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Plenary Panel:
Religion, Identity, and Spirituality on Today's American College Campus

November 18-19, 2005
at Huston-Tillotson University, Austin, Texas

Introduction: Judith Loredo, interim dean of academic programs, Huston-Tillotson University
Moderator: Katherine Kurs, Professor of Religious Studies, New School University
Panelists: Gail Bowman, Professor of Philosophy and Religion, Dillard University; Augustus Richard Norton, Professor Anthropology and International Relations, Boston University; and R. Eugene Rice, Senior Scholar, Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Following are excerpts from the conference's opening keynote address.

Katherine Kurs

For the last 11 years I have been teaching a fall term freshman seminar called "The Spiritual Autobiography." We read contemporary and historical accounts and a wide range of things. Although students come in thinking they are going to get to write about themselves, they only get to do that once, about six weeks into the term. I give them an assignment and ask them to choose an object that they either have or that they grew up with, and use that object as a portal place, a doorway through which they can write a first-person account about spiritual identity and some of the things we have discussed thus far in the term. Those things include lineage, family, history, tradition, transmission of values, exile, reclaiming memory, secrets, and discovery.

Then I review the papers and select some of them to read in class. It's a deceptively easy assignment, in fact it's the most difficult assignment of the term. During the term when we did that, when I went home and looked at my email I got the following message from a student, who gave me permission to read this to you:

Dear Katherine:

"I feel compelled to write to you even though I don't have much to say. The words spoken in class today had the room vibrating. It was unlike anything I have ever had the chance to experience. I was extremely moved, and every time I think about the class my eyes get teary and I can feel the emotion. I haven't quite figured out what it is. I feel it throughout my body. I didn't have a chance to thank the people who read in class today, but I did at least want to thank you. I felt like screaming 'Thank you!' at the end of the class today, but could hardly speak. Right now I am very confused about how I feel about this class. All I know is that like everything else, but much more strongly, it is changing who I am. Even if I don't see all there is to say, I am writing an essay. The discussions in class have allowed me to walk away with so much that I can almost feel my skin expanding because my soul is growing."

So we come together today to begin to take off from where the Rev. Dr. Butts left us, with the task of creating, formulating, articulating a new kind of language, a language that is both informational and transformational. How we foster an atmosphere with responsibility that is conducive to the kind of response that is offered here today.

Student development theorist, educator and lay theologian Prof. Sharon de los Parks, in her book Big Questions and Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose and Faith, has written that spirituality "is rooted in a longing for ways of speaking of the human experience, of depth, meaning, mystery, moral purpose, transcendence, the capacity to love, and the apprehension of spirit as the animating essence at the core of life.

Last spring when Deb and Fred and I got together to begin to envision this panel, some of the questions we raised: religion and spirituality, how it pertains to the content of the courses of our institutions of higher learning, how we sensitize ourselves to the religious diversity that is present in our classrooms and academy; how religion and spirituality inform the pedagogical style or the intention of the professor; and how this is played out both in secular colleges and universities.

We're not looking for hard answers today but for ways to begin to reflect upon some of these issues in the areas of religion and spirituality.

Some secular colleges and universities may be reticent about acknowledging the spiritual dimension within their walls. I'd also like to share with you now the words of bell hooks, from her book Teaching Community a Pedagogy of Hope. She writes, "For many smart students from backgrounds that are marginalized by race, class, geography, sexual preference or some combination, college continues to be a place of disconnection. Throughout my college experience both during my undergraduate and graduate years spirituality was the place where the connections were made for me."

Stephen Glazer shares the observation that many people fear religion and spirituality in education because "they are afraid to the imposition of identity and the indoctrination of particular beliefs." Out of this fear of imposition a great tragedy has taken place—the wholesale abandonment of the inner world, and this fear has allowed us to ignore in our classrooms and our lives the existence of the inner realm, the realm of spiritual formation, spiritual identity.

Hooks continues, "Coming from a segregated black world where having spiritual identity had been a place of critical resistance, a way to stand against racist dehumanization, a valued spiritual light, many students come to colleges and universities already feeling a profound sense of disconnection. Schooling that does not honor the spirit simply intensifies that sense of feeling lost, feeling unable to connect."

I think in some way that the topic of our conference is the final frontier. Many institutions of higher learning, we are glad to note, are now able to speak of issues where we once kept silent, issues of race, gender, class, sexual orientation. But religion and spirituality? They remain, in some sense, the final frontier. So here we are on the threshold.

Gail Bowman

I've been studying spirituality for a number of years, and I've noticed that one of the biggest issues is definition. There will be several, I'm sure, but let me put one on the table and we'll go from there.

My thought comes today from The Best American Spiritual Writing 2005. The book has an introduction by Barry Lopez that is excellent. I thought now that's what I'm talking about, so I comingled some of his thoughts with mine.

What is Spirituality?

What is spirituality in the first place? To begin with, "moreness," an expanded perception of everyday life and routine, our sense that there is more going on around us than meets the eye. Second, "oneness," that time and space are one, that you and the universe are one, that the physical or outer and the emotional or inner are one. We have moreness, we have oneness. We also have "equilibrium," the sense of balance, peace in the presence of the dissimilar, and an understanding of their necessity.

Howard Thurman preached a sermon at Spelman that has become famous. It's called the "Sound of the Genuine." He talks about his sense that we know within ourselves that even those people who drive us the craziest, people with whom we have the greatest problems and disputes, we have the sense that if we were to eliminate those people we would go with them. Somehow their existence and their presence in our lives is necessary for our own presence in our own lives.

There's that equilibrium, that balance. Finally, "reverence," a deep understanding of human limitations, the immensity of the reality that does not conform to human wishes, the respect of the profound mystery of the world, an awe and respect that prompts us all to try to behave well.

Cardinal Virtues

Among the cardinal virtues are courage, reverence, wisdom, and justice–to which I add truth and respect for life. Our next question, then, is what do we have to do to achieve these?

First of all, practice. You've got to practice. There has to be a personal commitment, there has to be an institutional commitment. It doesn't just come in the door because we left the door open. We have to work at it, practice it, devote time and attention to it, be consistent, we have to expand ourselves. In individuals, there has to be a discipline that goes with it, and the discipline has to have a physical connection. So whether it's exercise or fasting, there has to be an engagement between the mind and the body that goes on.

Second, ceremony.

Finally, I find that spirituality requires itself. It requires courage, reverence, wisdom, and a sense of justice.

We're not looking for perfect institutions here. We're looking for institutions that somehow have imbedded in their fibers the conditions that make these kinds of things grow. At minimum we're trying not to fight our students in developing these qualities. What we aspire to is to encourage these qualities in our students.

Let's talk about the application of this for a minute. I've been on two campuses that blew up over religion to the extent that spirituality was out of the question. We couldn't get along on the subject of religion. On the first campus Muslims were present, there was a problematic motto "Our whole school for Christ" (what does that mean?), and the chaplain was suggesting that we need to have a Koran in the prayer room.

One the second campus we blew up over the presence of GBLT students, faculty, and staff getting tired of apologizing for who and what they were, and the failure of the chaplain to condemn homosexuality as she was asked to by a number of students.

Both these times, of course, I was the chaplain creating the problems. What element came into play in these two circumstances? First of all, we need to know a little about faith development in our students and where their thinking is. We need to know how clear we are in our institutional spiritual mission, and then we need to think about how we are communicating the institution's spirituality to our students.

Let's go back to faith development briefly. James Fowler, at Emory, is a guru on faith. Flawed because he's racially oblivious. But there is some value when he points out that late adolescence is in stage three of faith development, which is synthetic conventional. This means they got home, church, grandma, and all that stuff and when they come to college, many of them, they are very fragile. So this is delicate business, fragile at this point. So they're very defensive of this.

Some people often feel that this is all they've got. So when you start clinking around with it they will react, and they'll react pretty angrily.

Stage four, the next stage, is individuative reflective. At that point they got on there on own feet, they can work the program pretty well. And then there is a stage between called transitional stage. So you have them in college at the most fragile faith-development point in their whole lives. Either they've just gotten to stage four, or they're in stage T (transition) or they're in stage three thinking about stage T. So it's all very delicate business.

Their analytical thinking skills may be a little weak just coming in, and their sense of right and wrong is in a law and order stage: there is no gray area, it's either black or white, and the people who oppose me need to go under the jail. No room for this kind of discourse or conversation. You have a very protective fragile uncomfortable with ambiguity type of thing going on many times.

One thought here before we go on: Don't think for a minute that there is no connection between hardline Christianity and the rise of and acceptance of other religions in the United States. Are people reacting to the fact that Muslims are here and we're not mad at them? Yes, we are, getting louder and louder with our Christianity.

So we have the students. The next question is the clarity of the institutional spiritual mission. You have to have a mission but you also have to have someone in charge of that mission. The question for an institution is what are we trying to do spiritually? If we're not good at what we're doing, we create a vacuum which students then fill. My favorite African proverb, "If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there." If we're not clear, they may rush in with someone that we may have a problem with. So we have to be ahead of them with our own mission.

Finally, now are we communicating the institution's spirituality to the student body? What is the spiritual agenda? How high a priority is it? To what degree does it infuse the life of the institution? Is it real or is it a sham? Is it expected of the leadership as well as the students?

My point is that people have to practice this, work at it personally, work at it as a body and as an educational institution. This needs to include reading, reflective time, and application. You've got to keep at it. You've got to take the new events of the day and apply it and continue to chew on it.

One of the things I find very interesting is this business of the revelation of prisoner abuses in Iraq and Guantanamo. Are you all watching this with me? This nation is actually chewing on the possibility of saying that this is OK. Are you noticing this? I find this astonishing. The Congress is soft-pedaling, George W. Bush is being the only way he knows how to be, and the silence of the people is extraordinary.

If we're not horrified about this, I find this profound. If contemporary events come up and we don't take our spirituality and apply their principles, then right there we have communicated volumes to our students—that this is fine with us as long as it doesn't inconvenience us, so long as we don't have to write a letter.

Courage. Reverence. Wisdom. Justice. Good ways to tell if you are taking it seriously: if you are taking some risks, if you are making occasional mistakes, and, finally, is it inconvenient for you. Spirituality is wild, it is mysterious. It is not a tame thing; it is not a toy. And if it's staying in place on your campus, then it's not really there.

I will close with one of my favorite quotes. Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux spiritual man: "Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and around about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell, and I understood more than I saw. . . .