Photo by Philip Maher
Photo by Philip Maher

Topics: Spirituality | Theology

The non-religious chaplain helping university students

Keith Martin talks about his United Church-sponsored ministry to millennials in Guelph and Waterloo, Ont.

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Q You’re the first spiritual but not religious (SBNR) chaplain to be part of the multi-faith teams at the University of Guelph and the University of Waterloo, Ont. How would you describe your work?

A I provide a non-religious campus ministry for students and assist them in finding a spiritual world view that gives them meaning. Whether they have left a faith, are seriously questioning their faith or have never found a faith that works for them, I invite students to explore how they can be SBNR.

Q Why do universities need a non-religious chaplain?

A When it comes to religious identity, “no religious affiliation” or “none” is the fastest-growing segment among students. A Pew Research Centre poll [from 2012] reveals that one in three young adults under 30 has no religious affiliation. Many who have left a faith tradition still believe in the values of that tradition — they just don’t believe in some of the doctrines of that faith. Universities need chaplains who are not religious to assist such students.

Q What do you hope to achieve with students as a chaplain to the “nones”?

A My goal is to encourage students who don’t have a traditional faith to find and hold on to good values as they graduate and go out into the world.

Q Are you anti-religion?

A My ministry encourages non-religious spirituality, but it is not anti-religious. If religion points us to good values, it can still be good. If it points us to values that are not good, it can be harmful. My biggest problem with religion is that it promotes the golden rule but doesn’t always live by it. For example, some religions don’t treat women and gay people equally. I admire people who stay in those faiths and work to make them more inclusive.

Q You were raised in an evangelical home and, 30 years ago, worked with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an on-campus ministry. How did you become SBNR?

One night in April 1994, I could not sleep. I had just heard reports coming out of Rwanda that Tutsi men, women and children were being slaughtered by militant Hutus in the pews of a church. A church! How could God allow this? How could a loving heavenly father allow hundreds of innocent people, especially children, to be hacked to death if he had the power to intervene and protect them? The Rwandan genocide, for me, was what the Jewish Holocaust was for many of my parents’ generation — a slap across the face to wake up and re-examine my faith.

Q You call yourself a “post-Christian” and a “believer in exile.” What does that mean?

A It means moving beyond Christianity without denying the life-enhancing values it upholds. I want to stay grounded in a spirituality focused on goodness and compassion. That’s what I admire about faiths like Christianity and Buddhism. I want to live my life as a deeper believer, a beyond-Christianity believer, a believer in a more symbolic and metaphorical God. And as a believer, I want to seek to incarnate what God symbolizes — that core of goodness in the universe. In this way, I feel a new kinship with believers who believe in God as a supernatural being, as long as their faith results in genuine goodness in our world and they respect why I can’t believe as they do.

Was it difficult to give up on the idea of God?

A I felt like an orphan who had lost his parents. To this day, just as I miss my own dad at times, I miss not being able to turn to a heavenly dad for guidance and comfort. I also miss what I experienced at church, a fellowship of spiritually caring people who could help me focus on higher values. But as my grief from this loss subsided, I’ve experienced tremendous relief, too: relief in not having to reconcile my faith in a loving God with the kind of chaos and death that can happen anytime, anywhere; relief that I don’t need to wrestle with why this God is not intervening when people desperately need divine protection or healing.

Q What spiritual resources do you offer students?

A I have drop-in office hours one afternoon a week on each campus. Once a month, I host a display table with SBNR books, and I also host A Taste of Oasis at each campus. Oasis is a network of communities of compassion and reason for non-religious people [a chapter opened earlier this year in Toronto with atheist United Church minister Rev. Gretta Vosper as one of its founders]. A Taste of Oasis is a sample of what an Oasis meeting would be like. It includes music and an inspiring TED Talk-style presentation given by faculty, students and outside speakers. I also co-present seminars on spirituality and wellness and have given the invocation at several convocations.

Can you share any specific examples of how you have helped students?

A I had a student who lost a friend and wanted me to be part of a memorial. Another student with a Buddhist background had lost her grandfather, and her sister died of cancer. She was in so much grief that her grades dropped to the point where she was in danger of being terminated from her program. She was a good student, and I wrote a letter on her behalf to plead for extenuating circumstances. My wife is battling ovarian cancer, and so I have a good understanding of how you can’t perform at your best when something like that happens.

I also had a student come to me in high anxiety the day after the U.S. election. Her parents are Muslim and live in the United States, and she was concerned for their safety. She was also wrestling with her faith — I introduced her to the idea of the “emerging paradigm” that Marcus Borg [author of The Heart of Christianity] talks about — the idea of a metaphorical understanding of God, which can allow you to find a way to still be part of your faith group even if you are having problems with the traditional interpretations of that faith.

There are a lot of students on campus in distress. In the last academic year, there were four suicides at the University of Guelph and two at the University of Waterloo.

A If you don’t have anyone to talk to at a critical time of your life, ending it can seem attractive. When students feel inadequate, they may think, “Why carry on? What’s the purpose and meaning of it all?” If you don’t have something to keep you focused on the big picture, you can lose motivation.

Q Your chaplaincy is sponsored in part by St. John’s United in Wiarton, Ont. How did that come about?

A As a chaplain, I need to be sponsored by a faith community. I approached the minister at the United church in the community where I live, and the church board unanimously agreed to sponsor me. The idea that a small-town United church that is using mostly theistic language would do this really impressed me. They understand that I am still promoting Christian values, if not Christian beliefs.

Q How else is your ministry funded?

A I have an active chaplaincy support team that raises the $15,000 a year to support this ministry on both campuses.

Q Have you had any criticism for being a non-religious chaplain?

A I haven’t had any pushback from parents, but I do occasionally have students trying to convert me back to Christianity. Some of them think it’s an oxymoron to be both non-religious and a chaplain.

Q What do you tell them?

That there doesn’t have to be a supernatural God for goodness to be real.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This story originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of The Observer with the title “Interview with Keith Martin.” 

Anne Bokma is a Hamilton-based journalist.

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