Jonathan Smith is a PhD Researcher in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science at the University of Leeds and is a member of the Centre of Religion and Public Life.
Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?
I would describe my research journey as wandering between the worlds of academia and the charitable sector. An optimistic interpretation is that I am trying to get the best of being an academic and practitioner. A more realistic interpretation is that I am still trying to figure out what to do with my life.
I spent four years teaching academic English at universities in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories. In addition to gaining a deep appreciation for Levantine culture, food and people, I discovered how universities in these countries often provide valuable spaces for students to critically reflect on how conflict affects their lives and exploring responses to injustice. It was difficult to avoid the centrality of religion in these places, and the role of religious beliefs as a motivating force for both violence and peacebuilding, as well as the importance of community and interfaith relations.
These experiences led me to work for five years at UK charities focusing on inter-religious dialogue and social action in local communities and universities. I have been particularly impressed with the dynamic nature of university student faith and cultural societies, and how they often become laboratories for learning about people from different backgrounds. In between these two roles, I have tried to conduct research on solidarity between religious and non-religious groups, and religious literacy as a human encounter with people who are both different and the same. These two tracks led me toward starting a PhD at Leeds in 2014.
Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?
During my time living in the Middle East, I met many Westerners working in international development projects. I became interested in their friendships and professional relationships with local people, and how those relationships influenced their understanding of the local context. It struck me that these relationships might be an example of intercultural and in some cases interreligious dialogue. Those ideas were percolating for a few years in the UK, so when I finally started a PhD at Leeds in 2014, I decided to focus it on this subject. My thesis (still in process) looks at Western Christians in Jordan working on relief and development projects in Jordan, how they adapt their development approaches to the Jordanian context, and how inter-religious and inter-cultural encounters with local people influence their work.
What are you currently, or about to start, working on?
I’m in the fourth year of my PhD, so my thesis is what I’m working on primarily. In the meantime, I am working on two other projects to keep myself busy/distracted. One is a research project with the charity Three Faiths Forum (3FF) in London about the role of faith communities and interfaith work in creating a sense of belonging for Londoners. When I was in Jordan, in addition to my thesis fieldwork, I also conducted research with Kathryn Kraft at University of East London about the role of intermediaries between international donors and local faith communities providing aid to Syrian refugees. There is a strong move toward localisation in humanitarian aid, focusing on the needs and priorities of affected people instead of international donors. We are working to inventory the types and roles of these intermediaries which influence how local and how relevant humanitarian aid is people on the ground.
In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?
To answer this question, a bit of background might be helpful. I grew up in Atlanta, a Southern US city which is permeated (some would say haunted) by religion’s role in public life. Atlanta was the home of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a hub of religious engagement in the civil rights movement. Down the street from my childhood home is Stone Mountain, a Mount Rushmore style monument to Confederate Generals and a hub of the Ku Klux Klan in the early to mid-20th century. The civil rights movement and the Ku Klux Klan (and the wider segregationist movement in the South) both drew on Christian beliefs to support their vastly different types of public engagement. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by how religious groups with similar beliefs participate in public life in vastly different ways.
I’ve had the privilege of conducting research on religious groups participating in social movements in different countries (South Africa, Jordan, Indonesia and the UK). These vastly different contexts have given me the opportunity to explore how religious groups participate in social movements and respond to shared social challenges in complex and surprising ways. So, I think my research demonstrates the problem of viewing any religious group as holding an unchanging or essentialised set of beliefs and practices. By studying the surprising ways that groups which are very different find common causes and goals, and the many ways that groups adapt their beliefs and practices through dialogue and social action, we can gain a better understanding of religion’s role in public life.