As technology, genetics, ecology and other fields rapidly advance, new questions arise about human values and the quality of life. What should the future look like, and how do we define our progress?
The Templeton Foundation awarded religious studies professors Maria Antonaccio and Karline McLain individual grants to tackle these and other questions as part of the Enhancing Life Project, which comprises two tiers of top scholars from around the world. As a member of the advanced-career group, Antonaccio received $100,000, while McLain secured $50,000 as an early-career academic.
Both awards are considered unusually large for research grants in the humanities, said George Shields, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.
"Beyond that distinction, we are the only undergraduate institution with two professors in this important project, which is a tremendous accomplishment," he said. "The fact that they are both religious studies faculty speaks to the quality of the department as well as their scholarship."
The 35 Enhancing Life researchers represent a global array of elite universities and disciplines that include religion, philosophy, biology, technology, social sciences, medicine, law and communications. The Templeton Foundation, in conjunction with the University of Chicago and Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany, has challenged the group to not only define what "enhancing life" means, but also to create the basis for a new academic field in the subject. To that end, each scholar must teach two courses that address the topic of enhancing life and publish a book or series of articles at the end of the project, which lasts two years and includes three summer residencies of intensive research.
A community of inquiry
The opportunity for collaboration immediately appealed to Antonaccio. "In the humanities and the social sciences, we often work in isolated ways," she said. "Enhancing Life creates a laboratory-like condition for scholars who normally don't work in labs. It provides us with a community of inquiry that will continue for a period of years."
Antonaccio's recent research focuses on the ethics of sustainability, which fits nicely into the Enhancing Life rubric.
"What does it mean to enhance life amidst the challenge of climate change in the 21st century? What kind of life are we imagining for the future? What we mean by the enhancement of life in this context is really up for grabs," she explained. "A sustainable future sounds so optimistic and positive, but much sustainability rhetoric doesn't make its underlying assumptions clear. My research will analyze different meanings of sustainability and evaluate their often unstated ideals of what the future should look like — including what kind of life should be sustained, and for whom."
Antonaccio hopes to make these topics accessible to undergraduates in her two Enhancing Life courses — the End of Nature and the Posthuman Future, and Imagining Sustainability, an Integrated Perspectives course she co-teaches with Professor Peter Wilshusen, environmental studies.
"If I can make questions about the enhancement of life come alive in class, I hope students will be encouraged to pursue them through independent study, summer research or honors projects," said Antonaccio.
A connection to Gandhi
McLain's research explores ashrams, the intentional living communities established at the turn of the 20th century by Mahatma Gandhi in India and South Africa. These ashrams began as working farms where everyone shared in the same labor, regardless of caste or gender.
She recognized the overlap between the Enhancing Life Project's goal to better define the factors that enhance life — including religious and cultural resources — and Gandhi's pursuit of a nonviolent way of living that would help individuals and communities flourish both spiritually and politically.
"Gandhi was increasingly engaged in political struggles with the British colonial government in South Africa and India," McLain said. "But while he was thinking about political equality at the macro level, he was testing small measures to break down hierarchies and create peace on the micro scale in ashrams. The residents engaged in small-scale experiments with the ideals and methods for enhancing life that Gandhi would then apply to larger-scale social, religious and political problems in both countries."
Social Justice: Gandhi's Way, McLain's first-year foundation seminar in the Social Justice Residential College, fulfills one of her two Enhancing Life course requirements. She will add a new seminar on Gandhi within the next two academic years.
Benefits across the majors
The grants will allow both professors to travel to conferences to present their work-in-progress. McLain will also use part of her grant money for field and archival research in India and to employ a student research assistant to help her compile a digital exhibit of Gandhi's ashrams. Some of Antonaccio's grant will help fund a sabbatical and potential visiting fellowships in Europe.
While the Enhancing Life grants will advance the professors' individual scholarship, both scholars stressed the benefits to the humanities and the University community. Antonaccio noted that the public tends to more readily understand how research in laboratory sciences and engineering helps society.
"Those of us in areas like philosophy, religious studies or classics tend to study things that are harder to translate into wider outcomes. It's exciting that our Enhancing Life projects will come back to Bucknell and benefit students across the majors who take classes in religious studies," she said.