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The Meeting House & monotheism

The Meeting House is the spiritual centre of the Sussex campus (photo: pinkangelbabe via flickr.com)

The Meeting House is the spiritual centre of the Sussex campus (photo: pinkangelbabe via flickr.com)

During this coming week there is a seminar being held in the Meeting House to look at the way the 3 monotheisms might have the resources to heal some of the conflict that is being done in their name. This seemed like a good moment, and perhaps a way of placing the Meeting House and chaplaincy in a broader context, for some people who wonder what role it may be playing in the university today.

In 2011 Sussex University is gearing itself to celebrate 50 years of flourishing intellectual life, and so there has been some looking back as well as planning for the future.

If the question is asked ‘what the Meeting House is doing here at all, what place chaplaincy or religion has in a university’, it’s interesting to discover the same question was asked 50 years ago when the template for what Sussex was to be and become was laid down. There were some loud voices that shared the Marxist hope and assumption that religion was soon going to die out and there was no need to incorporate any spirituality into the project that was the modern university.

From the vantage point of 2009, that was mistaken – at least as a piece of analysis if not as personal preference.

Religion has not died. In fact it has risen to a new prominence, if only because it has become the fault lines along which the shifting tectonic plates of a more tightly knit global community defines itself, confronts and talks to one another. And the whole point of being in touch with one’s ‘inner intellectual’ is that one is willing to change the working hypothesis when it is falsified.

If it isn’t going to die out, and it is growing in prominence, what place does it have?

I have never had much time for the slightly lazy argument that religions are the root of most conflict. ‘People’ cause conflict, and people will use any cultural mechanism that comes to hand to justify their greed, rage, ignorance, and the endless capacity to violence that humans, but especially men, contain. Blaming religion is no more insightful than blaming your enemies. It’s more helpful to make a distinction between religion that is used well and is creative, insightful and has the capacity to ennoble the self and the neighbour, and religion that is misused, and used to blind and destroy. The same could be said of politics; it could even be said of some types of education!

Seminar: ‘The three monotheisms and their capacity for reconciliation’

At 6.00 pm on Tuesday 3 March in the Quiet Room at the Meeting House, Canon Andrew White will join in a seminar in which we will ask what the three monotheisms can contribute to healing and reconciliation in the world.

Canon Andrew White informally known as “The Vicar of Baghdad”, is one of the world authorities on the relationships between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Parish Priest of a flourishing community in Baghdad, he has been instrumental in negotiating with a variety of Islamic religious and political voices in Iraq.

Joining him to explore the extent to which the three monotheisms contain within their spiritual tradition the capacity for reconciling and healing the human condition will be:

  • Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah-Sarah from the Brighton Progressive Synagogue, and
  • Dr Paul Oestreicher, Quaker Chaplain at the University of Sussex, Vice president of CND and former chairman of Amnesty International,
  • Mr Tariq Jung, Chairman of the Brighton and Hove Muslim Forum.

After the seminar those who have time will be invited to sit down and eat together. If you would like to stay for food would you please bring some food for yourself and for sharing.

Whatever your own viewpoint on the claims of the different religions to describe how things are, they do offer remarkably persistent ways of providing a narrative and angle of perspective that set you to offer help with some fundamental questions that we all carry inside ourselves – “who am I really – what am I doing here – how can I change myself – how can I help to make the world a better place”? However clever we are, however successful intellectually we are, those questions of personal value and significance haunt us all. And despite Descartes, we aren’t disembodied intellects, – so if we are going to think successfully, we need to work out how to ‘be’ a little more effectively at the same time. (And don’t you find it a little bit odd that if someone wants to dismiss something as totally irrelevant, they say “yes, well that just academic isn’t it?!) There is a credibility gap between thinking and being in our culture.

One of the many ways in which chaplains spend their time is sitting with people who are asking these hard existential questions (all of which have political and communal dimensions) when no one else in the institution has either the brief or the time. But also, in a way that English culture finds hard to understand, a great many overseas students come with an outlook that takes the religious quest as a central part of who they are and how they think. Even home students find themselves being opened up by their intellectual journey to consider ways of analysing the world and society that keep on bumping into the religious or spiritual dimension.

So the Meeting House also runs groups; some of them like ‘Sceptics Anonymous’ make space for asking questions about ourselves, the possibility of ‘God’, human longing and suffering, which one feels can’t easily be asked elsewhere, because they are somehow culturally or intellectually off-limits. That in itself says something about some of the hidden prescriptions in our culture. Some of them are to help people explore different kinds of spirituality – a journey of praying and becoming. Some of them are to celebrate our lives, the world, the journey, and find some people in whose company the journey can be made. Some of allow opportunities to take soup the homeless on Brighton streets.

Despite appearances in the bars and clubs, there is much too much loneliness in our community; pretending to have a good time, or getting so pissed the pain is dulled, may masquerade as joy, but is too temporary, until the next hit, to deliver real happiness.

Some of the hedonism that university experience offers is the proper experiment into finding what is good and what lasts, as opposed to what just lures and lets down. But even so most of us need some extra resource to overcome the limitations of just pursuing what is most in our self-interest. Self-interest can make for emptiness. Spirituality sets out to help with that; to make a distinction between the self that needs containing and restraining; and the self that needs feeding and affirming – from which we offer love and compassion to our neighbour.

Coming to university means that we meet people we might not ever socialise with in other contexts; people whose politics, sexuality, ethnicity and priorities are different from ours – so different they can be alarming at first. Having an opportunity to get over and get past the shock of these different categories of people, and glimpsing the familiar vulnerable human being inside, is a way of learning not to demonise the different. One of the attractive features of the Meeting House, is that architecturally there are no corners to occupy and bunker down in – and socially, it’s a place where a wide group of people, eat drink, talk, meet, argue, discover, and even worship, meditate and pray. Good spirituality challenges our propensity to lock others into categories that are strange and threatening.

Some of the deepest wisdom we have in our cultural heritage is found in the spiritual traditions of the great religions. Looking forward to the next 50 years? We are faced with global injustice where resources are not shared with the helpless; with our capacity to wipe ourselves out with nuclear weapons, and the slow inexorable selfishness that fuels global warming.

We’ve become too clever to live without wisdom. The Meeting House provides and resources communities within the university where people try to marry their quest for wisdom, justice, with their intellectual discipline and a deepening of the journey of discovery of who they are and might become.

Learn to love yourself properly and you might learn to love your neighbour.

Changing hate into love, turning the other cheek, feeding the poor, are all some of the resources that good spirituality can offer to heal humanity in the face of hurt and fear.

The Rev’d Canon Dr Gavin Ashenden is the University Chaplain and a lecturer in the School of Humanities

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