The other day I attended a most interesting series of talks at the University of Pittsburgh, where I serve as a Chaplain. The title of the event was ‘Finding the Spirit Within: Exploring Spirituality’, and it was offered as a ‘professional development opportunity’ for faculty and staff. There must have been a couple of hundred people in attendance, and most seemed to be from the Student Affairs department; several I spoke to were counselors. I didn’t run into any faculty.

The first speaker was introduced in a way that made it clear that he had stepped in at pretty short notice, and what he actually did was to remind us of the many different things that spirituality means to different people, and how we should be sensitive to those differences in our dealings with each other, and he drew attention to some of those differences and ways of being sensitive to them. But as the morning progressed, a difference emerged that does not get addressed as often as it should, especially in the University setting.

The difference arises from the way we define spirituality; all of those present were working with a definition of spirituality that meant, as it did to the speaker, a way of knowing or arriving at ultimate values, but to all the faculty and staff I spoke to or heard speaking, it meant a way outside traditional expressions of religion, whereas to the students who participated in the workshops following the first address, and (one hopes) to the chaplains who were invited, it referred to something within a traditional religion or denomination. Three of the chaplains spoke about their work at a workshop after the first speaker had finished, but I skipped that and went to one where three students spoke about a trip to Israel from which they’d just returned, and they applied their insights to the spiritual differences between Jews, Muslims and Hindus (one of the students being a Hindu). These workshops were followed by a session at which more students, eight or nine of them this time, described their spirituality, and all but one of them described a traditional religious expression. The one who didn’t was an atheist, and was actually reluctant to describe her position as spirituality, let alone religion. The rest were Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Deist, and from several different Christian traditions.

The reason why I’m describing all this is because the difference in understanding of spirituality seemed to be matched by a difference between what the University staff thought the students needed and what the students themselves wanted. The students all seemed very willing to be sensitive to each other, and the general thrust of the speaker’s remarks didn’t seem needed by them. When the students were asked how the University could help them in their spiritual journey (or words to that effect), what they wanted was more and better kosher and halal food, exam schedules that didn’t conflict with religious observances, a space where Muslims could pray that wasn’t also used for some secular purpose (although an inter-faith chapel would be fine, contrary to what I would have expected the Muslim position to be), and professors who didn’t rubbish religion in their lectures.

The problem with these requests as far as the University is concerned is that all these students (except the Atheist, perhaps) have the wrong spirituality. The idea that spirituality is something available outside traditional religious channels is a familiar one, of course, but I heard, in my conversations with staff, the idea that spirituality is something only available outside traditional religious channels, and that traditional religion, of any kind, is antithetical to real spirituality. This idea doesn’t only affect the University’s attitude to students in an informal way, but has found a place in many of the University’s structures; student organisations, for instance, are not allowed to have worship as their purpose (the Episcopal Students’ Organisation was made to take that out of its constitution before it could be approved), and worship is not permitted in any of the meeting rooms available to student organisations or chaplaincies (as the new Christian Missionary Alliance chaplaincy recently discovered). So no one in the University with the authority to grant the wishes of those students is likely to do so; if the students insist on adhering to a spirituality associated with a traditional religion, they are on their own.

It’s worse than that, actually; not only are there faculty who throw in snide remarks about the students’ religion during their lectures, but there are members of the University staff responsible for the welfare of the students who are positively evangelistic about their anti-religious spirituality. Last year I attended a gathering of a couple of hundred students organised by the University to help them think about their goals in life, and the keynote address, by a fairly senior staff member, told us we could all create our own reality by thinking the right thoughts, and that if bad things happened to us it was because we were too negative. What’s more he gave ‘scientific proof’ of this, showing photographs taken by some Japanese ‘scientist’ who specialised in taking pictures of ice crystals made by freezing water that had been exposed to various psychic influences! One set of pictures contrasted the crystals of ice from water samples that had sat for an hour on top of paper on which the words ‘I love you’ or ‘I hate you’ had been written, and the latter were drab and boring crystals while the former were beautiful snowflakes. He even included a hint of altar call, urging the students to decide to live their lives in the light of this tonight, assuring them that it would change their lives. But it’s only religious schools that brainwash their students, of course!

I don’t know if there was anyone who heard the students’ requests who can grant them—75% of those in attendance had left before the last session—but let’s hope the chaplains, at least, are willing to campaign for them.

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