Simon Oliver

Project leader:

Prof. Simon Oliver (Durham University)


Philosophical Theology and the Phenomenology of Life


Over the last twenty years, philosophical theologians influenced by continental philosophy, particularly the method of genealogy, have sought theological readings of fields and concepts usually associated with other disciplines, such as society, motion, time, economics, gift, or work. This project extends this genealogical tradition by focussing on a category commonly associated with biology, namely life. The core aim is to seek an integrative and analogical account of non-human and human live as purposive, meaningful, and value laden in relation to divine life. The project will challenge mechanistic and reductive understandings of life, and modern biology’s attempts to neglect or deny agency in non-human nature. If agency and goal-orientation are necessary features of life, this suggests that living organisms bear intrinsic meaning and value.

Organic life, in being meaningful, is open to hermeneutical interpretation and ethical enquiry. Furthermore, ‘life’ for theologians such as Thomas Aquinas is understood as a hierarchical perfection of created being orientated towards God who is life. Life is therefore understood normatively as a scale of perfection under the dynamic category of the act of being. Developing these lines of enquiry from both continental philosophy and theology, the possibility of an ethics of environmental concern will be explored, incorporating the agency and goals of human and non-human life.

In conversation with philosophers of the continental tradition, particularly Hans Jonas, Henri Bergson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Michel Henry, and the ressourcement Thomist tradition, this project will focus particularly on two related areas as ways of exploring an integrative account of life: first, the metaphysical and theological origins of life; secondly, the character of goal-orientation, agency, and meaning in living organisms.

By gathering a team of collaborators around the principal investigator, this project will develop the philosophical theology of life through workshops, published works, public engagement events, and the development of a syllabus for postgraduate teaching.