Religion and Conflict

A University of Virginia scholar is applying his knowledge to address the beliefs and conflicts that shape communities around the world.

 Jonathan Teubner

Jonathan Teubner

By Gracy Olmstead

Jonathan Teubner knows eight languages. He’s traveled from Oklahoma to Washington, D.C., New Haven to Cambridge, Tübingen to Paris. He’s written a book about Augustine and prayer, translated theological works from German to English, and written reviews for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

But amid all his travels and scholarship, Teubner has increasingly developed an awareness of the beliefs and conflicts that shape communities around the world. Both in his scholarly and in his nonprofit work, he’s seeking to address those issues however he can—via teaching at the University of Virginia, coordinating conflict resolution programs, and working with churches around the world.

But in everything, Teubner seeks to pursue one indefatigable mission: that of becoming a faithful Christian scholar.

Teubner grew up in a Christian home in Stillwater, Oklahoma, a small college town that serves as home of Oklahoma State University. He went to public school throughout his younger years before attending Crested Butte Academy, a private competitive ski academy, for part of his high school years.

Teubner was good at math, he says, but found the subject a bit tedious. Economics, he thought, might expose him to interesting questions about society and politics, while complementing his mathematical talents. “I went forward with that, without really questioning it much,” he notes. He began attending his hometown university, Oklahoma State, in 2002.

During the summer between Teubner’s sophomore and junior year, he interned for Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) on Capitol Hill. There, Institute alum Jeff Hassler suggested that Teubner consider the Witherspoon Fellows Program (a precursor to the John Jay Fellows Program that served college students). “I think you would like it,” he told Teubner.

Hessler connected Teubner with Alan Crippen, director of the Witherspoon program. After the two had a phone conversation about the fellowship and its goals, Teubner decided to apply.

Before attending the Witherspoon Fellowship, Teubner says, he was not a typical economics student. He wrote occasional op-eds for the student newspaper, and was interested in discussions concerning politics and society, community and religion. Although he enjoyed the technical principles of his discipline, he wanted to tie them to deeper problems and concerns. The Witherspoon program made those larger considerations even more tantalizing.

“Until the Witherspoon program,” Teubner says, “I think I had only encountered approaches to cultural engagement that foregrounded some kind of proselytizing, making them more or less all about power and one’s acquisition of as much of it as possible. A kindly, humble, thoughtful approach to living as a witness to Christ in and through one’s work is what I found and what I still deeply respect in the Witherspoon and John Jay Institute mission.”

Teubner credits the Witherspoon program with prompting a turning point in his undergraduate experience: “from run-of-the-mill econometrics to broader questions about culture and society.”

As he drew near the end of his time at OSU, Teubner was uncertain whether he wanted to seek out a political job in D.C.—one of the more immediate choices for his academic background and job experience—or whether he ought to seek out something else.

It was his Latin professor who ultimately pushed Teubner toward the study of theology. Teubner spent a lot of time in both core and elective Latin classes, and cultivated a strong relationship with his teacher. Questions that swirled through Teubner’s mind—considering theology and philosophy, meaning and community—caused his professor to push Teubner toward divinity school.

So Teubner applied—and was accepted—to both Princeton Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School. After visiting both campuses, he chose Yale. While there, he began to focus on the history of Christian thought, and the intersection of that thought with matters of money and philanthropy. “That has been more or less my academic discipline since then,” Teubner notes.

His studies in the realm of social capitalism and the morality of money led Teubner deeper into considerations of how charity and philanthropy work—questions that have increasingly risen to the forefront in American discourse and literature, as we consider the growing impact “big philanthropy”— the Apples and Facebooks, Gates and Rockefeller families of the world—have on the philanthropic realm.

“When you disconnect the intimate knowledge of a group of people from the philanthropic endeavor,” Teubner says, “you’re going to have a lot of trouble.” Prudence, he notes, is often the missing ingredient in big philanthropy, because these organizations “have disconnected themselves from intimate knowledge of needs, or being able to connect resources with needs.”

During his time at Yale, Teubner spent 18 months studying in Germany. During that time, and in his nonprofit endeavors since, Teubner has seen the fascinating ways in which the government there seeks to partner with private philanthropic organizations. England and France, he notes, strongly focus on public philanthropy, whereas U.S. public leaders are rarely open to the idea. But in Germany, there’s a unique fusion of the two: “When we talk about state versus private philanthropy,” he says, “American politicians often seem to worry about being taken for a ride or being taken advantage of.” In contrast, he said, German political leaders are “very much concerned about moral hazard and creating dependencies, while also wanting to help people.” In the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis, he noted, the German state handed over the responsibility for integrating refugees into German society to the Benedictine convent in Dinklage, thus building more partnerships with civil society and religious organizations.

After his time in Germany, Teubner came back to Yale and rented a beach house outside New Haven with some friends. That fall, they invited people over for a Labor Day barbecue, and Teubner met his future wife: Rachel Winter. Their conversation blossomed into a friendship, and they started dating around Christmas. Less than a year later, Teubner proposed. “Rachel is one of the most talented writers I know, and that has completely benefited me,” Teubner notes with a laugh.

After Rachel finished her degree, Teubner applied and was accepted to the University of Cambridge, where he received his Ph.D. in the philosophy of religion and ethics from Trinity College. Toward the end of their time in England, Rachel was accepted to a Ph.D. program at the University of Virginia, and the couple moved to Charlottesville and the UVA campus. Some time after, Teubner received a Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Laboratoire d’excellence in Paris, France, where he crafted a research project focused on the “Morality of Money:” studying the promotion of almsgiving as an economic practice within the medieval period.

Throughout this time, moving from country to country and university to university, Teubner remained “roughly within the theological world.” But he increasingly sought to foster and build his personal faith alongside the study of theology, and consider the question of faithful scholarship within each of these various geographical contexts.  He’s learned what faithful Christian scholarship looks like for French Catholics in Paris, for German Lutherans in Tübingen, or for members of the Church of England in and around Cambridge.

Teubner’s life, he says, is still caught up in the tension between all those groups: “I still have a position in Paris, and do a lot with the Church of England. While Charlottesville is my home, I spend large chunks of every year in one European country or another.”

The reason Teubner’s still dedicating much of his time overseas is because he currently serves as one of the directors for Global Covenant Partners, an organization that seeks to help reduce and prevent political and religious conflict in countries around the world. Just as Teubner notes the importance of specificity and prudence in philanthropic endeavors, he’s seen firsthand its importance in political and conflict-resolution undertakings.

“We connect local nonprofit organizations with resources,” he explains. “Sometimes a local NGO has no idea which big players are interested in, and capable of, helping them. We see ourselves as a bridge between local people and resources sometimes hidden from the view of local practitioners.”

Global Covenant Partners brings together political, civic, and religious leaders to foster conversations and promote reconciliation. This year, Teubner and his colleagues are traveling to Alexandria, Egypt, to assist with local conflict resolution efforts. They will bring together representatives from the country’s Coptic, Anglican, and Sunni Muslim communities, alongside civic and political leaders.

The religious component, Teubner notes, is vital—and often overlooked in these efforts.

“Big organizations in Western Europe and North America want to help with conflict resolution, but when they direct it, they tend to overlook the importance of local religious leaders,” he says. “GCP’s essential DNA is bringing together political, civil society, and religious leaders. You need religious leaders as part of these meetings and groups. If you don’t, you’ll lose a key legitimacy in these societies. Because we work in non-Western context, we don’t always understand that.”

But much of Teubner’s work in conflict resolution is also hitting increasingly close to home. These days, Teubner and his family are settled  in Charlottesville, where he teaches with the University of Virginia’s Religion, Politics, and Conflict program.

On August 12, a few weeks after our original phone interview, Charlottesville was rocked with violence when white supremacist groups traveled from around the U.S. to Charlottesville in order to protest the imminent removal of a statue of a Robert E. Lee statue and clashed fiercely with AntiFa groups and other counter-protesters. That afternoon, one of the white protesters—a young man named James Alex Fields, Jr.—drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a young woman and injuring many others.

“I believe very strongly that we cannot be anything but very clear with our condemnation of the hatred and opportunism that led the alt-right, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, and other white supremacists to come to Charlottesville to protest a local decision (having been arrived at through a transparent, deliberate, and legitimate local political process),” Teubner told me via email. “There was a diversity of opinion on whether the statues of Lee and Jackson should remain, be removed, or re-contextualized. But there should be absolute clarity on how local politics was hijacked by a protest that consisted largely of out-of-state actors. What I have found in my time working on religion, politics, and conflict is that one of the most lethal stages in any conflict is when the conflict transitions from a local concern to a regional, national, or international concern. The white supremacists and neo-Nazis fixated on Charlottesville some time ago—Richard Spencer is an alumnus of UVA—and aggressively sought to make the outcome of our local deliberative process grist for their mill.”

Here again, Teubner notes, specificity and prudence is important to fixing problems and fostering reconciliation. “We must engage the local communities, particularly the more conservative religious communities, to draw from the depths of their own theological traditions to contribute to a healthily plural society,” he says. “While we can’t be naive, an attitude that is based on optimism, we should be hopeful. The concrete outcome for which we hope is, I think, unknowable, but we know it only in part and will continue, day-to-day, to discern what needs to be done.”

The students Teubner has taught at UVA are “very much engaged over questions I encountered at Witherspoon, which John Jay is carrying on,” Teubner said. “But it’s that last word, conflict, that captures their attention. They’re very concerned about conflict in and around and between religious communities.”

Teubner seeks to help them foster the best forms of dialogue, free from parody or typecasting, while also giving them an analytic framework that will help them diagnose, and even predict, where violence might emerge. While many “try to reduce [conflict] issues to crises of identity, or politics, or economics,” Teubner believes they “won’t make headway unless they take religious commitments seriously.”

As he balances his scholastic, professorial life with the prudential and practical work of Global Covenant Partners, Teubner believes the University of Virginia will continue to afford opportunities to grow both vocational avenues. “For me, I always want to be in the world, practicing things, putting these ideas to work, but also thinking critically about them. Both of those are very important, and I can’t see myself wanting to go purely one way or the other.”

Teubner and his wife had a daughter, Ella, about 11 months ago, and she was baptized last month. “I am trying to find time to read, to write, and to raise a child—it’s fun and exciting. And also challenging,” he says with a laugh.

When the academic, ecclesiastical, and social life of an individual pull apart, Teubner says, “that’s where the Christian scholar has given up on being a Christian scholar in any meaningful sense. The idea is that these various pieces of life become increasingly integrated, informing each other, moving toward the integral Christian life, as opposed to morally excelling in one area or another.”

Thus, for Teubner, being a faithful Christian scholar increasingly revolves around asking—and answering—these questions: “Am I growing in righteousness? Are the relationships around me being more and more enriched by what I’m doing, or are they growing more and more siloed?”

In Charlottesville and beyond, Teubner seems to be answering these questions rightly.