The OxStu Religion Special: Eat, pray, love (and study)

What is it like living with religion in Oxford? How does religion conflict with the life of a student, and how does it compliment it? Not to mention, where do they find the time?! Thomas Moyser, Aimee Cliff, Rebekah Diamond and Loveday Wright spoke to four religious students to get the low-down on societies, solidarity and Sabbaths in Oxford. Introduction by Thomas Moyser.

Introduction
Whether we are religious or not, religion is something most of us think we know a lot about. Often we are right. Sometimes we are wrong. But more often than not, religion is talked about conceptually and argumentally: for those who identify with a particular faith group, religion is an experience structured into their day to day lives in many interesting ways and is a largely more personal experience. The Oxford Student set out to find the human face of Oxford’s religions and to discover what worship here is like for a small selection of the university’s many religious individuals.

You can read the responses we got down the page – from a follower each of Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism – each one will give you a good indication of their religious beliefs but by no means do they encapsulate their outward personalities. When we met all four for this feature’s photo shoot, we were in a room of people confident and happy to representing their faith – but also easy going, light hearted and keen to approach the event with a sense of humour. Emma (our Christian) asks if the others have bought a religious relic with them for the shoot, which thinking about it is perhaps an opportunity missed for The Oxford Student. “I didn’t even think to bring a relic with me to Oxford” replies Samiha who’s been talking to us about Islam. Elsewhere, there is some debate as to whether Mark should wear his ‘Super-Jew’ T-shirt for the shoot – you can see what we resolved from the photographs on this page.

One thing that came through particularly strongly in these interviews for me is the emphasis placed on rest and relaxation to balance the stress of the working day. When I asked Joe (the Buddhist) what the difference between a normal game of Mario kart and the “mindful game of Mario kart” that he mentioned in his interview he told me that it was all about how you used the game – the purpose for which you were playing – it’s all about cultivating mindfulness for its own sake.

Another thing that came up a few times from our subjects was the use of religion to give the followers perspective on the smaller tasks and (sometimes) failures involved in their lives in Oxford, something that we could all do with in our lives here, whether or not that perspective requires a religious dimension.

There is of course a political side to religious practise and belief that we touched on little in the interviews, having decided not to give our interviewees the sort of scrutiny that we would have given interviewing, for example, religious leaders. It did come up – Mark brings up Israel in his interview without being prompted – but more important, I think, is seeing that the criticisms that fly around about integration and cultural tension that is sometimes associated with religion, if sometimes true, clearly have many exceptions. None of our interviewees seemed to have trouble socialising across different groups when we asked about it; and all were keen to get along with one another straight away when they met. If multiculturalism has failed, as our Prime Minister’s recent speech has suggested, no one has yet told the University’s faith communities.

Islam…Samiha Ismail

How long have you been practising your religion?
I was born into a Muslim family, and so practised Islam from day one. However, Muslims are encouraged to question their religion and not follow it blindly. So, at the age of 15 I sat down and really thought about what I believed in and why, in order to ensure I understood the religion and its teachings and was not just following it as everyone around me was.

How much time do you devote to your religion in day-to-day life?
I try to devote my whole day to my religion. Islam is a way of life and gives guidance on all aspects of it. As a Muslim, your aim is to dedicate your life to God through good deeds; these include things such as smiling at someone with the right intention, helping others, seeking knowledge as well as doing what is healthy for your own body and mind. Additionally, Muslims are asked to pray 5 times a day. During this time you are supposed try to meditate on God and being a good person. Generally remembering God means that in my day I remember there is more to life than exams and getting upset over small things.

Did you actively seek out people of your own faith to befriend in Oxford?
I would not say I have actively seeked out people of my own faith in Oxford. I will admit that at times it is nice to be with people of similar beliefs to you, as in some ways they may understand you better. However I have used my time in Oxford to get out of my comfort zone, and have made very good friends in the process.

Do you ever find that your beliefs conflict with the expectations placed on you in Oxford – either academically or in your peer group?
In some ways I do feel my beliefs conflict with some of the social aspects of life in Oxford, however I have found the people in Oxford are surprisingly very understanding. So even if I do not take part in certain aspects of Oxford life, everyone does understand, and it’s not an issue.

How easy do you find it to worship and engage with a faith community whilst you’re studying in Oxford?
Living in Oxford I find doing the everyday religious rituals as easy as they would be anywhere else in the world. It’s difficult during the big religious festivals, as on a lot of them I am unable to go home and be with my family or community. There is an Islamic society (Isoc) in Oxford though, which holds friendly spiritual events and socials which I find enjoyable when I attend.

What does your religion mean to you?
To me Islam means more then a religion, as it’s more than just a belief, it’s a way to live life. Islam advises you on things ranging from how to walk into a room to how to balance work, which means it runs through every aspect of a Muslim’s life. It’s a way to humble me, to teach me that there is more to life and, most importantly, to give me hope when things are not going well. To me, religion means everything.

Judaism…Mark Tomlinson

How much time do you devote to your religion in day-to-day life?
I only eat kosher meat so in Oxford I have to stick to vegetarian meals when I’m not with the Jewish Society (JSoc). So in that respect every time I sit down to eat I am observing the rules of my religion. I could go to daily prayers but I don’t really have the time/am much, much too lazy! I attend Jsoc events around twice a week, the biggest of which is the Friday night Sabbath meal, when we all come together for chicken soup, more chicken, and a general, relaxed social with friends.

Did you actively seek out people of your own faith to befriend in Oxford?
You only need to go to JSoc to meet plenty of other Jews, and I really tried to get involved right at the beginning of my time at Oxford. If I find out someone is Jewish I’ll always encourage them to come to events – we have people of all levels of observance. You have your college mates and your JSoc mates; I think it’s a healthy balance.

Do you ever find that your beliefs conflict with the expectations placed on you in Oxford – either academically or in your peer group?
Not really – people are very understanding and often curious as to why we do certain things, and I’m more than happy to explain. Things get a little trickier when Israel enters the picture; as a Jew I feel a strong need to defend the only democracy in the Middle East, though I am not averse to criticising it. It can be hard attending events at the Union; passing through chanting crowds and having to endure frequent interruptions during a speech, you really feel in the minority amongst students.

How easy do you find it to worship and engage with a faith community whilst you’re studying in Oxford?
It’s very easy. Whether you are secular or observant, or somewhere in the middle (that’s most of us) there’s something to suit your interests, from services to speaker events. And of course the termly Bagel Brunch. It’s all about smoked salmon and cream cheese. There is a slight separation between the student and local communities; we use the same facilities but there doesn’t tend to be much cross-over between the two groups.

What does your religion mean to you?
My religion does influence my thinking with regard to morals and my behaviour towards others. It can be a great comfort and I really appreciate the close-knit nature of our communities, whether at university or at home. Festivals give the year a structure and are always something to look forward for the social element (non-Jewish friends are always shocked at the amount of chatting that goes on during the synagogue service) and the often copious amounts of food. Judaism can be hard work, but it’s a lot of fun – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Christianity…Emma Maitland

How long have you been practising your religion?
Although Christianity isn’t first and foremost about ‘practising’ because a relationship with God isn’t about what you do but about what God has done for us, I would say that I understood and accepted his grace at the age of about 16.

How much time do you devote to your religion day to day?
Having a relationship with God is like any other relationship; we want to share our lives with someone and constantly talk to them and hear from them. So I try to open up my whole life to God and let him guide everything I’m doing: from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep. If my life is like a pie chart and the different sectors represent different areas of my life, God is the pie chart that unites everything.

Did you actively seek out people of your own faith to befriend in Oxford?
I did not set ‘being a Christian’ as a criterion for befriending people because I want to friends with all people, whatever their beliefs. However, part of the Christian life is being part of a loving community which forms the ‘body of Christ.’ Solidarity with other Christians is one of the ways in which you grow as a Christian and experience God’s love, and although could definitely still follow Jesus without it, it is probably harder.

Do you ever find that your beliefs conflict with the expectations placed on you in Oxford – either academically or in your peer group?
In an environment where so much emphasis is places on achievement, having a relationship with God has really released me from the stress of this pressure. I feel secure in my identity as a child of God so I don’t feel the compulsion to try and achieve in order to feel valued. I have realised that my life isn’t about pursing my glory but his – which is a much greater cause! I know that God’s love for me is unconditional; it is not based on what I do but on who I am.

How easy do you find it to worship and engage with a faith community whilst you’re studying in Oxford?
Finding time to make God a priority in everything is one of the challenges of life, not just of Oxford. Putting time aside to engage with other Christians is sometimes hard but actually a great release because it means there is something more important in my life than work, which really takes the pressure off!

What does your religion mean to you?
I guess everything. It’s the difference between living according to my desires and God’s. That’s the great thing about being a Christian; that it totally transforms your life. You can give God everything you are and receive his amazing spirit in return. The focus of your life shifts from you to God. God has changed me from the inside out in ways I never expected; the desires of my heart, the way I relate to people, the things I value in life. When you truly come to enter into a relationship with God you totally belong to him and he belongs to you. I love the benefits a relationship as committed as that has offered me.

Buddhism…Joseph Copestake

How long have you been practising your religion?
I started by picking up some books about Buddhism when I was 16, which was interesting enough for me to begin attending a non-denominational Buddhist group in Bath. There was only one other young member, but I appreciated the friendly reflectiveness of the evenings, and attended two international retreats of several days in the Zen tradition of the peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, of which I am now part. These were not what some might imagine: being woken at 5am for sitting meditation was involved, but so were Black Eyed Peas-rapping monks and a lot of sports and music!

What, for you, is at the core of your religious beliefs?
‘Beliefs’ and ‘faith’ need to be thought of carefully in Buddhism – I see them as less important than practice (at least when I’m not studying philosophy). The core of my practice is mindfulness – the cultivation of the habit of being here and now, where everything interesting is happening! Mindfulness practice helps us to stay in touch with the sources of joy and calm that are already available. Thich Nhat Hanh says ‘There is no way to peace; peace is the way’: peacefulness is an approach to life, and to ourselves, that can be practiced by anyone, firstly by remembering the ever-present reasons to be peaceful that everyone has. Another important concept is that of interbeing – the interconnectedness of things which habitually constructing an idea of oneself as an island can obscure. As in the joke about the Buddhist who asks at a kebab van ‘make me one with everything’.

How easy to you find it to worship and engage with a faith community whilst you’re studying in Oxford?
I think that Oxford is a difficult but also a rewarding place to practice mindfulness: when you’re worried about a deadline it is fantastic to unwind for half an hour, to know that during that half hour there is nowhere you need to go and nothing you need to do but enjoy a mindful walk (or a mindful game of Mario Kart) – it’s refreshing and liberating. In Oxford it’s particularly difficult to get your feet back on Earth when there is so much to think about, so many goals, and so much time is spent cerebrally. On Sunday March 13th several young monastics who are touring UK universities will be in Oxford to offer a Day of Mindfulness to anyone who is interested watch this space!

How much time do you devote to your religion in day-to-day life?
One evening a week I attend a Sangha – a mindful community – that meets in the Friends’ meeting House on St Giles. A typical evening will start with 15 minutes of mindful sitting, some walking meditation or a guided meditation, and discussion. At the beginning everyone speaks about something that they have enjoyed or thought about in the last week. Otherwise, I regularly have a mindful cup of tea for 20 minutes to relax, or do a ‘deep relaxation’ for an hour, letting go of stress and practicing gratitude for being healthy.

Do you ever find that your beliefs conflict with the expectations placed on you in Oxford – either academically or in your peer group?
Being a Buddhist practitioner studying theology raises a few eyebrows… I’m studying Islam this term as well as Christianity so in a sense that’s three religions on the go at once! To some extent to study any religion you need to be able to look at it ‘from the inside’, and this is particularly true of some modules which according to some students lean towards being confessional. But this isn’t a problem unless tutors demand that their pupils actually be Christian, for example, or assume that if they aren’t they can’t really engage with the subject. Personally I’ve not had that kind of experience.”