Do Theological Studies Contribute to Peace in Ireland?

image “Do theological studies make a tangible and practical contribution to peace on the island of Ireland?’ That was the question posed to a group of theological students, gathered last year for an Irish Peace Centres conference.

It is perhaps self-evident that the ‘answer’ that these students would give to this question is ‘yes,’ assuming that many if not all of them hope that their own work  might some day contribute to peace in Ireland.

But as a publication resulting from the conference, Studying Faith, Practising Peace,’ makes clear – there are many possible answers to that question. It just doesn’t have a straightforward yes or no answer.

The question is explored in 12 short chapters written by the students, all of whom are working or have recently worked on master’s or doctoral dissertations. The volume is introduced and summed up by the Irish Peace Centres’ fieldworker for Faith in Positive Relations, Pádraig Ó Tuama, himself a theological student at Union College in Belfast.

Dr Fran Porter, a social and theological researcher at Coventry University, provides a thoughtful analysis of the contributions, drawing on all the chapters to argue that theology’s most important contributions to peace can be:

  • creating safe spaces for all sorts of differences to be reflected upon, discussed, and held in positive ways
  • broadening conceptions of peace in Ireland to move beyond the traditional Catholic-Protestant divide
  • asking why it is these theological students – and not their educators – who seem to be deeply engaged with questions about the relationship between theology and peace

I think Porter’s insights are valuable, and I’m intrigued by her third point, which she sums up this way (p. 89):

‘… what felt odd to me was that it was not a group of theological educators (in a formal sense) that were coming together to address the question – not even for the first time, let alone as part of ongoing reflection of their theological pedagogy. This absence tells its own story. Hence, as the contributors so vividly portray, many students have no understanding of religious traditions other than their own, let alone have occasion to engage with people from different traditions.’

Of course, I work for a School with a founding mission that included asking how theological studies can contribute to peace on the island of Ireland and further afield. I’d like to think that my institution – the Irish School of Ecumenics – is somehow exempt from Porter’s otherwise astute observation.

The Irish School of Ecumenics, now part of Trinity College Dublin with campuses in Dublin and Belfast, has expanded to become an interdisciplinary school. I’m not one of the resident theologians, I’m a social scientist.

But I appreciate the work of my theological colleagues, and I think their ongoing prioritizing of peace, as theological educators, is reflected in the fact that four of the 12 student contributors to this volume are either current or former doctoral or master’s students at the Irish School of Ecumenics. These include:

  • Jon Hatch, a current doctoral student: ‘Complicating Theology (… in a good way)’
  • David Masters, a former master’s student: ‘Consuming Peace’
  • John Peacock, a former master’s student: ‘Training in a Local Theology of Reconciliation’
  • Jayme Reaves, a current doctoral student: ‘The Holy Rite of Disagreement’

But Porter also cautions that it may not be appropriate for theologians, new and experienced, to ‘solely … follow an ecumenical path’ in their work for peace. She notes (p. 90):

‘While ecumenism is embraced by some Christians, for other believers it is considered incompatible with faithfulness. The highly contested nature of ecumenism on the island of Ireland is something that I think a few essay contributors underestimate.’

Indeed. Researchers at the Irish School of Ecumenics have been asking questions about what people on the island of Ireland think about diversity, reconciliation and ecumenism in our ongoing Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism project. Porter’s remarks resonate with some of what we have found, particularly in our surveys of faith leaders and laypeople.

Studying Faith, Practising Peace provides plenty stimulating material for those of us who are asking questions about theology and peace. In a few posts over the next week or so, I will look in more detail at some of the contributions in this volume, highlighting what to me seem to be the most important questions and sharing my own thoughts.

Read the full publication, Studying Faith, Practising Peace

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  1. From the Archives: Enda McDonagh on Northern Ireland and Theology « Public Faith - July 15, 2011

    […] is, of course, debatable how much theology can contribute to concrete peacebuilding, but a recent collection of papers from an Irish Peace Centres conference suggests that theology has the vital task of promoting […]

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