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October 8, 2010

Uncommon Interview: Josh Oxley

Following Harvard, Rutgers and Adelphi Universities, the University’s Spiritual Life Office appointed a Humanist Advisor this year. Like his colleagues (including the Lutheran Campus Minister, the Director of Hillel, and the Pagan/Wiccan Collective Advisor), Divinity School student and proclaimed secular humanist Josh Oxley is available as a resource for discussions on spiritual and secular life. The Maroon sat down with Oxley in the catacomb-like basement of the Rockefeller Chapel to discuss what it really means to advise on matters secular, spiritual, human, and all three at once.

Chicago Maroon: Why is it important to have a humanist advisor here?

Josh Oxley: Historically, campus ministries have left out students who don’t have an accepted religious background or an accepted religious identity. Those students have been left to the curb....I think that it’s important to see those students and say these students are asking important questions, and not only that but they are coming to important answers that can be shaped by their identity. And that is a unique perspective that should be celebrated and brought to the wider community.

CM: What does it mean to be a humanist advisor?

JO: Working with students who are humanists, secularists, atheists, agnostics—anyone that comes from kind of a naturalistic or non-theistic perspective. Those are the students that I’m responsible for.

CM: What else does your job entail?

JO: I advise for the Secular Student Alliance. I’m the graduate advisor for them. But at the same time my role is to really do whatever needs to be done for students. It’s not just about answering questions. One of my roles is to provide a voice for those students when there are bigger discussions on campus about religion or life stance things. It’s more about engaging people in the conversation and helping people realize there is a conversation. And seeing secularism as a positive rather than just a negative, which I think is the overwhelming narrative in the country.

CM: So, can you work with theists?

JO: I myself am willing to work with anyone from any religious background whatsoever. My role to the University is specifically to help out the students who have questions or are in some way interested in questions about secular life or come from a secular background. But I’ve had students who email and say ‘I’m Christian but I’m interested in hearing what you have to say about x, y and z.’ I meet with anyone, I think it’s important that people open the room for those types of conversations.

CM: Do you weave spirituality into your advising?

JO: It depends on where the person is comfortable. There are people who are staunch atheists who don’t see a spiritual dimension to life and I would never force that on them. And there are other people who find spirituality in specific arenas of life like nature. It’s a lot about meeting people where they are already at and then moving from there.

CM: How did you get the job?

JO: I talked with Elizabeth Davenport, the dean of Rockefeller, and we discussed as part of my role as a student who had come in the MDiv [Master’s of Divinity] program as a Christian who, by a little while in the program, had decided that I identify more as a secularist humanist, that kind of discussion would be good on our campus. Dean Davenport had always been interested in having more of a representation of a large body of our students, our secular students.

CM: How else are you qualified for this position?

JO: I’ve worked in church settings for a lot of my life. I’ve had two internships at churches and I was a chaplain at a summer camp. I think it’s a lot of the same questions being asked. The community we’re in ends up coming to different conclusions than the other communities do, but at the same time, we’re all human and we’re all trying to wrestle with the same questions of meaning and identity.

CM: Have you had anyone come to you yet?

JO: I have had a couple of students come to me so far. I think even the position starts a good conversation itself.

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