The theme of the 2010 International Theology Conference at the Shalom Hartman Institute held February 14-18, 2010 was “Holy Living in Human Bodies.”
Some of the background material that the invited Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians from across the globe will be addressing in seminars and study sessions in which they will use classic and contemporary texts from all three faiths:
Humans are intimately part of the animal world. Some of the world’s keenest theologians have understood that clearly, and evolutionary theory has given a genetic basis to the insight. Distinguished from other animals by our rational abilities and self-consciousness, humans nevertheless remain firmly embedded in the animal world.
Elemental forces, such as the reproduction and conflict which shape the biological development of species, also drive human development on a grand scale. Yet humans have long affirmed a higher purpose, more dignified identity, even divine destiny in the experience of life.
What does it mean to be made “in God’s image” in these mortal bodies? What moral implications arise from a serious engagement with the animal nature in which our rational self-awareness dwells? What part of our best selves is formed in the viscera? What is it for God’s image to live a bodily life, for each human animal to be a religious person?
Evolutionary theory has in the past 150 years confirmed what some of our keenest theologians have long known, that humans share a very close kinship with the animal world. Although our rational abilities and self-consciousness may distinguish us from the rest of the animal world, we nevertheless remain firmly embedded in that world in much of our human experience. From a “reptilian brain” to “animal magnetism” and from “loan sharks” to “wise owls,” our language reflects the degree to which animality still characterizes human life.
How does this affect our understanding of the dignity of human life, of being made “in God’s image?” What moral implications arise from a serious engagement with both our animal side and our rational, self-aware side? These and other questions are likely to emerge from our study together of key texts in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
We do not presume that there is one approach to our animal nature that has, can or must work for every religious community. Rather, each must work out its own. In the heritage of the Hartman Institute’s theological work, therefore, we propose to do this work in the presence of one another. From both our similarities and our differences we can draw strength and insight for the task.
As in the past, the conference will again be organized around small-group study sessions involving participants from all three traditions (totaling five-eight persons). The groups will study key texts from each tradition, which will also serve as the raw materials for a plenary seminar discussion led by one of the conference participants.