Professor Rachel Muers is a member of the Centre of Religion and Public Life and works in the department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. Her areas of interest and expertise are modern Christian thought; feminism; Quaker theology and environmental ethics.
Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?
A long time ago, I decided to do theology and religious studies for my undergraduate degree because I was interested in too many different subjects and approaches and didn’t want to have to choose between them. Some people might say that my general approach to academic work hasn’t changed very much! I work in the field of modern Christian theology, and all my research projects have been somewhere at or around the intersections of theology and ethics. I wrote a PhD about silence, which was always useful for really bad jokes about what I should do in my viva; that project also gave me long-standing interests in feminist theology, and in the work and legacy of the twentieth-century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Other research conversations and projects that have had a lasting influence on how I approach my subject include my long-standing involvement in Jewish-Christian-Muslim interfaith conversations about the interpretation of scripture… and of course my experience of being part of a strong interdisciplinary subject group here at Leeds.
Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?
More than 25 years after I first walked into a theology lecture, I think I’m still amazed on some level by the fact that it’s possible to be part of a conversation that’s been going on for centuries about the deepest questions and realities that shape people’s lives. I’m still excited about being able to understand, and relate to and argue about, someone else’s vision of God, someone else’s account of ultimate truth. It’s not just an intellectual challenge, it’s a personal challenge – and that doesn’t take anything away from its intellectual rigour. If asked, I’ll often argue that my subject is important because of the enormous power and influence that Christian belief and practice has in the world; but the truth is that I love the work for its own sake (and if you think that sounds suspiciously theological, you might be right).
More specifically, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to work on subjects that are of personal interest for me – as well as often of contemporary importance. For example, I did a project on theology and responsibility to future generations, which grew out of my work on Bonhoeffer’s theology but caught a moment when theologians and religious groups were starting to engage much more urgently with the environmental crisis. I’ve done several pieces of work in which I try to bring aspects of Quaker theology closer to the academic “mainstream” – that has to do with my own religious formation, and also with my wider academic interests in linking up theology, ethics and practice.
What are you currently, or about to start, working on?
As usual I have several projects on the go! I’m writing up pieces from a project on Christian theology and social class, and trying to decide where to take some of the insights arising from that. I have an unusual collaboration with a colleague in a business school, on Quaker organisations and decision-making practices. That relates to a wider area of interest that’s developing and that I want to focus on next, under the too-broad heading of “theology, organisations and institutions”. Christian theology has had quite a lot to say, unsurprisingly, about the church as institution – and much less that relates directly to what might be called “secular” institutions, or even to the ways in which churches function as institutions among others. I’m hoping to pick up and develop some small pieces of work I’ve done on accountability and on the idea of public theology – and most importantly to pick up conversations with others who’re interested in these areas.
In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?
I suppose the most obvious way is that I tend to research and write theology in relation to “current issues” that are matters of at least some broader public interest. I’m also interested in, and try to be attentive to, questions about scholarly accountability – whose perspectives am I representing, what version of religion am I making public? I’ve sometimes been uncomfortable with the “public life” label because of my interest in feminism and gender – public spaces, and public representations of religion, have tended to be male-; so I’m also glad to be working in a context where we keep such broader critical questions alive.