Margarita Mooney: Connecting sociology and theology is important for students and the university

Margarita Mooney is an associate professor of congregational studies at Princeton Theological Seminary who teaches her students that the first move in learning is a posture of humility. Photo courtesy of Margarita Mooney

Students should take part in conversations across disciplines and perspectives and learn that even in disagreement, listening is key, says a professor of sociology and religion.

When Margarita Mooney heard the name Joseph Ratzinger for the first time, the only thing she knew about him was that he would be her next pope.

“I was 30 years old with a Ph.D. in sociology, and I had no idea who Joseph Ratzinger was,” she said.

A researcher to the core, she went to the library and looked him up. She found hundreds of entries, including more than 60 books, in several languages.

She started reading the pope-elect and found that his work was highly relevant to her own. Seeing the connections between his “Introduction to Christianity” and her own research sparked her interest in learning more theology.

“Where I’m strongest is really understanding the intersection between the social sciences and theology,” she said.

Mooney teaches now at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she works across disciplines and hopes to model for students how crucial hearing other voices is to learning in a university context.

She tells her students, “The first move in learning is a posture of humility and rejoicing and understanding something, even if you disagree with it,” she said.

Margarita Mooney is an associate professor of congregational studies at Princeton Theological Seminary and the executive director of Scala Foundation, which she established in 2016 to help students integrate study into life. She is the author of “Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora" (2009).

Mooney spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi while at Duke to deliver a lecture at the Kenan Institute for Ethics in February 2019. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: You’ve done research on Haitian immigrants in Miami, Montreal and Paris, you help students integrate classical liberal learning with their lives, and you have an upcoming book on the religious lives of young adults who have experienced trauma. What threads all your work together?

Margarita Mooney: The questions that have always driven me grow out of my own experiences growing up with my mother being a refugee from Cuba. She was very involved in the Hispanic community of our hometown and welcomed those fleeing from the civil wars in Central America.

I saw tremendous suffering but also a lot of hope and a lot of perseverance. That really fascinated me.

What led me to want to study both psychology and sociology was that I wanted to integrate the individual and social dimensions of the person. The person is inherently social, yet the social never eradicates the individuality of the person.

Perhaps the biggest shift in my work has been to bring in more theology explicitly, or a Christian understanding of the human person. I think that allows me to deal better with the actual experiences of people I hear from, and really engage human experience in its totality.

Oftentimes, an implicit or explicit tendency in psychology or sociology is to translate people’s spiritual experiences into terms of those fields. That just ran against the method I had been taught, where the goal was to really immerse yourself in other people’s experiences and understand them on their own terms.

If we’re going to understand people on their own terms, that also means understanding the way that they think about spirituality and God and the divine, even if it’s very different from our own thinking. It was that move that pushed me to read more in theology to understand the terms that people themselves were using.

F&L: Why is it important to use vocabulary from the community when doing sociological research?

MM: I have taught classes on the sociology of religion for many years, and I always have students conduct a mini-ethnographic exercise and an interview.

I tell students to go into their ethnography or their interview with a preliminary set of expectations. As human beings, we always have an intuition, something that’s drawing us to a particular community or to a particular question.

But inevitably, the language people use to describe their experiences -- if you’re really listening to them -- is going to be different from your language. I love seeing students realize that, because it happens every single time.

It’s not that the language we have from our own traditions isn’t useful. It’s a necessary starting point, but it can’t be the end. Is what you’ve learned from how people talk about themselves overturning your hypothesis? Is it expanding it? Is it nuancing it? Or perhaps you fundamentally disagree? It could be any of those.

I have been a participant and an observer in congregations that have a language around certain issues that I would disagree with personally, morally, but it’s still important to understand them on their own terms.

F&L: You did your doctoral work at Princeton, and you talk about how the seminary library was so important for you. Can you say more about your theological journey as a professor and researcher?

MM: When I wanted to turn my dissertation into a book, I was still living in Princeton, working as a postdoc.

I remember sitting in my office in the Princeton Office of Population Research, and somebody was elected as the new pope, somebody that I had never heard of: Joseph Ratzinger.

I figured if he’s going to be my pope, I should go read something by him. I walked over to the Princeton Theological Seminary Library, and I must have found about 200 entries, over 60 books.

I thought to myself, everybody is talking about this guy, except somehow I had missed it all these years.

I didn’t know where to start with Ratzinger, so I asked some friends. Somebody told me to read his work on secularization and the challenges of belief in the modern world. It was really relevant to my own work.

F&L: You’re an associate professor of congregational studies now. How do you find that your work in sociology affects your teaching?

MM: Most of the students are in the M.Div. program, so a lot of them intend to be serving the church in a pastorate or as a chaplain or in some form of ministry.

They have questions of synthesis and practicality -- “How does all of this knowledge come together to help me promote the human good and help people?” They’re not foremost looking to publish articles or even write dissertations. Some of them might, if they go on to another degree, but that’s not their immediate purpose.

Their immediate purpose really is the integration of knowledge for the furthering of human good.

When you’re in a Ph.D. granting program, you’re training students to write for journals, and the practical interests are often way, way down the list of priorities.

It frustrated me to see students who had really strong practical concerns being told that their practical concerns were somehow not related to the knowledge they were producing. I thought, philosophically, that was actually wrong. I think your knowledge -- especially when the knowledge is about people -- needs to be tested in the world.

F&L: To further those connections between the classroom and life, you founded something called the Scala Foundation. Could you describe its mission?

MM: The mission of Scala is to provide students with the knowledge, context, experiences and friendships in the community that will help them integrate their own knowledge around a set of normative and practical concerns.

As I embarked on my own journey of trying to synthesize knowledge across fields, that led me to think about the mission of the university. The whole reason we have a university is based on the idea that people speak to each other across fields.

But I had been missing a framework to think through what that humanistic synthesis of knowledge looks like. I wanted to share with students what I had learned by studying about the mission of the university, the integration of different kinds of knowledge, and the integration of faith and reason.

Scala tries to put these foundational questions about the mission of the university and the integration of knowledge before students.

I picked the name “Scala” because I was reading the Rule of St. Benedict and I was fascinated by the image of the ladder in the chapter on humility. The image of a ladder and the idea of humility are really important in the search for truth. The more you strive for knowledge, the more you realize you’re just at the bottom rung of this long tradition that really has no end, and that’s actually exciting.

Of course, St. Benedict founded a monastic community, and so part of Scala’s mission is also to create the kinds of communities where people bring their whole selves to the table and are able to engage with each other civilly in an atmosphere of hospitality and charity.

F&L: You’ve also called yourself a contemplative academic. What does that mean?

MM: One weekend while teaching at Yale, I took a reading group of undergraduates to the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut. It was sort of impromptu. The reason I went was that somebody wanted to meet the “Cheese Nun” and I thought she sounded cool, so we drove over to Regina Laudis and found her.

I was astounded at the reaction that a bunch of undergraduates from Yale had to being in a contemplative environment. They loved it! It might have been a self-selected group of students, but the environment had a noticeable impact on them.

After that experience, my friend told me, “Well, you should read some theology of St. Benedict. Don’t just go and hang around with Benedictines and just tour monasteries. You should understand the tradition.”

So I did. I was really moved by Jean Leclercq’s book “The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.” There are some amazing passages in there about how Benedictines preserve knowledge and study in a contemplative manner similar to lectio divina of Scripture.

For example, when early Benedictines read pagan authors, they looked for something beautiful instead of criticizing them first. Finding the beautiful, finding what we can rejoice in, becomes an approach to learning itself that starts with an acknowledgment that there’s a reality external to us.

We need a posture of learning that starts with -- and leads with -- listening.