By Jodie Salter
On 8 June 2017, the Centre for Religion and Public Life held a research day on Public, Political and Religious Engagement in the Study of Religion, organised by Caroline Starkey and Adriaan van Klinken. The research day was intended to provide space for collaborative and critical discussion about the role of engagement in the study of religion and how to negotiate the multiple, blurred lines between academic research, activism, personal identity and public life. It did not disappoint as we were treated to a variety of talks which challenged us to question these very intersections and rethink the study of religion in an increasingly public and politicised academy.
The main speaker was Robert Beckford, Professor of Theology and Culture in the African Diaspora at Canterbury Christ Church University with following talks from Caroline Starkey, Jasjit Singh and Rachel Muers. The day culminated in a roundtable chaired by Emma Tomalin and featuring all presenters and two colleagues from Islamic Studies,Tajul Islam and Mustapha Sheikh.
Robert Beckford began with a talk entitled “Theology in the age of Black Lives Matter”, calling for theology to be responsive, radically engaging, and public. Putting his work into the context of Postcolonial Black Theology he took us through his applied theomusicology project, the “Jamaican Bible Remix” where public theology is combined with challenging critiques of Christianity’s colonial influence and made accessible through music. His model of praxis put academic, church and community engagement on the same level through debunking neutrality with deconstruction and decolonisation, encouraging orthopraxy, and challenging injustices respectively. But does public engagement actually work? He argued that it can through seeing religion as current affairs and creating a prophetic teaching environment where students see their work in a wider, political context.
Next was Caroline Starkey, “An Uncomfortable Activist”, who considered the challenges of separating her research into and teaching about Buddhism, and her personal and activist involvement with Buddhist communities. She raised the important question of whether, in the era of the impact agenda, public engagement and activism are universal goods and what ‘types’ of impact are actually valued. Her experience highlighted the difficulties in negotiating personal, professional and research participant relations, particularly where religious identity is increasingly salient.
Taking us back to theology, Rachel Muers spoke about “Going Public”. She questioned the often-narrow, hierarchical vision of theology suggesting the academy as only one of many public spaces where theology ‘happens’. Her “nonconformist public theology” operates at the intersection of academia and activism, challenging the focus on purely national structures and asks us to be more critical of institutions, questioning assumptions about impact and the value of ‘publicness’.
Jasjit Singh continued with the theme of activism through his talk “The Story of an Accidental Activist”. His extensive fieldwork with British Sikhs revealed how researchers may be perceived as having certain power in community groups thus becoming ‘accidental’ gate-keepers and media representatives. He also drew attention to the politics of funding; how to work creatively with, and challenge, the research opportunities that are offered. Nevertheless, he saw the benefits of academia through an ability to remain relatively unaffiliated and independent.
Finally, the round table brought together several questions from the day including how public and political engagement may affect both research and teaching; whether impact and engagement are always necessary or good; and why does ‘accidental’ activism and representation occur. Mustapha Sheikh emphasised a need for more cross-departmental collaboration and critical, interdisciplinary approaches, particularly with increasing focus on attracting funding. Although it seems the day ended with more questions than it began, some conclusions can be drawn for academics and students alike to be even more reflexive and aware of their potential public and political power. Not shying away from activism but maintaining a critical approach to funding opportunities, impact agendas, community engagement and, as Robert Beckford suggests, to ask difficult questions and push research boundaries.
Jodie Salter is a student in the Masters programme Religion and Public Life at the University of Leeds.