Seeker and stargazer

2007-11-28 00:00

Being a university city, Pietermaritzburg boasts a stimulating intellectual life and for the last 30 years Martin Prozesky has been a vital part of it.

Currently director of the Unilever Ethics Centre on the local campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Prozesky is retiring to start a new venture, one not unrelated to the concerns he has pursued throughout his life — religion and ethics, subjects that have featured in the many books he has authored or edited including Religion and Ultimate Wellbeing, A New Guide to the Debate about God, Living Faiths in South Africa, and his most recent, Conscience: Ethical Intelligence for Global Wellbeing.

Given the above, it might come as a surprise to find that cricket is one of Prozesky’s passions. “It was the second great love of my boyhood and it still is,” he says. “I was good at school level, but increasingly mediocre as I moved up.” Prozesky played a couple of seasons for Maritzburg’s pioneering multi-racial Aurora cricket club and earlier for the University of Rhodesia, on occasion in the first 11.

And his first love? “Astronomy,” he answers. “That was my first love of boyhood. I built two telescopes — even grinding my own mirrors.”

His interest in the heavens dates to the time the eight-year-old Prozesky was introduced to the vast skies of the Little Karoo when he and his family moved from Natal to Oudtshoorn. “Out there among all those stars and planets, the idea that there might be another one with life on it — that was hugely exciting to me, breathtaking.”

Prozesky was born in Newcastle in Natal in 1944 and, before settling in Oudtshoorn, travelled the province according to the dictates of his father Herman’s posts in teacher training. Prozesky’s mother Mary was also an educationist. A career-minded mother and six sisters provided a feminist foil to Prozesky and his younger brother. “We were always democratically outvoted.”

Prozesky’s Natal ties go back to his great-grandfather, August, who came to South Africa from East Prussia as a missionary. “There was a strong mission-type orientated religion in our family,” says Prozesky. “But my mother was Anglican. She was very English, more English than the English, with a fierce loyalty to King and Country. It was an interesting mix with my father’s Prussian background.”

Prozesky’s father became an Anglican and after retirement took ordination as an Anglican priest. Prozesky acknowledges that “Christianity of the Anglican kind has had a huge influence on my life. We were of the Anglo-Catholic political liberal-radical kind — Trevor Huddleston, Albert Luthuli and later, Denis Hurley, were names we were familiar with, figures standing up for truth and justice, something not popular then for white people to do”

That influence saw Prozesky pursuing theological studies at Rhodes University and Trinity College, Oxford, where he met his wife Elizabeth. “Unknown to us we had a mutual friend who introduced us.”

Prozesky decided against ordination while completing his studies at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the United States.

“I had thoroughly enjoyed the ethical and political applications of my studies but I was not strong on ritual or the doctrinal side of religion,” he says

A three-month placement as a trainee chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital brought matters to a head. “I found I just wasn’t a natural pastoral person and realised it would be a problem if I proceeded further. “Finding out there was something I was not good at, and having to come to terms with that, was not easy.”

However, the experience threw Prozesky’s other strengths into relief. While assisting at a parish there was the discovery “that I loved public speaking. I realised my career would not be pastoral but a teaching one — I was clear about being a good teacher.”

Then came what Prozesky calls “one of the great breaks of my life” — a telephone call from Rhodes University where a lecturer was needed immediately in the theology department. He spent a year lecturing. “I absolutely loved it, I was sure this was what I wanted.”

But there was no permanent post and Prozesky’s teaching career had to be put on hold. “Another happy development” saw Prozesky enter the world of publishing, first with a small firm in Cape Town and then Oxford University Press. “This gave me a good taste of commerce, where you had to produce something that people would buy so that you could get something to eat at the end of the day.”

But Prozesky missed the interaction with others that was a hallmark of teaching. Academic posts were in short supply, but he landed one at the University of Rhodesia, lecturing in religious studies from 1971 to 1976 before joining the then University of Natal’s department of divinity. When this department divided into two — theology and religious studies — Prozesky joined the latter. “We were teaching religious systems, looking at faith systems as value systems. The world religions can be hugely different yet astonishingly similar in their ethical agreement. The core ethics come out of different and often contradictory beliefs.”

Appointed Dean of Humanities from 1991 to 1995 Prozesky moved into the management structure of the university. “I came in under the shadow of apartheid and left under the new order after the 1994 democratic elections. It was a great transitional time in South Africa.”

Prozesky emerged from it with a new task. “I realised there was an enormous need for work on applied ethics — apartheid had damaged the moral substance of society — in politics and business, everything.

This new vision was given further impetus when Brenda Gourley in her installation address as vice chancellor said the need for ethics was vital for students. Prozesky returned to teaching in the field of applied ethics and when Unilever provided funding he became director of the Unilever Ethics Centre.

“The work we were doing was done in the light of comparative ethics, moving towards the new movement for the creation of a global ethic, one that everyone could be happy with.”

Next year Prozesky will set up as an independent ethics educator and consultant under the banner of Compass Ethics.

“Applied ethics is not something you can do on campus — you have got to make contact with the area of application such as sports or medicine.

“I was increasingly getting calls from businesses to give a lunch-time talk or short courses.”

Prozesky regards leadership as being the critical issue in ethics today. “There is a global leadership deficit — there are few Nelson Mandelas and Desmond Tutus.”

Leadership is the more needed in a world that at times looks to be regressing into divisive fundamentalisms. Prozesky acknowledges the resurgence of fundamentalism is “worrisome ethically”, but says he’s both optimistic and pessimistic. “The pessimism concerns the division between micro-ethics, over issues like gay marriage, versus macro-ethics concerned with politics and violence. There is an ethical reversal with people and institutions looking at lifestyle only, rather than issues of globalisation and environment.”

And the optimism? “There are deeper things going on, which is good news.” He cites the “interest in spirituality which is inclusive and probing” as evidence of a refusal to buy into a materialistic world view. “One that sees the universe as the only reality. There is a rebellion against a materialistic world view, where dog eats dog, greed is king and violence is okay.”

“There is some form of spiritual passion deep in us — that reacts against doctrinal approaches whether they be mosque-based or church-based,” says Prozesky.

Prozesky is hopeful that humankind’s spiritual and ethical quest has a Galileo waiting just around the corner in future. “Not in an astronomical sense, but someone like him who will come up with a kind of unifying vision. One which the religious traditions will find comfortable, but will no longer be exclusive.

“This would open up possibilities we would all welcome.”

Inner space and outer space

Martin Prozesky’s own spiritual journey has taken him from orthodox Christianity to a label-resistant position.

“Dogma constricts,” he says. “My outlook is fuelled by the huge ethical and spiritual power of figures such as Christ, Buddha and Mohammed — and many others.”

Prozesky acknowledges the influence of growing up in a staunchly Anglican household.

“I became strongly aware of religion’s potential for moral good. I was not so aware then of the dark side of religion and its potential for harm — as in apartheid.

“The Christianity I grew up with was politically liberal but theologically orthodox. Christianity was the final and true faith — ‘the only path to salvation’ — other faiths were regarded as exhibiting increasing ‘degrees of error’.

“I discovered early on things in church didn’t square up to the facts and this raised important questions.”

Prozesky began to explore the whole belief spectrum. At school in Oudtshoorn he made several Jewish friends.

“I came to see that here was a deeply ethical community. This further undermined those Christian doctrinal formulations. The ethics of Christianity are important, but while they transcend race and culture they do not transcend creed.”

At Rhodes University Prozesky met Buddhists — who provided a non-theist approach to religious and ethical matters — and, perhaps more significantly, an atheist lecturer.

“I remember the shock statement he made to a bunch of us divinity students. He said: ‘I have never sinned. Alas, I have done bad things, but sin is this concept that you have sinned against a divine being. As an atheist it is an unacceptable concept, but evil is real’.

“He did an enormous favour to all of us,” says Prozesky.

“The statement made us realise that the moral domain is not fundamentally the property of religion; that ethics are not the property of religion. That there existed the possibility of great moral depth outside a religious framework was a further weakening of the experience of any exclusive truth.”

This process continued as Prozesky lectured in comparative religious studies. “I did really serious work on Hinduism, Islam and Marxism — we were looking not so much at religions as belief systems — and this continued to undermine any notion of a metaphysical, exclusive truth, but it strengthened the idea of an inclusive ethic.”

Prozesky acknowledges that his love of astronomy has also played a role in influencing his spiritual outlook.

“It has to enlarge your sense of reality. Gazing at the heavens makes me feel great humility. It leaves me awestruck and humble, not cocksure of certainty.

“The question of how the universe came into being is totally awesome — is it a brute fact or was it willed into being by some creator?”

Not knowing the answer, Prozesky rejects both extreme scientific and religious positions: “I’m opposed to naturalist dogma as much as I am opposed to supernaturalist dogma.”

Prozesky’s view is that the human experience is one of journeying rather than arrival at a destination. “

I experience life as a journey of exploration into something inexhaustibly inviting and enriching. I have no sense of arrival, but a sense of the physical cosmos and a spiritual cosmos that are both inexhaustible. I love exploring inner space just as much as outer space with my telescope.”

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