‘Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed cross the road?’

This is the title of Brian MacLaren’s latest book. It’s the best theological writing I have seen for Christians about the practice of building good relations between people of different faiths.

MacLaren suggests ways to create a strong and deep Christian identity that does not need to be hostile to people who have different beliefs and views. He calls this ‘non-oppositional Christianity’.

He argues that much contemporary Christian identity is  based, wrongly,on a strong and hostile opposition to certain ideas, groups and people – anything ‘other’ than ones own limited tribal version of Church.

Why has this become acceptable Christianity? Especially when Jesus constantly sees ‘other’ people from outside his own tribe/group as being part of  the Kingdom of God.

MacLaren offers a way of being Christian that I wish more of us Christians could enact and that more people who are not Christians would get to see first hand.

Here he is with a trailer for his own book. But you have to read the book to find out what does happen when everyone crosses the road – no great surprise if you are already into dialogue!

Everyone’s now ‘mulit-faith’

As part of my study leave I spent two weeks in the US. I visited  university staff and chaplains in and around Boston  – at MIT, Harvard, Boston University, Brandeis and Wellesley. I then went to the Gobal  Chaplains Conference at Yale, New Haven. There were 450 chaplains attending. They were mainly from Europe, North America, and Australasia. But I met chaplains from India and Uganda as well.

The conference theme was spiritual leadership in a multi-faith world. I don’t use the idea of ‘spiritual leadership’ myself but it seemed  a key self-understanding for American chaplains. What was clear is that working in multi-faith and multi-religious environments is now the norm in higher education in the western world. My  impression, from conversations with people about the workshops that they had attended, was that the US institutions invest in religious welfare way above that seen in the UK. For example, many US student services have departments of ‘Religious and Spiritual Life’ that sit along side counselling, accommodation and disability services. However, when it came to the detailed knowledge about  building  good relationships over time between people of different faiths then the UK had a great depth of experience.

So, a great many impressions and ideas about how religious people can relate to those with different world views to thier own. Yet there was not much about the next frontier – how to foster better mutual appreciation between people of religious world views and people with philosophical world views.

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