Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, September 27, 2000

'Welcome to a time of accelerated change in your lives'

This is the prepared text of the reflection given by the Rev. William "Scotty" McLennan at the Multifaith Welcome Sunday, Sept. 24, 2000.

Welcome! For incoming first-year students and transfer students, I'm pleased to be adding my own welcome to all those you've received in the last couple of days. I welcome you as the dean for religious life, but also as one of you, because I'm just starting at Stanford this year too. In fact, I won't be here full time until January. I'm finishing my last semester of 16 years as the university chaplain at Tufts in the Boston area, on the other side of the country. So, we begin Stanford together this academic year. Yet, we begin in good hands, surrounded by many spiritual and religious mentors who know this community well.

The Rev. William "Scotty" McLennan

(photo: L.A. Cicero)

The theme of today's Multifaith Welcome is change or transformation. The Koran says, "Verily God does not change the state of a people till they change themselves." In the Jewish tradition, Yose be Yo'ezer exclaims, "Let your House be opened wide." Jesus teaches, "Let your light shine before others." Christian minister Howard Thurman exhorts, "Look well to the growing edge." The college experience inevitably is one of change -- often rapid and dramatic change. You may experience yourself as quite a different person each year here, with new friends, new activities, new intellectual experiences and new perspectives on life. You may find yourself changing religiously and spiritually too, and for many people this can be quite scary. You may think that you're losing the faith of your childhood, or you may think that you're finding true faith for the first time (and then not be sure how you really feel about it). I have three points I'd like to make in this reflection: First, spiritual development is just as normal as emotional and intellectual development. Second, see yourself as on a spiritual journey, and enjoy exploring the spiritual terrain along the way. Third, understand that returning to your childhood faith with new adult eyes may be one of the most fulfilling spiritual experiences possible, though by no means the only one.

In my own case, I grew up as a rather conservative Presbyterian Christian in the Midwest. During my freshman year in college I took a course which led to a deep fascination with Eastern religions -- Hinduism in particular. I became so intrigued that I spent the summer after my freshman year living with a Hindu Brahmin priest in northeastern India, not far from Calcutta. It turned out that he knew the Bible better than I did. He also knew the Koran backward and forward, and the Buddhist scriptures, as well as his own Hindu scriptures. As he put it, there are a number of different paths up the spiritual mountain, which converge at the top. By learning about other paths, not only can you get a fuller perspective on mountain terrain -- discovering meadows and ponds and cliffs where you may previously have seen only a green forest -- but also you can come to appreciate that forest more fully by understanding where it is situated and what flora and fauna you may not have recognized until you saw them elsewhere.

I was very impressed by both the breadth and the depth of this Hindu priest's knowledge. I learned to meditate with him. I visited Hindu temples, which seemed to have a throbbing vitality, which I'd never experienced. I spent hours listening to haunting sitar music, watching the mystical connection that grew in the best performances between the string player and the accompanying drummer. I watched beautiful, colorful dancers illuminating the Hindu classics through movement. I woke up each morning to the sound of chanting and the smell of incense wafting over my bed from the puja room, or home chapel, located right next to where I slept. As I ate carefully prepared vegetarian food every day, I learned about the priest's respect for animal life. He was also a follower of Gandhi, deeply involved years ago in the Indian independence movement and later in social justice work in his community, but always from a nonviolent perspective. He had a deep respect for each person -- even those who seemed to be profoundly insensitive to the needs and rights of others.

By the end of the summer I'd decided that I wanted to become a Hindu. When I sat down with the priest to find out how to do it, I was shocked by his response. "No, no!" he almost screamed. "You've missed the whole point of everything I've been teaching you all summer. There are many paths up the spiritual mountain which reach the top, but it makes no sense for you to hop over to the Hindu path after 20 years on the Christian one. You come from a Christian family, grew up in a Christian church, have been schooled in Christian ethics and have a Christian worldview. If you want to be the kind of Hindu I've taught you to be, go back home and be the best Christian you can be."

I protested that many of the Christians I grew up with would condemn him -- even say he was going to hell -- for knowing about Jesus but not accepting him uniquely as his Lord and Savior. "Well, find a way," he responded, "to go back and be an open Christian, then -- a nonexclusive Christian. But listen to those other Christians too, because they may have found a way to God that's a lot deeper than yours is now." Then he went on to explain how my experience with Hinduism could help make me a better Christian: "Take what you've learned of meditation back into your Christian prayer life to see what you may have missed within your own tradition. Listen to organ music with greater appreciation now that you've heard the sitar. Value movement and chanting and incense in the Christian tradition. Be a Christian ecologist now that you understand why we're vegetarians. Note how important Gandhi was to Martin Luther King Jr. in his civil rights work, but remember that, for King, Jesus was the great prophet of nonviolence."

In retrospect, now, I've decided that if it weren't possible -- for any number of reasons -- for me to re-access Christianity through new eyes, there would have been nothing wrong in this priest's opinion with my becoming a Hindu or a Buddhist or something else. He would have just insisted that I put in the hard work, and joyous work, to reconsider Christianity and then the hard work, and joyous work, of beginning from scratch on the Hindu or Buddhist path.

A considerable body of scholarship has developed over the last 30 years in psychology on stages of faith development. It parallels the work done by psychologist Erik Erikson on stages of psychosocial development, Jean Piaget on stages of cognitive development, and Lawrence Kohlberg on stages of moral development. A psychologist who taught me at the Harvard Divinity School, James Fowler, found that we all potentially go through six stages of faith in our life, regardless of our religious tradition. In terms of the metaphor of the spiritual mountain, Fowler would say that there are different bands of climate that all paths go through as they ascend. It may be hot at the base of the mountain, but it gets cooler as you ascend. At some point all paths lead above the treeline and the wind picks up. At some point all paths enter the clouds where there may be rain or snow.

As I've adapted Fowler's stages in my chaplaincy work, I've renamed them Magic and Reality in early and later childhood, Dependence and Independence starting in adolescence and early adulthood, and Interdependence and Unity, which don't occur until middle and later adulthood. This isn't to say that all of us progress through all of the stages, however. Also, there's no judgment involved in not making it to the next stage. Very few people ever make it to the last stage of Unity -- the realm of the mystics -- and many of us stay happily at the Dependence stage, for example, from adolescence throughout the rest of our lives. I find stage theory to be particularly helpful when you're afraid that you're losing your own faith or worried about a relative or a friend. Knowing that movement through stages is a normal human phenomenon, and that the major religious traditions accommodate all stages along their paths, can be very reassuring.

Most college students find themselves either at the Dependence or Independence stage, or they go back and forth between them. What can be disconcerting is that God and religious institutions look very different in one stage than in the other. In the Dependence stage, one tends to need a strong religious community and to be attracted to strong religious leaders. God or Enlightenment is conceived of primarily in the form of a person, often imaged as an ideal parent or enlightened master. In the Independence stage, by contrast, people often feel alienated from religious organizations or communities, including clergy, rituals, dogmas and doctrines. During the Independence stage people often say, "I'm spiritual, but I'm not religious." They access God or Enlightenment within themselves more than from outside. They also tend to speak of God or Enlightenment in impersonal terms -- as spirit or soul, as life force or energy. The mid-adult Interdependence stage reconciles Dependence and Independence, if ever reached at all, but meanwhile a lot of us have to deal with two quite different religious perspectives, regardless of the religious tradition with which we identify.

In conclusion, welcome again to Stanford and to a time of accelerated change -- even transformation -- in many of your lives. I want you to know that there are a lot of people from a lot of religious traditions here to help you along the way. And I want to reiterate my three main points: First, spiritual development is just as normal as emotional and intellectual development. Second, see yourself as on a spiritual journey; enjoy exploring the spiritual terrain along the way. Finally, understand that returning to your childhood faith with new adult eyes may be one of the most fulfilling spiritual experiences possible, although not the only one. Good luck, and may blessings be upon you.