When will you teach an Enhancing Life Studies course?
A year from now, I'll be teaching a class called "Process and Liberation Theologies," and I will be integrating both Enhancing Life Studies broadly into that course, and specifically some of the research that I've just been talking about. I sprinkled the research into a couple of recent classes, and students find it compelling, interesting, and useful.
What are some of the ways that you've integrated your research for The Enhancing Life Project into some of your recent courses?
Part of my research entailed learning more about systems theory, tracing its different lineages, and learning more about how social and ecological systems are intertwined. Through that research I've focused on the power of the concepts of vulnerability and resilience as systems concepts. Part of what’s powerful about these concepts is that they're portable across disciplines. Whether I'm teaching a class in theology, or in ethics and social analysis, or in community engagement, these concepts and theories are relevant, and the students find them helpful for thinking about both how to analyze and interpret systems (social and otherwise), and also how to leverage change within those systems.
In addition to the portability of the concepts in systems theory, I think that they're empowering, because when you can identify the vulnerabilities in a system, you can decide how, and where, and when, to intervene in order to build resilience or shift the system in some way. What's tricky for students is understanding that vulnerability and resilience in themselves are non-moral concepts. Resilience isn't in all cases good, and vulnerability isn't in all cases bad. They're non-moral, analytic concepts that need to be fit into our normative moral and political frameworks to leverage change. So, they're useful—extremely, I think—and yet they also need to be understood properly as non-moral.
Who will your students be for your Enhancing Life Studies course and what are some of the topics that you're going to have them address?
I teach at a theological school, a Unitarian Universalist seminary, so my students are primarily adult learners who are going into congregational or community ministry of some kind. And insofar as they’re Unitarian Universalists, they're theologically diverse: Some have Buddhist inclinations, some have Christian inclinations, some have other inclinations theologically, but they are all in some way committed to doing ministry that builds a more compassionate, equitable, and just world. I also get some Master of Arts in Religion students, and some students in graduate programs from other seminaries throughout the Chicago area.
Most of my students are not going into further academic work—they aren’t training to be college or university teachers, although some do come from academia. Instead, they're training to become progressive religious leaders—community activists, working either in a congregational setting, or in some kind of a nonprofit, non-governmental service organization. When they're learning about theology and philosophy in the classes that I teach, or when they're learning about my research for The Enhancing Life Project, the relevant questions for them are about application. So part of my job is to help them to think about how to apply some of these new theories and ideas. In the "Process and Liberation Theologies" class, my aim will be to integrate theories of vulnerability and resilience with insights from process and liberation traditions in order to shape congregational and/or community systems into more effective agents of social change.
What are some ways that systems theory, and these ideas that you've been working with, are specifically relevant for Unitarian Universalism?
Unitarian Universalist ministers are vocationally committed to leading their communities—whether it's a congregational community or some other kind of community ministry—in work that is spiritually enriching and that is committed to building justice and compassion in the world. There are lots of different ways to do that, but it's always locally rooted, because the congregations are always in a particular place and time, and so in order to be effective in building spiritual wisdom and spiritual resilience (to use that word again in this other context) in their communities, they need to discern how to draw from sacred sources, and how to interpret religious traditions in a way that inspires and empowers their congregation or their community. They also need to be able to move their community to connect spiritual work with social engagement. So there's internal and external work: there's the work of binding people together spiritually and the work of bridging the congregation or the community outward towards other groups.
The concepts of vulnerability and resilience and systems theory are useful for both the bridging and bonding work of UU ministry. Theories of vulnerability can help my students learn how to pastorally engage their congregants, understanding that the roots of vulnerability are in the Latin words "vulnus" and "vulnerare," meaning "wounded" and "woundedness". I think of woundedness in a double sense: as the capacity to be wounded, and also the capacity to cause wounds. Both meanings of vulnerability are important aspects of what it means to be human in the world. This helps ministers and religious leaders to understand that individual vulnerability is always entangled with other larger systems: whether it's a family, whether it's the local community, whether it's the local economy. It forces the minister or religious leader to do their work with an eye to the interconnection between individuals and larger systems. That becomes a very practical tool.
The work I've done for The Enhancing Life Project has explored two different types of inter-relatedness in the world: between individuals and communities, and between social and environmental systems. The systems concepts of vulnerability and resilience helped me, and I think can help my students, to always think about how these two types of interrelatedness can both enhance and endanger life in the world.