Will and Mia were two students interviewed as part of the project Angus Parker and Faiths of Cambridge (Facebook)

There’s a debate among Jewish scholars as to how one should look at the lives of the great religious figures. Their lives are laid out in the great biblical epics, from the tormented reign of King Saul to the tale of the exodus that leaves Moses barred from the Land he’s led his people to. One school of thought tries to read such men as saintly figures and will mitigate any sin attributed to them in the scripture. The polished, untouchable role model is curated from here. The other approach argues that it is precisely because of their struggles of faith, their uncertainties and complexities that they stand as role models for us all. The fact that we can see them as people enables us to relate to them in a truly human sense.

Religion is too often conveyed theoretically: as polished, crystal clear and unrelatable

Throughout my past two years at Cambridge, I have been amazed by the diversity of faith groups on campus. From the passionate campaigns of the Christian Union to the intimate community found at the Islamic Society, I found in Cambridge a place where religious communities truly flourish. People of faith share festivities and fasts, while at my own Jewish Society, the weekly Friday night dinners give my co-religionists and myself a space to continue traditions our families have practiced for time immemorial. But outside these spaces, in the larger university landscape, religious dialogue is worryingly muted.

For many, thoughtful religious discussion occurs only between mouthfuls of a toastie and while religious doctrine is often debated, conversations about the struggles, difficulties and experiences of religion are often left at the side-lines. Like the figures of scripture, religion is too often conveyed theoretically: as polished, crystal clear and - to my mind - unrelatable, while the complex, real and sometimes messy reality of a life of faith is entirely lost.

Faith can become controversial and divisive because it occupies questions that all of us have considered for a time and have all answered differently

I’ve tried, through the past year, to explore that life and together with Tiwa Adebayo, we’ve met and interviewed the broadest church of students and faculty members through our Faiths of Cambridge project. I’ve found a diversity of opinion that could only exist in a city such as ours. From the engineering student who offered me spiritual healing to a post-graduate former Dominican Friar, it has been a much confrontation with my own beliefs as it has been an opportunity to speak to others about theirs.

For a student like Mia, a third-year at Trinity College, university has been a time for her to ask questions of faith and belief whilst not feeling obligated to find every answer or subscribe to a particular faith. ‘It’s nice to be inquisitive’, she argues, ‘and at Cambridge we’re trained to think all the time and answer every single question. Coming to university has been a chance to explore other ideas that exist and know it’s okay to not have the answers’. Conversely, for Emilia, studying at St Catherine’s, it is the certainty she finds in her faith that keeps her strong. ‘So it’s cool for me to wake up some days and know that even if things are going wrong and I’m not that happy, I can still be so joyful’, she explained, beaming and excited. ‘With joy, I know that I’ll be okay’. Diversity of faith spans far wider than books and religions and more has to be done to promote this discussion on campus.

Diversity of faith spans far wider than books and religions

I wouldn’t like to suggest, however, that only those who call themselves religious should have a monopoly on religious discussion. Faith can become controversial and divisive because it occupies questions that all of us have considered for a time and have all answered differently. The decision to name the project ‘Faiths of Cambridge’ as opposed to ‘Religions’ was a deliberate one as our diversity of beliefs spans far wider than any religious creed could encapsulate. Although faith can bring people together, it is also distinctly personal, and we would be at a loss if we were to shy away from these more controversial issues out of fear of offending or even maybe disagreeing.


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My final interview in Lent last year was with Will, a third year student at Peterhouse. He spoke of a religious life in flux, not always having the answers. ‘I am sure’, he admitted, ‘that there are those that see my sexuality as a ‘problem’ as much as there are those who think my pluralist attitude means that I can’t call myself a Christian. I’m improvising as I go but I also have to see that other people are too and their understanding isn’t necessarily perfect’.

At university, we can get a lot from a lecture, but lived experience is primary to faith and through speaking honestly, we can find in one another role models like those rabbis found in the complex characters of scripture. As Will described so well, ‘it comes down to recognising that we’re all looking for something that no one can actually grasp. Naturally people are going to come to different conclusions and that is fine I think.’ I think so too.

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