Saturday, 31 December 2016

Religion and Higher Education in Europe and North America Reviewed

Religion and Higher Education in Europe and North America edited by Kristin Aune and Jacqueline Stevenson is a book focused primarily on research from the UK and the USA, although as the title suggests there are interesting chapters that look at the European context more widely and include Canada. It is an interesting and useful interdisciplinary text which brings together the world of Higher Education practice the sociology of religion which reflects both the editors and contributors’ fields of specialisation.
What I particularly liked about this book is that it contains chapters looking at a range of different faith groups and their interaction with Higher Education. Jasjit Singh’s chapter “Samosas and simran: university Sikh societies in Britain” gave an interesting overview of their development and current position. As a chaplain who interacts with a range of users of the university multi-faith centre in which I am based this gave me a useful insight.

Similarly, Charlotte Shira Schallie’s chapter looking at Jewish student identity and the politics of identification in Canada was useful in giving an insight into the experiences of students from that faith. Whilst primarily focusing on the debate within British Universities on Israel-Palestine Ruth Sheldon’s chapter gave a complementary insight into Jewish student identity.

These chapters came within section two of the book: “The religious student experience: learning from qualitative studies”, which was for me the most interesting part of the book. It also contained a paper from Aune and Guest developing some of the material from the research study and book Christianity and the University Experience which they were involved in.

The most enlightening chapter within this section was Invisible Islam: Muslim student migrant’s everyday practices in French secular universities by Anna Virkama. The portrayal of the French Secularism tends to be stereotyped within British media and discussion as does the way it is negotiated. This article reminded the reader that the construction of identity and the negotiation of context is complicated and differs according to individuals. The reductionist approach many of us take towards that situation is shown to be reductionist by this chapter.

Qualitative research and case studies are interesting and have much to teach us but it is also useful to examine the wider scope of the landscape and this is what the first part of the book does, using more quantitative methods coming from survey data.

The United States has more data available and so it is not surprising that two of the three chapters in this part of the book focused upon them. Jonathon P. Hill sought again to caution people against reaching reductionist conclusions about the secularising impact of secular universities by arguing for people to look at a wider range of variables in relation to religious affiliation and belief by students. This chapter adds a useful new piece to the pile of material relating to the secularisation debate.

This common theme of “it’s complicated and varied” was echoed by Paul Weller and Tristram Hooley looking at How religion or belief frame participation and access in UK higher education. The argument they gives argues that with regard to the core concerns of education, retention and achievement / teaching and learning / the university experience religion is important and there should be far more data being gathered, analysed and acted upon in relation to it.

This argument that much more notice should be taken of religion in relation to the policies and planning of universities is taken up in the final third of the book “The place of policies, structures and curricula”. This chapter focused more upon the UK and Europe and dealt explicitly with some of the issues which come out of us living in the era of PREVENT and the events which are argued to have made it necessary.

The chapter by Sariya Cheruvalli-Contractor and Alison Scott-Baumann about Islamic Studies in UK universities: challenging the curricula did this more implicitly than other papers in this chapter. They looked at the way many courses still have their roots in Orientalism and the way in which the courses need to update themselves to deal with the lived experience of Muslims and Muslim young people today. This goes back to the earlier themes this book dealt with so well, the importance in recognising the diversity of religious identities and negotiation of context. This theme is further underlined by Joke van Saane who looks at “the role of religion and personal life orientation in curriculum development processes within the domain of religious studies”.

Adam Dinham’s chapter calls loudly for higher education institutions (HEI’s) and society more broadly to deal with the urgent need for an increase in religious literacy. This call coming loudly from within practical theology and the sociology of religion community and beyond is one which we need to take seriously. Doing this would enable HEI’s and others to do what Duna Sabri is calling for when she talks of the need for us to take the religion part of the 2010 Equality Act as seriously as we do other parts.

The conclusion and overall recommendations coming from this text come within the introductory chapter from Stevenson and Aune where they give 12 practical recommendations about how HEI’s could move further towards being “religiously inclusive”.

Is this book worth getting hold of? Yes, most definitely, if you have any kind of role in planning, policy formation or teaching and learning within universities or are involved in HE Chaplaincy work. It is a unique book which was published as part of the Society for Research into HigherEducation (SRHE) series. The breadth of the book, the multi-faith contributions and the fact it is the most contemporary text available with a range of contributions from top researchers in the field make it, I would argue, an indispensable text for those currently seeking to develop medium term plans in the current HEI context with all its shifting sands. 

Monday, 5 December 2016

Political Night Prayer....Disturbing the Soul

120 + people turning out on a cold November evening in Birmingham for Political Night Prayer was not what I expected when I decided to go along. When I got there, I looked around and noted the faces I recognised and the “look” of those I didn’t. The room was full of those who might be described as veterans of activism. Yet, I think most of us were there because we were thinking “what now?” and none of us are quite sure how to deal with the current situation. We wanted Keith Hebden of the Urban Theology Unit/ Union (they’re in the middle of a name change) and others to guide us.

As the evening drew on I was struck by a range of things which both encouraged and disturbed me. First the encouraging: the room was full of people who wanted to come together prayerfully to look at where we go from here. The worship was well organised and in many ways beautiful. There was a clear will expressed amongst people to become co-ordinated in doing something to try and move forward from where we find ourselves at the moment. That was the positive…..

Now on to the stuff that disturbed me a bit, the stuff I want to use this post to help me unpack in my mind.

The key thing is we are looking at how to engage with a popularist uprising of the disengaged and the disenchanted. The “Islington Dinner Party” insult being used so much in the direction of the Labour Party leadership particularly is talking about an intellectual approach which is out of line with the thinking of many. Now, I want to say that I think, generally, this is an unfair slur on Corbyn. However, last night I got it a bit more. There is a relativism to things when it comes to class.

Hands up, I am middle class and in many ways might have that “Islington Dinner Party” insult thrown in my direction due to my academic background and that of many of my friends who I chat with on social media and so forth. Yet, last night I found myself feeling excluded and like I was in a room of “posh” people whose lives were obviously far removed from me.
In terms of worship one of the things was the singing Taize chants in a range of modern European languages, but none in English. Yes, the English subtitles were underneath but due to the complexity of the pronunciation, etc. I was unable to sing two of them. The short Latin one I could manage in full and then there was one where I could manage to sing one word over and over whilst leaving others to do the complicated bit. I did mutter to the person sitting next to me I wish I had a GCSE in some foreign language.

There was one folk style tune but nothing within the evening which might be described as “low culture”. I reflected on the difference between this and the way I had been able to really engage with the Shelter Carol Concert earlier in the week which for me had enabled me to comfortably engage than any faith based event I could remember. That event had included a bloke who had been in Dexy’s midnight runners singing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” as well as the Choir With No Name singing in a style which I could enjoy. It had also included some high culture, but unlike the night prayer it mixed both together and I had felt comfortable rather than excluded.

Now please don’t get me wrong I’m not talking about differences in styles of worship here I’m talking about something deeper……….that gulf which seems to be getting wider in society between the “elite” and “the ordinary person on the street”. If we are seeking to bridge that and bring people together we need to do it in our worship as well as in our conversations.

That takes me on to Keith Hebden and what he was saying. Now don’t get me wrong I have a lot of time and respect for Keith and his theology and authenticity. Yet, when he was talking the nagging feeling of “the gap” was there. It spiked when he was talking about going to Lourdes, because he was passing. Now, he said it in the same way as somebody like me who doesn’t go trotting round France might talk about popping into Next when going through Birmingham, to just have a look around. For me and those who are more economically challenged than me the thought of just passing Lourdes was a complete anathema. Again if we are going to engage with what is going on we need to think about who “we” are and who “we” want to include.

As Keith spoke about acts of solidarity he had been involved in as well as the need to organise in order to mobilise I had mixed feelings. My thoughts moved between ungracious ones about hippies and into positive ones about there was something in this. I was conscious of the material in “Blueprint for Revolution: How to use rice pudding, Lego men, and other non-violent techniques to galvanise communities, overthrow dictators or simply change the world” by Srdja Popovic (of Canvas) and Matthew Miller, which is a book I would highly recommend to you. The need to go through a series of steps in the right order to achieve the change you desire rather than a void other people can exploit is so important.

As I sat reflecting on all this, and later woke in the night with my mind mulling these things over I was disturbed….I am disturbed. I could see the social movement theory in what he was saying but I was not sure I could see Christ.

We’re currently in Advent and I have already heard a variety opinion given on what that means in the current context; some talking of journeying, some talking of living in the now as if it were the what we are awaiting and some talking of time to be and reflect.

Something is bubbling up, something is disturbing, where is it leading? I am not sure, for now the best response seems to be to gather when we can, searching together for the answer. Taking opportunities like this to pray, but also engaging in organised and random acts of kindness as well as listening. Listening and hearing the voices of those we “other” through our middle-class elitism. That is where I am grateful for social media.

In his talk Keith Hebden talked about the way it does not give freedom of speech, it involves power given by others. This might be true, but it does give opportunity for us to hear those different voices from time to time if we stay connected to them when we may not like their posts. As for the alternative platform, he is suggesting. It will still have gatekeepers……these things always do.

So you see I have no answers either……in fact day by day I have less answers and a more disturbed spirit, but equally and paradoxically I do have more hope. I look at the way in which people are coming together and looking for what to do….rather than just what to say & there I do see Christ.