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Forms of Life and Life's Enhancement

Transcendence, Immanence, Clarity, Passion

January 24, 2017 • By William Schweiker & G√ľnter Thomas Transcendence, Immanence, Clarity, Passion

These two excerpts from The Enhancing Life Project’s report for the Religion and Culture Web Forum, written by William Schweiker, Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago, and Günter Thomas, Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany, Principal Investigators for The Enhancing Life Project, offer a glimpse into the conceptual frameworks that have proven foundational for navigating life and its enhancement.

Read another excerpt from the Web Forum report here


Transcendence and Immanence 

We have noted that a basic assumption of The Enhancing Life Project is that living beings “strive” to sustain and enhance their lives, and, further, that with human being this striving is bound to beliefs about conditions and states of life otherwise than present or momentary spatial and temporal constrains of everyday existence. Human beings imagine and believe in heavenly realms, dream of utopian realities, create works of art, stories, and forms of music and dance that constitute realities otherwise than the empirical world. The fact that human beings bury their dead, create social lineages through memory, ritually traverse time (past and future), and, most profoundly, use images, symbols, and language to communicate with others seem to disclose an ontological fact about being human, that is, a fact about our mode of being within the structures of lived reality. Human beings, and maybe some other non-human animals as well, are the intersection, bridge, or nodal point of multiple realities and domains of meaning. To use classical ideas, human beings are incarnate spirit or rational animals or “things-in-between” the finite and the infinite. Those are of course abstract conceptual claims but the point is that to be human is to dwell in reality in a complex, multi-dimensional way because of the character of our humanity. Human dreams, beliefs, imaginings, and hopings might be delusional, though surely not all of the time. But whatever the truth status of those dreams and imaginings, the fact is that to be human is to have the profound capacity to hope, dream, believe, and imagine. 

Along with the sociologist of religion Robert Bellah, we believe that this ontological fact of human existence is basic to religion, and, further, that the religions can and may and must provide resources for enhancing human life conceived in this complex way. As Bellah would put it, religions contribute to human evolution by linking in various ways that fact of the “dreadful immanence” of existence oriented towards death with the ritual, symbolic, and social ways religions enable humans to go beyond, to transcend that immanence and its ever-present dread. Without these means so distinctly seen in the religions, and especially the so-called axial religions, it is hard to imagine how human beings would evolve beyond simple submersion in the immanence of finite life and so the struggle for survival, the domination of the weak by the strong, and the crucible of death that seemingly dooms all things finite.  Religion in this perspective is not an outlier in social evolution, but, rather, an indispensible dynamic and structure within the development of human existence. 

Given this picture of human life, religions are never simple inversions of the material conditions of social existence nor are they just fanciful beliefs in non-existent realms and powers. Rather, religions give diverse accounts of the structures of lived reality as multi-dimensional, even as they provide means to connect with power(s) necessary to orient life within the complexities of reality so conceived. To be sure, religions also include social structures (synagogues, etc.), religious and charismatic leaders (e.g., imams), dogmatic and moral teachings (the doctrine of the Trinity or the 10 commandments), beliefs about suprahuman beings or powers (gods, spirits, demons) and forms of devotion and worship (prayer; meditation). Granting the complexity of actual religions, what is important for the Enhancing Life Project, given the focus on life and especially human life, is (1) the idea of religious conceptions of multiple worlds and (2) how people can and should connect with power(s) necessary to orient life within the complexities of reality so conceived. These two aspects of the religions have required that we formulate key concepts for the Project, namely, counter-worlds and spiritual laws.


Conceptual Clarity and Passion 

Processes of enhancing life are fundamentally based on the power of imagination. Any attempt to transcend the given reality in order to change it requires the imagination of a different state of affairs. The power of a vision lies in the passion for alternatives. When people attempt to enhance life, they are deeply moved – not only by ideas about and descriptions of alternative worlds – but by emotions. Such emotions enable people to accept uncertainty and to take risk. To enhance life in the sphere of politics, medicine or law requires the communication of emotions. While the communication of emotions and through emotions is a standard trope in rhetoric, it is widely underestimated in academic reflections on the driving forces for change. At the same time, what is needed for specific, context-sensitive and lasting processes of enhancing life is conceptual clarity. What life needs to be enhanced? What are the risks, what are the temporal horizons for sound expectations? Enthusiasm, desire, and longing for change are not enough for enhancing life. Even though visions of life are always inhabited by emotions, without conceptual clarity the process of enhancing life does not find a direction. Shared narratives and scripts are not only symbolic ‘containers’ of emotional states, but also provide some initial conceptual specificity. Counter-worlds can be places of cultivating emotions and passions – institutions thriving for emotional formation. So the question needs to be raised: What kind of counter-worlds serve both ends – emotional and conceptual formation? Which counter-worlds are promoting the creative tension between emotions and concepts? Which ones are a way of escape? Should we look at any form of emotional escape with a hermeneutic of suspicion? 

If one acknowledges the necessary and productive co-presence of emotional power and conceptual clarity, one has to face another question: What are the most powerful emotions? Which emotions are moving people so that they become part of the processes of enhancing life? History shows us that both fear and hope have played their roles. Which is more effective: longing for a better world or apocalyptical fears? The philosopher Hans Jonas clearly opted for a hermeneutic of fear framing any technological advancement. In a similar vein, most political debates about climate change make use of an emotional rhetoric of fear. They seem to replace the ‘Grand Narratives’ which had been utopias with positive longings attached to them. Interestingly enough, and counter to these trends in the public political philosophy, liberal forms of Christianity dramatically ‘dimmed down’ this rhetoric of fear in favor of a divine reality supporting only positive emotions – without wrath, damnation, and the fire of hell – and thus supporting hope. 

Fear and suffering are not necessarily seedbeds for processes of enhancing life. Only under certain conditions can desires for a better life grow out of situations of individual or collective suffering, trauma or crises. Likewise, hope alone is not enough.  In conditions of both fear and hope, it is the connection of emotion and conceptual clarity cultivated in narratives and experienced in counter-worlds that brings about enhancement. 


To download a PDF of the report, please click here.