One of the many things that makes Bucknell such a dynamic institution is its strong commitment to interdisciplinary inquiry.

"How should one live?"

Socrates posed that question more than 2,000 years ago. It remains the fundamental question of ethics today for Professor of Religion Maria Antonaccio, who takes both religious and philosophical approaches to her study of ethics.

Antonaccio is internationally recognized for her work on the 20th-century novelist and moral philosopher Iris Murdoch. The author of 27 novels as well as poems, plays and philosophical essays, Murdoch was an atheist who nonetheless was fascinated by religion. She believed that religion had an important role to play in preserving the sense of a moral imperative.

"I find Murdoch inspiring because she exemplified the kind of creative mind who thinks outside or across traditional disciplinary boundaries, like philosophy and literature, or religion and ethics, in order to address fundamental questions," Antonaccio says. "She believed that the kind of questions raised by religion and ethics are inescapable in human life, questions like, 'How should one live?' and 'How can we become morally better?'" Antonaccio has co-edited a collection of essays on Murdoch's thought, published a book titled Picturing the Human: The Moral Thought of Iris Murdoch, and is now completing a third related book.

Antonaccio pursues an interdisciplinary spirit in her teaching. She has developed courses on environmental ethics, the ethics of consumption, and the ethics of genetic technologies. "One of the many things that makes Bucknell such a dynamic institution is its strong commitment to interdisciplinary inquiry," she says. "That commitment has given me the opportunity to develop teaching expertise in areas of practical ethics that barely existed when I was in graduate school, but are becoming increasingly urgent in contemporary life."

Above all, Antonaccio says, her courses are intended to encourage students to live and think "understandingly," rather than unreflectively, about their values, perceptions and choices. She received Bucknell's Presidential Award for Teaching Excellence in 2006.

Antonaccio was originally drawn to the study of religion by questions of how religious beliefs and practices affect how human beings inhabit and make sense of the world, how they treat others, what they value and how their values guide their choices. These same questions formed the basis for her current work in ethics.

She finds this to be a particularly exciting time to be a scholar and student of religion. A few decades ago, the influence of religion was thought to be waning rapidly. As science and technology captured popular thought, humanity seemed to be progressing toward a secular future. That trend has since partially reversed itself, and many religions worldwide are experiencing a resurgence.

"There is a growing consensus that one simply cannot be an adequately informed citizen of the world today without some critical understanding of the diversity, influence and impact of religious traditions on human culture and history," Antonaccio says. "In that sense, the study of religion is, perhaps now more than ever, a crucial component of a liberal arts education."

Posted Aug. 31, 2009