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In Good Faith

Exploring what Columbia means to its religious student population

There is no shortage of communities at Columbia. Of all the sub-entities that comprise our diverse population, there are a number that fit under a single, broader category. This umbrella group is made up of all those students who see themselves as religiously affiliated—be it with a group, doctrine, way of life, or individual belief.

The word “religious” is hard to define in a single way, as are the many religious personalities and groups that make up this campus. Indeed, there is a wide variety—too broad to detail—of backgrounds, interests, and intellectual or spiritual journeys in our community. In this realm especially, no two students are alike. But there is a thread that connects them all: their belief in something beyond the secular liberalism that has come to define our age.

These are not the only students who search for, and sometimes find, deeper meaning in their environment. But for openly religious students in particular, a number of central questions take on added meaning: Has the University left intellectual room for spirituality? How do reason and faith relate in the classroom? And how do religious students interact with the environment surrounding them? While no student speaks for anyone but themselves, and no one story could contain the fullness of these students’ ways of life, this piece will attempt to explore a small segment of the vast and rich story of religion at Columbia.

An Anglican Legacy

The history of religion at Columbia begins much earlier than the founding of Hillel or the Muslim Students Association. Dating back to the earliest discussions at the beginning of the 18th century, the idea of establishing an institution of higher learning in the Province of New York was tied to the service of the Anglican Church. In 1704, Lewis Morris, the chief justice of New York and the British governor of New Jersey, wrote to the missionary arm of the Anglican Church saying that New York was an ideal place to establish a college.

At the time, college was as much a religious institution as it was a scientific and literary one. In 1746, when the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) was about to be founded, the general assembly of New York appointed a commission of 10 people—seven of whom were Anglicans—to direct the recently accrued funds to establish a college, which would later become Columbia. The commission voted to build the college on lands that had been vested to Trinity Church, on the condition that the college’s religious affiliation would be Anglican.

And yet, despite the way in which Columbia was founded—with religious intentions in mind—it was not created to train clergy, unlike its peer institutions. “The earliest of the Ivies were colleges born out of American Protestantism and were initially founded to train clergy. Columbia was Anglican—and as a King’s College, was a bit different. ... Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were each founded because the previous ones became too liberal,” Wayne Proudfoot, Columbia professor of religion, says.

In 1784, the New York State Legislature passed an act that prohibited the newly founded college from administering a “religious test-oath” to its faculty. Proudfoot still sees this legacy in Columbia’s religion department today, which came into its modern form in the 1950s. In contrast to its peer institutions—at which the faculty of undergraduate program in religion mirrored that of a Protestant seminary—the department at Columbia included scholars of religions from across the globe from its earliest years.

Religion and Reason Conflicts in the Classroom 

Today on Columbia’s campus, the façade of Earl Hall—the building that houses the Office of the University Chaplain—contains the following engraving: “Erected for the Students that Religion and Learning May Go Hand in Hand with Knowledge.” In his recent book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco suggests that placing these words on the building at the time of its establishment in the early 1900s meant that contemporaries probably no longer believed it. “As for religion, it was becoming an anachronism, and was certainly no longer at the center of campus life,” he writes.

Delbanco’s take on the engraving raises two issues central to the topic of religion at Columbia. The first is academic: Just how detached has religion become from knowledge more generally in a 2014 Columbia education? Have the two become totally bifurcated, or is there room to allow “religion” and “knowledge” to struggle with each other and even, possibly, to coexist?

Zach Hodges, a Columbia College junior, came to Columbia from an atheist home where religion “was sometimes the object of our ridicule.” Owing in large part to his Columbia education, Hodges underwent a religious transformation and has come to identify himself as a “truth-seeker” who is interested in Buddhist philosophy and practice.

For some students like Hodges, classes at Columbia can be transformative religious experiences. “You walk in and see reality one way, and you walk out and see it another way,” Hodges says of professor Robert Thurman’s class on Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. “Thurman made some clearly compelling ideas about the question of meaning, about why we’re here, and what we’re doing here.” Hodges explains that the class, in his mind, very much attacked the idea of nihilism—the philosophy that life is without meaning or intrinsic purpose.

Columbia’s affiliation with the Union Theological Seminary and the Jewish Theological Seminary may give some Columbia students the opportunity to explore faith in more academic settings. For Hodges, a lecture by a professor of theology at UTS, Paul Knitter, provided a “mandate for personal transformation.” Knitter’s lecture emphasized that “If we are able to unify around this thing called love, and think deeply and critically about what the implications of this faith claim are on our lives, then we see that it’s our duty to embody that truth personally.” Hodges strongly believes that one of academia’s main goals—equipping us to transform and improve the structures around us—cannot be done without first transforming ourselves.

But Hodges criticized the way in which Columbia’s academic departments often don’t speak to each other in a way that could allow for students to undergo this personal as well as academic transformation. “I had this Buddhism class on Thursday and philosophy class on Friday, and the philosophers would say that the modes of analysis in the Buddhist realm aren’t real because we’ve got this method which is holy,” Hodges says. He feels that both modes of analysis are “incredibly penetrating analyses” of what reality is, but “one was happening in meaning, and one was happening in a lack of meaning.” While the Buddhist class paid attention to questions of the meaning of life, Hodges found that the philosophy class failed to do so.

Speaking about the Core, Hodges had less than positive things to say. “If I was running a university,” he says, “I would teach things differently.” He found that the Core fits into the “enlightenment ideology” that Columbia is all about, which thinks about notions of progress in a very particular way. “I think that not engaging questions of meaning is not being truthful to truth,” Hodges explains.

Angad Singh, a Columbia College sophomore and a member of Columbia’s Sikh community, comments on “how Western everything we’re learning is.” While he spoke appreciatively of Columbia—that introduced him to a canon of thought he was previously unfamiliar with—Singh expresses how he wishes “we could study Eastern thought for the sake of people who have never been exposed to it. Because while there are so many values that have ties in both schools, there is also so much that is different.”

Kate Christensen, a Barnard College senior and an observant Mormon, saw even more of a reason-faith divide in the Columbia curriculum than Hodges. While she argues that from an official perspective Columbia is very accommodating of religious communities and observances, “intellectually, there aren’t a lot of accommodations. It doesn’t seem to be part of Columbia’s identity at all,” she says. “You never read anything in the schools’ promotional materials about how Columbia’s diversity includes its representation of myriad faiths.” Like Hodges, Christensen thinks a space more welcome to notions of spirituality and religion would only benefit the school. “I think it would be enriching to everyone if this space was made and destigmatized,” she says.

Universities are in a tough spot because they have to teach students that everything can be proven by logic, she argues. But this kind of adherence to logic sometimes functions to its detriment. Citing the physical education requirement, Christensen wondered, “If you’re offering a holistic experience of growth, why aren’t you offering pathways for spirituality?”

The Role of the Teacher

Yonah Hain, the Columbia campus rabbi and a united campus minister for the Office of the University Chaplain, speaks positively about the University’s lack of institutional involvement in religion. “Columbia doesn’t ask students to check off religious affiliation. I believe in that,” he says. “At the same time, the University is always asking me about what’s healthy for the Jewish community.”

For Hain, the lack of explicitly religious involvement on the University’s part is a good thing, and does not stymie students’ religious growth. “For many students, there is this exposure to wisdom, literature, and the world of reason—which also opens the door for them to explore Judaism,” he says. But Hain cautions against mistaking this with believing that professors should be encouraged to openly express their views on religion and spirituality. “Professors have earned their right to say their ideas,” he says, but “I always think about what’s effective from a pedagogical standpoint, and I wouldn’t want students to check out because they thought I was being insensitive.”

In the traditional understanding of the faith-reason divide, the philosophy department, as Zach Hodges suggests, should stand opposite of the religion department. Philip Kitcher, a philosophy professor who has offered a course on science and religion in the past, suggests that this divide might exist, but that it’s unimportant. “I think the philosophy department would be less than perfectly friendly to religion if it thought about it,” he says. “But the predominant view is that we have more important things to think about.” Speaking about his own classroom experiences teaching Contemporary Civilization, Kitcher notes how “one thing that struck me is how not fraught the discussion is. People don’t get madly upset.” Kitcher observes that religious discussions in the classroom are often both profitable and friendly.

James Lin—a Columbia College junior and the outgoing president of Columbia Faith and Action, a Christian fellowship on campus—recounts several instances where the classroom environment wasn’t as friendly as Hain and Kitcher suggest. In his CC class, his “professor made a blanket statement, without leaving any room for discussion, that one of the clear faults in the book of Romans is that Paul says that homosexuality is immoral.” Statements such as this can be polarizing in an otherwise open classroom. In Frontiers of Science, “the professor was making jokes about how only silly people believe there was a great flood on the earth.”

Lin expresses disappointment in these atmospheres, since they “don’t foster discussion at all.” Since these instances, Lin has been struggling with how a student should respond. “Do you just kind of sit there and take it? You want to be gracious and respectful, but you also want to be firm on your viewpoint, even if it runs against your classmates or your professor,” he said. Coming out of these experiences, Lin talks about how refreshing it has been to have his Art Humanities class taught by a Muslim, who teaches with his own worldview in mind, but also respectfully presents and encourages differing perspectives that allow for more vibrant dialogue.

But are the challenges Lin raised indicative of a pattern of antireligious sentiment in the classroom? Kitcher argues for a more nuanced understanding, describing his own pedagogical method. “What I want to do is get people to interpret their own religious convictions, not necessarily to change them. I’m for deepening of opinions, and I hope that this leads people away from dogmatism and literalism.” Without forcing any opinion on students, Kitcher believes that, “what should come out of this is a much more humane and thoughtful and understanding approach to religious issues.”

Proudfoot echoes some of Kitcher’s remarks, explaining the way in which he teaches religious texts. “I try to teach each text to give the best argument for the text itself,” he explains. But also, “We’re not just parroting something back. We’re trying to think about the material. I don’t parade my own views, but we get into discussions and debates when I’m sure they come through, which is fine.” Speaking to how these courses may influence a student, Proudfoot says, “I’m not surprised if it affects someone one way or another. We’re not just spectators.”

Bolstering Faith Through Learning

For other religious students, the classroom has contributed positively to their faith. Haris Durrani, a School of Engineering and Applied Science junior and president of the Columbia Muslim Students Association, explains how his decision to concentrate in Middle East South Asian African studies played a large role in the way in which he intellectually developed his religious beliefs. “I was able to develop what it means to be a Muslim in the larger context, and what Islam means in its many forms,” he says.

Durrani pointed to one specific class—Central Questions in Islamic Law with MESAAS professor Wael Hallaq—as life-changing for him. Hallaq showed Shariah to be less rigid than it is often assumed to be, and explained how there can be a plurality of opinions on the meaning of the law. For Durrani, this is exactly the kind of faith he looks for. “How I truly find faith in God is through thinking,” he says, “and coming to understand my religion in a more complex and deep way.”

Juliana Strawn, a Barnard College senior and an active member of Columbia’s Canterbury Club, is an Episcopal student studying to become a priest. She explains how the Episcopal Church in Alabama, where she is from, had a history of being proslavery. “Coming here, I’ve learned so much about kinds of laws, and specifically things in capitalism and in politics, that have excluded certain classes of people so often,” she says. “My exposure to it at Columbiahas made me see things in a much broader view—you have to take the past into consideration when you talk about systems of oppression.” 

For Strawn, a Columbia education has quite literally impacted the way she understands her Christian beliefs. Talking about how the Episcopal Church ordains women, and what she gained from reading feminist texts, Strawn says, “Coming here and learning how to read critically and think on my own has led me to come to a lot of beliefs that I wouldn’t have come to reading biblical text alone.”

Luke Foster, a Columbia College junior and president of the Veritas Forum, appreciates the way in which the Core teaches both sides to students. “You’re reading some of the most articulate skeptics, as well as some of the most articulate believers,” he says. The fact that the curriculum highlights the Greco-Roman classical legacy, the Jewish legacy, and the Christian experience with the New Testament, according to Foster, shows how the faith-reason tension has existed for many years, “and being able to look down the centuries and see that provides guidance for the struggles of our own day.”

But at the same time, Foster points to the lack of spirituality that Hodges and Christensen alluded to. “The president of the University used to teach every class of graduating seniors ethics,” Foster recounts of Columbia up until the early 20th century. “Bollinger understands his role very differently, and there is something lost there.” Foster’s criticism goes beyond just the president’s role, touching on a deeper issue that goes to the heart of what education is meant to be today. “By and large, the faculty, the deans ... they don’t see themselves as having a sense that they are forming people, even though that’s exactly what they’re doing,” Foster says, but noted that a number of professors do take on this role.

Faith and Doubt

For many students at Columbia, the classroom is a kind of rationally rigorous environment where predisposed ideas and beliefs act solely as a point of departure for each individual student. But for many religious students, the nature of the classroom is inherently a challenge, because it ignores some of the premises that they start out with. How do religious students tackle this divide themselves—just how open are they to ideas that differ from their own beliefs, and how do they view their own time at the University?

Some students placed their openness to tackle religion intellectually in the context of a search for truth “with a capital T.” Hodges believes that this kind of truth can be felt “on a visceral level.” It isn’t something that can be agreed on in a seminar, though, he explains: “It’s something we must experience for ourselves.” Does he doubt the existence of Truth sometimes? “Of course, doubt is completely taking a part in this,” he says. “One of the traditions of Buddhism is that the essential thing you must cultivate on the path to enlightenment is your doubt. You must doubt everything you hear, and you must pass it through everything you have in your toolbox.”

“Faith in love is Truth,” Hodges argues, but continues, “People who hesitate to make that leap don’t recognize that in there somewhere is faith.” For Hodges, the belief that the floor won’t instantaneously vanish beneath us is also a kind of faith, making it “interesting that people are afraid to critically analyze what the concept of faith is, given that in my opinion so much of existence is faith.”

Christensen also touches on the idea of truth with a capital T. “My father always stressed to me that truth is truth—your religion is truth, so everything you pursue in your education should contribute to that truth. If something doesn’t make sense, you quite possibly just need to study it out more to make sense of it.” What exactly does she see Truth to be? “Something that is true is something that has the potential to make sense to you, and be applied to help you resolve something, pursue something,” she says. Mormonism holds that human beings exist in the afterlife, taking their earthly knowledge with them, Christensen explains, and so “life-learning is important because it fits very well into the cyclical grand scheme of life.”

A number of students suggested that a secular education plays a critical role in their understanding of religion. Ethan Herenstein—a Columbia College sophomore, philosophy major, and member of Yavneh, Hillel’s Orthodox Jewish community—explains, “I like to allow my classes to reform and edify my religious life mostly in an intellectual sense.”

“It’s important to me to look at religion not in a vacuum. It’s about reinvestigating what I’ve already taken for granted from an academic and historical perspective,” he says. “If I’m learning Plato, I’ll look at points that connect between Plato and other Jewish ideas. It isn’t a clash, but a complement between the two.”

Herenstein reiterates Kitcher’s ideas about moving away from literalism. “Whether or not the stories in the Bible happened is completely irrelevant to me. The values that underlie the narratives that they convey is the most important part,” he says.

Strawn echoes Herenstein’s comments. “When you hear a debate about evolution, it’s either one or the other,” she says. “No one wants to entertain the idea that both can be true to some extent. The order in the Bible is the same order as in the scientific narrative.”

For Foster, making secular education and religious values speak to each other became a kind of motivating force for his activities at Columbia. “I had a sense of a calling as a Columbia student to help those two things talk to each other, to help the tradition of Christian thought engage with the best of the academic world, because they are suspicious of each other far too often,” he says.

Religion enables, as opposed to inhibits, Foster’s ability to pursue the broad education he desires. “The thing about a theistic worldview is that it opens the horizons of the kinds of questions we can ask,” he says. A lot of the things that “are the most beautiful and exciting” are left out of philosophy and the hard sciences in the way they are currently often approached, Foster explains. Lin adds a similar sentiment. “This stuff matters,” he says, referring to his education in the humanities. “It’s not just about getting a job. There’s something beautiful about learning about the human condition.”

Being Religious on Campus

Delbanco argues that religion has ceased being central to campus life. Has the campus environment created de facto separate spheres between those who believe and those who don’t? And how do religious students feel about that?

Lin says that, regardless of belief and background, college is often a place where young adults discover what they personally believe. “There are a lot of temptations in college that go against what you believe. But my personal opinion is not that college causes people to lose their faith or convictions, but rather that people really discover in college what they actually believed before. You take out the filters of your parents and religious school, and the remainder is what you have yourself,” he says.

Lin talks about how his pastor at his childhood church believed in creationism, and he knew coming to college that that would push up against what other people believed. But the encounter wasn’t distressing. “My second night at NSOP, my roommate and I had a long discussion about creationism. He is a devout Christian and believes in evolution, and at the time, I was trying to sort it all out in my head,” Lin says. “The opportunity to have that conversation and conversations like it has nuanced my understanding of many issues such as evolution, but has also taught me that it is just one issue, and not the most crucial one with regards to Christianity.” Has he reached a conclusion since then? “I’veheard a lot of compelling evidence, but I’d like to say I’m still thinking it through,” he said. 

For others, though, they feel that campus culture has been antagonistic to their way of life. “Having conversations with so many people on this campus where the materialist one is the assumption, it leads to nihilism, to a hopelessness in the face of things being hard,” Hodges says. “Why strive to do anything better? Why not smoke?” Christensen, coming to campus as a Mormon, also saw the campus culture as potentially alienating. “I knew that there’d be a lot of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll that I would have to navigate all for myself,” she says. At the same time, Christensen doesn’t believe in judging others. “The fundamental gift humans have is agency, and we can make decisions for ourselves—live and let live,” she says.

Building off Christensen’s remarks, Foster expands on the broader trends he sees within the campus culture. “There’s a very politically correct kind of secular liberal consensus that tends to marginalize other points of view. In that sphere, it’s difficult to engage,” he says. The Under1Roof programming, for example, is “meant to make everyone feel included and welcome, but religious people come away with the sense that their beliefs have to be kept private.” But, citing Hillel and the MSA, he says, “There are also lots of areas where people are fascinated in these things, and there are definitely subcultures that are able to facilitate that.”

Durrani perhaps best embodies this notion of a subculture. “I’ve surrounded myself with like-believers,” he says. “The secular culture was what I had so much of in high school, which was somewhat deleterious to my faith. So being here on campus with so many Muslims, I felt that I had to surround myself with this people in order to grow and strengthen my faith.”

Durrani explains how other members of his community would sometimes do the same. “I know a lot of people will room with other Muslims so that there’s not a lot of partying or drinking.” But he also explains how religious people shouldn’t hide their views. “If you’re in a situation where it’s natural to display your faith, you shouldn’t shy away from that. Oftentimes that person will ask you questions, and it’ll foster stronger relationships.” This was particularly telling regarding the Muslim community, which “still has the fear of being under surveillance.”

Singh expresses a similar sentiment to Durrani, explaining how before Columbia he had never had the opportunity to be with a Sikh community. “I was the only Sikh student in my high school of 3,000,” he says. Columbia was appealing to him because of the diversity of its community. At the same time, Singh notes that, while in his high school it was his identity as a Sikh that was challenged, and sometimes mocked, here at Columbia, his identity as a religious person, no matter what faith, is what’s more often put to task. But Singh didn’t find this daunting, “Explaining what my religion is about is a cool way of getting to know people. It adds a little spice to our community. Sharing my beliefs with others, and learning from others’ worldviews, helps facilitate the college experience,” he says.

Strawn, coming from a place where she felt like she “had to choose between being a Christian and being a good person,” was also happy to come to a place where people shared her beliefs and also cared about social justice. “I found more acceptance of my beliefs coming to Columbia, instead of feeling so much of a divide,” she says.

But Strawn doesn’t believe that religion can be an antidote to Christensen’s notion of “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.” “If we can all just peacefully coexist,” she responds sanguinely, arguing that the notion of an antidote implies that people who don’t do certain things are better than others. Hoping for a change in the status quo of Foster’s “subcultures,” Strawn concludes, “I would like to see more of a coexistence where people celebrate each other’s existence and engage with productive dialogue with each other. People tend to their groups and stay there because it’s safe.”

Herenstein points to Simchat Torah, the Jewish holiday where Jews conclude one yearly cycle of Torah reading and begin the next. This is celebrated at Columbia by dancing with the Torah scroll on Low Steps—the kind of mutually celebrative experience Strawn alluded to. “It speaks to this integration, that you have this bastion of academia and that you’re bringing this celebration of Judaism into it,” he says. And what about Orthodox Jews feeling alienated by the campus culture in the way that Christensen described? “The broadness of Judaism really prevents one uniform conception of the proper way to integrate Judaism and campus,” he says, referring to the way in which the Jewish religious community is not one single group but is divided between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, among other variants.

Searching for Meaning

While sometimes creating tensions and conflict between believers and the larger secular environment, religion also plays a critical role in creating a community of meaning where some students find there isn’t one. Religious groups foster a sense of connection and community between students, and some feel this support wouldn’t be available in many other campus groups. “This allows religious organizations to tackle things that the University struggles with,” Lin says.

Foster says something similar. “We are in danger of losing a sense that there are things in life valuable beyond the material,” he warns. Foster speaks nostalgically about “a liberal arts college that had a moral vision, that produced people with certain principles in life.” But this kind of meaning doesn’t necessarily have to come from religion. “I think everyone’s looking for the answer to what’s meaningful in life,” Singh says, “whether it’s through philosophy or religion or the human experience.”

Kitcher doesn’t find it so far-fetched that these are the kinds of things students are looking for in college. “This is a time in which people start considering these questions very seriously,” he says. “It’s a time where some people really start to feel a need for the kinds of things religion can supply: a sense of identity, meaningfulness, community. I’m not sure I would describe this as a movement of reason, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable.” Proudfoot recognizes something similar. While he explains that he thinks any kind of community with shared values—religious or not— can anchor people in college, he describes how he was involved in the Methodist student group when he was an undergraduate. “As a group, it was very important to me. We discussed politics, values, and were active in the civil rights movement and other kinds of social action.”

Undoubtedly, many students find meaning in their own ways during their time at Columbia. Religious students are not the only ones who view college as about something more than finding a job or sharpening a talent. And many would argue that religion is only one of several ways to pursue the moral and the good. But for much of the religious community, this idea of meaning takes on extra significance as it is embedded into who they are and what they do on a daily basis. For these students, the metaphysical question of what we are doing here has significant bearing on how we experience our education.

For the religious, education in a secular college can feel like both a challenging and wonderful clash in a unique way. And despite the social and intellectual price that at times has to be paid, the search for a deep connection with the world, and an education that bears on an individual’s person, will remain central to many students’ lives for generations to come. 

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