2006_Chris McCoy - Spirituality and Student Life in an Urban Atmosphere by liwenting


                               Thursday 8 June 2006

                     ‘Spirituality and Student Life in an Urban Atmosphere.’

                                     A WALK IN THE CITY

                                          Chris McCoy.

    To prepare for this panel discussion I decided to go for a walk around centre of my home city,
Liverpool. Within a couple of minutes of leaving my apartment I saw on the top of a building a
large sign. It showed a naked woman holding a red apple and underneath was written the words
‘Give in to Temptation’. I was being invited to buy a luxury apartment in the ‘Eden Building.’ A
few minutes later on my walk I passed a gym, a centre with sauna, treadmills, exercise bikes etc.
The name of the gym? ‘Absolution’. Moving on, I passed a cinema showing the ‘Da Vinci Code’
and watched a crowd of mostly young people queuing to go in. I felt hungry so I stopped to buy a
bar of chocolate. A well known UK brand of chocolate, the ‘Mars bar’, has been renamed for the
duration of the World Cup as ‘Believe’. The renamed chocolate bar is being advertised with a
picture three young men, football supporters, with tense, anxious, expressions on their faces. I
was being asked to pray, to ‘believe’ that England might just win the world cup. I walked on
along Paradise Street with its new multi-million pound shopping complex. A few minutes later, I
paused at the city centre church where my father and my grandfather were baptized. I went in, not
to pray, but to buy a drink. St Peters church has long been abandoned by the faithful and been
converted into a very up-market Cuban Bar and Restaurant. As I drank a ‘Cuba Libre’ I listened
to the music: it was mambo. I smiled to myself as I remembered that mambo is the name for a
voodoo high priestess and the music has its origins in voodoo rituals of Haiti. At one end of the
bar there is a large wall painting of Christ and St Peter. (When the church was redesigned as a bar
it was not painted over) It is where the high altar once stood. It was here as a young child I knelt
and prayed. It was here my parents and family nurtured my inner, my spiritual life. With the
sounds of mambo ringing in my ears, I looked at the painting thought to myself, ‘What an
interesting city Liverpool has become.’

    If the urban landscape of many of our towns and cities is in a state on continual change, so too
is the emotional, intellectual and spiritual terrain. Buildings change: churches become bars. As
traditional forms of faith are being abandoned, the church no longer has control of religious
language and imagery. They are used to market and sell a variety of products and services. ‘Eden’
can be found in living in a luxury apartment and shopping is ‘paradise.’ ‘Absolution’ comes with
sweating in the gym and supporting the national football team is ‘believing.’ Spiritualities of
many different types make use of religious language and images for their own purposes. They
too, in turn, are often packaged and marketed as a product for sale, as something to be consumed.
New Age can increase profit margins.

    Whatever the danger of spirituality being reduced to a product, what is clear is that the main
Christian Churches in Europe are no longer the places where many young people find
nourishment for their spiritual life. Students are finding other wells from which to drink. And yet
many report that spirituality is alive and well. David Tacey describes the spirituality of students
in these words:

        ‘Youth spirituality is like an underground stream flowing beneath our ordinary work, yet

        this stream is rarely noticed. It keeps flowing, but the life-giving waters are not utilized,
        tapped or directed into the dry places of culture. Adult society marches ahead with a
        business-as-usual attitude, while large volumes of spiritual water surge forward silently,
        beneath notice, towards some unknown destination.’
                                                                    (Tacey 2004, 51)

Spirituality is an elusive term: it is at times vague and imprecise. There are almost as many
definitions of it as there are people. In a general sense,

        The language of spirituality is often associated with what sociologists have called ‘self-
        religions’, characterized by personal quests for meaning or with the pursuit of ‘New
        Age’ therapies and techniques. (Faithful Cities, 2006, 2)

More particularly, it is also used, most obviously by the major world faiths, to indicate a vision of
reality which goes beyond the material world, namely, the transcendent. Often experiential
descriptions of spirituality seem to work better than conceptual definitions. (Egan, 2006, 1) You
and I know what students mean when they talk about what gives them energy; how they want to
feel connected or how they seek to belong to something greater than themselves. We recognize
they seek what is authentic and genuine, for something personal and intimate. They are hungry
for food which nourishes them. It is a deep need, a cry from the heart. Leonard Sweet suggests
why this is so:

        The new attention being given to spirituality is not just some fashionable interest is
        esoteric matters, nor is it an escape from the real or an intellectual enquiry into human
        nature. It is an emotional and urgent reaction to widespread alienation, disempowerment
        and disillusionment. It is an almost a panic response to the apparent lack of ‘relationally’
        and connectedness in contemporary life. To call for spirituality is to call for healing and
        reconnection. It is to admit that we are divided and long to become whole. It is to
        acknowledge that our lives are fragmented and that we hope for some mystery that will
        fit the broken parts together. (Sweet,L 1999, 215)

     People experience this most acutely in the city. Over 50% of the world’s population lives in
cities. In the city ‘large numbers of people can live in close proximity to one another, without
knowing most others personally.’ (Giddens, 1991, 558) They can be the place where we feel
most alone, isolated and anonymous.

    We are, in scriptural terms, exiled from the Garden and called to live in the heavenly city, the
New Jerusalem. Between the two we are subject to an existential transience. Our hearts are not at
rest. The urban continually offers the individual a multiplicity of choices and experiences.
Walking through Liverpool, or thorough any large town or city in Europe is to be faced with
decisions. Which way do I go? To whom do I talk? To what do I react? It is to be invited, to be
enticed or manipulated into different worlds of memory, desire and imagination. How I negotiate
the ever changing landscape of the city offers me countess opportunities to re-invent myself, to
re-imagine who I am. The urban holds the promise of our re-creation.

    It was towns and cities that gave birth to the first universities in medieval Europe. The urban
is the natural environment for the student. A young female, Erasmus programme, student from
Greece coming to study in Liverpool for six months will experience the city a different way to
me. She will make her own mental map of the city. She will feel safe in some areas of the city
and not others. She will make connections with other students and some local people: she will
read and interpret the city in her own way. A post-graduate male, gay student from Nigeria will

map the city in another way. At times he might delight in being anonymous and then be
overwhelmed by anxiety; perhaps feeling that he is in an alien land where all is unfamiliar,
strange and disturbing. Their maps and mine will have some features in common. They will find
places in the city that I will never find and I will read and interpret the urban landscape in ways
that they, as temporary residents, can only imagine.          Gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and
economic status are all factors which determine how we experience urban life and how we make
sense of who we are in relation to others. This is spirituality in a broad sense.

    Our towns and cities need spiritually healthy individuals if they are to flourish. It is a question
of how we, women and men, exiled from the Garden ‘might make a home in the city.’ (Sennett
1994, 27) Urban hope and spiritual well-being are connected. A recent research project in the UK
which looked at the spirituality of young people argues that if town and cities are to continue to
grow and develop as places fit for human habitation they need spiritually healthy individuals.

        Spiritually healthy individuals are needed at the heart of urban regeneration, to celebrate
        personal hope, to invest in social capital and to transform spiritual wilderness into centers
        of personal, social and economic creativity. (Francis, 2005, 2)

    The research makes use of the work of an Australian, John Fisher, who has developed the
concept of spiritual health. If the word ‘spiritual’ is no longer limited to the religious or
ecclesiastical but includes whatever gives meaning to a persons existence, so too the word
’health’ has undergone a transformation in recent years. It is not simply about the absence of
disease or illness, but now includes a sense wholeness and well-being. He suggests that a useful
conceptual model, both for religious and non-religious understandings of spirituality, is to speak
of spiritual health as being linked to four distinct areas or domains. The personal, the communal,
the environmental and the transcendental are four distinct areas of life where healthy relationships
are important.

        Spiritually healthy individuals stand in right relationship with themselves, with other
        people, with the world in which they live and with the transcendent, however they
        conceive it. (Fisher 2000, 47)

Fisher argues that spiritual health is enhanced by developing all four areas or domains. For some
individuals different domains will have greater significance according to their personality, or their
stage in life, position in society etc.

    The challenge for us as chaplains is to be respectful. We recognize that when it comes to
spirituality there is ‘no one size that fits all. We, and all to whom we ‘minister’, have to make our
own way. If we are interested in the spiritual health or well-being of ourselves and others we have
to take time to listen to the story that individuals use of to make sense of where they are at any
point of their lives. Part of the task of chaplaincy is to create that safe, emotional, psychological
space where students can be heard and their stories respected and interpreted sensitively.

     Those who inhabit or staff such a space need to be fed and nourished themselves. They need
to be rooted in their own faith tradition. Archbishop Rowan Williams says that central to the idea
of living faithfully is the recognition that I am not obliged to create or justify myself. He writes:

        To live in faith is to be conscious at some level, perhaps only a quite deeply buried one,
        that your being there and your being who you are, are not under threat; your existence
        and your identity have roots and solidity.

        There are many ways of learning this, most obviously by knowing yourself to be the
        object of love or friendship: for the religious person, it is most importantly anchored in
        the conviction of being created, (i.e. God wants you to be)
                                                (Values in Higher Education, 25)

    For the Christian believer this is spiritual health in its deepest sense. Knowing that I belong,
that I am not obliged to create or justify myself. We might no longer live in Eden but we believe
the home for which we were created can be found living together in the city. If we are to share the
urban space together is a healthy, sustainable, viable way we must learn of the art of respecting
each others search for authenticity. As individuals, we make our own way seeking meaning and
significance in life but we journey together with others. When you return home after this
conference, leave your office or chaplaincy and go for a walk across the campus, into the town or
city. Look around carefully as you walk, try and make sense of what you see and feel. As you do
so, remember the words of the 11th century Buddhist ‘saint’, Milarepa, who wrote, ‘For the first
time I go to my homeland as a mere seeker.’

Chris McCoy, UK.
June 2006


De Certeau, Alain 1984 ‘The Practise of Everyday Life.’ Essay ‘Walking in the City.’ Los Angeles:
Egan, Kevin 2006 ‘A Spiritual Presence on the Frontier.’ Pre-publication draft.
‘Faithful Cities: a Call for Celebration, Vision & Justice.’ 2006 www.culf.org.uk
Fisher, John 2000 ‘Being Human, Becoming Whole: Understanding Spiritual Health and Well-being.’
Journal of Christian Education 43, 37-52
Francis, L. & Robbins, M. 2005 ‘Urban Hope and Spiritual Health.’ Peterborough: Epworth.
Giddens, Anthony 1991 ‘Sociology.’ Oxford: Blackwell
Williams, Rowan 2005 ‘Faith in the University. ‘Chapter in ‘Values in Higher Education’
          Edited by Robinson, S. & Kataulushi, C      Glamorgan: Aureus
Rybczynshi, Witold 1992 ‘Looking Around: A Journey Through Architecture’ New York: Penguin
Sennett, Richard 1994. ‘Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization’ London: Faber &
Sweet, Leonard 1999 ‘AquaChurch': Essential leadership Arts for Piloting your Church in Today’s Fluid
Tacey, David 2003. ‘The Spirituality Revolution.’ Sydney: Harper Collins


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