Scholars take multiple approaches to answer: What does it mean to enhance life?

University Communications

A biologist-turned-theologian. A medical doctor with a passion for Islamic law. A professor of marketing seeking “wise consumers.” Normally, these three scholars would have little reason to interact. But now, all three—plus more than 30 others—are engaged in answering the same question: What does it mean to enhance life?

The Enhancing Life Project launched in 2014; in the months that followed, 35 scholars were awarded two-year grants for research into how to enhance life across a broad array of disciplines. Enhancing Life is the brainchild of William Schweiker, the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics in the Divinity School, and Günter Thomas, professor of systematic theology and ethics at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany.

“We wanted to do something big,” said Schweiker. “Our ultimate goal would be to start a field called Enhancing Life Studies.”

With a $4.6 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, Schweiker and Thomas took the first steps in that direction by organizing the grant competition and creating three residencies that winners would attend while completing their projects. The first residency was held last summer in Banff, Canada. The 15 Advanced Career Scholars spent two weeks together and then were joined by the 20 Early Career Scholars for the last five days.

“At an academic conference, you have 20 minutes on the stage, five minutes for Q&A and you’re off,” said Lea Schweitz, the biologist-turned-theologian, who serves as associate professor of systematic theology, religion and science at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. But the residency offered time and space for deeper discussion.

Schweitz’s contribution to The Enhancing Life Project examines how humans can change their perspectives on nature and spirituality, given the reality that by 2050, more than two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. “If we can break open what nature means in these urban contexts, we’ll be more able to make those spiritual connections.”

Schweitz’s case studies of urban nature in Chicago challenge that conventional understanding of the natural world. One of them is The 606, the new bike/hike trail stretching from Humboldt Park to Wicker Park. “It’s an ambiguous natural space,” Schweitz said. “It’s flanked by landscaping and fences. It gets great views of the city.” Upon reflection, Schweitz realized urban nature compels us to value that very ambiguity as a partnership between human creativity and creation as a whole.

Like Schweitz, Dr. Aasim Padela hopes to enhance life by developing a greater understanding of how disparate worlds connect. But in his case, those worlds are modern medicine and Islamic tradition. “Much of the Islamic tradition has a preservationist mindset,” he said. “Could the enhancement of life just be the preservation of what exists, or does it have to add something?”

To explore this question, Padela, who directs the University’s Initiative on Islam and Medicine, is tracking changes in Islamic legal thought over time and analyzing their implications for medical philosophy and ethics in each of the five higher objectives of Islamic law: the protection of life, religion, intellect, property and dignity. Tracking these shifting understandings could influence current conversation and policy on public health issues.

For Michael Luchs, enhancing life in the face of the global environmental crisis demands a shift in consumer and business mindsets. Luchs, associate professor of marketing at the College of William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business, has long had research interests in sustainability and product design. His proposal for The Enhancing Life Project brings to light the practices wise consumers use to promote personal and collective well-being, such as borrowing or repairing rather than buying new.

While wise consumers have individual traits, they also tend to be part of supportive communities that engage in more sustainable consumer practices like swaps and cooperatives. At the meeting in Banff, he was surprised to find philosophers and scholars who resonated with his work and recommended reading for him.

It’s these kinds of connections that will drive the project’s success. “Today, it is our challenge and responsibility to consider how technological and scientific innovations can make our lives better,” said Schweiker. “These aren’t questions that are only relevant for theologians or bioethicists or environmental scientists. Through interdisciplinary collaboration, we will begin to discover what it means to enhance life and from there, we can see how these findings should guide our work in the future.”

In addition to Schweiker and Padela, Daniel Sulmasy, the Kilbride-Clinton Professor of Medicine and Ethics in Medicine and the Divinity School, and Kristine Culp, associate professor of theology in the Divinity School and the College, and dean of the Disciples Divinity House, received funding to pursue Enhancing Life projects.