Without Nature? A New Condition for Theology

Without Nature? A New Condition for Theology

October 14-15, 2005 (closed working group)
October 26-28, 2006 (public conference)
University of Chicago Divinity School
Swift Hall
1025 East 58th Street
Chicago, Illinois, 60637

Common wisdom now acknowledges the malleability of nature and the manipulability of that which may once have been considered a network of inflexible limits bounding human being from without – weather patterns, topographical contours, animal populations, even genetic composition per se. "Nature" is decreasingly distinct from other products of human industry. The consequences of this shift begin with irreversible environmental degradation and the loss of a distinctly natural landscape and impact the status even of human ontology as technology and its echoes invite alternative definitions of human nature.

As many environmentally concerned thinkers now recognize, the anthropological effects of our estrangement from "nature" have compelled the marriage of ecological and bioethical concerns. These, in turn, recommend the engagement of cultural and humanistic studies in geography, sociology, and anthropology. Theologians must acknowledge that other disciplines publicly engage fundamental anthropological concerns; the tradition of theimago dei now finds itself confronted by the prospect of life cultivated in any image one chooses. Some, with Donna Haraway, now argue that traditional distinctions between human and machine, or physical and non-physical, have blurred and become unserviceable in light of contemporary bioscience.

Religious communities across the spectrum are concerned about the ethical dimensions of the new biotechnologies and their potential impact on the already strained natural environment. Yet at present, Christian theology in the west finds itself in a difficult position. The last century in theology, as in philosophy and other humanistic disciplines, witnessed a general destabilization and demotion of the concept of nature. Theologically this was done to shore up the freedom and dynamism of grace, as the leading lights of Protestant and Catholic theology reexamined the viability of a "pure" concept of nature.

This situation raises a series of troubling questions. What position are Christian theologians now in to address the loss or end of nature? Are these twin declines of nature – in fact and in theory – related? What might the notion of the "supernatural," or the drive to transform human nature through grace, have to do with the technological quest to transcend human limits? Would the end of nature make grace less comprehensible? How would the loss of such an ecological or biological constant place new conditions on theological construction in the present?

Acknowledging the insufficiency of traditional notions of "nature," as well as the multiple ambiguities of the term's reference, this conference considers how one might constructively understand its contemporary import both in fidelity to the Christian gospel and with serious attention to pressing ethical concerns. Our aim is theological, but our method interdisciplinary. In October 2005, a number of premiere scholars will meet in Chicago to discuss these issues, prompted by working papers from four representatives of the physical and social sciences. Following this event, the remaining participants will each write a paper proceeding from the workshop discussions. These papers will be presented at the University of Chicago Divinity School in October 2006.


Structure and Participants

Plenary Lecture

Lorraine Daston (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, University of Chicago)


Area I – Ecology

Peter Raven (Washington University; Missouri Botanical Garden) 
William French (Loyola University)
Cabell King (University of Chicago) 
   Chair: Peter Crane (University of Chicago) 

Area II - Genetics

Stuart Newman (New York Medical College)
Ronald Cole-Turner (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary)
Gerald McKenny (University of Notre Dame) 
   Chair: Mary Mahowald (University of Chicago)

Area III - Geography

Edward Soja (UCLA; London School of Economics)
Timothy Gorringe (University of Exeter)
Sallie McFague (Vancouver School of Theology)
   Chair: Virginia Parks (University of Chicago)

Area IV - Anthropology

Michael Fischer (MIT)
Lisa Sowle Cahill (Boston College) 
Tom Carlson (University of California, Santa Barbara) 
   Chair: Karin Knorr-Cetina (University of Chicago) 

Area V - Connections and Methodological Considerations

Peter Scott (University of Manchester)
Kathryn Tanner (University of Chicago)
David Albertson (University of Chicago) 
   Chair: Ronald Engel (Meadville Lombard Theological School) 

Primary sponsors: Franke Institute for the HumanitiesUniversity of Chicago Divinity Schoolthe John Templeton FoundationHerman Greene and the Center for Ecozoic Studies, and the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion. Graduate Student Reception sponsored by the Divinity School Theology and Ethics Clubs

Conference Coordinators:

David C. Albertson
Cabell H. King