15 Sep 2014

Religion and Spirituality: Valuing faith, deepening understanding, practicing inclusivity

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Religion and Spirituality:  Valuing faith, deepening understanding, practicing inclusivity

Input given at Stellenbosch University student leadership simposium workshop on September 12, 2014

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to your fascinating topic from the perspective of the Christian church, and more specifically the Reformed Tradition.  To make my input even more controversial, I am part of a denomination, the Dutch Reformed Church which, historically, had a very cozy relationship with the Nationalist Government and as such has not been famous for its inclusivity and respect for human dignity, to say the least.  For our denomination’s general lack of a prophetic voice in the previous dispensation, we have repeatedly repented and locally and nationally a new story is being written as we speak.

Also at the University of Stellenbosch, there was a time where the Dutch Reformed Church locally, especially the so-called Student Church, had special access to the university, its databases and infrastructure, and would be accommodated as far as possible.  That was then, up till 20 years ago, this is now – thank God!

In the meantime, while our young democracy struggled through its adolescence to reach some form of maturity, the University of Stellenbosch has also undergone major upgrades to its operating system, so to speak.  A new era dawned where access to tertiary education needed to be broadened and a long history of exclusion had to be redressed.  We are finding ourselves in the midst of this process and we experience on a daily basis the robustness of the debates on language and identity raging around and within us as different stakeholders each try to negotiate their slice of the pie.

Let me very concisely argue two possible cases.  Firstly, the case for a ban on all religion of any form on campus.  Although this is not my position, I can quite easily understand why people would favour this option.  Religious people can be very, very obnoxious.  The most condescending, know-it-all, intolerant people I know, are certain types of religious people.  Their presence is usually a conversation-stopper.  How do you argue with somebody who claims infallible divine knowledge?  What do you say when a religious person says, “Yes, but God says…”  I mean, who can argue with God?  These are the fundamentalists who still harbour some sort of theocratic ideal that we can somehow be a Christian campus where being proselytized and evangelized are part and parcel of being a Matie.  Of course, in such an arrangement, the university should also offer their infrastructure, their databases and muster every resource they can to promote the cause of the Christian religion, which unfortunately always boils down to the question “which church’s version of the Christian religion”, which in turn would probably depend upon the specific church allegiance that individual policy makers and gatekeepers at the university would have.

The problem with this theocratic ideal is obvious.  It would fly in the face of everything this university, but also for that matter the South African Constitution, stand for and take us back to the dark ages of parochial favoritism, excluding all voices of dissent or those, “them”, who are not part of “us”.  Therefore, the reasoning goes, in a constitutional democracy, let’s leave religion out of the public sphere.

I have two problems with this line of reasoning.  Firstly, we live in a constitutional democracy which is not to be equated in an unnuanced way with a so-called “secular state”.  Our constitution safeguards freedom of religion and includes the exercise of that freedom in society, but only when not trampling other and other’s constitutional rights.  A ban on religion on campus will, I believe, not withstand the litmus test of the freedom of religion clauses 15(1) and 15(2) of the constitution.  But the second problem I have with excluding religious inputs in the sphere of this academic institution would be the resources that this same institution will forego, should they exclude input from the religious sector.  Although certainly not being the only (or in some cases even the best) proponent of moral values, religion and religious communities are a resource with the ability to enrich the public sphere with a sense for the sacred (and by that I mean that which transcends the mundane pursuit of fame and fortune and personal gain), a sense for community (and by that I mean communities where everyone is equal, respected and included) and a sense for serving (and by that I mean making a difference because you are called to love).

Therefore, being very aware of all the abuse of power that is possible under the name of God, I do think my case for a second scenario, being a rewarding partnership, is in accordance with the old adage “abusus non tollit usus” – the abuse should not eliminate the use.  But then the correct use.  The case for including religion at the roundtable of ideas indeed has all sorts of practical implications at an institution like this university.  For example, checks and balances need to be built into this partnership in order for it to be useful.  What should happen, for example, if a religious community does not portray the values of inclusivity, tolerance and respect for human dignity?

But my last word is actually to the religious communities themselves.

  • We need to set our dogmatic issues aside in the public sphere and focus on finding common ground between ourselves but also between the religious sector and the university.  This common ground will need to be found not only within the Christian sphere but inter-religiously.  So-called “hyper-norms” are stable across religions and cultures, like the values of wisdom, courage, temperance, transcendence, honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness and compassion.  We do not have to agree on which baptism we should perform, or even whether Jesus is the Son of God or just a prophet to be able to work together on these norms.
  • We will need to become the servant leaders that the founders of all major religions were.  If we are to have any credibility, we would need to show how our presence makes this world, this community, this university a better place.  And for that, as a church father said, “we don’t need a scepter, but a hoe”.
  • We need to become bilingual – that is, mastering both the language of our tradition in our communities of faith internally, but also the language of politics, economics, technology, law and ecology.  What we believe needs to be translated into action in other contexts.  Storming in like bulls in a china shop with the Bible, Koran of whichever other sacred text, will not make our world a better place.  Working together to create jobs, to curb discrimination on the basis of race, creed, sexual orientation et cetera, to build houses, to restore human dignity, to broaden access to education, to promote well-being – now that’s making a difference.

Religious communities are well-known for telling anyone who doesn’t agree with them “you are wrong”.  Things may change if we start asking “how can we help, how can we serve”.

Johan van der Merwe

Sien ook: http://www.moederkerk.co.za/god-en-godsdiens-is-nie-dieselfde-nie-ook-nie-in-ons-skole-nie/

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