A Night of Engineering Philosophy

We just held our first ‘Night of Engineering Philosophy’ at Imperial College. The ‘Night’ is an idea from ‘MoTiv’ – the training consultancy run by my chaplaincy colleagues from the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands. It was great to work for two days with Renske, Hans, and Gunther from MoTiv.

Engineering Philosophy

In Delft, the first night of philosophy took place when chaplains mediated between a group of students and their lecturers about the way the course was being taught. It gave students and staff a chance to share their deeper motivations for choosing engineering, for wanting to design, build and create.

The Night of Philosophy then became a regular event – a chance to talk outside the confines of the curriculum about the things that really matter for their work  – values, ethics, conflicts, context, politics, relationships at work, personal ambitions and passions for construction. All these things are implicit in the teaching and the learning. The challenge is to find good ways to have open and explicit ways to talk about them.

We worked with Rachel and Mitesh from the students’ Civil Engineering Society – who prepared and hosted the event.

The room was arranged with 6 tables – each with one member of staff and 6-8 students. Food and drink were provided. The first ‘course’ of conversation was about ‘why did you decide to become an engineer?’  The feed-back revealed a great range of motivations – shaping the world, building something tangible, creating something that lasts, making a difference.

There were also practical reasons, like ‘what can you do with maths and physics (if you do not want to be a doctor)’? and personal ones, like ‘my art teacher was my inspiration for engineering’.

In the second part the staff members shared personal engineering issues and interests. These included; the political decision making process around engineering like, the UK’s High Speed 2 Rail Project; the role of art and science in making iconic buildings; the need for new links between environmental and water engineers;  the different roles that scientists/engineers can play – pure scientist, science advocate, issues arbitrator, or honest broker.

It seemed that everyone – staff and students – enjoyed the conversations. No one needed any encouragement to participate! Everyone talked about things that really matter for their work. It was a conversation across the usual roles of the teacher and learner.

What is the role of chaplaincy here?

I think we have skills to facilitate these kinds of conversations. In our own work we need to listen carefully in order to help others find deeper meanings. To do this we can let a conversation move across different realms – personal experience, technical implications, values, ethics, key texts and their interpretation, ideas and beliefs, as well as the social, the political and cultural context. We are used to conversations that stretch across ideological boundaries and contain conflicting views.

Big thanks to ‘MoTiv’, to Rachel and Mitesh from Civil Eng Soc, and to Alison Ahearn.

‘Into a future unknown’ the Conference of European University Chaplains

Here is my first post about last week’s great conference in Sigtuna, Sweden.

This is just a quick overview of key note speakers. I want to come back to some of these themes in more detail in future posts. But this will give you a sense of what European university chaplains were thinking about.

Image of woman giving at talk - behind her is a projected image of a masked member of the English Defence League burning verses from the Koran.

This image is from the impressive presentation by Lisa Bjurwald, a Swedish journalist, who investigates European racist groups and extreme right wing parties. Highly relevant to UK news this week which was discussing the activities of the English Defence League seen here.

Mattias Gardell is a professor at Uppsala specialising in religious extremism and religious racism and was an expert witness at the trial of Anders Behring Brevik. Gardell looked at the connections between attacks on women’s rights and attacks on Islam.

Ulrika Svalfors, also from Uppsala University, argued for a practice of spiritual leadership that could value diversity rather than retreating into religious conservatism. I enjoyed her review of feminist and ‘indecent theology’.

Jesper Svartvik –  professor of Jewish-Christian relations and Biblical studies in Lund and Jerusalem –  addressed the need for Churches to respond positively to same-sex marriage. He argued that the Biblical texts often quoted by Christians opposed to same-sex marriage refer instead to abuse of hospitality or sexual violence. Other key terms in the debate are either obscure in meaning or do not correspond with our current understandings of sexuality.

Alongside these serious talks about the ‘future unknown’ in Europe there were many workshops on spirituality, education as transformation, and different ways to do chaplaincy. We also meet the Archbishop of Uppsala, attended a Rainbow Gospel Mass, went on a pilgrimage walk, did the usual sharing of food and drink from our own cultures, had a Swedish Midsummer party and, of course, the Abba-Sing-A-Long-Night (with fermented pickled herrings for that essential Swedish Marmite moment). open tin of Swedish fermented herrings, lovely!

Stillmotion – artist in residence in the monastery

Small stainless steel container hangingI wanted to share this blog by artist Rachel Sherwood. It records her recent role as ‘artist in residence’ at the monastery of the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield, West Yorkshire. The blog shows how her work developed in response to staying with the monks.


I love the conversation that goes on between the artist and the community. The artist looks at the familiar with new eyes. The community then start to see their life through her eyes. The blog reminded me of when Kate Pelen was artist in residence at the Chaplaincy.

Rachel Sherwood offers a good inside view of the workings of  a Christian monastery.

Off to the Bhumi Project : farewell my friends, part 2

One of my other colleagues left this summer. Gopal Das worked for the Chaplaincy for the last two years as one of our student Chaplains. Gopal made a great contribution to Chaplaincy communications – re-designing our website and our other digital and printed publicity. He developed our network to stay in touch with staff and students across three Colleges. Above all he turned Chaplaincy towards the Dharmic religions in a way we had never achieved before. So we had Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist groups regularly meeting in the Chaplaincy mainly as a result of Gopal’s work.

I wrote recently about Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Triangle for developing good relationships between people of different religions. So he says that knowing a person of a different religion increases knowledge which increases a positive attitude to their religion.Which, of course, makes possible deeper level conversations with other people of that religion which then sets off another positive trip around the triangle. Working with Gopal helped me complete many circuits of the interfaith triangle. As a Christian I learnt a great deal about Hinduism and especially Krishna Consciousness – I am so grateful for the personal contact and being able to work as part of a team.

Gopal is working for the Bhumi Project connected to the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. He is now in India working with others to model good care of the environment at major Hindu Pilgrimage sites and to spread the environmental message back into Hindu communities around the world. There is more info about this at   http://blog.bhumiproject.org/   and you can follow him on Twitter  http://twitter.com/BhumiGopalPatel

on Sabbatical

This term I am on sabbatical – study leave away from the Chaplaincy. After 21 years since ordination it’s a time for refreshment and study. And after ten years as a Chaplain I am having time to reflect on some key experiences of the work.

The idea of sabbatical originates from Judaism and it’s weekly ‘Shabbat’ – day of rest. Theoretically sabbaticals come every seven years but that seems rarely to be the case. Anyway, it’s a time for taking stock, for getting re-energised and hopefully spending some time being reminded of the key reasons why I got into this way of life in the first place.

It will not be a surprise to some readers that I am reading about conversation and dialogue between people from different cultures, religions and world views! These are the recurring themes of my work as a university chaplain.

So, in straight forward style, I started exploring ‘conversation’ with a seven-day silent retreat in France. But more about that and the links between ‘silence’ and ‘conversation’ another time.

A bientot!

Can I come and have a chat? : conversations people want to have with the Chaplain

Here is an article that I wrote this term for Felix, the student weekly newspaper at Imperial. It is longer than the usual post but aims to give an introduction to Chaplaincy for those new to the University. Conversation is a good theme for understanding what a Chaplain does.

‘Chaplaincy is really about conversation’ is the way a student once put it. Chaplaincy is a faith based welfare service for students. We seek to provide hospitality, support, reflection and dialogue around belief, religion, faith and spirituality. What that actually means is different types of ‘conversations’

Some conversations are quite straightforward. These are responses to clear religious needs ‘I have just moved flat where is my nearest mosque/temple/church?’ or ‘I would like to find out more about my religion can I meet with the Faith Advisor?’ or ‘Are there prayer rooms I can use?’

To reflect the diversity of religious views held by members of Imperial the Chaplaincy has a team of Chaplains and Faith Advisors for a variety of world faiths, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist. The Chaplaincy Centre has space for meetings and worship. We have quiet places in Beit Quad and Princes Gardens for meditation or prayer.


For those who want to explore a particular faith practice Chaplaincy provides opportunities for meditation from Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions.

Chaplaincy can also help with ‘conversations about meaning’. In an international academic community like Imperial there is a massive range of beliefs about the ‘big questions of life’. These include, among others, ‘Why we are here? What constitutes a person? Where do we find meaning? Do meanings have a lasting value? Why do bad things happen? and Is there a God/god? And if there is what does that mean?’

These questions are not just intellectual questions. Some of these questions relate to how we see and treat others. These influence our relationships, our professional ethics and our politics. The questions of purpose may influence how we see our work and career choices. And these apparently intellectual questions can have emotional dimensions about trust, hope, fear and desire.

The Chaplains have time for very open reflective conversations that allow us to do our thinking out loud. These conversations are confidential and respectful of the person’s worldview. Sometimes highly creative conversations occur because of great differences in religious and philosophical outlook. Rooted in our own traditions we offer space for open reflective conversation to anyone who wants to use it.

Increasingly Chaplaincy is involved in conversations between people from different religious traditions. This is about learning firsthand about other people’s beliefs and practice. It is also about becoming skilled at handling divergent and conflicting views. This kind of conversation is now trying to create new and positive engagement between religious and humanist perspectives. (See Rory Fenton’s Guardian Online Comment).

The other emerging conversation of our time is with those who describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. With students at the RCA we now have a non-religious meditation time. This uses simple methods of self awareness that allows people from different backgrounds to share silence and stillness (and is open to Imperial students).

Good conversation is one that can bring change and growth to both conversation partners. Conversations with students and colleagues from different religious and secular perspectives have shown me that my own faith is not about intellectual certainty but about deeper relationships of trust.

In the Chaplaincy we are open for conversation. So if you want to talk about Nietzsche and the death of God, or you want to try Indian cooking with our Hindu Chaplain, or walk a labyrinth, or try interfaith discussion, or talk about medical or engineering ethics, or sing carols, or talk about your anatomy classes, or if you have a really weird dream and want to change career, or to find new ways to pray, or talk about someone who has died, or if you want to find out about the religion of the person you have just fallen in love with, or…as I say, we are open to conversation.

For more information about Chaplaincy conversations and experiments in religion, spirituality and faith see www.imperial.ac.uk/chaplaincy