Project Description

VI. Research Trajectories

Our overall objective is to address the Big Questions of enhancing life by means of multi-year, interdisciplinary research. It is absolutely necessary for research on religion and spiritual laws to intersect with sociology, law, psychology, communications, etc., in order to advance knowledge about how life can be enhanced and thereby to contribute as well to spiritual advancement. On the level of manageable research agendas, our Project works within the interrelation of two trajectories of inquiry (see below). More specifically, these projects are designed to do two things:  (1) create interdisciplinary conversations between the academic study of religion and other academic disciplines; and (2) identify the major points at which this interdisciplinary research will interact with the wider, international public discussion of proposals for the enhancement of life.


The expectation is that the Project leaders and Scholars will undertake research in one or more of these lines of inquiry thereby expanding the scope and depth of the Project. Finally, the exemplary research questions noted here illustrate the operative assumption in the Project as a whole, namely, to explore the driving ideas and practices in religion and in spirituality that support the search for enhancing life in fields of inquiry outside of religion, e.g., sociology, technology, law, psychology, communications, and theology.


How are the research trajectories related? The first research trajectory focuses on spiritual laws and then provides orientation for the technological enhancement of life. The second research trajectory changes the perspective and moves from the technological enhancement of life to articulate the implied spiritual laws and aspirations of enhancing life. These trajectories of research are needed in order to answer the Big Questions about enhancing life (see above).


1. The Visionary Power of Spiritual Ideas

The overall Enhancing Life Project seeks to isolate spiritual laws (Big Question #2) in ways that impact the meaning of enhancing life (Big Question #1). Religions enhance life through a transformative tension between the constructive and creative reshaping of this world and its affairs, on the one hand, and the inhabiting of a more or less distant counter-world, on the other.[1] This religious trajectory will bring into a fruitful conversation two fields of inquiry:


1) The first field assumes that most religions strive for the enhancement of this life from birth to death -- even though such enhancement assumes a variety of symbolic and interpretive forms--based on different beliefs and promoting peculiar visions of life. As such, the Project will develop suitable analytical tools to evaluate the “enhancing-life” dimension of the religions. What are the key socio-religious forms involved in enhancing life (organizations, clusters of interactions, individual lives, rituals)? What central themes, narratives, and symbols undergird and accompany this process?


In order to overcome a simplistic distinction between the empirical world and religious visions of transcendence, the Project will develop and employ a multidimensional concept of “counter-world.” In order to understand the multiple dimensions of “imagined futures” we need to analyze the religious dimensions of counter-worlds.[2] That is to say, any imagined future that can inspire action to enhance life required for the future entails a conception of a coherent domain of meaning, a “world,” that is counter to present conditions, the present social, historical, political, economic, and religious domain of meaning, the current world. A counter-world exists then in various relations of continuity and discontinuity to a people’s present world. This gives a counter-world its distinctive status as being present, and yet not present, but hoped for, and so an already existing condition, but one that is also not yet existing and must be realized. The investigators of this Project are convinced, then, that “imagined futures” and “counter-worlds” encompass many dimensions; religion and spirituality, however, are always essential dimensions.


This approach opens a conceptual space suitable for the analysis of different types of symbolized counter-worlds and the varying degrees to which they are deployed and supported within a religion. It becomes possible, in other words, to examine the social, spatial, as well as temporal dimensions of these counter-worlds and the extent to which they strive for a transformative and enhancing impact on the individual’s social and personal life. Within this trajectory of the Project we need to explore the voice of different faith traditions, but we must take into account the Christian faith that is still a spiritually formative force of global societies.[3]


The counter-worlds which move people are not exclusively but are nevertheless powerfully influenced by spiritual realities. This perspective enables a new way of looking at religions and spiritual traditions: many faith traditions combine explicitly spiritual movements with movements in space and time. Religious exercises (worship, devotional, and spiritual practices) move people in time while pilgrimages add the physical movement in space.[4] Additionally, the religious imagination can grasp forms of pilgrimage only available on the spiritual plane (e.g., see John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” or the stations of the cross in medieval churches).


Using this combination of spiritual (counter-worldly) movements with physical movements as a model and heuristic tool we want to ask: to what extent are other movements in space driven by imagined futures that entail a deeply spiritual dimension? If people are not just moved by materialistic interests but by a subtle combination of forces and desires, what is the role of religion in far-reaching spatial movements? In other words: what dimensions of religions are encouraging or preventing movements in space that are intended to enhance life? It appears to us that it is the specific religious background of the socio-cultural imaginary of peoples that encourages us to ask how larger spiritual visions of life are woven into spatial mobility and the larger texture of enhancing this earthly life.


2) The second field of inquiry will build on the first but shift the focus to the rich texture of traditions and understandings we find in Christian faith.[5] Again, it is our understanding that in order to comprehend the forces for enhancing life in technological, social, political, cultural, and religious processes, we need to explore the potentials of the most powerful tradition in Western societies, namely, Christian faith.


The central hypothesis that interconnects both trajectories of inquiry is that one can observe in the Christian symbolics a particular triangle consisting of: 1) a faithfulness to a good creation (the realistic moment); 2) a vision of an unattainable fullness of life (a utopian and eschatological moment); and 3) a deep sense of life’s plasticity and capacity to be transformed and enhanced (the transformative-technological moment). In other words, we will unfold how religious resources, like Christian ones, help us to articulate and assess the hypotheses that drive this Project (see above). This approach shows promise because these several dimensions of life can be set in correspondence to the persons of the Trinity. The dynamic between the different aspects of life present in the attempt to enhance life correspond, theologically speaking, to the threefold divine life. The care for a good creation needs the transformative Spirit and the sacrificial giving of life in Christ not just to preserve but to enhance life through a hope which is willing to take risks. In this “thick” religious symbolism we can see how seemingly paradoxical forms of some spiritual laws (e.g., winning life by losing it) contribute to the spiritual enhancement of life.[6]


The Christian religion enhances life here and now by a “logic of giving” as a spiritual law anchored in a counter-world. This logic is capable of transforming while not denying contractual understandings of life in which forms of reciprocity among human beings are dominant.[7] At the same time, this logic helps to transcend strict utilitarian calculations. The Project assumes that religion plays a major role when the logic of giving reaches its limits in self-sacrificial love, thereby radically opening new possibilities for the enhancement of this earthly life. It also assumes that this transformative tension in religion can productively “spill over” into other spheres of life such as science, technology, economics, and the arts.


2. The Techno-Cultural Process of Enhancing Life


Throughout the legacy of cultures and human history, technologies as simple as a flint knife, as basic as animal breeding, or, nowadays, as sophisticated as mapping the human genome, have been used to enhance life, human and non-human.[8] Technology in this broad sense is one of the most powerful tools to enhance lived life regardless of all questions concerning its uses, specific forms, and applications. A peaceful life on this planet in the third millennium is inconceivable without efficient and powerful technologies touching almost every aspect of everyday life. It is our hypothesis in this trajectory of research that visions of enhancing life are among the driving factors in propelling technological advances.  These technologies enable, sustain, enhance, and sometimes endanger life. We assume that the exclusive focus on the economic dimensions in terms of the driving force of technological development is insufficiently taking into account the social, cultural, and eventually spiritual and religious factors. Under this broad research trajectory it is important 1) to explore forms of the technological enhancement of life and 2) to test whether or not life has been enhanced in the laboratory of cultural history.


1) In this Project, we would like to focus on biotechnology and communication technology as the most vibrant fields of technological development influencing our life in the third millennium. What vision of enhancing life is written into current communication technology and media development? In biotechnology, what dimensions of life are moved into the background, what aspects moved to the foreground? How are we to understand and assess ideas about the “posthuman” and the “transhuman” as well as artificial intelligence?[9] What religious visions of life and social understanding – striving for understanding, community, and compassion in a world “after Babel” – are embedded in technologies of communication and biotechnology? What visions of enhancing life are built into these technologies?


The new technologies enable social participation and in many cases give people a voice in newly emerging publics and forms of life. The ability to transcend the confines of space and time through communication technology seems to make real visions of life long known among the religions.[10] So too, ideas about a “new heaven and new earth” or beliefs about re-birth and heavenly realms (counter-worlds) might well provide insight into the meanings of biotechnology as well as artificial intelligence. In addition, the communication technologies from television to new social media allow new communities to emerge, ranging from interaction enabled by media to imagined communities formed by media and their implicit assumptions of participation.[11] Communication technologies and biotechnology become the “technological glue” of advanced societies by linking people and also interconnecting social spheres (e.g., economy, medicine, education, etc.) and creating a shared space for the cultural and spiritual imagination.[12]


In this Project, we would like to connect to other projects and ask how the visions and practices of technologies influence the understandings of spiritual life, and, conversely, how the religious imagination shapes communication and biotechnologies. Yet it is also important to test and assess attempts at enhancing life. The paradox, of course, is that since “enhancing life” is necessarily directed towards the future, the testing and assessment of projects of enhancing life draw on analogies to past cultural forms as the laboratory in which to evaluate imagined futures.


2) Culture Studies is an indispensable part of appraising visions of the future and the technologies, physical and social, to reach that future. First, the ways societies and cultures imagine the future neither arise spontaneously nor exhibit utter originality.  Instead, they reshape ideas and institutions already present in the socio-cultural imaginary and draw on, explicitly or not, technological achievements. Second, when cultures or individuals begin to implement plans based on a vision of the future, unanticipated consequences and new possibilities result. Cultural history thus provides a kind of laboratory in which visions of the future may be studied and evaluated in relation to their social pre-conditions, unanticipated consequences, and newly emergent possibilities.  This Project will investigate these three dimensions of “futuring” by creating case studies from the history of the United States and elsewhere. For example, the United States has a legacy of voluntary movements for reform that were intended to enhance life.  Some of these have made pivotal contributions to the improvement of life: the abolition of slavery or the right of women to vote, to name obvious examples. Meanwhile, American society is also filled with utopian experiments, past and present, which sought to establish ideal communities, frequently as models for the future enhancement of human society at large.  It is also the case that one witnesses how the promotion of religious and spiritual ideals spurs the growth of mass communication.[13] These utopian communities often had specifically religious commitments at their base, but they also experimented with new social and economic arrangements.


Because most of these reforms and social experiments had quite specific purposes, it is important to explore the larger assumptions about human nature, fulfillment, and the spiritual life that were entailed in any specific reform – even those who led to the reformation of law.[14] Our research would need to appraise both the intended and the unintended consequences of these reforms and experiments, the ways in which they directly and indirectly shaped public policy initiatives, technological and scientific agendas, legal changes or religious thought, and practice. Scholarly analysis to engage public policy aims at enhancing life, by creating a set of informed criteria for assessing alternative visions of the future.


These two research trajectories are needed to answer this Project’s Big Questions because they show the interrelation between the question about the meaning of “enhancing life” and the correlative “spiritual laws,” while enabling interaction among a range of disciplines. It is our intention, then, that the scholars invited to be Fellows in this Project would work within and between these research trajectories to develop their distinctive projects. We have selected these lines of inquiry because they give a broad context within which to examine the enhancement of biological and artificial life, social networks, cultures, and religious frameworks – see Bibliography.

            [1] In terms of Christian eschatology see Günter Thomas, Neue Schöpfung. Systematisch-Theologische Untersuchungen Zur Hoffnung Auf Das Leben in Der Zukünftigen Welt’ (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 2009); Ted Peters, Robert J. Russell, and Michael Welker, eds., Resurrection: Theological and Scientific Assessments (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2002); Jürgen Moltmann, Carmen Rivuzumwami, and Thomas Schlag, Hoffnung Auf Gott - Zukunft Des Lebens: 40 Jahre Theologie Der Hoffnung” (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2005); and Jerry L. Walls, The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology, Oxford Handbooks (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

            [2] See e.g. Fritz Stolz, “Paradiese und Gegenwelten,” Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft 1.1 (1993): 5-24.

            [3] Erazim Kohak, The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); Sallie McFague, Life Abundant (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001); James Gustafson, A Sense of the Divine: The Natural Environment from a Theocentric Perspective (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1994); and Charles Birch and John Cobb, The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

            [4] Linda Kay Davidson and David M. Gitlitz, Pilgrimage: From the Ganges to Graceland: An Encyclopedia  (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2002); Simon Coleman and John Elsner, Pilgrimage: Past and Present: Sacred Travel and Sacred Space in the World Religions (London: British Museum Press, 1995); for modern pilgrimages cp. Simon Coleman and John Eade, eds., Reframing Pilgrimage: Cultures in Motion (London; New York: Routledge, 2004).

            [5] One way of construing this rich texture is in relation to the Trinity and Christian life. See Joy Ann McDougall, Pilgrimage of Love: Moltmann on the Trinity and Christian Life, Reflection and Theory in the Study of Religion (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); and Michael Welker and Miroslav Volf, eds., Der Lebendige Gott Als Trinität: Jürgen Moltmann Zum 80. Geburtstag(1. Aufl. ed., Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2006).

            [6] The dynamics of enhancing life are touching issues discussed in Stephen Garrard Post, Altruism & Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, & Religion in Dialogue  (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); and Unlimited Love: Altruism, Compassion, and Service (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2003).

            [7] For forgiveness and mercy as such a spiritual act of opening up reciprocity see Miroslav Volf, “Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Justice. A Christian Contribution to a More Peaceful Social Environment,” in Forgiveness and Reconciliation. Religion, Public Policy & Conflict Transformation, Raymond G. Helmick and Rodney Lawrence Petersen, eds. (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2001); Sharon Lamb and Jeffrie G. Murphy, eds., Before Forgiving: Cautionary Views of Forgiveness in Psychotherapy (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); and Jeffrie G. Murphy and Jean Hampton, Forgiveness and Mercy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

            [8] See Michael Murphy, The Future of the Body: Explorations into the Further Evolution of Human Nature (New York: J.P. Tarcher and Putnam, 1992); Koichi Hishida, ed., Fulfilling the Promise of Technology Transfer Fostering Innovation for the Benefit of Society (Tokyo; New York: Springer, 2013); and touching the role of imagination and creativity John Reader, Globalization, Engineering, and Creativity (1st ed, San Rafael, Calif.: Morgan & Claypool Publishers, 2006).

            [9] See Celia Deane-Drummond, “The Future of the Human: Transhuman Evolution or Human Identity as Imago Christi?” in Christ and Evolution: Wonder and Wisdom (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009); Tirosh-Samuelson and Kenneth Mossman, eds., Building Better Humans?: Refocusing the Debate on Transhumanism (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2012); Ronald Cole-Turner, Transhumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement  (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011); Stephen Lilley, ed., Transhumanism and Society: The Social Debate over Human Enhancement (Dordrecht: Springer 2013).

            [10] Marita Sturken, Dou glas Thomas, and Sandra Ball-Rokeach, Technological Visions: The Hopes and Fears That Shape New Technologies (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004).

            [11] Joe Karaganis, ed., Structures of Participation in Digital Culture (New York: Social Science Research Council, 2007); Tarleton Boczkowski, Pablo J. Foot, and Kirsten A. Gillespie, Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society (2014); JoseĢ van Dijck, The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media  (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); and, critically, Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).

            [12] Nick Couldry, Media, Society, World: Social Theory and Digital Media Practice (Cambridge; Malden, MA: Polity, 2012), Nick Couldry and Anna McCarthy, Mediaspace: Place, Scale, and Culture in a Media Age, Comedia (London; New York: Routledge, 2004); Nick Couldry, The Place of Media Power: Pilgrims and Witnesses of the Media Age, Comedia (2000); Roger Silverstone, Media and Morality: On the Rise of the Mediapolis (Cambridge; Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 2007).

            [13] John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

            [14] On the dynamic relationship between religion and law see John Witte, The Reformation of Rights. Law, Religion and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation (Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002); John Witte and Frank S. Alexander, Christianity and Human Rights: An Introduction (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010); John Witte, Frank S. Alexander, and George Hunsinger, eds., The Teachings of Modern Protestantism: On Law, Politics, and Human Nature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).