Escaping the Ivory Tower: Practical Theological Scholarship

The motto of the Graduate Theological Union is “where religion meets the world,” but what does it mean? It’s easy to draw a line between what is “sacred” and “secular” (often whatever is not “sacred”), but that’s not quite it either since religion is part of the world we know and the world interacts with religion. Rather, our motto emphasizes where faith traditions purposefully encounter people and events, sometimes in unique ways — describing this encounter as crossroads, bridges, and dialogue.

The following are responses we received from current students and alumni regarding how their work embodies the GTU’s motto.


Ken Butigan, Ph.D. ‘00, Cultural and Historical Studies of Religion, M.A. ‘86

The years I spent at GTU irrevocably shaped my journey for peace with justice. Surrounded by the writings of Thomas Merton, I immersed myself in the theological vision and nitty-gritty practicalities of changing the world. I met audacious people upon my arrival, particularly the Spirit Affinity Group, who were experimenting with the power of nonviolence. After praying and protesting with other students in the driveway of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, I went to jail for the first time. In the same vein, my doctoral dissertation focused on the spirituality of nonviolent activism.

My experience at GTU continued directly into the Pledge of Resistance, the nonviolent direct action arm of the U.S. Central America peace movement that I helped initiate with others in 1984 and that I coordinated in Washington, DC from 1987 to 1990. Organized in 400 local groups, 100,000 people pledged to take action for a just peace.  Many did, and in so doing helped to end the carnage that US policies were wreaking in the region.

Today, I continue to teach and advocate the practices of nonviolence in college classrooms and as the director of Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service.


Elizabeth Ingenthron, Ph.D. student, Cultural and Historical Studies of Religion

I interpret the GTU motto to mean a place where religion and academic study is in reciprocal relationship with communities and world events that are outside the GTU, yet also shape the work being done here. In my own scholarly endeavors, I have met the world through questioning how study and activism are related. My answer lay in nonprofit work that overlaps with my interests in religious studies and critical pedagogy.

At the nonprofit Jewish Voice for Peace, activists seek to let Jewish values and perspectives inform the way that we engage with and talk about the relationship between the United States and Israel/Palestine. This approach feeds my academic work which involves developing a critical pedagogical approach to teaching about Israel/Palestine in the United States by interpreting Jewish history, identity and subjectivity through critical race theory and whiteness studies. My work now converses with the realities faced by Jewish Voice for Peace — confronting media, and seeking solidarity with Palestinians towards the goal of human rights being respected for all living in Israel/Palestine.

Therefore I am challenged to incorporate my understanding of those realities in my academic work and in turn bring to findings of academic research to activism. I believe that the GTU provides a context where this combination of religion, research and activism can be reflected upon and made sense of, and that this allows for all these dimensions to grow and expand their respective boundaries.


Renée Powell, M.A. ‘10, Jewish Studies

My ceramic art exhibit Echoes and Fragments was created shortly after graduating. The fragmented clay pieces seem to be the perfect medium to express the generational brokenness which emerged from that dark era of Jewish history. Both of my German Jewish parents were forced to flee their homeland as young children. While they came out of it with their lives, unresolved grief permeated their psyche and undoubtedly impacted my Jewish identity.

Throughout my studies at the GTU, I focused on the Holocaust to understand how a purportedly civilized European country could witness such an atrocity. The voices of the elderly Jewish population who offer us first-hand testimony are fading.

The exhibitions have enabled me to speak to several audiences about the multifaceted history. While the broken clay pieces inspire excellent questions from the viewers, my studies help provide answers.


Mary Ashley, Ph.D. student, Ethics and Social Theory, M.A. ‘07

I submitted a proposal to a conference on the environment and the ecological writings of Pope Benedict XVI. It was accepted, but led to a very unique experience.

My proposal, entitled ‘If You Want Responsibility, Build Relationship: A Personalist Approach to Benedict XVI’s Environmental Vision,’ reflected my Ethics and Social Theory background. The organizers appreciated my perspective. However, they thought my writing was ‘pitched too high’ for their intended audience of priests and bishops.

I’m very grateful that the organizers were willing to work with me, especially Keith Warner, O.F.M., who teaches at Santa Clara University. The final result was more like a speech than an academic paper, but many attendees told me they found it exceptionally ‘lucid.’

It was an incredible opportunity to write for and present to a broader and less academic audience, but I’m looking forward to revising and expanding it for publication.


Erin Rose Moore, M.T.S. student, CDSP

I attend CDSP part-time in addition to being a full-time teacher at De Marillac Academy in San Francisco, a tuition-free Catholic school for students in poverty.

In the Fall of 2012 I took "Lay Spiritual Practices" with Darleen Pryds at FST. For our final project, we had the option of creating a pastoral project. I decided to design a retreat geared towards middle school girls. In my work at De Marillac, I noticed that so many of these young girls were incredibly self-conscious about their bodies at a young age. Even on a hot day, the girls would refuse to take off their bulky sweaters. So I created a retreat where the theme was "Finding and Loving Your True Self." I was fortunate enough to be able to implement the retreat for De Marillac students in April of 2012. It was the first overnight retreat ever offered at De Marillac.

The girls sat in table groups, had group discussions, heard talks from female faculty members, and experienced many types of prayer, including meditative prayers on the body, scripture reflections, a Taize service and mass. When I asked the girls what I could improve next year, more than one said "we should stay for a week."

Now it's becoming a tradition at De Marillac – our second annual Young Women's Retreat will take place in April 2013!


Chris Trinidad, ‘10, JST

Before I graduated from JST, I received a call from the principal at Saint Mary’s College High School in Berkeley about a potential position opening in Campus Ministry. Upon setting foot on campus during the lunch period, it was clear that I did not have to go far to encounter a multi-cultural and multi-religious reality. Though the school was grounded in a Lasallian Catholic tradition, the students I met came from all walks of life. I would later learn that our school demographics would represent the overall population diversity that exists in the Bay Area. As such, the proximity of the GTU to my new place of employ was of immense benefit. And, the knowledge that I gained, and the wisdom that my teachers at JST and throughout the GTU shared with me helped me to transition into lay ecclesial ministry from my previous work as a choral music educator. 

As a Campus Minister, my work is made more complex as I (along with my colleagues) learn how to properly balance the Catholic identity of the school with the plurality of faith traditions to which the students belong, while maintaining a radical sense of inclusive community and celebrating cultural diversity, both of which are key hallmarks of a Lasallian education. Before launching into my role, I consulted with various people about various strategies designed to best serve the needs of those students entrusted to my care.