Nice and quiet: A place for deceleration on campus

The “Haus der Stille” (“House of Silence”) on Goethe University’s Westend Campus first opened its doors on October 5, 2010. Due to a Corona-related delay, the building’s anniversary celebrations had to be postponed, but will be marked by a discussion event in November. Prof. Rudolf Steinberg, former university president, chairman of the Board of Trustees, and one of the facility’s (co-)founders, believes the Frankfurt model of openness to religious views on campus is unique in Germany.

Prof. Rudolf Steinberg, Chairman of the “Association for the Promotion of Interreligious Dialog at Goethe University Frankfurt am Main”, in the “Haus der Stille”. Photo: Dettmar

UniReport: Mr. Steinberg, the “Haus der Stille” is celebrating its twelfth anniversary. Is there a cause for celebration? Has the “experiment” of this interreligious place, as you once called it, proved successful?

Rudolf Steinberg: To me, there are two reasons to celebrate the anniversary: If I am not mistaken, the “Haus der Stille” remains the only institution of its kind at a German university. I know many universities envy us for this; some experienced problems with comparable institutions, which were shut down as a result. The second reason is that, as a constitutional lawyer, I am convinced that this form of religiosity has its place in a secular university. Both reasons illustrate that we created something good, which is why I look to the future with confidence.

It is not really an obvious choice to have a house on a science campus that, generally speaking, opens itself up to religion.

Yes, the building is open to religion, but it is a house of silence – not a mosque, not a church. That means it is not just aimed at believers, but at all who want to experience a moment of silence in the university environment.

Did you and your fellow campaigners consider the possible criticism of such an institution when you first brought up the idea? After all, it would have been possible to follow a strictly secular path without such a house.

The institution’s founding has deeper historical roots, just as our history is responsible for much more than what one may initially think. We had and still have a church on the Bockenheim Campus, which also played a considerable social role. When we moved from the Bockenheim Campus to the Westend Campus, we wanted to create a similar institution here. But it was perfectly clear to us that this could no longer be a church, that we had to open up religiously. Our constitutional order is definitely open to religious communities, and religion is explicitly mentioned several times in Germany’s Basic Law. So, unlike France, for example, we don’t have a secular system. I would describe it as a cooperative system characterized by openness to religious views and communities in our country, and by the state’s neutrality toward religions. That means there are no constitutional grounds that speak against such an institution. However, it was very important to us that the university is not the house’s operator. That task falls to a specially founded “Association for the Promotion of Interreligious Dialog at Goethe University Frankfurt am Main”, of which the university president is the chairman. Its members include representatives of all religions, who are also represented on its board. Hesse State Secretary Ayse Asar also sat on the board until recently. She was one of the house’s founding members and we are pleased she will deliver some warm words of welcome at the anniversary event on November 10.

At the time of its founding, there was no choice really but to build an institution like the “Haus der Stille”.

Back then, we received numerous complaints in Bockenheim, not only from Muslim university members, but also from others, who felt disturbed, for example, by prayers held in the basement of a library. We wanted to remedy this unpleasant situation and the “Haus der Stille” managed to successfully do just that. Minor problems still exist on the Riedberg Campus today, my colleagues and I in the Board of Trustees have been told, and we are still missing a solution there.

The house is open to all individuals. However, groups can also book it for events, including, for example, yoga and meditation classes.

Mindfulness events are held here, too. One prerequisite is that only university members are entitled to book the location. After 6 PM, the house can be reserved for a specific time slot. Let me emphasize here once more: The “Haus der Stille” is not limited to religious purposes in the strict sense.

What about musical events?

We exclude purely cultural events. The Board of Trustees discusses such matters. In fact, sifting through user requests and deciding what fits is one of our main tasks. We also exclude events of a commercial nature.

Groups who want to hold an event here have to sign a declaration, in effect amounting to terms of use. Why is that?

Correct. We must be aware of the fact that, generally speaking, religious activities in many ways have a positive impact on social cohesion. There are, however, also practices that disrupt coexistence and these are the ones we want to exclude. For us, the litmus test is acceptance of cosmopolitanism and tolerance of other religions, including a commitment to the democratic order. Those who do not want to sign this declaration will not be able to book the space. We included this stipulation in our terms of use a few years ago, and there definitely have been situations in which we had to think about whether a certain user group would fit into the house or not.

The past few decades have seen religiously-based conflicts flare up all over the world, and arguments rage about the role religion can and should play in the public sphere. The “Haus der Stille” is located right in the midst of this field of tension.

We take great care to ensure that no extremist groups use the house. Once we received reports that Salafist Muslims had visited the house. As Board of Trustees, it is our assessment that as long as they are only praying there, we don’t want to prevent his. After all, Salafism is not terrorist per se. We did, however, also receive user requests from groups we consider more than dubious, and in some cases prohibited them from using the house. At times it amounts to a balancing act: on the one hand, we want to practice openness, but on the other, there are limits that have to be observed. If these rules were broken, the house’s existence quickly would become endangered. That is something we are very aware of.

A conflict once arose in the “Haus der Stille” due to a conflict on the spatial separation among Muslim believers. At the time, it was reported that the Board of Trustees does not interfere in such conflicts.

That is true. It is not our job to contribute to the emancipation of Islam. We strongly insist that no one is prevented from praying where he/she wants. If a female student wants to spend time on the first floor, no one is allowed to stop her or direct her to the gallery. Just to add some context: Not long ago we practiced a similar spatial separation in our churches. I was raised a Catholic. When I went to church services back then, it was customary for women and girls to sit on the left, and men and boys on the right. No one would ever have thought of changing sides.

Many people today no longer feel at home in denominations, but tend to have their own, potentially “self-made” patchwork religion. What are your experiences with these users?

These people are also a good match with the “Haus der Stille”. As can university members, who simply want to enjoy some quiet time on campus.

The house as a place of deceleration in an otherwise extremely fast-paced world …

… exactly! What placed great emphasis on the house’s transcendental architectural feel: with high walls, an interesting lighting design and a work of art in gold – a color with religious connotations in all religions. There are no other religious symbols. The only thing that might be a little distracting in the house are the green emergency exit signs, mandated by the building regulations.

Questions: Dirk Frank

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