II. Background

One of the most profound spiritual capacities human beings possess is the ability to imagine how life can be enhanced and to strive for new and enriched futures for persons and communities. The longing to overcome physical and social limitations, the ability to imagine heavenly realms, and the capacity of hope even in the face of death are definitive qualities of the human species.  We also know the devastation caused to people who are deprived of hope or disempowered as agents in attaining their aspirations. Furthermore, virtually every known culture and likewise every human life is oriented with respect to imagined futures about the enhancing of life. These imagined futures range from, for instance, beliefs about heaven, ideas about the end of times, utopian dreams of a just community, and claims about a possible trans-human future as well as new biological technologies to enhance life. Dreaming, imaging, and hoping for a future that enhances human individual and social life seem to be defining features of human existence. It is also the case that religious frameworks of practice, symbols, and ideas about the future eventually fade and lose cultural relevance when they do not and cannot orient human individual or communal life towards enhancing life.  In a word, there is something distinctive in the human drive to enhance life, and religious ideas and cultural ideals can and must be interpreted and assessed mindful of that human distinctiveness. Yet the big questions this distinctive human spiritual capacity pose are admittedly deceptive in their seeming simplicity: (1)“What does it mean to enhance life, including spiritual life?” (2) “Correlatively, what are the spiritual laws for the strategies, social mechanisms, and technologies that enable us to enhance life in its many dimensions and in measurable ways?”

Our focus on enhancing life and the interaction among scholars from different disciplines within this Project is meant to allow for a more concrete, measurable, and proactive approach to understanding and orienting this human aspiration and capacity than previous accounts of hope or imagined futures. Well-known are the failure of utopian hopes and technological ventures that were meant to enhance life and yet failed to do so. How can we understand, assess, and explain strategies for enhancing life and also uncover cultural resources? Further, this Project accounts for a salient feature of our age, namely, the radical extension of the human ability to realize imagined futures. Indeed, it is often noted that through technological means, human capacities have outpaced religious and moral insight and direction. In this social and historical context, it is vitally important that scholars of various disciplines join with others in developing ways to understand and assess enhancing life.  The Enhancing Life Project undertakes that task and it thereby can be understood as developing a new discipline of thought, Enhancing Life Studies.

Without doubt, we are living in an age in which forms of life—biological, social, reflective, and religious —can be enhanced or demeaned through the exercise of individual and communal capacities on a scale never seen before. Today, throughout the globe, human capacities are being exerted and extended in ways that have far-reaching, even radical, consequences for the future of life on this planet in all its forms. This transformative expansion of human capacities is obvious in the numerous creative developments in technology and the natural and social sciences. In the academy, there are developed ways to enhance life (such as artificial limbs, more efficient methods of food production, and anti-aging procedures). With equally far reaching consequences, policies are being implemented in commerce, government, religion, and civil society. In a word, attempts to enhance life bring together innovative initiatives, new technologies, social needs, and cultural/religious ideals. Ideas about and measures to enhance life are influencing the way people think, live, and communicate, and yet such ideas and measures have not been closely examined or well understood to date. In each of these sectors of academic and public life, highly consequential decisions, technological inventions, and social changes are being pursued on the assumption, often tacit, unexplored and unacknowledged, that such decisions, inventions, and changes do in fact enhance life and hold the promise of a better future.  

Human cultures, of course, have richly diverse legacies of ideas about the form and future of human and non-human life (animals, flora and fauna) and thus differing views on the constraints and possibilities that will shape life enhancement. Equally important for this Project is the fact that various academic disciplines also have quite diverse perspectives on the decisive features of life and the critical questions that will guide its enhancement. Both the diversity of cultures and the diversity of academic disciplines are crucially important to The Enhancing Life Project. With respect to cultural diversity, the Project assumes that religious and cultural traditions provide rich repositories of ideas about the enhancement of life, theories of transformation over time and visions of the future.  The Project will give careful consideration to the framing assumptions, narratives and symbolic forms through which religions and cultures interpret the possibilities for the enhancement of life. Further, the Project will explore the process of diffusion through which these religious and cultural frameworks and narratives have influenced other domains of society and politics.

A further implication of enhancing life is that life appears to be organized in forms that at the same time interact with each other—for both fascinating mutual reinforcement and surprising difficulties—and challenge each other. These challenges call for intellectual humility because in the attempt to answer one aspect one might, unwittingly, impede other attempts to enhance life. For example, the advancement of economic well-being might create specific challenges to the family as bedrock of society. A religious revival might challenge the functioning of the political order and endanger civil society.

In addition, the very idea of enhancing life implies recognition of the value or worth of forms of life, as well as its possible futures. The Enhancing Life Project seeks to examine the elements of enhancement just enumerated and also the forms, values, and futures of life with respect to guiding frameworks, narratives, and images as specific and interrelated aspects of socio-cultural and religious worldviews. The contention here is that the meaning of enhancing life must be interpreted mindful that human action and social cohesion are linked to meaning-giving and orienting beliefs and values at interrelated levels of analysis. One cannot properly understand the flourishing of life, its full enhancement, without analyzing the dimensions of life. Accordingly, the examination of the religious and cultural dimension of life is interrelated with the exploration of its other dimensions. For instance, scholars as well as religious and social leaders increasingly recognize the extent to which the pursuit of science itself can be encouraged or encumbered by religious or cultural beliefs, values, and ideas. For this reason the Project will explore the creative potentials of religious and cultural traditions to promote the enhancement of life on a broad scale, including social imaginaries, legal developments, media narratives, religious ideals, and technological change.

As an example of deeply rooted factors that shape different ways of enhancing life, one may consider two strands in Western thought. One frame that shapes the lives of many peoples and nations has emphasized the goodness of finite human life. With a sense of humility, those who hold that conviction seek to maximize life within finite conditions. Enhancement on this account is worked out in various ways within the limiting conditions that also characterize finite existence. The limits might be set by God within a theistic framework or by finite natural reality itself. So, beliefs about the sanctity or dignity of life have frequently been used as ideas to articulate the goodness of those limits of finitude. Not surprisingly, debates that deeply impact social existence swirl around worries about “designer genes” as “playing God,” the manipulation of species, and the enhancement of human life at the expense of nonhuman species.

Another framework of enhancement in teaching and social practice has emphasized that enhancing life requires a creative sense of life’s possibilities and the pursuit of the perfection of life. Perfection might be understood within a religious tradition in terms of the deification of finite life through God’s grace, or perfection might be understood through ideas and images about the genetic enhancement of human capacities, the development of new social, legal, and political formations, and technological inventions and advances in communications and media. Spiritual practices, breakthroughs in genetics, utopian social experiments, and the pursuit of excellence in various cultural activities have characterized this strand of thought about enhancing life. The Project’s overall objective is to explore the driving ideas and practices that support the search for enhancing life in diverse fields of inquiry.  For this reason, The Enhancing Life Project seeks applications from scholars in various fields, e.g., anthropology, sociology, law, psychology, political sciences, communication, media studies, philosophy, religious studies, and theology.