A Discussion with Geoffrey Baines, University of Edinburgh

With: Geoffrey Baines

August 1, 2016

Background: As part of the International Higher Education Interfaith Leadership Forum, in August 2016 Sara Singha conducted an interview with Geoffrey Baines, who is a chaplain at the University of Edinburgh. Baines discussed his work encouraging agnostic students to engage the chaplaincy, the role of universities in promoting religious literacy, and the way global challenges impact interfaith/intercultural dialogue.
Please tell us about your current work/role, and in what capacity it influences/incorporates interfaith efforts?

I think people are amazing; I love to meet them, hear their stories, talents, abilities, and dreams. I do this whatever their ethnicity, faith, or other beliefs they may hold. That’s the starting point for how I engage people, and it’s what I love to do—I call it “dream whispering”—listening to the whispers of hope and joy that they may not be able to hear or value for themselves. A lot of my work in the university as an honorary, and then as an associate chaplain, has been about understanding the unique issues people struggle with and what they love, and helping them deal creatively with them.

What type of work do you do in your role as a university chaplain?

In 2000, the university made the decision to have a multi-faith chaplaincy, which we understand to be for all faiths and beliefs, and for those who feel they have none. We are here to support all students and staff members in a whole range of ways; we have quite a large team, so we have diversity and different talent sets on the chaplain team that allows us to do this.

This year, my specific contributions will be in offering personal development through dream whispering, exploring mindful doodling, and the development of deep listening and conversation. Together with others, I’ll be involved in the What’s University For? series, which brings students and staff together, and the development of religion and belief literacy.

How do you define interfaith service, and what are the essential components of interfaith service work?

Interfaith service work involves traveling deeply into your own traditions, and exploring, sharing, and expressing this with others in an open way. There’s a deep sense of humanity in interfaith service work, and we’re all trying to find that humanity. One thing we did recently is host agnostic conversations and dialogues, which were very enthusiastically attended. Although some logistical issues prevented this from continuing for long, it is an example of how we are looking to find new ways of opening up conversations that are deep, centered around a common humanity, listening to each other, and hearing each other’s stories. We are always looking for other ways and means to bring people of different faiths together.

Was it well-received when you reached out to the agnostic community?

I think people have a picture in their head of what the chaplaincy is about. When they talk to us and find out what we are actually about, things change, and they see that we are open and that we are seeking to have these big conversations that matter to all of us, regardless of faith or belief; and once people see this, there is a great willingness in people to connect with us. So when the university opens for the new academic year, we will be there, letting people know about the different ways in which we support and embellish the university experience; we seek to portray the chaplaincy well from the beginning and throughout the year. We have a Humanist chaplain on the team who is there alongside everyone else, displaying the work we do. The aim is to show students and staff that we are here to support them in many different ways, and we are always looking for new ways to engage people around the university. For example, we are currently opening up a conversation with the business school to see how we can support students in that particular area and how we can specifically be helpful to them.

We appreciate the U Lab model, a sharing platform out of MIT, which values and teaches deeper forms of listening and dialogue that are made possible by opening minds, hearts, and wills. The Scottish government has been a powerful advocate for U Lab as a means for people to become involved in changing their society, through engaging people in dialogue and moving them towards a better understanding of one another, making it possible for them to identify some work or project they might create and participate in together. As a chaplaincy, we value links like this one between the university and the community in which the university is located.

Can you share a story about your personal background to illustrate how it inspired you to engage in interfaith service efforts? And what continues to motivate you today?

I realize how I’ve been on a journey for a number of years which have seen me moving away from a particular understanding of the Christian faith within faith and society, to see that we have a deep permission to meet and value one another at a basic level. People of all faiths and beliefs help us to see the world differently, and, personally, that has grown my own understanding of the world. It has been great to be able to take that understanding back to my own tradition, to look at Judeo-Christian scriptures, and also my denominational traditions, and see how those can be seen anew through this different way of understanding; this has increasingly informed the work that I do. I continue to be motivated by the dreams, curiosities, choices, and evolution of the people I work with, and the way that they want to bring some positive contribution to the world. This is what I find myself being about. Engaging with the “other” has enriched my chaplaincy work. I think the context of the chaplaincy has helped me produce different ways of seeing and understanding faith, and the context of the university has been very important to me in the particular work that I do.

To what extent should higher education institutions play an active role in interfaith service work and projects?

This is such an important question. One of the things we’ve been doing here recently is working around religion and belief literacy, because it’s not only valuable but is also necessary for our world. We have hosted the Religious Literacy Leadership project from England to lead a conference every three years for universities in Scotland to benefit from. This recognizes that the majority of the world’s population expresses some religious faith or belief; and we are an international university, so we think it’s critically important for the university to reflect this in its work with students and staff. We seek excellence in the work we do, exploring new avenues in the ways we connect with students. This is the world that we live in and have to relate to. We have students that are Hindu, Baha'i, Muslim, Humanist, Pagan, Christian, etc., so we have huge diversity. I think this is part of why we believe this is so important, and why the university values interfaith education at the university level, and I have noticed wide appreciation on the part of the university for the work of the chaplaincy.

We hold a number of events throughout the year, for students to go deeper into important themes in a way that fosters better listening and dialogue. For the upcoming year, we are planning an event for students and staff to come together to explore “The Compassionate University”; and, previously, we curated the “Creating the University” and “The Humane University” events, employing value and story harvesting as means of deep listening and dialogue. These are really interesting themes that we have been able to explore.

What have been your greatest challenges regarding peacebuilding and interfaith/intercultural dialogue and cooperation?

A number of things come to mind; whatever is happening in the world, we see it mirrored here. One thing we have to follow is the U.K. government’s anti-terrorism procedure. It is intended to guard against radicalism developing on campuses, but it leaves us with questions about freedom of speech and appears to target particular groups. We’re aware of Israeli-Palestinian confrontations and have to work through similar issues. The attacks in Europe that have been taking place this year are also mirrored within the university, and there is usually some commemorative moment that the chaplaincy is involved with; backlashes and reactions take place because of how particular groups of people are perceived, such as Muslims or Jews. Sikhs, too, have experienced abuse and threats. It extends to other issues, as well, that we see in the world, such as matters of gender, equality, and sexuality.

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