Georgetown PhD Application Personal Statement

In 2013 I decided to succumb to the inevitable and apply to a PhD program in theology.  I chose the program at Georgetown because it would allow me to focus on two traditions (Christianity and Buddhism in my case), and it was a combination of theology and religious studies.  Moreover, one of my biggest fears in pursuing a PhD is that I would be discouraged from doing applied research and from staying engaged in the practitioner world.  I did not want to float off into the theoretical ether.  I felt certain that Georgetown would allow me to stay engaged in the policy and practitioner world, and, as a Jesuit institution, to be engaged in the constructivist project. This is the personal statement I submitted, which was ultimately successful. I’m indebted to a number of my brilliant scholar friends, particularly Jenn Ortegren, who helped me refine this statement into something cogent and persuasive.  I will begin my PhD program this month — August 2013. Pray for me!

Georgetown University Application

Ph.D. in Theological and Religious Studies with a Focus on Religious Pluralism

Personal Statement

My interest in the study of religious pluralism focuses on theologies forged in the midst of violent conflict. Specifically, I am interested in the ways in which socio-political attitudes and behavior in response to violence are shaped by, and in turn shape, religious interpretations in different traditions and contexts that have real consequences for the course of conflict.  My doctoral work will build on my own research and experience of these dynamics within Christianity and Buddhism, focusing on Colombia and Burma/Myanmar, where I have worked as a peace practitioner and field researcher.  This research will contribute to the growing body of scholarship at the intersection of religion, violence, and peacebuilding, offering a theological and comparative analysis of how believers understand and respond to political violence.  It would simultaneously engage and contribute to emergent discussions between academics, peace practitioners, and policymakers about how to address conflicts involving religious communities.  The Religious Pluralisms Ph.D. program at Georgetown, with its expertise in comparative analysis, offers an ideal setting for this proposed research.

My undergraduate work in Comparative Religions at Tufts University laid the intellectual foundation for my approach to religious pluralism. There, I learned to apply diverse theoretical frames, including sociological, psychological, and feminist, to analyze comparatively the development and social role of religious traditions. My focus on Asian traditions led me to pursue Buddhist studies at Naropa University’s program in Kathmandu, Nepal, where I had a front row seat to the complex interactions between Newari Buddhist, Hindu, and Tibetan Buddhist traditions at a time of escalating violent conflict throughout the country.  Additionally, I conducted an independent study of the historical and contemporary encounter between shaman Bon traditions and contemporary Buddhist practice and philosophy in a small village in Northwest Nepal.  Back at Tufts for my senior year, I continued to research Asian traditions.  I completed an independent study of the development of feminine principles in Hinduism and Buddhism, tracing their origins in early Indian religious thought through contemporary Vajrayana Buddhist practice.

My graduate studies at Harvard and Tufts’ Fletcher School exposed me to theological, sociological, and conflict resolution scholarship on religion, ethics, violence, and peace.  While completing my Masters of Divinity at Harvard University, I studied religious ethical formation in response to violence as explained by Just War Theory, Comparative Religious Ethics, and Religion and Human Rights. I simultaneously pursued courses in Christian practice, tradition, and scripture in preparation for my ministerial ordination in the United Church of Christ.  My thesis at Harvard analyzed prophetic utterance — claims about God’s will that seek to shape communal response to social and political realities — in ancient and modern contexts.  Moving between Hebrew and Christian scripture and the contemporary conflict in Northern Uganda, I demonstrated how prophetic claims legitimate particular constructions of reality, underpin negotiations of power and ideologies, and impact social and political behavior, while offering considerations for the discernment of prophetic claims.

I applied my background in religious studies to my research of conflict resolution theory and international relations throughout my Master’s program at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.  My thesis examined the responses of the Sri Lankan Buddhist monastic community (sangha) to that country’s civil war and its failed peace processes.  I proposed a program for engaging Buddhist thought and actors in peacebuilding.  Subsequently, I had the opportunity to test my proposals in peacebuilding work in Sri Lanka, first as a consultant for a development organization based in Colombo in 2006, and then in my current work at the U. S. Institute of Peace (USIP). Since 2007, I have worked with a Sri Lankan organization to develop a network of over four hundred Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim clergy working toward reconciliation and sustainable peace.

One of the primary goals of my work in USIP’s Religion and Peacemaking Program is to understand and strengthen religious coexistence in conflict zones.  In most of the countries in which I work, including Iraq, Sri Lanka, Colombia, and Burma/Myanmar, religion has become a source of division and a driver of violence.  That is, in these places religious resources, including narratives, texts, and institutions, too often fuel and sustain violent conflict and drive communities apart.  In addition to strengthening the capacity of religious actors to manage conflict and pursue justice peacefully through offering skills-training in peacebuilding, I also work to bridge the divide between communities by facilitating inter-religious dialogue and collaboration to address shared problems.   Though complex and frequently frustrating, this work is also deeply satisfying.  It allows me to participate in rich theological and philosophical discussions with other clergy and people of faith about violence, justice, and religious identity.  I am able to witness directly to how different traditions interpret the causes of violent conflict, formulate ethical responses to it, and prescribe solutions to violence, often doing so in relation to one another in the midst of divided societies.  These dialogical encounters between religious actors from different traditions in conflict zones will inform my doctoral work at Georgetown, grounding my theoretical research in compelling, real-world issues.

My work as a peace practitioner informs, and is enriched by, my ongoing scholarship.  Over the past five years, I have contributed to several academic initiatives exploring the intersection of religion, violence, and peace, and I have published and presented my work widely.  For example, over the past two years I have co-directed an initiative examining the ways in which religion both hampers and propels women’s work for peace in conflict zones with Katherine Marshall of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown.  Our interdisciplinary project, which will culminate in an anthology published by the U.S. Institute of Peace, brings together scholars and practitioners, and multiple fields of study (including feminism, religious studies, and conflict resolution).  This project addresses a gap in the scholarly literature regarding women and conflict and offers actionable policy recommendations to strengthen religious women’s work for peace.  From 2008 to 2010, I participated in a project directed by Tim Sisk at the University of Denver exploring religious leaders’ responses to conflict, for which I authored a book chapter analyzing the development of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka and the mobilization of Buddhist monks in response to conflict and peace.  In this chapter, I challenged the popular narrative of Sri Lankan Buddhist monks’ monolithic opposition to peace processes and minority rights by highlighting the how, when, and why of monks’ support for peace historically, and internal monastic debate about the “proper” Buddhist response to violence.  I serve as an adviser to another project, also directed by Tim Sisk, which examines social cohesion and religion in development work in post-conflict environments.  My forthcoming chapter for an Oxford Handbook on religion, conflict, and peacebuilding, a project overseen by Notre Dame University, sheds light on the challenges and opportunities women across religious traditions and geographical settings face working to build peace through religious institutions.  This chapter explores how women shape theologies in the space broken open by the social disruption of violent conflict, legitimating and empowering their public roles in peacebuilding, often doing so in hermeneutical exercises with women from other faiths.  Finally, I have written several publications on interfaith dialogue in the midst of violent conflict; participated in a network of faculty and practitioners engaged in, studying, and teaching about interfaith just peacemaking organized out of Boston University; contributed a chapter to a forthcoming anthology engaging the scholarship of David Little; and authored reports for the U.S. Institute of Peace.  I enjoy the challenge of contributing to the rapid growth of the religious peacebuilding field as both a scholar and practitioner.

My experiences as a student of Buddhism, a specialist in religious peacebuilding working globally for a secular organization, and a leader in the Christian church allow me to draw links in my scholarship between the contrasting, and sometimes competing, contexts of different global regions, religious traditions, and theological or political discourse.  It is in these places where cultures, traditions, and discourses encounter one another, embrace, overlap, and sometimes collide, that I consciously situate myself intellectually and professionally.  These liminal spaces reveal how religion operates for individuals and communities, while pushing against my intellectual assumptions and challenging my normative analytical frames.  It is my desire to bring my practical experiences in peacebuilding in Buddhist and Christian contexts to bear on contemporary scholarship, and vice versa, that has led me to apply to the Religious Pluralisms Program at Georgetown.  The program’s interdisciplinary and comparative approach to understanding dynamics and pluralisms within and between religious traditions is an ideal complement to my previous research, my interests, and my professional experience.

The faculty and resources available at Georgetown are uniquely suited to fulfill my research goals.  My exposure to Georgetown through my work with the Berkley Center, engagement with Georgetown scholars and students, and attendance at lectures and conferences have convinced me that Georgetown applies sophisticated theoretical work toward immediate and pressing issues.  While participating in a gathering of the Catholic Peacebuilding Network at Notre Dame University I was introduced to Peter Phan.  His work exploring Christian theology formed in the context of majority Buddhist cultures would be an invaluable resource for my investigation of Christian theological responses to violence and discrimination in majority-Buddhist Burma.  In particular, I look forward to engaging with Dr. Phan on how a religious community’s status as majority or minority (or empowered/disempowered) within their national context impacts the formation of theologies of political resistance or accommodation.  Benjamin Bogin, whom I met at a dinner with the Thai Buddhist peace practitioner Sulak Sivaraksa, and Francisca Cho, will be useful mentors as I think through Buddhist responses to political and cultural movements in South and East Asian contexts.  Leo Lefebure’s work exploring conversations between Buddhist and Christian thought, and his examination of violent impulses as addressed and sanctified through varied religious traditions, including Christianity, will be relevant for my own interest in how traditions explain, defend, or resist violence in the midst of political conflict, both internally and with respect to one another.  That these scholars are engaged in conversation with practitioners and policymakers, and are applying their scholarly interests to contemporary contexts, convince me that Georgetown offers precisely the type of dynamic environment in which I will thrive.

I believe I am ideal candidate for Georgetown’s doctoral program in religious pluralism both for what I can contribute and for what I can gain.  My previous research and ongoing participation in academic initiatives, my practical experience in peacebuilding across various religious, geographic, and ethnic contexts, and my specific research interests will enable me to offer new and unique perspectives to the classroom.  In return, strengthening my theoretical foundation in religious pluralism, deepening my analytical skills, and advancing my research interests through this doctoral program will enhance my scholarship and enable me to contribute even more deeply and fundamentally to the field of religious peacebuilding.

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