Dr. Angela Carpenter of the Hope College religion faculty has been chosen to join an international team of scholars exploring how the theology of human nature engages with biology and the social sciences.
She is among 15 fellows from colleges and universities across the United States as well as Scotland selected to participate in “Collaborative Inquiries in Christian Theological Anthropology.” The overall, multi-year initiative, which is funded through a $3.9 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, is being directed by Dr. Jesse Couenhoven of Villanova University’s theology faculty as principal investigator. It also includes researchers from Boston College, Cambridge University, Princeton Theological Seminary, University of St. Andrews, Wake Forest University and Yale University, among others.
Carpenter conducts research and teaches in Christian theology and ethics, with an emphasis on Reformed theology. Especially, her work considers how Christian theological claims, particularly regarding grace and human action, might be informed by the human sciences. Her first book, “Responsive Becoming: Moral Formation in Theological, Evolutionary, and Developmental Perspective,” was released in April 2019 from T&T Clark.
As a fellow in the collaborative initiative, she is continuing work that she has been conducting on a new book project, tentatively titled “Graced Identity, Agency, and the Flourishing Community.” She is exploring how the Protestant concept of grace — that God saves people apart from human action — might apply to individuals and society if broadened beyond the context of faith into a sense of being valued intrinsically.
“Reformation-era theologians like Luther and Calvin argue that knowing that God saves a person completely apart from her actions liberates agency, because the person is no longer subject to endless self-preoccupation and anxiety, wondering if she has done enough to secure divine approval,” Carpenter explained. “When she realizes that God has accomplished everything necessary, she has no need to act on her own behalf, and her action can genuinely be in service to her neighbor.”
“Recent research in anthropology and social psychology highlights mutual human dependency and cooperation, and reveals that persons are formed by their social experience,” she continued. “Furthermore, each discipline points to a deep human need for social recognition, pursued in many and complex ways, that is critical for human agency.”
“I’m investigating what the overlapping (though not identical) anthropological visions suggest regarding the social structures and forms of communal life that are conducive to human flourishing,” she said. “I argue that many aspects of contemporary society and culture privilege concepts like performance and deemphasize the conditions of belonging or acceptance that ground genuine agency.”
The collaborative program is providing Carpenter with a stipend during the 2020-21 academic year and the next three summers while she conducts additional research and writes, as well as funding to participate in a series of summer and winter workshops that will provide an opportunity to connect with the other researchers and learn from distinguished experts in a variety of fields. The overall program will also be developing and facilitating numerous other presentations, publications and collaborations.
The “Collaborative Inquiries in Christian Theological Anthropology” initiative is one of two Templeton-funded programs in which Carpenter has been selected to participate this year. She will also be attending an online summer workshop funded through an award to St. Andrews University in Scotland for a related project, “Evolution, Natural Morality and the Prospect for Universal Human Regard.” She is focusing on how evolutionary theory and the thinking of 18th century American theologian Jonathan Edwards regarding humans’ capacity for virtue might inform one another. In his treatise “On the Nature of True Virtue,” Carpenter explained, Edwards argued that human virtue is always imperfect, because individuals’ apparently selfless acts generally ultimately benefit the group to which the individuals belong. Evolutionary theory, she noted, can provide insight into such inclinations, while theology can provide a lens for interpreting behavior.
“Our best evolutionary theory helps us understand the natural roots of our tribal impulses. Such an understanding of human nature is crucial for Christian theology, because it speaks to our embodied, but not sinful, inclinations and limitations,” she noted. “Theology (as well as moral philosophy), on the other hand, reminds us that what we take to be admirable moral actions might actually disguise a destructive form of self-love.”