Spiritual (and Intellectual) Life

Yesterday I met with a thoughtful and dedicated group of students, faculty and staff who had spent the last several months studying religious and spiritual life at Wesleyan. I had heard about the group even before I started my presidency, and I confess that I was taken by surprise. Wes has a reputation for, as the Princeton Guide puts it, being a great place ‘to ignore God on a regular basis,’ and I suppose I’d bought into that stereotype. But the task force painted a compelling picture of the diversity of religious practices on campus – from a vibrant Christian fellowship to Buddhist House, from an increasingly active Muslim prayer group to the Jewish students who gather for Shabbat. Although I did not think that we needed a Dean of Spiritual Affairs (an early suggestion that seemed only to increase our bureaucracy), I did recognize that religion was playing more of a role for our community than I had realized.

The task force members with whom I met yesterday had some very powerful recommendations for creating a campus climate in which religious practices can become more informed by different faith groups, and in which students of faith can be as open about their beliefs as other groups are about their own political and personal convictions. Although I pushed back a bit because of the institutionalized and theologically justified intolerance that does characterize some major faith groups, I certainly recognize the need for our campus to be open to religious and spiritual expression and practice. And although I don’t yet know how to create the required space, I can also see that we need places for practice that allow members of our community to explore their faiths in an appropriate context. I had started off the conversation thinking that the spiritual life of our campus was a great part of our diversity, and that all the administration had to was to ‘get out of the way.’ Alas, it’s not that simple. Some support could enrich our students’ experience. We’ll find it.


One of the great delights of living on campus is that I get to hear some extraordinary writers and artists, scholars and scientists, discuss their work. Wesleyan’s Distinguished Writers Series is a wonderful part of our campus, but I have rarely been able to participate in the program. This week novelist and essayist André Aciman was on campus to give a public talk about writing, and also to meet with students and faculty in seminar format. Aciman writes beautifully on love and loss, on exile and the longing for home. It was my honor to introduce him (and get him to autograph my copy of Call Me By Your Name). Today, biochemist Craig Mello is on campus to talk about his research on RNA. Dr. Mello received the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2006 for his work with Andrew Fire on RNA’s ability to interfere with the production of the genetic material that a virus needs to reproduce itself. This important discovery has opened a crucial new domain of research in molecular biology, with great potential for practical application. This is perfect for a Wesleyan audience.

I’m so glad I’m still in school!!

[tags] Religion, Distinguished Writers Series, Andre Aciman, Call Me By Your Name, Craig Mello, Nobel Prize, Andrew Fire [/tags]

6 thoughts on “Spiritual (and Intellectual) Life”

  1. Michael,
    Thanks for your blog remarks on the meeting with the task force on religious and spiritual life at Wesleyan. I thought the students on the committee were especially articulate in responding to your “push back” and it was heartening to have you acknowledge at the end of the meeting that the conversation allowed you to see some things in a new light.

    The increasing diversity of religious communities on this campus over the last few years I find personally satisfying and very stimulating. And the ways that these communities engage one another is something I think we want to encourage at a time when religious differences too often produce conflict and violence. The task force’s recommendation for a shared common space is something that would advance even more such healthy interactions among these faith communities.

  2. Jeremy’s remarks are well-taken, and an interfaith approach to such co-curricular spaces is important. And yet, when I think about the ways I have tried to encourage debate about religion in my own teaching, I think about how I — as a highly lapsed Presbyterian — have taken pains to learn about faith as an epistemological field that is as highly specific and individuated as any other field. I wonder if creating a campus climate where religion is more “present” could not happen in the ways many of us think about transforming the campus climate in other ways: by re-tooling what we do in the classroom in ways that telegraph the importance of understanding maters of faith, whether one does — or does not -adhere to a spiritual belief system as a teacher. A student should not have to only encounter discussions of religion in classes that are “marked” — just as discussions of race, gender and sexuality need to be woven into classes that are primarily focused on other matters.

    Some of who do not profess faith already do incorporate religion in our classes, of course, but the level of student discomfort about discussing religion is often directly related to the level of faculty discomfort in teaching about religion, or faculty perhaps unwittingly “othering” religious thought by either leaving it out of the course readings and lectures entirely, telegraphing a discomfort with the topic, or allowing students to say ignorant things about people of faith without being able to respond adequately.

  3. This might be an example of what goes around comes around. Therefore a useful step might be imagining how John Wesley would approach the matter.

  4. I have found that spiritual life on campus is sometimes a closely guarded secret. Not to many people are very open with their spirituality, almost like they are afraid of retribution for their faith.

  5. Thanks for this, President Roth. As a student with religious belief I completely agree with John Taylor’s comment – it can be a very stifling atmosphere.

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