The Sacred & the Secular: Common Ground is Worth Finding

By Barry Klassel
Humanist Chaplain at Rutgers University

Despite an ingrained skepticism – and even revulsion – on the part of some at the thought of dialogue across the sacred/secular divide, there are two new ventures that champion the idea there may be great benefit in seeking areas of commonality. The first is the recent publication of a book, entitled Being Called:  Scientific, Secular and Sacred Perspectives. The second is the Common Ground 2015 conference taking place at Rutgers University on Oct. 8 (information and registration at

Common Ground 2015

Being Called is a scholarly approach to the phenomenon of finding fulfillment and purpose in one’s work. As David Yaden, one of the co-editors, summarizes in the final chapter, regarding Amy Wrzniewski’s work, “’jobs’ are undertaken only for the paycheck, ‘careers’ are a path of professional advancement, and ‘callings’ are personally fulfilling, socially useful work that would be done with no pay and with no promotions.” Here the word ‘calling’ refers to the work itself, but it may also refer to the transformative event that led one to the work.  As for the latter, Yaden goes on to say that “calling experiences can align us with what is most authentic in our own lives” and are “often counted among life’s most meaningful moments.”

What is important to note is that such significant moments have been experienced by both the religious and the non-religious although they may differ as to whether the ‘calling experience’ originated from a natural or supernatural source. Regardless, it’s important to Yaden that those from all backgrounds talk to each other about such phenomena because they can then be researched and enhanced by careful scientific study for the benefit of us all.  For this reason, we should all support “working together to build new forms for human flourishing.”

David Yaden is a colleague of mine at Rutgers. In addition to being a Research Fellow in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, he is a fellow chaplain of the Humanist Community here in New Brunswick. Since 2009, when the Humanist Community (originally the Humanist Chaplaincy) was formed at Rutgers, we have always seen the benefit of taking part in activities along with traditionally religious participants. Humanism deserves a place at the table and behind the podium next to those of various faiths and Rutgers has accepted this. For example, we’ve helped a psychologist at the counselling center understand what might comprise humanist, as compared with faith based, spirituality. Alongside  believers we’ve spoken in Trenton supporting marriage equality, read poems at memorial services run by the Alumni Association and the Dean’s office, spoken on panels to student groups about the humanist approach to ‘forgiveness’ and ‘belonging’, spoken to Student Life representatives about how to respect students who are non-believers, attended debates to support the atheist point of view.

The Common Ground 2015 conference is a culmination of our experiences at Rutgers.  The idea originated with the Xaverian Missionaries USA, a branch of the Roman Catholic Church, headquartered in Wayne, New Jersey. They proposed that the American Humanist Association be co-sponsors of such an event and, in turn, the AHA suggested Rutgers as a location. Happily, all parties agreed.

Common Ground is seen as the opposite of a debate. Its vital purpose is to bring together all members of the Rutgers community, as well as the general public, those of all different religious identities (from traditionally religious or spiritual to atheist/agnostic/humanist or whatever else) to achieve greater understanding, both of our differences and our ultimate commonalities so that we can work together for the common good. The date selected was October 8, 2015 because it was not a holiday of any sort, as far as we could determine. The conference is all day, 8:45am-6pm, at the easily accessible College Ave. Student Center. To accommodate all those interested, attendance is free, lunch is free, parking is free and open to all visitors. The public is invited to attend any or all of the sessions (see the website for precise schedule and map).

There will be panel discussions led by a variety of scholars and leaders on such universal topics as “Finding Meaning in Life” and “Values and Morals” as seen from both religious and non-religious perspectives.  David Yaden, appropriately enough, along with Rutgers Prof. of Psychology Julien Musolino, will be on the “Meaning” panel. The “Values” panel will be led by Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. At another panel, leaders such as Roy Speckhardt, Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, Dr. Anthony Pinn, Nadia Hassan, Chris Stedman and Sarah Spengeman will describe how their organizations cooperate with others on social action projects. Moderator for the event is Dr. Will Storrar, Director of the Princeton Center of Theological Inquiry.  Finally, everyone who attends will break into groups to think about how we might collectively address such pressing issues as violence against religious minorities (including atheists), refugees, combating stereotypes, childhood poverty and hunger.

I ask that all interested in Common Ground 2015 register now and spread the word. It is hoped that all who attend will leave with new insights, new friends and renewed commitment to the causes that motivate them. As David Yaden puts it in his last sentence in Being Called, “beginning to find common ground over shared values and working together to build new forms for human flourishing is a call that we all can answer.”

Barry Klassel (Chaplain, Rutgers)

Barry KlasselBarry is currently Humanist Chaplain at Rutgers University.  After studying psychology at Columbia College, Barry earned a Masters degree in theater at the University of Pittsburgh.  He also attended the MFA in Acting program at Florida State.  He has acted and directed in a variety of plays in NYC and elsewhere.  He last directed a play by Tom Flynn on post-apocalyptic America called Messiah Game.  Currently, and in addition to his work at Rutgers, Barry performs in an arts-in-education program and volunteers on a crisis/suicide hotline.  You can read more about Barry at the Rutgers Humanist Chaplaincy website.

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