Embracing Ubuntu: Queen’s School of Religion

This post is the fourth in a short semi-autobiographical series I’m doing called Embracing Ubuntu. Ubuntu, for those who aren’t familiar, is an African concept that is hard to translate but means something like “diversity in unity.” It is neither uniformity – making everyone the same or not talking about differences – nor is a free-for-all battle where anything goes. It is a recognition that is simple in theory but hard in practice: we are all different and that doesn’t make me better than you. I’ve expressed this idea many times, often using the Anabaptist phrasing the “Third Way,” but in this series I want to give examples of where I have encountered it working.

The JDUC, Student Life Centre at Queen’s

Many of my conservative friends warned me about going to Queen’s School of Religion for my M.Div. I would constantly be on the defensive, they warned. I would have my faith torn apart, some pretty much guaranteed me. I may come out with a degree for an actually-affordable amount thanks to their bursaries but it would clearly not be worth it.

I did it anyway. I’m glad I did.

Yes, the majority of the students at Queen’s are liberal. I mean that in the truest sense of the word theologically and not just in the sense that they care about the poor or often vote for a left-of-centre party. Some didn’t accept Jesus’ physical resurrection. Others didn’t think Jesus was God, although he surely was somebody worth following. And of course how many define liberal: you would have evoked serious confusion if you said women couldn’t lead or that gay people should be less welcome in the community.

I was the crazy conservative. That’s right. I’m usually labelled the crazy liberal by conservatives, but I am still labelled the crazy conservative by liberals. I actually think that Jesus’ bodily resurrection is a historical event and that Jesus is not only God but the fullest representation of God. I think that the Bible was entirely inspired (not that the meaning is clear), and most importantly I thought Jesus was the very revelation of God to humanity, not just some hints at God thanks to a very good man.

Despite being the crazy conservative, I’m not sure I ever felt like I wasn’t welcome. Occasionally students got into talking about how messed up some fundamentalist attitude or another was but the professors always reined it in quickly. Even though most – not nearly all – of the students were liberal United Church of Canada, the professors covered a good range. Almost half of my total classes were with a Pentecostal woman. The head of the school was a former Baptist turned United Church, but she still sounded very Baptist as in the Preaching class I had with her. We had a Presbyterian Old Testament professor, an Anglican New Testament, and a range of occasional/guest professors.

One of my favourite moments came in, I think, our Pluralism class. Somebody was pointing out judgemental and legalistic conservatives can be in how they treat some other group, I forget which. The instructor, who was himself very liberal, asked if there are ways that liberals can be just as judgemental and legalistic. After nobody replied for about a minute, he suggested how liberals brand everyone as “homophobic,” hating gay people if they don’t think God blesses the marriage, a similar point I’ve made here several times since. Everyone just looked dumbfounded that their “camp” can be just as angry or judgemental, even though I didn’t hear that often directly from my classmates.

All that to say, I do really think that Queen’s created an atmosphere of ubuntu. There were many good things learned from the subject material, to be sure, but the greatest advantage of a seminary education with people who don’t agree with you is being around and talking about tough topics with people who can gently disagree with you. How many of my views were changed directly because of those conversations? Probably some, but not that many. That just isn’t the point.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.