The Enhancing Life Project is examining the theme of enhancement on various levels of life, with applications for both the church and the academy. While serving as an interlocutor for this marvelous project, I had the chance to engage with various approaches to enhancing life that were presented in the Canadian Rockies last summer. The environment and surroundings of Banff perfectly illustrated these encounters. Broad and fast-running rivers symbolized the passion and the fresh ideas coming out of the various disciplines working on creating Enhancing Life Studies. The huge Rocky Mountains characterized both the necessary awareness of one’s limitations while ascending to the top—and then the abundant possibilities gained by looking out onto the sparkling horizon.
I am a Protestant minister as well as a theologian, and church leaders like me deal with complex realities, full of the essential questions of personal and social life. These questions demand multifaceted answers. For example, in Germany a few months ago, we had a public debate about whether medically assisted suicide should be legal or illegal. Church representatives were asked to give statements and contribute to the debate. As religious leaders and politicians wrestled with the topic, the most helpful statements proved to be those that opened a space for nuanced and realistic conversations. Many of the official church statements emphasized the fact that life is a gift, which for them meant that they were not in favor of legalizing medically assisted suicide (the law ultimately passed last November, allowing assisted suicide if it is conducted with “altruistic motives”). In the end, though, more important than the law itself was the fact that there had been a broad public discussion on the topic where the churches played a central role.
Debates like these show the relevance of Enhancing Life Studies. Research on enhancing life does more than just argue for optimizing life. It offers perspectives that will find their way into sermons and public conversations about important issues, and inform pastoral care and counseling.
Just as The Enhancing Life Project promises to make positive contributions to the work of religious leaders, a church-based perspective also added to The Enhancing Life Project. In Banff, the innovative small-group discussion format called the World Café was used as an efficient and fruitful method to share ideas and knowledge within the big group. During one day, the meeting space in Banff turned into a multitude of “cafés.” The other five public interlocutors and I each served as the “host” of one six-person roundtable. In short presentations, the scholars described their project, their challenges, and their questions, and then lively discussions followed. We noted core ideas and impulses on the paper tablecloth. After a session, the group of scholars moved to the next café in order to meet the next interlocutor and listen to other presentations.
For me as a church-related interlocutor, this was a great opportunity to raise my questions about the particular projects. Though there are other research projects at the boundary between the church and the academy, The Enhancing Life Project is unique in that discourse with church representatives is woven into the research process. Usually, this process takes place in more of a closed shop, with some kind of relationship to the church, but not in overt discourse with it. By contrast, The Enhancing Life Project takes scholars and church representatives seriously, and sees them as influential resources. In the life of the church, theological reflection must always account for practical consequences, with respect to individual believers as well as the public as a whole. By including church representatives in early discussion phases, this practical dimension was more prominently incorporated into the Project.
After two inspiring weeks in Banff, the closing discussion was both a wrap up and an opening for the following two years of The Enhancing Life Project. A format drawn from my church work, the “fish bowl,” created conversation among advanced career scholars, early career scholars, and interlocutors. In the center of a circle, there were six chairs for people who wanted to jump into the discussion – and there was always a chair for an early career scholar as well as for an advanced career scholar and an interlocutor. The moderators offered some structure, but the flow of the discussion was its main strength. People had to listen to each other, and the conversation moved ahead organically. Through this communal discussion, the overarching vision shared by each particular project became clear.
Whether life is enhanced by patience or impatience, by surrendering one’s rights, or by becoming more aware of the effects of smartphone use, these and other questions tell something about the broader relevance of The Enhancing Life Project for establishing a new way of academic, interdisciplinary collaboration that grapples with the concerns of the public and the church. We need scholars who are willing to talk and to listen to each other, researchers who dare to share their open questions and challenges of their work, and people from the academy and the broader public—including the church—who share thoughts and wine while describing their visions for the enhancing of individual, social, and global life. For these reasons, the seminar in Banff was a promising – one might even say enhancing – endeavor.
Read a Q&A with Heike Springhart here.