Monday, 9 February 2015

Exams & Religious Observance

Semester two is under way and it won't be long till exams begin to appear on the horizon... 

If, for religious reasons, you are unable to attend exams on a Sabbath, holy day or religious festival fear not! If you complete a 'Religious Observance Form' and submit this to the Exams team they will endeavour to avoid exams for you on that date/time. 

The deadline for submission of completed forms is:
1 March – For May/June Examinations

 The University will make every effort to avoid arranging exams on a Sabbath or holy day for those students who have informed the Exams office as required, however owing to the logistical difficulties of scheduling a large number of examinations involving many thousands of students, to take place over a limited number of days, it may not always be possible to avoid these dates/times. The University, therefore, reserves the right to hold exams on such days if no alternative time is convenient.

You do need to let them know so fill out the form if this might affect you :)  

Drop them a line at: if you have any queries about how the process works. 

Friday, 30 January 2015

When Rights and Freedoms Collide.

Since 2003, legislation has been in place to protect lesbian, gay and bisexual (and indeed heterosexual) people from discrimination in the workplace. Similar legislation was introduced at the same time to protect people of faith (and those of none), which led some to believe that trying to uphold both would lead to conflict.

Equality and diversity legislation continues to emphasise the importance of treating people fairly and without discrimination. There is also an increasing emphasis on ‘good relations’. Enabling different communities to live, work and socialise together is considered key to eradicating discrimination.

Recent press attention has focused on controversy regarding Sexual Orientation and Religion or Belief issues, including, but not limited to the Christian registrar who refused to carry out same-sex registrations, the psychosexual counsellor who refused to counsel same sex couples, the B&B owners who refused to provide a room and facilities for a same sex couple or more recently the clergyman who was dismissed for entering into a same-sex marriage.

Whilst I have no doubt that in each of these cases, there has been an unlawful act of discrimination, my sense is that amongst, certainly the Christian communities, that there is an erosion, and a sense of unfairness in that each of the judgements have gone against the person (or organisation) of faith. A sense that the argument has been unfair and unbalanced.

The truth of the matter is that it is not the case of one right trumping another. The basis for these decisions is that reasons of faith cannot be used as a justification to treat others less favourably, no matter how profoundly those beliefs are held.

Serious harassment or discrimination related to these issues is more likely to occur in organisations where employees feel uncomfortable about being open about their sexuality or religious beliefs. In terms of creating a comfortable, accepting culture, experience stresses the importance of organisations making specific references to Sexual Orientation and Religion or Belief in their diversity policies and signalling commitment to follow good practice to respond to issues and overcome barriers.

So what about Keele? Having been part of the Keele Community for a little over a year, I do not see the same conflicts or tensions that exist in other organisations. Whether this is a higher education or simply a Keele phenomenon, I do not know. Faith based activities and LGBT activities often run side by side, or in happy partnership with one another. Freedom of expression of faith and of sexual orientation are celebrated and welcomed at Keele.

Does Keele have something to teach the outside world?

Stuart McKenna
Equality and Diversity Manager

Thursday, 23 October 2014


Diwali 2014
Diwali, the five-day Hindu festival of lights, celebrates new beginnings, the emergence of light from darkness and the triumph of good over evil. It is also observed by Sikhs and Jains, and in many British cities has evolved into a celebration that welcomes all cultures.

When is Diwali 2014?
This year the festival will start on Thursday 23 October. Its timing varies year by year, but it usually falls between mid-October and mid-November. The specific dates are determined by the Indian lunar calendar.

What's it all about?
Diwali, which translates literally as "row of lamps", is a celebration of the victory of good over evil, light over dark and knowledge over ignorance. It is principally a Hindu, Jain and Sikh festival. Traditions associated with Diwali can be traced back as far as 50-100 AD.

How Diwali is celebrated
Traditionally, families light small painted earthenware lanterns half-filled with oil, leaving them outsides houses overnight so that Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, can find her way safely into their homes. The more lamps a family lights, the more easily Lakshmi will be able to find her way to their home, the tradition suggests. Modern celebrations incorporate bright electric lights and fireworks, and lots of them – India's Diwali illuminations can be seen from space.

It is also a time for spring cleaning the home, eating sweets and exchanging gifts. Many Hindus draw colourful rangoli – traditional decorative patterns made with rice flour, often in the shape of lotus flowers – outside their homes.
The largest Diwali celebrations outside India take place in Leicester, where about 35,000 people gather along Belgrave Road for the switching-on of the lights. Yet more arrive for the peak of the celebrations.

What is eaten at Diwali?
Diwali is as much a festival of food as of light. Each Indian region has its own customs, but most involve specific dishes for each phase of the celebrations. About a month before the festival, Hindu women of the older generation will gather in each other’s kitchens to start planning and preparing the important Diwali snacks and sweets.

Traditionally, little Indian sweetmeats known as mithai are eaten both with meals and between them throughout the five days. They are a cross between a snack, a dessert and a sweet.

With thanks to Stuart McKenna Equality and Diversity Manager at Keele for his contribution to the blog.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Mysticism and Politics a reflection from Rachel Berkson

When Keele invited former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to give a talk and meet some university people, they decided to issue me a personal invitation to the talk and the dinner afterwards, in order to encourage interfaith involvement in the event.

The talk was stunning and I'm really glad I went. Williams is not the first Archbishop I've shaken hands with; I met the George Carey  ante-penultimate Archbishop of Canterbury briefly at an interfaith event at Lambeth Palace when I was a teenager. I'm sure there are people who would be more excited to hobnob with Archbishops than me. But Williams as a speaker is really worth listening to; he gave a very thought-provoking talk, flat out one of the best lectures I've heard in several decades of hanging around universities. 

On a technical level, Williams is just a very good speaker. He has a really impressive presence, such that every word seemed weighted and carefully chosen and he spoke continuously and fluently for an hour, holding the audience's rapt attention. Bardic, is the word that comes to mind, and he was just as good when answering questions off the cuff as in his prepared speech. And the argument was extremely well structured; he made a number of complex, sophisticated points while making the whole piece accessible and clear. He didn't touch the cutting edge AV equipment he was offered, but rather just naturally did the things that the rest of us rely on Powerpoint for, explaining the structure as he went along, summarizing key points as he moved on to a new section of the argument. 

His topic was Mysticism and Politics and the blurb mentioned exploring the writings of Teresa of Avela  
and Thomas Merton. So I was expecting a theological disquisition in the academic sense, but actually the talk was much more like a sermon in some ways. I did learn some facts about the history of Christian thought, but largely the topic was religious rather than academic. 

He started with a quote from a poet I hadn't heard of but who I think is this person: Charles PĆ©guy Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics. Williams' idea was that this is ambiguous, you can take it to mean that pure spiritual religion ultimately gets corrupted by messy real-world politics, or that wishy-washy fluffy religious feeling is only valuable if it prompts real action on a political and not just interpersonal scale. Rather than defining mysticism as something waffly and woolly and opposed to thinking, based on emotional or even extreme experiences, we should consider mysticism as intense, personal appropriation of the patterns and doctrines of religion.

I found Williams' approach to multiculturalism interesting. He talked about the overlaps and convergence between the mystical traditions of different religions, but dismissed the idea that all mysticism is basically the same experience. Mystics don't just sit around having ecstatic religious experiences, they write poetry, theology, philosophy, even overtly political treatises, and we can learn something from the conversation between mystics from different religious backgrounds. Each mystic is unique because of the personal appropriation aspect but also because of the different religious doctrines they're incorporating and responding to. 

He decided, I think sensibly, to focus his talk on Christianity, saying something self-deprecating about his expertise in the topic, but briefly mentioned Sufi thinkers such as Rumi and Al-Ghazali and some other guy I didn't quite catch the name of, Al-Halaj was my best guess, and South Indian Hindu devotional movements. His summary of this stuff was a bit glib but I suppose it was polite to mention that not everybody is Christian! Basically that mainstream Islam emphasises God's transcendence and how God is completely unknowable and can't be portrayed, but that Sufism uses the language of intimacy and personal relationship. Whereas mainstream Hinduism preaches advaita, non-dualism, yet the mystical movements made something personal and individual out of this very universal, unitive foundational idea.

I found him more interesting when he came to his more central theme, that the things mystics say about God and their experience of God tell us something about their view of humanity and what it means to be human. He called this "anthropology" but that's not what that word normally means to me! So mystical texts can, according to Williams, be approached as a source of insight about the human condition and human identity and values. And in his summary, Christian mysticism or contemplation is sharing in God's delight in being God. He cited eg Aquinas' discussion of Divine bliss, and a contemporary thinker I forgot to write down saying something about how God really enjoys being God.

In Williams' argument, God's joy in creation means that the ultimate purpose of human existence is joy. Lovely phrase: Time is the duration of joy, the extension of delight. So from this we can see human beings as people always seeking joy or hungry for joy, and reflecting God's joy in the moments they attain this. It's sort of an extended version of what I would call "created in the image of God", which I think is an area where Christian and Jewish theologies are close enough that I wasn't completely lost by this part of the talk. 

If Christian thought takes God as being to do with love and intelligence, seeing and knowing God's creation, there's a space for mystics to use personal and relationship language for God, even though God is a mystery and not just a bigger, better sort of person. So there's the assumption that in some sense a mutual, personal relationship with God is possible, which means that personal life and experience are part of mystical religion and can bring meaningful connection to the ultimate. It's not about an annihilation of the self to try to experience perfection, it's a relationship. 

So now he uses specifically Trinitarian language, not just talking about God in abstract terms like life of joy and the ultimate. If you explain God as a Trinity, that is three Persons interweaving and inter-dependent, so not only is the worshipper's relationship with God a relationship, God's self is a mutuality and a relationship. People aren't just individuals in isolation, their selves are understood in the context of other selves. (This feels semi-comfortable to me in that it sounds a bit like what Martin Buber says about I and Thou and relational space, but also completely alien since I've never been able to get my head round Trinitarian theology.) 

Also, if Christians talk about being "in Christ", that means that they have access to Jesus' relationship to God as his father. Which means a kind of boldness, relating to God as a parent, not only an abstract source of being or the ultimate. This theme Williams developed really interestingly to discuss the idea of combining humility and clear sense of dependence on God for all of existence, with assuming God's freedom and authority as Jesus did. The Christian mystic feels entirely dependent on God and is grateful for God's mercy, but also feels empowered to act and make a real difference in the world. So to take St Teresa, her total dependence on the absolute majesty of God also gave her a confidence (sometimes seen by her colleagues as arrogance) which allowed her to confront religious and secular authorities. Also St John of the Cross, who was a contemporary and supporter of St Teresa, tried to follow Jesus through emptying out of the self to create a space in which the Divine could be present, again a combination of dependence with liberty. I don't totally follow the theology here but I can definitely connect to the idea of inter-dependence as a source of liberty more meaningfully than attempting to be completely individualistic.

So effective contemplation, getting to the point of understanding a glimpse of God's image and how that is reflected in God's human creations, means that the Christian mystic can see the world in general differently. The power to pursue an idealistic goal of what Divinely created humanity could be if everybody and every relationship were valued. There were some examples of Christian martyrs who used their mystical insight to resist tyranny, even at very high personal cost, such as the Jesuit martyrs in El Salvador and a Russian nun called Maria [something Slavic I didn't catch] who I think is probably " this person. She had a wild youth with complicated relationship drama and getting involved in the Russian revolution, then became a somewhat unlikely nun who tried to help Russian and Jewish refugees in Paris, and was eventually murdered by the Nazis. Oh, and some guy with a name a bit like Klovsky (?), a Russian Holy Fool who marched out to meet Ivan the Terrible, near naked and carrying a "gift" of raw meat to point out that the Tsar was claiming to be Christian while drinking the blood of Christians.

And Merton, whom I'd only vaguely come across, but apparently he was a monk who found even monastic life too much of a distraction from contemplation so became a kind of hermit who wrote a spiritual autobiography. He spent many hours before dawn each morning in silent contemplation, and then the rest of the day answering correspondence from people in the civil rights movement. So he wrote a lot of political stuff, anti-racism and anti-war, and got banned by the US government from mentioning peace because he was too radical. So his contemplative life lead him to very direct expressions of solidarity and getting involved in politics, because of his vision of what humanity, in this case American society, could be like. 

So how does mysticism relate to politics more generally? It's not necessarily a rival system, an alternative to politics, but it can provide a vision of what political life could be that interrupts the status quo of the system just ticking along with its inequalities and oppression. If mysticism takes itself too seriously it risks just perpetuating those power structures, but in accepting our own absurdity we can possibly go beyond that, challenge Emperor's New Clothes style received ideas. There's the potential for mysticism to give a few guardians access to watchfulness or wakefulness, a vision which helps society to avoid the torpor of just sticking with conventions and habits while closed, self-serving uncreative politics eventually gives way to totalitarianism. 

The church itself is an institution which can be hypnotized into this kind of vulnerable to infiltration politics. Ultimately the ability to act politically, ie to effect real change in the world to bring it closer to a vision of the Divine creation attained through deep contemplation, is the purpose of the Church (not just bringing about a specific political goal eg "overthrow capitalism"). And mysticism can be twisted and institutionalized and used as a way to control people and an anti-political force, basically people sitting around having ecstatic experiences leaving them no space for questioning authority or acting in the world. But even these corrupt institutions can themselves create a space in which true mystics can emerge, such as St Teresa and St John of the Cross, who came from within a religious context that was all about accumulating wealth and enforcing blood purity and class divisions, but still gave them a starting place for their religious insights and led to them reforming said corrupt Christian society.

There was a little bit of annoying stuff about how "secular society" is too much obsessed with greed and success and selfishness and stuff, not nearly as bad as I've heard from many religious speakers who take the line that their religion is the answer to everything that's wrong with society. But honestly I've never met anyone who meets the description you hear from lots of people trying to sell religion (or sometimes other philosophies, socialism or rationality or whatever), only caring about "superficial" things and being purely selfish and wanting to accumulate lots of stuff and only being interested in momentary sensual pleasures. At least Williams wasn't trying to claim that all Christian believers are super-enlightened with their visions of higher things, while all secular people are selfish, small-minded, oppressive sheeple, but still. I don't think the main thing that's wrong with society is "selfishness", and if only everyone would recognize the humanity and subjectivity of their fellows everything would be fixed. If I'd had the chance to get into a discussion with the former Archbishop, rather than just shaking his hand and being shuffled off to sit with the sexist retired priests, I think I might have asked why, if God created the world and humanity out of joy and bliss, the world is so full of suffering and pain. Because I don't think the answer is "selfishness" and "lack of vision", myself. 

So, lots to think about, I learned something about the difficult bits of Christian theology, and about the specific history of some figures in the church. And I think some of what he was saying about vision / contemplation / the nature of God and how that interacts with society and meaningful political action is applicable to me as a non-Christian. (Also I was pleased to see that the Archbishop does the same linguistic thing I do of avoiding using any personal pronouns to refer to God, because God isn't gendered.)

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Multifaith Event

Hello, my name is Ayisha Mahmood and I am currently a third year Human Geography and History student. I am also the elected Racial Diversity Representative for Keele. My blog post is about the Multifaith Event that I attended a couple of weeks ago. 

Earlier this year Keele hosted their Multifaith event in conjunction with a number of faith societies and KeeleSU. The event took place at the chapel during Keele Refreshers week and it was great opportunity to engage in meaningful discussion with new and returning students, societies, and of course share some delicious food courtesy of the different faith societies!

The fair was a fantastic event giving an insight into the workings of some of the religious groups at Keele. The segment on how faith fits into my life at university which a Christian, Muslim and Jewish panellist commented on especially pulled me in, as I often have difficulties integrating my faith into university life on a day to day basis. More than anything it was refreshing to hear that similar to me it is not always so easy for figureheads of the faith societies at Keele to incorporate their faith in with their day to day activities, and they too face challenges. They all added in unison that at the end of the day navigating through the struggle and coming out of it from the other end is always rewarding and worth it. The segment was something that many of us in the room could relate to as Chaplain James Stewart opened the floor for comments and questions, where many voiced their own concerns and added in their own views on the discussion. One student stated that it is important for us to have events such as the Multifaith event, as it encourages tolerance and opens the door for people to communicate with those of faith groups who are not always portrayed favourably in the media. This made me think that here at Keele we are doing something right in holding an event in which we can ask questions in a comfortable environment and challenge some of the preconceived views we have on certain faith matters. 

Performances were also a part of the event, including some thought provoking poetry by a Keele student. The blog which you are reading right now was also launched at the Multifaith event after some hard work, it was something that many of us had been working on for some time and we were excited to unveil it at last. The atmosphere of the event was great and I hope Keele hosts many more Multifaith events in the future.


Hi everybody! Welcome to the Keele Multifaith Blog. To get everyone started we have 7 blogging guidelines in place for submitting posts or comments:

Show courtesy, consideration and respect to all, treating others as you would like to be treated.

Be sensitive to the needs, beliefs and feelings of others and be aware of your own attitudes and behaviours and your impact on others.

Recognise your ability to influence and your potential to contribute to the university experience of both students and staff.

Take action to understand the needs and customs of student groups and to respect and accommodate these.

Be open to what others share and discuss it in a respectful way.

Please write on your own behalf and not for the whole of a community or religious group, use your own experience and understanding. (But feel free to share news from different communities etc)

When quoting please reference where necessary.

Most of all remember that you are an ambassador for Keele, so make the University and your peers proud. If you are interested in submitting a post or want to ask any questions drop us a message. We look forward to hearing from you and happy blogging!

The Keele Multifaith blog team