In yesterday’s post, I introduced the Irish Peace Centres’ publication Studying Faith, Practising Peace, which asked graduate students in theology to address the following question: ‘Do theological studies make a tangible and practical contribution to peace on the island of Ireland?’
Over the coming days I plan to draw from and reflect on a few of the essays in the volume, highlighting the work being done by some of our best young theologians and raising questions that I think the churches in Ireland should be asking themselves.
Today I look at the work of Jon Hatch, a doctoral student at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin at Belfast, where I work. His research, funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences through the Irish School of Ecumenics ‘Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism’ project, is titled ‘Transformational Theology in a Context of Division.’ His supervisor is Dr David Tombs.
Jon Hatch on Complicating Theology (… in a good way)
Hatch argues that historically, Irish theology from nearly every denominational perspective has been done in isolation. The result of this has been over-simple theologies. There are good guys and there are bad guys, and God is on ‘our side.’ Hatch writes (p. 67-68):
I would argue that our theological study in Ireland has lacked complexity. More specifically, our theology has been (for want of a better word) uncomplicated. Our theological study has had as its starting point the unconscious subtext of ‘don’t’ mention the war.’ For various reasons, again mostly to do with our long history of cultural and political conflict combined with a lack of meaningful interaction between divided parts of our community, we have craved the simplicity and safety of absolutes – of doctrine, identity and belonging. We have demanded theology of exclusiveness and stark contrast. We have talked about the ‘other’s’ theology, but rarely with each other about that theology. Irish Christians are, of course, not the only ones to do this, but it is in Ireland that the end results have been particularly stark, leading Irish ecumenist Geraldine Smyth [the current Head of the Irish School of Ecumenics] to state:
In the struggle to overcome violence, Christians must face up to their own responsibility for the fact that sectarianism has cost lives, that divided churches cost lives, and that this stifles the gospel of peace. [In Ecumenical Review, ‘Churches in Ireland: Journeys in Identity and Communion, Vol. 53, No. 2, 2001]
Hatch goes on to tell a story about how an encounter with a Native American from the Crow nation resulted in a moment when both of their preconceptions and theologies were ‘complicated’ by learning about each other. This leads him to ask (p. 69):
How can our theology – and by inference, our theological study – make it easier for these complicated encounters to happen? This goes to the heart of how we ‘do’ theology: simply by ourselves or complicatedly with each other. This is about doing theology publicly and together or not at all, about encountering God together or (dare I say?) not all.
Stop and think about that last sentence for a moment. Hatch is saying that if Christians stick strictly to their own kind of Christian, they will miss out on experiencing God in all his fullness. That is both a frightening and an empowering idea.
During one of the seminar sessions at the Journey Towards Healing conference on Trauma and Spirituality back in March, a conversation took place around questions about how all the churches in Northern Ireland might contribute constructively to healing and reconciliation.
Geraldine Smyth was there, and she reiterated the points Hatch makes here:
- The churches need to recognize their own culpability in contributing to division and conflict,
- They need to be genuinely exploring together how they might now make their contribution one of peace and reconciliation, and
- They need to be seen to be doing this together.
There is a temptation now, especially when faced with secularization and declining numbers, for churches to turn in on themselves and focus solely on maintaining their own congregation or their own institutions.
This will not be good either for the churches, or for the wider social worlds they inhabit.
(Image sourced on flickr, by origamidon)