In this post Professor Oliver Davies reflects on what theology can learn from Professor Fuentes’ 2018 Gifford Lectures. Professor Davies is the Emeritus Professor of Christian Doctrine at King’s College London, Visiting International Professor, School of Philosophy, Renmin University of China, Beijing, and Guest Professor, Institute for Sino-Christian Studies, Hong Kong . His reflections can be found below.
What can Theology Learn? The Human Niche, Transformation, and Freedom
So what lessons can theology learn from Agustin Fuentes’ Gifford Lectures? In the first place, we need to underline how important this question is. Fuentes is telling us a new version of the human story: the history that makes us human, and how we are in the world as human beings. Self, society and cosmos. AF calls this the construction of the human niche. In Christian theology then we are concerned with the rising of Jesus to life, and our following of him, in the Spirit, as Church, and how this effects change within the human niche. We are concerned with the fullness of human experience, or our human ultimacy, which comes with the transformation of the human niche through incarnation. But what kind of transformation is it and where? Surely theology today needs to ask this question.
Below is the vote of thanks that Professor David Fergusson gave at the conclusion of Professor Agustin Fuentes’ 2018 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. Fergusson is Professor of Divinity, Principal of New College, Chaplain to the Queen in Scotland, and a former Gifford Lecturer. His vote of thanks can be found below.
2018 Gifford Lectures Vote of Thanks
– David Fergusson
On behalf of the University of Edinburgh, it’s my pleasant responsibility to offer a vote of thanks to Professor Fuentes at the end of this fine series of Gifford Lectures. Triumphing over our snow and rain, he has stimulated us to further reflection on the perennial and pressing question of what it is to be human. What might we take away from these lectures?
Professor Fuentes delivered his sixth and final lecture earlier this evening. The video of Fuentes’ lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Dr Julia Feder and Dr Tom Uytterhoeven will offer their initial reflections. Feder is currently an Assistant Professor of Theology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska (USA). Uytterhoeven is currently a voluntary researcher and member of the Research Unit of Systematic Theology and the Study of Religions at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, KU Leuven. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Fuentes’ lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.
Fuentes opened his final lecture by reminding us of some of the key themes that developed in the previous five, with a focus on belief and the human niche. As he reminded us from the very outset he stated, “Belief is the most prominent, promising, and dangerous capacity of humanity.” In this particular lecture Fuentes asks, “Can belief matter for the benefit of humans, and others, in the 21st century?” The answer, he acknowledged, is obviously yes, but it is at the same time a complex answer. As he stated, “We know belief is central to human evolution and has played a key role in our success as a species. But that very success has brought us to a point in time with potentially catastrophic repercussions for humanity, other species, and the globe.” However, he went on to state that “nearly twenty years of research into this topic has made me a cautious optimist that the human niche, with its central role for belief, continues to hold great promise for the future.” He spent the remainder of his lecture further telling us why.
Professor Fuentes delivered his fifth lecture earlier this evening. The video of Fuentes’ lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Dr Sarah Lane Ritchie and Dr Aku Visala will offer their initial reflections. Ritchie is currently a Research Fellow in Science and Theology at the University of St Andrews and Visala is currently an Adjunct Professor in Philosophy of Religion and Research Fellow of the Finnish Academy at the University of Helsinki, Finland. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Fuentes’ lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.
Professor Fuentes’ rescheduled fifth lecture was held at New College earlier this evening and he attempted to pack a lot of material into a short amount of time. In this lecture he began to take a closer look at the “human imagination and the emergence of belief systems” where the religious capacity of the human niche was a main focus. As he pointed out early on (with the evolutionary time-span in mind), “Religion, as we know it, is very, very recent, and we are not.” However, deeply held faith and devotion to religious belief are centrally significant for billions of humans today “and the capacity to be religious is found in all of humanity,” so Fuentes went on to assert that there must be some evolutionary relevance. After having engaged briefly with the anthropologist Roy Rappaport, the sociologist Robert Bellah, and the sociologist Merlin Donald Fuentes went on to state, “I propose that there are multiple lines of evidence suggesting that the capacity to be religious, emerged in concert with the capacity for belief over our evolutionary history and that religions, as we now recognize them, only very recently became a fixture of human identity.” In this sense religious beliefs are much older than “formal religious systems, structures and institutions.”
Professor Fuentes’ 2018 Gifford Lectures are a little over halfway completed at this point. In this post we have the opportunity to read Dr Marc Kissel’s reflections on the series so far. Dr Kissel is currently a Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, USA.
New College from Princes Street. Photo courtesy of Taryn Clausing.
Constructive Possibilities for the Sciences and Humanities
– Marc Kissel
I’m extremely honored to be asked to offer some thoughts on Dr. Agustin Fuentes’ Gifford Lectures. In the interest of full disclosure I should state at the onset that I’ve known Agustin for a number of years, having worked with him at Notre Dame while I was a postdoc and have published a number of articles together (a few of which he references in his talks).
For outsiders, anthropology is a curious discipline. In one academic department there may be a scholar who studies the culture of coal miners in West Virginia, an archaeologist working on the layout of an Aztec site, and a biological anthropologist examining the genetics of long-dead human ancestors. What brings us together over the coffee machine is our desire to understand what makes us human. Fuentes touches on these themes by noting how complex and multifaceted the human story is, asking us to consider why we believe and how that belief effects our lives. Something I took away from these talks is that answering why is often harder than answering how. In fact, while many of us devote our academic lives to questions of where we come from, we rarely ask what it means in the larger sense. By continuing discussions such as these Gifford Lectures, we can foster new interpretations and, more importantly, continue to bridge the divides that often exist between the sciences and the humanities.
Professor Fuentes delivered his fourth lecture earlier this evening focusing on how humans changed the world. The video of Fuentes’ lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Adam Marshall and Jack Williams will offer their initial reflections. Marshall is currently a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh and Williams is currently a PhD student in Divinity also at the University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Fuentes’ lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.
Fuentes opened up his fourth lecture with reference to the work of Rowan Williams and Ashley Montagu concerning the human ability to “think things anew and create material realities for these new ‘thinkings.’” He pointed out that in previous lectures his primary focus has been on the various developments in our human lineage for our capacity to believe. In this lecture he began to focus on how it is that we believe.
Professor Fuentes delivered his third lecture earlier this evening focusing on how humans changed the world. The video of Fuentes’ lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion William L Atkins will offer his initial reflections. Atkins is currently a PhD candidate at New College, University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Fuentes’ lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.
Fuentes began his third lecture by articulating various ways that our human niche developed, with a specific emphasis on the more recent phase of our human history and its unique developments. He stated early on that in this lecture he would provide “a view of the emergence of increasingly complex and multispecies human communities, illustrating how the development of domestication, storage and new modes of social structure enabled the rise of particular beliefs and practices of property and identity which in combination with expanding patterns of inequality, created radically novel landscapes for human existence.” Throughout the lecture he went on to describe how these new “landscapes” set the stage for our contemporary human niche, where the capacity for belief plays a significant and central role.
New College, University of Edinburgh (28 February, 2018). Courtesy of Brian Bunnel, PhD candidate in New Testament and Christian Origins
Unfortunately due to inclement weather and the subsequent closure of the university on Thursday 1 March, Professor Fuentes’ lecture will not take place as scheduled tomorrow evening. As Anna Conroy (Secretary to the Gifford Lectureships Committee) announced in the official notice:
It is with regret that we have now cancelled the Gifford Lecture that had been due to take place tomorrow evening, Thursday 1 March. We do apologise for the late notice of this cancellation and for the disappointment this will undoubtedly cause. This decision has been taken in light of the extreme weather warning in and around Edinburgh. The University will be closed tomorrow.
The weather is not projected to affect any of the other scheduled lectures and we are hopeful that we might be able to rearrange tomorrows scheduled lecture so that we won’t miss out on any of Professor Fuentes’ stimulating Gifford series.
Update: There will be four lectures in the second week to make up for the cancellation. Lecture 3 will take place on Monday, 4 on Tuesday, 5 on Wednesday (which will be held at New College in the Elisabeth Templeton Lecture Room), and the final lecture will take place on Thursday as originally scheduled.
In this second lecture Professor Agustin Fuentes focuses on the human niche as it relates to our capacity for belief. The video of Fuentes’ lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Dr Mikael Leidenhag and Katherine Chow will be adding their initial reflections on Professor Fuentes’ lecture. Leidenhag earned his PhD in Philosophy of Religion from Uppsala University (Sweden) and is currently a Research Fellow (Templeton Foundation) in Theology and Science at the University of Edinburgh. Chow is currently a Postgraduate Research Student working in the field of Political Theology at the University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Fuentes’ lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.
In his second lecture Feuntes set out to answer “What makes us human?” by inquiring into the construction of the human niche and our capacity for belief. He began his story approximately 2 million years ago with our ancestors who, despite their meager sticks and stones, were able to survive in an environment full of bigger predators and were able to successfully find food and shelter amidst widespread competition. As he stated, “they survived, changed, expanded, and eventually became us, one of the most widespread and significant species on the planet. And in this history, in this process, lies a key answer to why we believe.” How did they do this and why is this significant for understanding why we humans believe? As Fuentes stated up front, “In a nutshell, they cooperated, innovated, created, imagined, and eventually believed. They became human. And in the process constructed, and were shaped by, a dynamic new niche, a new way of becoming in the world.” Fuentes asserted that understanding this evolutionary history is a key component for understanding why we humans believe.
In this first lecture Professor Agustin Fuentes set the stage for the next five to come. The video of Fuentes’ lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to listen to it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion my colleague Jaime Wright will be adding her initial reflections on Professor Fuentes’ first Gifford Lecture. Wright is currently a PhD candidate at New College, University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Fuentes’ lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.
Professor Fuentes started off his first lecture earlier this evening by beginning to clarify what he does and does not mean by “belief.” For Fuentes the concept and phenomenon of human believing is more rich, dynamic, and holistic than it is often taken to be. As he stated, “belief is the human capacity to imagine, to be creative, to hope and dream, to infuse the world with meanings, and to cast our aspirations far and wide, limited neither by personal experience nor material reality.” In this sense one can see that belief, for Fuentes, is not merely concerned with assenting to what is, but it is also a way of intentionally existing toward what could be. As he went on to state, “Believing is a commitment, an investment, a devotion to possibilities,” and that beliefs are embedded, embodied, and enacted by human agents in evolutionary processes. Belief (both the capacity for and the specifics of) play a central role in normatively guiding our being in the world with, for, and against one another. This being the case Fuentes asserted that “belief is the most prominent, promising, and dangerous capacity of humanity.