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A new project will foster interdisciplinary work — informed by both science and theology — on what it means to be human

Human flourishing and freedom are topics that have long been considered by theologians and humanities scholars, but recent work in the life and social sciences—on subjects ranging from how brains make decisions to how individuals develop virtues — is presenting some of those age-old topics in a new light. A new three-year, $3.9 million research project funded by the John Templeton Foundation and led by theologians Jesse Couenhoven at Villanova University, and Gerald McKenny and Neil Arner at the University of Notre Dame, aims to help theologians integrate recent biological and social scientific research into their work. The project will support research and networking for a dozen theology and religion professors as they pursue projects related to scientifically-informed theological anthropology. 

Each principal researcher will work  with a scientific consultant who has  deep expertise in a particular subject area to provide feedback throughout the project. These researchers include Jennifer Herdt (Yale Divinity School), who is looking at whether evolutionary biology leaves room for a theological account of human uniqueness and dignity; Emily Dumler-Winkler (St. Louis University), who is investigating how scientific work on autism can broaden theological accounts of human flourishing; Kevin Hector (University of Chicago), who is examining how the psychology of memory and selfhood might yield new insights on spiritual practices such as forgiveness, confession and testimony; Jonathan Tran (Baylor University), whose project is examining whether cognitive and biolinguistic offers new insights for questions about human nature and the image of God; and Christiana Zenner (Fordham University) who is looking at how planetary science’s account of humans’ capacity to modify the planet might alter theological conceptions of human purpose. 

Co-project-leader Neil Arner (Notre Dame) will investigate “optimistic” and “pessimistic” theological views of human moral capacity in light of evolutionary psychology, while Couenhoven will look at how developmental psychology’s insights into children, the disabled, and other “marginal” agents might give us a broader account of human agency.


The project is expected to include workshops to allow the researchers to give progress updates and hear from visiting lecturers including Yale psychologist Laurie Santos and psychologist and open science advocate Brian Nosek.

“This project aims to  increase the body of research in theological anthropology that critically engages with the sciences of human nature,” says Alexander Arnold, the John Templeton Foundation’s director for philosophy and theology. “We hope that through collaboration and the forging of cross-disciplinary ties, the project will lay the groundwork for future investigations of what it is to be human that integrates the best of theological and scientific thought.”


Learn more about project leaders Jesse Couenhoven, Gerald McKenny, and Neil Arner.