Berlin meets Pretoria on the role of religion in sustainable development

Posted on February 13, 2019

During the week of 27 to 31 January 2019, students and lecturers from the departments of Practical Theology at the University of Pretoria (UP) and Humboldt University of Berlin (HU), had the opportunity to attend a seminar at UP, entitled ‘Religious Communities and Sustainable Development (in South Africa). Interdisciplinary Approaches, to the Study of an Emerging Research Field’.

The collaboration between these two departments has been ongoing for almost a decade, but took a new and very innovative turn over the past months. Marie-Luise Frost and Philipp Öhlmann from Humboldt University envisioned the format for the latest phase of the cooperation. This vision entailed a process of joint learning in which both lecturers and students join and in which UP and HU students form research teams.

This new phase of the cooperation started with an exploratory meet and greet in the form of a Skype conference in November 2018, after which students talked about the various topics that each are interested in for their various research projects. Students with similar interests were divided into groups to initiate a first exploratory phase in their research between November and the end of January 2019. During this time the student teams prepared a research proposal that they had to present during the January seminar. Several lecturers were also invited to deliver keynotes on related themes during the seminar and PhD students in Practical Theology also had the opportunity to share their research during the seminar.

Soon the December holidays was over and the time approached for the long anticipated seminar. The Berlin students and lecturers were boarding planes in the heart of the German winter and the University of Pretoria students and lecturers were enthusiastically waiting for their guests to arrive in our lovely sunshine weather.

The joint seminar kicked off on Sunday, 27 January and the whole group attended a church service in a rapidly growing Charismatic church in Pretoria, in order to start the seminar with a South African religious experience. We all welcomed each other with friendly faces and excited hearts. After the church service the group enjoyed for a traditional South African braai. This first day set the tone for the rest of the week.

During the week that followed there were interesting and thought-provoking presentations by lecturers and students; lively debates; encouraging criticism whilst people from two parts of the globe interested in a similar research field experienced what a difference it makes when knowledge is produced and thoughts discussed in a truly inter-religious and inter-religious academic space. The papers delivered by lecturers assisted in the deepening the complexity of the issues that were being debated. For example, Dr Tanya van Wyk (UP) delivered a paper focusing on gender dichotomies, sustainable development strategies and the environment. Dr Stephan de Beer’s (UP) presentation explored an urban Africa in 2050 and how theological education or formation for flourishing African cities can be imagined for the future. Elijah Baloyi (Unisa) delivered a paper much needed in a South African context in which he explored issues related to reconciliation and the issue of land. Prof Jaco Beyers made the seminar group think critical about ‘What Is so Great about the Future?’ Elvis Mofokeng also shared his interesting study about ‘Liturgy as a Ritual that Can Mend a Broken Society. A Hymnological Study’.

The student’s presentations were also very relevant and insightful. For example, Lindie Denny (UP) shared insights from her current PhD study entitled ‘Reimagining Pedagogy of Theological Education at a South African University. The title of Josh Callamans (HU) presentation was ‘Memorialization of National Days and Monuments’. All these themes connected with the overarching and nascent field of Religion and Development and can be related to various Sustainable Development Goals.     

Not only were the academic debates enlightening, but new friendships were made during the course of the week. The student teams will continue to explore their topics together for the months to come and then present their final papers during a similar seminar in July in Berlin whilst academics from UP and HU will again present papers related to the topic. This prospect of meeting again in the near future made the good-byes between the students a little less sad.  

- Author Sariné Potgieter

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