A rock in a hard place

May 17, 1996

Susan Hawley is stretching the boundaries of theological research. Elaine Williams reports. Held up by a road block, at the mercy of bandits in the northern mountains of Nicaragua between Managua and Puerto Cabezas on the north Atlantic coast, Susan Hawley could have been forgiven for regretting the way in which a theology degree in the cosy confines of Oxford had led her into such treacherous straits.

But she was saved from such negative reflections by an intense enthusiasm for her quest quite equal to her adventurous nature.

The bandits were a mixture of Sandinistas and re-Contras, forces formerly at war with each other, who joined up after the fall of the Sandinistas in 1990 to pick off hapless travellers as a way of making demands on government.

With the help of a Swiss national on aid agency business, who persuaded their captors to let them continue their journey to Managua, Hawley escaped unharmed and with humour intact. Indeed, she recalls with remarkable equanimity the flare-ups, invasions and murders that mark the low-level warfare that continues in Nicaragua after the fall of the Sandinistas.

Her chief concern is the Miskitu Indians who had fought alongside the American CIA-backed Contras against the socialist Sandinistas during the civil war. She is interested in their cultural identification with the Moravian protestant Church.

Hawley's subject is the role that religion plays in political and cultural movements, an interest she developed because she wished to break out of the conservative boundaries to theology that she felt had been created by her theology degree at Oxford.

A 26-year-old who describes herself as a "practical atheist", Hawley was religious as a child. She was the daughter of a devout Anglo-Catholic father and went through an intense "religious phase" in her teens. She thinks many girls go through this because it is a form of self-denial and self-discipline.

But her present interests were fostered at school where her religious studies teacher opened her eyes to an intellectual interpretation of the Bible and of religious practice.

Hawley says: "We engaged in historical criticism of the Bible at a very advanced level. I realised that when I went to university. We discussed whether the Gospel stories could be true or were developed through an oral tradition."

Hawley lost her faith around this time, but her interest in how people viewed religion and how they believed in God increased.

"I was very much taken up with the quest of getting into Oxford," she says. "But once I was there I was very disappointed. I was amazed at how limited the course was."

She felt constricted by a degree that was based on biblical studies, Patristics and Newman. Although she studied Buddhism for her special paper, she felt marginalised by a course where theology was bound up with religious engagement.

"I think it helps to believe in God at Oxford. Most of the teachers there are religiously involved themselves, and if you aren't it seems a slightly strange thing to be doing. I had come from a school where faith was divorced from the study of religion, to a university where they were intermingled. I was always more interested in the sociological aspect of it. It had stopped being a topic related to me. I had stopped pursuing God. I kept saying, what I want to do is the anthropology of religion."

Initially, her socialist predilections led her to explore liberation theology. She was introduced to it during the last paper of her degree, on doctrine and interpretation, which included liberation and feminist theologies.

"I suddenly felt very cheated because we were made to look again at what we had been reading during the course, this time in terms of feminist hermeneutics. It's as if they were saying 'this is how you do it and here's a little bit to show you how you could have done it'."

Liberation theology appealed to her not from the point of view of faith but because it brought sociological analysis to the understanding of religion. "I was attracted to a theology that was intellectually coherent."

She had begun to believe that there are political implications about the way one studies theology: "One should be up front about that". Now she had found a theology which, she says, "questioned the way religion was practiced. And I had been questioning it for the past three years."

In the final year of her degree she used her spare time to search through the library of the refugee studies programme at Queen Elizabeth House, the university's department of international relations and economics.

She was looking for a project that would give extra purpose to her desire to travel in Central America, to El Salvador, to "make a pilgrimage to the centre of liberation theology. I didn't want to just travel."

It was during this search that she came across the case of the Miskitus in Nicaragua. After graduating she temped as a secretary to raise money. Then, with a commission from the refugee studies programme to write a report about the Miskitu refugees, she went to Nicaragua in 1991.

Her fascination with their story eventually led her away from liberation theology to the study of the effect of a historic Protestant church movement on an ethnic population.

Moravian missionaries converted the Miskitus to their church in the 1880s and the majority remain members today. Indeed, Hawley argues that the Moravian protestant church was an essential factor enabling the Miskitus to construct a distinct identity. It mobilised them as an ethnic group against the Catholic liberationist Sandinistas whom they regarded as communists.

The Miskitus were a people that had hitherto been largely self-governing - they objected to Sandinista interference. The Miskitus led her to question the central tenet of liberation theology - that it is a movement for the poor and downtrodden. She realised that before such a movement can lead to an agenda for action, it is vital to do fieldwork. Religious studies must be approached using the methods of anthropology.

"As an intellectual project I have enormous respect for liberation theology, but although it claims to be the religion of the poor it tends to be a rather middle-class romanticised notion of what the poor are. It is only through an ethnographic presence in the field that you can really see what is going on at the local level."

For the six months that she was there she lived with a Sandinista nurse in Puerto Cabezas and with Miskitu families in villages along the Coco River. It was not an easy time. Communities were constantly under attack in the low-level but vicious skirmishes which continued between the Sandinistas and re-Contra forces. Looking back she admits there were some narrow escapes.

But she became increasingly convinced of the importance of this kind of fieldwork. Hawley returned to Nicaragua for five months in 1994, undertaking over 100 interviews with Moravian pastors and the principal Miskitu intellectuals and political leaders.

Her co-supervisor at Mansfield, Chris Rowland, Dean Ireland's professor in New Testament studies, encouraged her to continue this fieldwork through into a DPhil. She obtained funding for it having gained an Elfan Rees scholarship in theology from Mansfield College (Elfan Rees had worked with the World Council of Churches on refugee issues).

Although anthropology of religion exists as a subset of some religious studies degrees, to have a theology postgraduate from Oxford engaged in this kind of fieldwork is virtually unprecedented. But Hawley feels it is a step in the right direction.

"You are trying out theories on real people practising beliefs that theologians are theorising about. Participating, being on the ground for a long time to hear what people are saying and doing, as one does with anthropology, has a soundness to it methodologically that religious studies could take up more actively."

The fact that Hawley is able to stretch the theological boundaries thus far at Oxford is indicative of developments within that department. It is likely to offer religious studies as a degree in the near future.

And Hawley in future wants to teach religious studies herself. She hopes to teach in Mexico "which has a strong intellectual tradition in anthropology".

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