancing Life Project. Aside from the close analysis of texts and arguments and the open engagement and debate with brilliant faculty and extremely talented fellow students, my education at Chicago help me forge an angle of scholarly vision. Specifically, I am interested in the social and cultural embeddedness of religious and moral ideas and practices and the ways in which those ideas and practices can help articulate the deepest and most pressing issues facing human life, like the meaning of enhancing life. Accordingly, I seek to show the intellectual work religious thinking can do in and through multi-dimensional inquiry with work in the sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences. In this way, my task is to demonstrate, in spite of popular opinion, the rational contribution of religious and ethical thinking for addressing shared and pressing questions. In fact, I endorse, and The Enhancing Life Project embodies, the very motto of the University of Chicago: “crescat scientia vita excolatur” (“let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be life enriched”).
Lea Schweitz (MA’00,PhD’08) is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology/Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. She is building a new infrastructure of ideas that has the potential to revitalize the way we interact with urban nature.
I came out of the Divinity School with a real openness to interdisciplinary work. And it gave me a commitment to collaboration and scholarly exchange, which is crucial too. I was part of a writing group when I was working on my dissertation and we’ve continued a writers’ feedback circle. The tradition of collaboratively exchanging ideas, holding each other to our best scholarly selves—that’s something that I feel grateful to have cultivated, especially now that I’m working on The Enhancing Life Project, which is so focused on collaboration.