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Enhancing through Relinquishment: A Q&A with Dr. Ruben Zimmermann

October 04, 2016 • By Ruben Zimmermann Enhancing through Relinquishment: A Q&A with Dr. Ruben Zimmermann

Enhancement doesn’t always mean development or expansion—at least, according to Ruben Zimmermann, Professor of New Testament Studies and Ethics at Johannes-Gutenberg University of Mainz in Germany. Zimmermann’s research for The Enhancing Life Project, which focuses on enhancement through abandoning or waiving rights, may at first glance seem paradoxical. But Zimmermann argues that in the future, enhancing life will only be possible if people voluntarily surrender their claims to rights to which they are entitled. This empowering surrender can be fostered, he says, through religious and spiritual texts and community. 

What was the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project? Are these new questions, or an extension of past research, or both? 

In my early career, I worked on medical ethics and then become a biblical scholar. I saw this project as an opportunity to return to my work in applied ethics, while still drawing on my primary discipline as a biblical scholar. Because the Bible, for me, is not just an ancient source. It’s a text that orients many people, but it’s also a text that people misuse in fundamental ways. I want to look for more nuanced hermeneutics. So my challenge, as I focus on the New Testament and in particular the Gospel of John and the letters of Paul, is to bring this old text into current debates about the complexity of life today. 

What does “enhancing life” mean for you? In what way will your project contribute to the enhancement of life?

I am focusing on enhancement through relinquishing, looking in particular at the New Testament, to see where there are acts of relinquishment. That means you have a certain right or possibility but you don’t use it—there is something you can do but you don’t. And that’s strange in some ways because normally in ethics one would say that underprivileged people should have more rights, we should all have the same rights. But I think the idea of relinquishing contributes a lot to current debate because there is a paradoxical union: enhancing life will only be possible by surrendering some aspects of life. Life only develops or flourishes in the tension between coming into being and passing away.

It can feel a little strange because we generally don’t think about giving up in this way. But I would say that relinquishing differs from sacrifice or asceticism, it brings its own kind of gain. In our overloaded time, when we have too many possibilities, it can be very helpful to give something up and experience enhancement by reducing something.

What’s the most surprising or interesting challenge you’ve encountered so far in your Enhancing Life Project research?

The challenge is to bring a text-based biblical position into the interdisciplinary discourse and the public discourse. In Germany, the Bible doesn’t have a lot of currency in public debate. So it’s a challenge to show how readers engage with or understand the narratives in the Bible, like the parables or the gospels, that’s less about reason and more about connecting through the hear.

The exchange with other scholars within the project group was also surprising. I expected to be an outlier because of my search for an ethics of relinquishing. But our scholarly exchanges made it clear that that many of my colleagues work along the lines of relinquishing as an important aspect of the enhancement, whether it’s in medical ethics, use of media or consumer behavior.

How do public debates shape your work? What are you hoping to offer those debates?

Medical ethics is of great importance for my work not just because it’s where I started my career, but also because it’s very much in the public debate. In Germany, there were recently questions about assisted suicide. The issue of longevity, whether we should try to prolong our lives so we get older and older, is another important topic. That’s a field I want to engage with because perhaps there is a stage where you relinquish treatment, even easy treatment, because you decide that to have lived about 80 years—maybe it’s enough. 

And then there’s another public issue, which is especially salient in Germany, about the new refugees who are coming to our country. There’s a question of how we can integrate them, because it’s not necessarily possible to have the same standards of life for everyone. So my ethics of relinquishing is also addressed to powerful and rich people who might learn to give up what they have. But one important aspect for me is that this can’t be done through law or government—it has to be voluntary, it cannot be forced.

You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite thing to do outside the classroom?

I spend a lot of time gardening. I like to experience the circle of life—coming into being, passing away—which is always present in the garden. You also realize that in spite of a lot of energy you put in growing something up, it might not be successful because of weather or insects or something else. That’s a good exercise because you learn that life isn’t something you make on your own, it’s something you have to accept. You can help life flourish but you can’t control it with your own hands.