Stanford News

2/5/97

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Stanford chaplains see revival of faith on campus

But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?

Job 28:12

The author of the book of Job in the Hebrew Bible asked that question thousands of years ago.

Four years ago Bob Gregg began to hear similar queries in the telephone calls he was receiving from prospective freshmen.

"Students who were clearly shopping for a religious community to hook up with in the first couple of weeks of college wanted me to describe religious life on campus and tell them whether Stanford would be hospitable to their spirituality," the dean of Memorial Church recalls. "That had never happened before in my experience."

The calls, which increased last summer, are one of several gauges Gregg uses to take the pulse of religious life at Stanford. Fielding questions at dorm dinners, teaching in the departments of classics and religious studies, and meeting individually with students in his office at Memorial Church, the university chaplain continually updates his base of anecdotal data.

Gregg now estimates that the percentage of incoming freshmen who want to find some sort of spiritual or religious congregating point at Stanford is between 10 and 20 percent.

"That's a pretty interesting feature of university life today," he says.

The local figures appear to mirror a movement toward spiritual renewal on college campuses that has become the subject of speculation in the national media in recent months.

In August the New York Times reported that "in a time of outward tension and inner searching, when many Americans worry about social decay and also show a growing interest in spirituality, teachers and administrators on campuses are asking whether colleges ought to try once again to build moral and spiritual character as well as intellect."

Michael J. Sandel, professor of government at Harvard University, told the Times: "There is a hunger among students to sort out what they believe and why, to sort out some kind of broad, moral perspective."

Four months earlier, the interdisciplinary journal Lingua Franca had published an article about the place of religion in higher education that began with this arresting sentence: "Intellectual fashions being what they are, the next major issue facing American higher education may well be the revival of religious faith."

When the Lingua Franca piece appeared, Gregg says, he received calls from several newspapers and radio stations, "asking if I could confirm or deny this notion that there are early signs of spiritual awakening on college and university campuses."

Then, in November, Gregg was invited by the presidents of Duke University and Illinois Wesleyan University to do an assessment of religious life on their respective campuses.

"He talked with everybody in sight for nearly three days," says Minor Myers Jr., president of Illinois Wesleyan. "He focused our thinking on the chapel program as an intellectual stimulant for the entire community, building bridges to other departments within the university.

"We saw that we needed to build more bridges, particularly with non-Western religious groups, and we now have a major Hindu and a major Buddhist lecturer coming. That was a plan Bob put in our heads."

The expanding multiculturalism of American colleges and universities today is bringing more students to campuses from cultures in which religion plays a large role. At Stanford, Gregg says there now are "significant numbers" of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Baha'i students, and individual commitment to faith appears to be equally strong among Christian and Jewish students.

This fall, Gregg and the three new associate deans for religious life were asked to meet for the first time with an admissions committee whose members are assigned to read the personal essays submitted by prospective students.

"They were getting more applications from students with strong religious commitments and wanted to have a clear sense of how to read them," says Patricia Karlin-Neumann, the first rabbi appointed to Memorial Church and a former chaplain at the Claremont Colleges and co-director of Hillel at UCLA.

"The conversations were prompted by essays from committed Christians, but I'm also seeing in the Jewish community students who come to Stanford with much more background and commitment to live out their faith."

Gregg says it is difficult to tell whether the national upsurge of interest in religious issues is new or cyclical. God: A Biography, the 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner by Jesuit scholar Jack Miles, and A History of God, by former nun Karen Armstrong, continue to draw critical attention, and Bill Moyers attracts viewers to his public-television discussion of the book of Genesis. Add to that the Benedictine homepage, Jewish seminars and novel theologies that have sprung up on the Internet ­ Time magazine calls it "a vast cathedral of the mind, a place where ideas about God and religion can resonate, where faith can be shaped and defined by a collective spirit" ­ and the implications are even trickier to read.

But on campus, Gregg says, the message is clear: "I have a very strong impression that we have a significant number of people who are much more forthright and vocal about their loyalties than was true even 10 years ago, when I came here," he says.

The conversations Gregg and his colleagues are having with students appear to support a significant finding of a recent survey of religious life on campuses. Religion in America 1996, published by the Gallup organization and based on a national questionnaire distributed by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, found that one-fourth of the entering freshmen of the Class of 1999 nationwide were born-again Christians. That proportion rose to 50 percent at Protestant-affiliated colleges.

There are now 31 religious organizations at Stanford, 23 of them identified as Protestant. Gregg says that students who describe themselves as committed to spiritual values are dissatisfied in at least two areas: classroom treatment of religion, and the need to deal with life's really big questions outside the classroom.

"I've had an increasing number of conversations with freshmen who express everything from concern to irritation about what strikes them as disrespectful ways in which their religious traditions are treated in some courses," he says.

Often, Gregg adds, the focus of their uneasiness is the program in Cultures, Ideas and Values and its perceived assault on the Bible and other religious texts.

"Jews, Christian and Muslim students complain about the kinds of dismissive statements that are made in CIV classrooms ­ that these are all mythological writings and surely no one with a grain of sense could take them seriously," Gregg says.

Many of the students he hears from are "fairly sophisticated intellectually," he says, and they think the approach taken in some courses is "a very careless way to proceed."

Shortly after she arrived on campus, Rabbi Karlin-Neumann had a call from a young Christian student who was struggling with similar issues related to her coursework.

"I suspect she didn't want to go to the Christian chaplains because that would have somehow been too close," Karlin-Neumann says. "But I was safe.

"She just wanted to talk about how to read the Bible in a way that conveyed an understanding of it as a holy book and also allowed for commentary. She wanted to be able to retrieve religious understanding from a book that, to her, felt threatened."

As for the second challenge ­ how to link spiritual growth with intellectual growth ­ Gregg says: "Many, many students don't want to be forced by new intellectual challenges into a kind of student schizophrenia, in which they do what the system requires of them in their schoolwork but have to handle the really important questions of meaning privately, in underground Bible-study groups."

These two challenges converge in what Gregg sees as a "working misunderstanding between a significant number of students and a significant number of faculty."

"There are a lot of people on university faculties, here and elsewhere, who are committed believers in this or that religious tradition," Gregg says. "But there are also others who think that [religion] is pretty much beside the point for someone who is intellectual.

"In the minds of some people, religion is the dumbed-down version of searching, and some people in the academy believe that intellectual life can only proceed if you junk all religious and spiritual questions and get on with your business."

To exclude questions of religious traditions from intellectual discussions, Gregg argues, is "to damn yourself to wade in very, very shallow water."

In an effort to broaden conversations on campus and to encourage more participation from multicultural and religious communities, Gregg began meeting with small groups of campus ministers last year. They study one another's texts and rituals and talk about how religious or philosophical communities wrestle with the issues students bring to them.

Gregg and his colleagues also are pushing ahead with plans for a multifaith center on campus that would provide space for students to worship, meet, study and socialize. At the same time they are looking for ways to bring visiting religious figures to Stanford.

"The assumption that intellectual and spiritual pursuits have much in common has its strong advocates, and it's an assumption worth debating," Gregg adds.

From her office in the Old Student Union, where the campus ministries for Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, evangelical and Islamic students are located, the Rev. Kelly Denton-Borhaug has been making new contacts in her role as associate dean for religious life.

"There are a lot of groups that don't tend to be in the public eye, but they nevertheless provide all kinds of engagement with religious issues where they intersect with academic interests," the Lutheran scholar says.

Denton-Borhaug is organizing an informal brunch and discussion that will follow the Sunday worship service once a month. Some 30 students turned up for an initial brunch that was held in fall quarter and the interest prompted her to schedule regular sessions for winter and spring quarters.

"Students came with specific topics they wanted to see addressed, from hearing how thoughtful Christians interpret the Bible to learning about the ways in which faith plays a part in life-passage moments," she says.

From the contacts he has had with undergraduate and graduate students, the Rev. Maurice Charles, an ordained Episcopal priest who is associate dean for religious life, says he is "surprised and delighted" at the number of students who are participating regularly in some religious group on campus or who continue to maintain affiliations at home.

"When I talk with people outside the university, the first thing they usually say is, 'Oh, my goodness, you're doing a ministry at a university. That's got to be tough, getting students to do anything religious.'

"But that's just not true. I haven't been at this long enough to be able to say there's a revival of religious faith on campus, but there's certainly a great deal more than people realize."

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By Diane Manuel


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