Professor William Schweiker (U. of Chicago) kicks off a new extended issue of the Forum with his essay, “Enhancing Life and the Forms of Freedom.” The November-December issue features the Enhancing Life Project, which takes aim at addressing one of the most basic human questions—the desire to enhance life. This desire is seen in the arts, technology, religion, medicine, culture, and social forms. Throughout the ages, thinkers have wondered about the meaning of enhancing life, the ways to enhance life, and the judgments about whether life has been enhanced. In our global technological age, these issues have become more widespread and urgent. Over the last two years, 35 renowned scholars from around the world in the fields of law, social sciences, humanities, religion, communications, and others, have explored basic questions of human existence. These scholars have generated individual research projects and engaged in teaching in Enhancing Life Studies within their fields, as well as contributed to public engagement in various ways.

Over the next month and a half, Enhancing Life scholars associated with the Divinity School will share essays and reflections on the Enhancing Life Project that will explore its implications for their own scholarship and teaching. We invite you to join the conversation by submitting your comments and questions below.

Posted Essays:

  1. William Schweiker, Enhancing Life and the Forms of Freedom
  2. Anne Mocko, Attending to Insects
  3. Kristine A. Culp, “Aliveness” and a Taste of Glory
  4. Heike Springhart, Vitality in Vulnerability: Realistic Anthropology as Humanistic Anthropology
  5. Andrew Packman, Enhancing Racialized Social Life: The Implicit Spiritual Dimension of Critical Race Theory
  6. Michael S. Hogue, Resilient Democracy in the Anthropocene
  7. Darryl Dale-Ferguson, Envisioning a Fragile Justice

The Enhancing Life Project was made possible by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation, and the support of the University of Chicago and Bochum University, Germany.

by William Schweiker

* This was originally given as one of the keynote addresses for the capstone conference for the Enhancing Life Project, Chicago, IL, August 4-6, 2017.

Throughout human history and within various natural ecologies, we see the urge, the struggle, and the force of life in its many forms seeking to preserve and enhance itself. Admittedly, it is hard to consider some of these processes as intentional: natural processes do not manifest anything like the purposes and intentional struggle of human beings to enrich and better their lives, individually and in communities. To speak of enhancing life is then obviously to speak analogically about the similarities in differences among the range of different forms of life. Nevertheless, the similarity is that to be alive, to be animate—drawing on the ancient Latin term anima for a vitalizing principle or “soul”—is to strive to remain in being, interacting—sometimes through predation, other times in social forms—within manifold environments and always burdened with death. Yet living things, so it se­ems, not only strive or struggle to remain in being, but also to enhance, enrich, better, and maximize themselves. This simple fact of life reaches from the smallest cell to planetary systems, from the human mind to forms of life, religious or not, that we know not.

William Shakespeare famously wrote that the all the world was a stage and we are merely actors on it. But the drama of which we are a part is the drama of life in its manifold struggles to persist and to seek enhancement. Is it a comedy or tragedy; is the drama of life endangered and if so by who; what is the scope of the script, just our planet or also other worlds and divine realities? It is this drama—at once human and non-human—that the Enhancing Life Project has sought to understand and even to determine the ways and limits to enhancing life by human powers and capacities. The task I have undertaken here is to ponder this drama of life from the perspective of an ethics drawn from but not limited to Christian sources. I intend to set forth a conception of “enhancing life” that I think is robust and subtle enough to meet many of the challenges we face today. I hardly imagine that everyone one of you much less every one of the Enhancing Life Scholars will agree with my conception of enhancing life. Nevertheless, it is crucial, I judge, to begin the conversation that will follow with at least a proposal in hand about how to understand the central ideas of The Enhancing Life Project.

The reflections that follow move through several registers or planes of reflection. I begin with “common sense” ideas of enhancing life within late modern, technologically-driven, globalized societies. This beginning is important for two reasons. First, if my argument is to have general plausibility, then it must resonate with widespread ideas and convictions about the meaning of enhancing life. The second reason to begin my inquiry this way is that insofar as ethical reflection critically assesses and reconstructs ideas, values, and intuitions about the responsible conduct of life, then these ideas, values, and intuitions must be in hand at the outset of the ethical inquiry otherwise we have no place from which to work.

These initial matters in hand, I will then explore, in the several steps of the remaining essay, the forms of freedom in relation to basic, moral, and spiritual goods and how these relate to the meaning of enhancing life. At the far end of these reflections, I will explore the religious meaning of the forms of freedom for enhancing life.


Common Sense and Enhancing Life

It is a safe generalization to say that in late modern societies, the idea of “enhancing life” is conceived mainly in medical and technological terms within a future that is conducive to human striving. In other words, the common sense idea of enhancing life has packed into it a value scheme (yes, we should enhance life), a conception of the means to that end (medical and technological), a metaphysical outlook with a priority of a future open to human accomplishment, and, even deeper, a conception of what it means to be human, namely, incomplete creatures seeking to better our existence. So, when speaking about what actually will enhance life, many people mean some new medical discovery to fight horrid diseases, say HIV/AIDS or cancer, or they look with confidence to new technologies as obviously enhancing and enriching human life.

Usually these two means—the one medical and the other technological—are conjoined in the endless struggle to make human life better. For instance, the so-called Trans-Humanist movement engages in a war on death and aging through the use of technology and medication on and in the body.1 There are less extreme examples of the conjunction of medicine and technology that have become features of our daily life-world. Devices like FitBit are part of a thriving business movement called the “Quantified Self,” or “Logging Life.” These devices provide information for the individual in order to enhance their workout at the gym, sleep, concentration at work, and so on. So, for common sense enhancing life means bettering human capacities, physical and mental.

On closer reflection we can see that these widespread ideas about enhancing life actually revolve around three more basic value concepts: extension; intensity; resilience. That is to say, the struggle to enhance life is driven by the belief that it is good, it is valuable, to extend life. Obviously, longer life, so it goes, is better than a shorter life, assuming, of course, that a longer life is not riddled with pain, decrepitude, or lack of control. Ideas about the intensification of life, to increase the control of one’s life, and resilience, to stave off risk, pain and decrepitude, thereby help avoid a too simple conception of enhancement as mere extension. While human beings have always sought to enhance their lives, the conception of “enhancing life” (ubiquitous in our age) comes as a bundle of ideas and values and it is cast, mainly, in medical and technological terms.

Importantly, the common sense bundle of ideas conceal the depth of the problem in thinking about life’s enhancement. This is because enhancing life, especially human life, spans two registers of existence usually taken to be at odds, namely, “nature” and “freedom.” In order to enhance life, it would seem, one needs some conception of the form or nature of the life to be enhanced, and yet a human being’s life can only be enhanced under the moral demand to respect their freedom and self-determination. Some people judge human freedom to be the primary value and that freedom backs radical projects of transforming “nature” and overcoming death. Conversely, others hold that enhancing life means furthering human flourishing within, not against, the limits evolutionary processes have put upon human beings, including mortality, aging, and disease. How then are we to understand enhancing life?

As odd as it may sound, we must reopen the ancient question of freedom and nature if we are to given an account of enhancing human life adequate for our age. In order to do so, I want to speak about naturalized forms of freedom. Admittedly, most people do not think in terms of forms of freedom. Freedom is freedom, so it is thought, whether in politics, personal life, or even religious life, and often enough a very private thing focused on personal preference and choices. I will be arguing, conversely, that we must isolate different forms of freedom if we want to understand the full meaning of enhancing life, and particularly human life. A robust, and yet humanly scaled, idea of freedom is compatible with what the sciences tell us about physical processes that seem to deny freedom because of determinate causal laws.2 The rest of this essay will move progressively through interrelated planes or registers of reflection—basic, moral, spiritual—in order to clarify the relation between forms of freedom and enhancing life. I turn now to clarify the forms of freedom and basic goods.


Freedom and Basic Goods

On my account there are four types of moral and non-moral basic goods, with subtypes as well, that are indexed to features of the human life form, but most of which are shared with other animals and life forms in terms of needs. There are, first, basic bodily goods, that is, goods that fulfill our needs as physical beings, like the goods of food and water, sex, physical safety, play, shelter and so on. Importantly, while not often noted, bodily goods have not only causal structures that differ among them that are explored by the sciences, but also their own temporal dynamic: physical pleasure is, sad to say, short-lived; human digestion has a specific tempo; physical safety and shelter are on-going needs but can be lost in a moment. This means, oddly but importantly, that within our embodied existence there are different, and sometimes conflicting, time-structures. The question then becomes, how does one navigate life amid these different timings of basic needs and goods? And note: presupposed in the need to integrate bodily goods and their several time-structures is the power or capacity to do so, since, obviously, living beings do this all the while. In other words, the power to integrate different time-structures is a condition for the possibility of the kinds of experiences we actually have emergent within natural processes. Later we will see the importance of this claim about interdependent freedom.

We find an analogous dynamic if we turn to consider basic local and social goods. Local goods are the goods of place, so, not just shelter, but a home, not only the place of our bodies in space, but an environment that sustains and also threatens us. Local goods include physical ecologies and what is needed for them to be sustained and to flourish. There are needs of the “earth” in order to sustain life and remain a living planet, a good that is now under grave threat. But, again, notice the different time dynamics. Geological time differs from the temporal reality of the good of a home, embedded as it is with social goods. Our bodies occupy space, and so are a local good, but only for a few score of years, if we are fortunate. Geological time—even the so-called Anthropocene—has a longer scale and yet those too are local goods.

Analogously to local and bodily goods are kinds of basic social goods—that is, those things which meet the needs of social creatures so that they might flourish—also numerous but timed in different ways. The good of a stable family with a legacy that can be remembered is different than the social good of a community or extended kinship ties. Many goods are bound to social institutions that are intended to respect and enhance the integrity of persons’ lives. Yet, societies have a radically different temporal and causal dynamics than individual human beings, or, if we expand the point a bit, other social animals whether ants, lions, elephants, or whatever.3 Social goods have different temporal dynamics among them just as local and bodily goods do. A media system is “faster” than a functioning legal system.

What is more, the timing of social goods is different than local goods and each are different than bodily goods. For instance, we enter the planet at birth and exit at death, but genealogical time is different than the temporal duration and change of social life or the aging of human and animal bodies. The insight is that life forms struggle to integrate in some way diverse goods and their temporal dynamics indexed to bodily, located, and social forms. Freedom is the capacity or power to undertake the work of integration and self-determination. This freedom is “formed” or structured by the kinds of goods noted, but it is indeed freedom because none of these goods—bodily, local, or social—dictate the way in which an individual or community may integrate their existence.

Human beings share with other life forms many of the goods we have just noted with the consequence that freedom is, metaphysically put, a more pervasive reality than is often imagined. There is an analogy of freedom between a flock of geese and an ecosystem insofar as the goods that must be integrated do not utterly dictate a particular kind of integration. Furthermore, it would seem that we are warranted in holding that there is hierarchy of freedom. A life form, or “nature,” that must integrate a greater range of conflicting times and goods manifests greater freedom even if this also means that it is more vulnerable to the failure of freedom and so also disintegration and death.

At this juncture we enter into the domain of another type of basic good, namely, reflective goods. Some living things, and especially human beings, have needs for meaning, communication, memory, mutual recognition, and imagination that must be met if that life form is to flourish amid forces of disintegration. Consciousness, we can say, emerges within freedom—i.e., the capacity of a whole being to integrate goods of its whole being—and consciousness is, therefore, at root practical in character. Conscious beings are problem-solving creatures whose central problem is the free integration and determination of their life form. Reflective goods are the goods of consciousness; they meet the needs of conscious beings. Just like basic bodily, local, and social goods, human life is vulnerable to disintegration and even death when consciousness is destroyed, manipulated, demeaned, or deformed.

Two important insights follow from the character of reflective goods and also the emergence of consciousness. First, on analogy to other basic goods, reflective goods as forms of freedom have diverse and sometimes contending temporal dynamics. Cultural meanings can endure for centuries embodied in works of art, architecture, customs, languages, and the like. But they can also be as fleeting as a musical performance, a play, a handshake, or a conversation. Further, the steady flow of “clock time” indexed to physical processes seems to lock us into the realm of dreadful immanence, as Robert Bellah has called it, marked by finitude and death as well as bodily and social reproduction even as people can imagine alternate worlds and eternity. Human beings must, then, integrate the meaning of their lives amid diverse temporal and causal realms. Freedom is the power to do so, but it also reaches beyond the realm of the immanent.

There is a second insight to follow from our analysis of the complexity of basic goods and their diverse temporal structures as forms of freedom. Human beings, it would seem, can live and die in different ways. One might be facing bodily death and yet be vibrantly alive socially and reflectively. A community can face the death of its communal memory and so shared social consciousness and yet endure as living beings. Immigrants and refugees face the terrifying loss of local and social goods and yet must integrate their existence in new and difficult ways and places. In many ways, human beings are alive and yet dying, death-bound and yet strikingly alive. The unity of human time is a project to be undertaken and not a metaphysical or mundane reality. The importance of this claim will be seen when we move to the moral and spiritual planes of reflection.

Before turning to moral and spiritual goods, one more observation is in order. The idea of the integrity of life—the free labor of a life form’s integration of its needs and goods—reconstructs on the plane of basic goods the meanings of intensity, extension, and resilience found in the common-sense of conception of enhancing life. To integrate life freely is to intensify life in the sense that its wholeness is achieved despite internal conflicts and thus a form of self-realization is achieved. Likewise, “integrity” in engineering and metallurgy means the capacity to endure stress without loss of shape or strength. It is an apt term, then, to designate the increased resilience of a living thing to stave off disintegration and death without, for the time ­­being at least, foregoing its freely achieved form and wholeness. Finally, integrity designates how basic goods, and especially reflective basic goods, extend the temporal duration of a living between into the past and the future and with human beings into imagined worlds. The idea of integrity is, thereby, uniquely suited for thinking about, evaluating, and reconstructing popular beliefs about enhancing life around basic goods in ways that do not narrow it to mere extension, resilience, or intensity by means of medical and biotechnical means of enhancement. So, we can say that the integrity of life in the realm of basic goods is best defined as “flourishing” that encapsulates and transforms the meanings found at the level of common sense.

I turn next to the moral good and to another form of freedom crucial for enhancing life. I also shift to another register of reflection and therefore to a different temporal configuration of life and its goods.4


Freedom and the Moral Good

Human beings, and maybe other social animals, have to deal with conflicts in the person herself or himself and among people in a community. People, on the picture given here, have tensions within their lives simply because of the different causal and temporal dynamics that must be freely integrated in order to endure as living beings. The drive for sex, food, or shelter might conflict with the social good of family or even the reflective goods of meaning and do so within the individual’s own life. And insofar as our form of life does not dictate how we should integrate our lives, then an individual must exercise her or his freedom to shape her or his existence in cooperation with others and their aims. By the same token we know that individual lives can be so overwhelmed by political or religious ideologies that they simply conform their lives to those visions.

Interpersonal relations and social life are also marked by conflicts and tensions among needs and interests flowing out of the basic goods we have noted. How does a community negotiate the distribution of goods and burdens? Here the whole domain of social ethics opens before us and with it questions of justice in its various forms: distributive, retributive, restorative, and procedural. These too are forms of freedom insofar as the norms of justice structure the ways in which individuals and communities integrate and orient their lives. The origin of morality is, then, in the demand that freedom puts to human beings amid conflicting needs that must be met and goods that have to be integrated in some way within social interactions. Morality, we can say, is an institution that aims at the integrity of life with and for others through actions and relations of respect and enhancement. The integrity of life morally defined is not “flourishing,” as it was in the realm of basic goods, but “justice” within and between selves and also communities. In this light, two aspects of morality come into view.

First, people exist within asymmetries of power, both within themselves and among human and non-human others. Insofar as it is me who must integrate my life in some way, then, importantly, I have power and freedom over myself. We often, if not always, experience this asymmetry of power in moments of weakness of will to control desire or remorse over having chosen one life plan rather than another. And, insofar as the conflicts within the self are bound to objective conditions in the world, including other people, we are profoundly social beings and therefore purely egocentric action devoid of responsibility is inhuman.

Aside from the tensions and complexity we feel within ourselves as well as the drive to integrate our lives, there are also shifting asymmetries of power among people. This is obviously the case in complex social relations and for many reasons. Ingrained cultural bigotries disempower some and empower others, for instance. What matters, in my judgment, is that the realm of needs and goods of life forms create asymmetries of power within and among people and thus a new form of freedom appears with respect to how life ought to be oriented. This ought is a fact of moral freedom insofar as freedom constitutes beings with a future. The aim treasured by every human—for good and for ill—is to be recognized as an end-in-themselves, a non-instrumental good within and between peoples.

The question then is how we are to understand the appearance of the sense of responsibility within asymmetries of power, that is, the claim or hold of morality on the agent. If basic goods come with various feelings of needs—hunger, sexual desire, the need for meaning, the desire for love and friendship—amid shifting temporal dynamics and aimed at flourishing, how does the sense of responsibility arise that reaches beyond desire and need and into a claim or demand on people to respect and enhance the integrity of life with and for others? My contention is that the “sense” of responsibility has various modalities: the demand to respond or answerability, accountability, and the claim of conscience of the source of responsibility. We shift, then, from enhancing basic goods to the way in which morality is an enhancement of human life, an odd idea indeed for the common sense view of enhancing life.

One line of argument holds that accountability arises with institutions of punishment, that is, it is grounded in specific social relations. I think this argument gets right only part of our sense of responsibility, but it is important to note. The argument goes like this: in order to be rightly held culpable or accountable for an action for which one can be punished, there must be some connection between agent, deed, and outcome recognized by oneself and others. Lacking that connection as well as its recognition, one is hard pressed to trace the appearance of the sense of responsibility. Responsibility as accountability is, then, an odd form of self-relation in which an action and its consequences are ascribed by oneself to oneself: “Yes, it was I who threw the baseball,” or it is imputed to one by others because of the causal relation between agent, deed, and outcome, “We say that it was, in fact, you who threw the baseball.” Accountability transforms the way in which we have power over ourselves, a capacity arising from our freedom to deal with conflicting needs and goods on the plane of basic goods.

Causal relations in living beings, we have seen, can be manifold and also with different temporal structures. So it is the case with accountability, since it partly structures or gives form to human time. Accountability is felt and imputed or ascribed in the present, but with respect to past action and intended future conduct and/or consequences. Morality, as an institution, structures life through promises as well as attributions of praise and blame, guilt and innocence. Our lives are saturated with moral claims and values even at the level of feelings, emotions, and affections. The worlds of human beings are moral spaces that configure time. People live amid different but related causalities, natural and moral.5

The three temporal tenses of human moral life—past, present, future—are superimposed on the temporalities that arise among the basic goods—like shame over sexual desire or praise for protecting local goods. Insofar as that is the case, is it any wonder that we can feel our lives out of joint, riddled with tensions, which must be integrated—or denied—in some way? This is why we can live and die in different ways. One might have a profound sense of responsibility for the future while facing, in the present, the reality of death. So, one way to integrate life is in and through responsibility with and for others. This is willing and freely—rather than by custom or socialization—to enter the institution of morality. Responsibility becomes a form of freedom. One modality of the sense of responsibility is then the demand to respond, to answer, the call of others, human or non-human, to respect and enhance the freedom integral to their lives. Another modality of responsibility is given form in accountability with and for others. These felt realities might encompass the whole of a person’s life, like shame does, be linked to our causal powers, say, guilt, or signal an intuition of the goodness of life (joy). Yet please note: on careful reflection, we grasp something else, another emotion or intuition, which appears within the sense of responsibility, although it is often ignored or dimmed by inattention or moral callousness. This intuition, as we will see, is the gateway to a religious and spiritual sensibility.

Philosophers and theologians have spoken about “ontological shock,” that is, the shocking experience that there is something and not nothing, a shock that often accompanies profound awareness of mortality and so the threat of non-being. This “shock” appears experientially in the modes of anxiety and care. Yet part of the sense of responsibility is what I have called elsewhere “axiological surprise,” that is, the primal intuition within the exercise of the freedom that “to be alive” is good and that appears with the call of conscience.6 We are in the world not simply in terms of “to be or not to be,” as Hamlet put it. The most profound human question is whether it is good to be alive amid our finitude. Seemingly against the odds there is the amazing sense of the worth of life within and not against the freedom to integrate our lives or be accountable with and for others. It is the intuition that it is indeed good to be alive despite the pain, suffering, conflicts, and struggles of life. The property of life’s “goodness” is, on this plane of reflection, not simply because certain needs are satisfied or being responsible for one’s actions and relations, as we saw before. If that were the case then pure scientific naturalism would be true and we could reduce moral properties manifest in emotions to empirical conditions. But the good of being alive is not, I submit, like that at all.

The surprise of intrinsic goodness is the sudden apprehension of the worth of being alive not reducible to the workings of power, economic utility, or social convention. One can be grasped by and respond to this truth when it is violated, but also in moments of the striking beauty of a moonlit lake or the smile on a child’s face. These are experiences of the source of responsibility that imposes itself, or supervenes, on the moral and natural world concordant with our consciousness as agents in the world. The good is not then a natural property of empirical objects, but, rather, ingresses, supervenes, on the conditions for action and is grasped in a basic intuition, a non-inferential insight.7 The good of being alive is, then, the source of responsibility and its claim upon us must be formulated as the imperative to respect and enhance the integrity of life.

If the case just given for the intuition of the source of responsibility is right, then we have reconstructed, ethically, the common sense idea of enhancement and its bundle of ideas: extension, intensification, and increased resilience. A life characterized by moral integrity is one whose integration of goods is in and through the commitment in actions and relations to respect and enhance the integrity of life with and for others. Such a life is marked by increased intensity because it is freely bound to others in the experience of the goodness of being alive. It gains resilience, since, in one of its root meanings, integrity is a condition of being whole and morally upright in ways that do not easily give way to temptation and to irresponsible actions and relations. And moral integrity is an extension of life in the sense that through the intuition of the source of responsibility, in moments of axiological surprise, one’s existence is deepened and enlarged beyond the world of dreadful immanence. Not only is responsibility a form of freedom, but it also bears within it—no matter how dimly—an opening to a level of reality, a different world or field of sense, beyond the structures of basic goods and moral goods.8 And it is to that different world, the world of “spiritual goods” that I can now turn.


Freedom and Spiritual Goods

I noted above that ethics, theological or philosophical, is related to but also critical of common sense ideas, values, and intuitions about enhancing life. There are basic goods that can be enhanced by medicine and technology, but the real enhancing of these goods, as forms of freedom, must focus on their integration within the existence of a specific form of life that reconstructs a bundle of ideas about the intensity, extension, and resilience of life. Further, there are values at stake, like common sense holds. Yet those values—or goods—do not come as a coherent homogeneous whole. They are in tension, even in conflict, with other goods and values, both basic and moral, and must be ordered and oriented in some way.9 Further, enhancing life does, in fact, entail some metaphysical claims—claims about the nature of reality as we experience it—but that reality is not simply a future that is open and supportive of our striving. We exist in multiple time frames in nature and morality with their own different causalities. The blessing, humanly speaking, is that reality does support freedom, but, oddly enough, through the conflict of goods and time frames that a living being must navigate in order to sustain its life. Finally, morality is an institution of responsibility that structures human actions and relations with and for others and within that the timing of the human world. If the integrity of life on the plane of basic goods is flourishing, then with respect to morality integrity is justice within the self and with others. And if my argument seems exceedingly complex, it is so, simply because, enhancing life is complex! Enhancing life in any meaningful and valuable sense is not a just about extending life, intensifying personal preferences, or increasing life’s resilience. Popular culture works with a dangerously simplified version of a fundamental human ideal and value, that is, enhancing life

I argued, just above, that the experience of the source of responsibility, that is, the experience of axiological surprise—the surprise of the goodness of being alive even under the threat or fact of its negation—opens up yet another form of freedom and domain of goodness, that is, the spiritual good. The sentiment or emotion keyed to the source of responsibility and the good of being alive is not the feeling of need or the sense of responsibility, it is the sentiment of aliveness. The sentiment of “aliveness” means that goodness and power are intrinsically related, and, further, the power to act is in the service of the good of the integrity of life.10 The importance of this idea cannot be overstated. Power without goodness is sheer vitality that too easily seeks to maximize for itself the asymmetries of power constitutive of living things. Goodness without power is lifeless and yet desirable often appearing in things, in commodities, that can be assigned price. The highest human good in the sentiment of aliveness is peace, well-being and well-doing, that interrelates the power to act (freedom) and goodness (the integration of goods) and thereby is an intrinsic good, an end-in-itself. Given this, in order to enhance life, one must intensify, extend, and render resilient such aliveness and peace and thereby interrelate power and goodness.

We can now turn to spiritual goods. “Spirit,” refers to the dynamic movement among the goods and time structures that characterize living things with the aim of realizing a form of life in its full complexity and integrity. “Spirit,” we can say, is the dynamic of aliveness and so the interrelations of power and goodness in peace and also the movement between the worlds of conflict and dreadful immanence and a counter-reality, an imagined world of peace.11 On this definition, the human spirit is a kind of freedom—a power—that must responsibly respect and orient human actions and relations within the intersection of various worlds and forms of life. The human spirit, as a reality of freedom, is then also, paradoxically, the most vulnerable of spiritual realities since it can orient human capacities in responsible but also irresponsible and so death-dealing ways. Spiritual laws, in distinction from morality, seek within the domain of finite life to make goodness in fact powerful and power actually good; they seek peace in the soul and in communities of life.12 These laws are the rules and measures of “spirit” as just defined and therefore the rules and measures of that kind of freedom that moves between the world(s) of dreadful immanence and imagined possibilities for the sake of enhancing peace (well-being and well-doing) in this world.

What then is the relation between morality and spiritual laws? One of the basic “laws” of morality is the so-called “Golden Rule” as taught by Jesus and found in most religions: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” As many thinkers have noted, the Golden Rule, or some equivalent, is basic to social and interpersonal life where human decisions must be made about responsible actions and relations. What then are we to make of Jesus’s teaching in the so-called Sermon on the Mount in Mt 5:43-48? It reads (RSV):

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”13

There are, of course, thousands of years of commentary on this passage, more than can be covered in one essay! I can just note some salient features of this passage in order to isolate the features and seeming problems of “spiritual laws” that relate to aliveness and peace.

First, the surprising insight of Jesus’s teaching of this spiritual law is to be found in the claim about God’s sending sun and rain on everyone, and for several reasons. First, sun and rain are used analogically to speak about the whole domain of reality that sustains and enhances life—the realm of what we called basic goods—and that is attributed to a deity who, unlike some ancient Near Eastern gods, works for and does not war against nature or human mortals. Second, on analogy to the natural order so conceived, social life should be fundamentally ordered not by the pursuit of reward or limited to insiders, but by the distribution of goods needed to sustain and enhance life. Yet this is an analogy because what is at issue is the benevolence of God towards living things and not that actual causal structure of the natural order. Third, and importantly, this analogy does not deny the reality of injustice or evil, reward seeking, or closed communities in the actual world. On the contrary, it grants their reality and then presents a counter world that can and should be used as an ideal to guide and orient life in what then can transform and enhance social and interpersonal life.14 Insofar as life is thereby to be sustained, transformed, and enhanced, this means that morality must be upheld, but never to the point of the destruction of social and interpersonal life. After all, cycles of unending revenge can engulf a society under principles of justice and so begin an endless cycle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Jesus’s spiritual law works through analogy not only in order to sustain the bodily, local, and social goods of life, but also to surmount situations of on-going conflict that we have found intrinsic to living things, especially human persons and communities as moral realities. This is why, perhaps with some exaggeration, the philosopher Hannah Arendt once argued that Jesus discovered the role of forgiveness in social life.15 Forgiveness, properly formed and given, is the source for new beginnings in life that does not suspend judgment and justice but sustains and enhances the conditions for justice and judgment.

The idea that there is an analogy between natural processes of sun and rain and the kind of life to be lived along with the ever-present possibility of violence in social and personal life opens up a fourth insight, namely, that the basic condition of human existence is not natural causation, fury of revenge, or even the logic of justified retribution, but, rather, the freedom to orient life in ways that respect and enhance living realities. The “space” constituted by this spiritual law is one in which people are free to orient life in ways that enhance life rather than being determined by natural, social, or moral processes.16 This is an extraordinarily important issue because the passage from Matthew could elide any difference between the just and the unjust or it could warrant, in the love of enemy, a demand to love without condition the abuser or tormentor in interpersonal relation, or quietism and cultural loss in the face of social oppression and devastation. Is that the case?

Jesus’s teaching in Matthew finds a theological resolution to this question. God, the Heavenly Father, is the ultimate ordering power who creates and sustains life, and, in this respect, is gracious to every living thing.17 God is the condition for our moral relations and sentiments. This is not, interestingly, just a claim about God as creator. It is also a claim about God as sustainer and renewer of life. The theological assumption in Jesus’s teaching is that God also has enemies, that is, those who sin, who deny the reality of God, who work injustice on the weak and the outcast, and so violate the being and benevolence of the divine. And yet, the divine perfection is found in acts that sustain the world and heal social life. This is why the center of Jesus’ ministry as depicted in the Gospels is to feed, heal, and teach people and so to love as God loves. To love the enemy and to pray for those that persecute you are not acts of submission to abusive power or kinds of quietism. They are acts of divine power and goodness aimed at remaking and enhancing the world and human life. This analogy between God and the one sinned against recasts the reality of those who suffer unjustly making them agents of life in the face of death. The injunction to be perfect as God is perfect once again underscores freedom as the condition of action since God’s perfection is neither determined by natural causation, in fact it is God who works through natural processes (sun/rain) to work the divine will, nor any logic of retributive justice even though God has been and continues to be sinned against.

Finally, Jesus’ teaching of a spiritual law upends and yet extends and intensifies the moral law. His teaching about love of enemy and God’s action has, we must say, a different time structure than the human world of accountability (past, present, and future action) that structures or gives form to everyday life and actions and relations. This shift in temporal structures from moral time (past/present/future) to spiritual time is seen, first, in Jesus’ simple claim that “you have heard that it was said.” Within the historical legacy of Jewish teaching, Jesus, in the present, is announcing a spiritual law that is to govern present and future action. He is teaching a way of life within a moral space not defined by judgments of moral responsibility. His teaching is in and out of human time, we might say. It mediates between the human world of revenge, retributive justice, and also love, and God’s sovereign and sustaining power.

What is this “in and out of human time” and how does it relate to spiritual goods? Not only is Jesus’ teaching within and yet outside the legacy of Torah teaching, but it also contrasts typically human forms of accountability with that of God’s. This does not mean that God acts against the dynamics of morality that seem so basic to the structure or form of human life and so a human world. To be perfect as God is perfect is to love others with an impartiality that sustains life in the midst of possible death dealing conflicts and thereby to sustain and enhance human life. Again, the common sense idea of enhancing life is transformed through the counter-world of God’s imagined reign.

The double timing of Jesus’s teaching, as it is both in and out of time, opens onto the phenomena of “axiological surprise” and so the founding intuition of our lives as natural, moral, and spiritual beings.18 Jesus’ teaching is to evoke in the hearer or listener an intuition, a perception, of the goodness, the worth, of being alive that ingresses on the world of dreadful immanence and its ruthless causal structure. This ingression and its coordinate intuition is in and out of time in the sense that it discloses the goodness of being alive within the causal and temporal form of everyday, dreadful immanent, human existence. Importantly, basic goods of sun and rain, the social basic good of hospitality, can occasion this intuition no less than Jesus’s teaching. In this way, the natural and social worlds can themselves become a form of Torah teaching, that is, a teaching of how freely to live and orient existence. And the hearer with the ears to hear, the perceiver with the eyes to see, has her or his life intensified, extended into a counter-world, and made more resilient in its goodness and thereby enhanced. If that is the case, then life unfolds before God and the responsible conduct of life with and for others is, ultimately speaking, Coram Deo, in the presence of God. The other forms or laws of freedom (basic and moral) are enfolded within spiritual law. One is gripped by the insight and experience that existence is under another governing power than futility, meaninglessness, and injustice.19 It is to know that we live, move, and have our being in God, to use St. Paul’s words. This radically transforms the bundle of ideas we find in current beliefs about enhancing life.

The central actions of Jesus’ ministry—teaching, feeding, and healing—affirm the range of goods needed for the flourishing of finite life, transform moral responsibility, and provide a connection to the spiritual good of divine life. Further, these give a humanly scaled account of God’s relation to human freedom insofar as the actions of Jesus enable the integration of life and so its flourishing. For these reasons, Christian’s confess Jesus to be the Christ and find in his actions a transformation of their own actions and relations and the inspiration so to live, to be perfect as God in heaven is perfect. In other words, Christ provides a form of freedom, a christomorphic freedom of peace, aimed at the enhancing of life in its dimensions and fields of sense. Yet one need not confess Jesus as the Christ in order to grasp and be grasped by the ways in which the paradigmatic actions of feeding, healing, and teaching are ingredient to enhancing life, human and non-human. There is insight here about the responsible orientation of life open to everyone.



The account of enhancing life and the forms of freedom that I have presented in these reflections is obviously shaped by the perspective of my own discipline, the perspective of Christian theological ethics. Obviously, there are political, ethical, and theological points where greater detail is needed in order to sustain this account of enhancing life. But I hope something has been gained from these reflections about the meaning of enhancing life and what that entails for us as responsible, living beings who confront every day the task of integrating our lives with and for others. In order to enhance life, we must act to intensify, extend, and render resilient life in terms of the flourishing of its basic goods, the moral good of justice, and, finally, the spiritual scope of life itself in peace as well-being and well-doing. And when we do so, we join the drama of life as actors rather than just being acted upon, and we do so with the ardent and yet surprising conviction that this drama is, in sum, good and not dreadful sound and fury. ♦


William Schweiker (Principal Investigator of the Enhancing Life Project) is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago. His scholarship and teaching engage theological and ethical questions attentive to global dynamics, comparative religious ethics, the history of ethics, and hermeneutical philosophy. A frequent lecturer and visiting professor at universities around the world, he has been deeply involved in collaborative international scholarly projects and served as President of the Society of Christian Ethics (2015-2016). His books include Mimetic Reflections: A Study in Hermeneutics, Theology and Ethics (1990); Responsibility and Christian Ethics (1995); Power, Value and Conviction: Theological Ethics in the Postmodern Age (1998); Theological Ethics and Global Dynamics: In the Time of Many Worlds (2004); Religion and the Human Future: An Essay in Theological Humanism (2008, with David E. Klemm); and, most recently, Dust that Breathes: Christian Faith and the New Humanisms (2010). He is also chief editor and contributor to A Companion to Religious Ethics (2004; 2d expanded edition forthcoming). He is currently working on a forthcoming book with Wiley-Blackwell, titled Religious Ethics: Meaning and Method. His research for The Enhancing Life Project is on the integral flourishing of life.

* Feature image: Tom Friedman’s Looking Up statue (2015) sitting at the intersection of Park Avenue and East 53rd Street in New York City. (© Tom Friedman; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. Photograph by Farzad Owrang)

  1. See Nick Bostrom, “A History of Transhumanist Thought” in Journal of Evolution and Technology 14: 1 (2005).
  2. For a nice discussion of these issues, see Julian Baggini, Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2015).
  3. John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1993).
  4. I am borrowing the term “configuration” from Paul Ricouer and his claim that narrative, as a mimesis of human time, “configures” time. But in contrast to Ricoeur, my claims is that it is “morality” that configures the distinctly human world, for good and ill. See Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative 3 Vols (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1984-1988). Also see William Schweiker, Mimetic Reflections: A Study in Hermeneutics, Theology, and Ethics (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1990).
  5. One problem in Kantian ethics is the stark distinction between natural causality and the causality of freedom. Without denying the distinction, I am trying to avoid an actual separation that Kant at times seemed to insist on.
  6. For a comparison between my work and Emmanuel Levinas on this point see Lewis S. Mudge, The Gift of Responsibility: The Promise of Dialogue Among Christians, Jews, and Muslims (New York, NY: Continuum, 2008).
  7. Many thinkers talk about worth or the good supervening or ingressing on natural properties in order to indicate the reality of moral properties without reducing them simple to natural conditions. For a powerful statement of this kind of position, which I too endorse, see Erazim Kohák, The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1984).
  8. I am making a multidimensional argument in this essay that holds that the “world” or “reality,” including moral reality,” does not appear as one or block-like and, thus, the task of attaining some integrity—but not total unity—is a human one. On this eee Markus Gabriel, Why the World Does Not Exist, trans. Gregory Moss (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015). Also see William James, A Pluralistic Universe and William Schweiker, Theological Ethics and Global Dynamics: In the Time of Many Worlds (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).
  9. This is an important point theologically. The tensions and conflicts we experience within our lives and among people are not the results of sin or the Fall. These are just the stuff of life that, ironically, makes freedom possible and real. Sin involves the self-negation of freedom in mistrust, hate, and despair over the goodness of live and life’s God.
  10. This is of course a hotly debated issue in moral theory. Are there basic intuitions? How many? How is goodness related to natural properties? Does “good” supervene on those natural properties? I cannot enter those discussions here. Suffice it to say that I am arguing that the intuition of the source of responsibility is the felt awareness that in being alive, power—the ability to act in some way—and goodness are intrinsically related but in such a way that one’s power can and ought to serve what is good, that is, the integrity of life with and for others. This also a response to the perennial human question, as H. Richard Niebuhr put it: is goodness powerful and is power good, ultimately speaking. It is another way of asking the question of the being, activity, and meaning of God.
  11. The definitions of spirit, from the ancient world to our time, are legion. I cannot explore them in this essay. I am, therefore, proceeding with the logic of the inquiry as it unfolds.
  12. It is this insight that generates the possibility of a new “Theology of culture” in the form of theological ethics. Ironically, Paul Tillich, the greatest theologian of culture in the 20th century noted that the theology of culture is a new name for “theological ethics” needed to avoid the appearance that there are two ethics, one theological and the other not. I am showing that in our situation of endangerments to life one needs a theological ethics of culture to articulate a vision of life focused on respecting and enhancing the integrity of life.
  13. For a brilliant analysis of the entire “Sermon on the Mount” see, Hans-Dieter Betz, The Sermon on the Mount: A Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Including the Sermon on the Plain (Matthew 5:3-7:27 and Luke 6:20-49 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995).
  14. On this see Theological Reflection and the Pursuit of Ideals: Theology, Human Flourishing and Freedom, ed. David Jasper and Dale Wright (Farnham, Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2013).
  15. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1958). Also see, Doing Justice to Mercy, (xyz).
  16. On this see Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).
  17. This also implies what Hans-Dieter Betz has called, in his Sermon on the Mount, an ancient humanism since all human beings are granted moral status and worth.
  18. It should be clear at this point that I am reworking very ancient ideas about human beings as rational, social, animals and also creatures in-between realms or worlds.
  19. Paul Tillich noted that Stoicism represented the main challenge to early Christianity. The Stoic taught a cosmic resignation whereas Christian proclaimed a cosmic redemption. I am making a similar point in that for the Christian life unfold within the goodness of life rather than under the sovereignty of death. Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000).