“This Is the Future of Theological Education”
Michael Trice brings strong background in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue to new role at STM
One of the new faces at Seattle University this fall is Michael Trice, assistant dean of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue in the School of Theology and Ministry. A more perfect title could not have been created for Trice.
“Dr. Trice has a breadth of formal education and experience in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, and a global consciousness that will enhance STM’s growing role in theological education at the national level,” Dean Mark Markuly said earlier this summer, announcing Trice’s impending arrival at the school.
Indeed. Trice most recently was associate executive of ecumenical and inter-religious relations for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). In this role, he worked with religious leaders nationally and internationally on issues ranging from the Middle East to serving on the White House Task Force for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation.
Trice’s work and collaborations have taken him all over the country and the world. He has met with political leaders such as Sen. Richard Durbin and Rep. Nancy Pelosi as part of an effort to combat Islamaphobia, to former President Jimmy Carter on Jewish, Muslim and Christians concerns related to the Middle East peace process. On the day The Commons caught up with him for an interview, Trice was preparing to leave for an international conference on Christian-Muslim cooperation in Malaysia that he co-organized. The conference, he said, was comprised of an equal share of Muslim and Christian economists and theologians, on the topic of structural greed in the 21st century virtual economy.
Reflecting on his decision to join STM, Trice said, “I visited STM five years ago, and of course the school and the university boasted this stellar reputation. Then, at these national and international venues, STM started rising to the surface of conversation as this intentional ecumenical flagship in a complex, religiously pluralistic world. There are only a handful of places in the world that attempt to do what STM does. This present way of forming leaders is the future of theological education. Even so, a university is exceedingly wise when it pursues visibly a heightened ecumenical and interreligious awareness and presence.
While to some the world may seem increasingly divided along religious lines, Trice sees a growing movement toward cooperative dialogue that is heavy on practical outcomes, particularly in the past five years. “In this current landscape . . . we’ve never seen anything like this,” he said, citing as one example the 2007 open letter from Muslim global leadership to Christian leaders around the world. Trice knows the document well as he helped draft a response for the former president of the Lutheran World Federation.
In addition to serving as assistant dean, Trice is also assistant professor of practical theology. Asked to define “practical theology,” he said, “The ‘practical’ is the constructive part of theology that asks tough questions, such as, ‘how does religion gain public leverage in the complexity of the world today?’”
It was a defining life experience that led Trice to his chosen field. After earning a master’s degree in theological studies from Duke University, he was preparing to attend law school in the fall of 2001. Around that time, he was working with inmates on death row and became close friends with one of them. “Shortly before his death, (this client and friend) questioned where the justice was in all of this. That deepened my own commitment to helping find a response to his question,” Trice said.
His friend was executed on Oct. 13 of that year. Trice was due at law school in three weeks; he never went. Instead, he pursued a Ph.D. in constructive theology from Loyola University Chicago and would later write a book, Encountering Cruelty: A Fracture in the Human Heart, which is a theological investigation inspired by his experience of structural injustice. (The book won the 2006 distinguished best original dissertation award for Loyola Jesuit University, Chicago.)
Trice says he feels very much at home at SU; the university’s Jesuit ethos resonates with his Lutheran sense of vocation, particularly the Ignatian “commitment to academic excellence and a fervor to be socially accountable and engaged.” This engagement, Trice said, is illustrated by a statue he describes of St. Ignatius on Loyola University Chicago’s campus. “Ignatius has his back to the water of Lake Michigan and he’s looking out into the city with a constant, unbreaking gaze.”
In his spare time, Trice enjoys playing guitar—anything from classical music to bluegrass—riding his bike and building furniture.
Of his time in Seattle so far, Trice said, “I love it. I have the privilege of working every day with a top-notch and absolutely committed faculty, dean and staff at STM. I couldn’t be happier.”
“You know,” Trice adds, “everyone told me it would rain all the time, but it’s been sunny most days since I arrived in August. I’m starting to think it’s just a ruse so no one else moves here,” he says with a laugh, letting on that he knows better.
Returning to his enthusiasm for STM, Trice said, “This is a vibrant religious landscape that’s flush with ecumenical and interreligious relationships and opportunities. I’m delighted and humbled to be here, and to get to participate in all of this.”