Thoughts on the Awakening Project by Iain Ross

When I arrived at university in 2012, my religious life and my academic life seemed like two separate worlds that were either unconnected or actively hostile to one another. On the one side I had (and continue to have) a deep involvement in evangelical Christianity. I was taught and I believed that faith in Jesus is central to every part of our lives, and yet the communities and congregations that I was a part of seemed unable and unwilling to integrate Christian faith into how we understand wider issues of justice in the world. Putting your faith in Jesus (and convincing others to do the same) consistently seemed to be put in competition with loving your neighbour and seeking the Reign of God here on earth. I found this profoundly dissatisfying.

On the other hand, my degree was in geography, in a department that was deeply steeped in critical theory (Marxist, Post-colonial, feminist etc.) and (post)-modern figures like Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida. Although there is a lot that I eventually came to identify with in critical theory, the largely non-religious or even anti-religious posture of critical theory was also profoundly dissatisfying for me. Critique is primarily a process of de-construction. But perpetually reaching deeper levels of de-construction is not a sustainable way to live. I quickly found that the ideas I was being encouraged to embrace in my studies were actually alienating me from the very valuable community development work I had been involved in in Peru because most ordinary Peruvians are not anti-capitalist radicals, and many are deeply suspicious of Marxism because of its connection to the Shining Path.

Real peace requires not only deconstruction but also re-construction, and ultimately critical theory was unable to provide this. It took me years to slowly evaluate, integrate, deconstruct and re-construct my worldview in such a way that seeking justice was an expression of my faith, not in competition with it. Most of the time I felt like I was doing this theological reconstruction on my own, slowly discovering writers whose work helped me make sense of all these things. Not everything in critical theory and Christianity can be reconciled or integrated; sometimes you have to choose between them. But most of time, I have come to believe, they are pushing us in quite similar directions.

For the Awakening Project, I spent the summer of 2020 listening to hours and hours of podcasts and videos of a long list of inspiring people who had wrestled with the questions of faith, justice and action (the ‘Prophetic Voices’ on the Awakening Project website). Some of these people are closer to my own theological convictions than others, but all were fascinating and inspiring. I finished the summer with a sense of the ‘cloud of witnesses’ of people of faith who have gone before us and whose faith have moved them to act in the world. I distinctly remember thinking “I wish I had known about some of these people when I started university.” My lonely and confusing journey of integrating my faith, my studies and my desire to work for a better world would have been far less confusing and less lonely if I had been able to listen to these prophetic voices instead of trying to work it out myself.

I hope that by making these prophetic voices easily accessible to people (especially undergraduates) people of faith can find inspiring examples that guide them to seek a more just world as an expression of that faith. I also hope that people who do not follow any faith tradition can get of a sense of the depth that a faith-based commitment to justice can bring. One of the real benefits of simply exposing people to these prophetic voices is that each person can work out who and what inspires them. The Prophetic Voices section of the Awakening Project is not a monolithic manifesto; there will always be people whose positions we disagree with in some way. However, it is “a cloud of witnesses,” a set of valuable conversation partners who can help undergraduates (and others) decide for themselves how to live in the world with their eyes, hearts and spirits, wide open.

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