The Very Reverend Michael J. Battle, Ph.D. is the Herbert Thompson Professor of Church and Society and the Director of the Desmond Tutu Center at General Theological Seminary. Ordained by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Battle currently serves as vicar and rector in the Episcopal Church. Battle has written numerous works on the intersection of spirituality and reconciliation.
Faithfully Magazine spoke with Battle regarding his latest book, Desmond Tutu: A Spiritual Biography of South Africa’s Confessor, which provides a spiritual analysis of Tutu’s life and work in South Africa. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Reverend Michael Battle, you are the Director of the Desmond Tutu Center at General Theological Seminary. I’d love to hear a little bit more about you and your work.
For a long time, I have worked in theology, especially around concepts of reconciliation, non-violence, human spirituality, and moral theology. I had a wonderful opportunity to write my Ph.D. dissertation on Desmond Tutu’s theology and had the miraculous experience of living with him in 1993 and 1994. A lot of the themes in my book really come out of that crucible experience right before South Africa became a real democracy. So much of my work, then, has been trying to put together how Christian spirituality meshes with politics and how is it that we can have a life of integrity in a political world, especially as Christians.
Tell us about how you first crossed paths with Desmond Tutu.
So it was in 1992. I was making this decision to write my Ph.D. dissertation. I was going to write it on an Oxford Anglican bishop named Kenneth Kirk, who had this beautiful theology about how you can’t really know what’s right from wrong unless you have a vision of God. It’s only by knowing God that you know what’s right and wrong. And oftentimes in theology, we get it in reverse. We think we can know what’s right and wrong and then we go to God.
But I was hit by this epiphany that we already have a lot of work on White European, male theologians. And, interestingly enough, the medieval scholar at Duke University, where I was doing my Ph.D., she’s the one who told me that, and that I should really think about what it is I really want to study. Who is it that I would actually want to study even if I wasn’t doing a Ph.D.?