Grasping at Gods

Grasping at Gods

A 37-foot set of concentric circles painted on a large piece of canvas arrived at its new Bates College home last fall. The so-called labyrinth, placed on a floor or the ground for walking meditation, is an ancient tool for quiet reflection and the pursuit of inner clarity. Lit by candle, fluorescent bulb, or the sublime sunshine of a spring afternoon, the labyrinth, “unlike a maze, has no dead ends or tricks; it has one path to the center and out again, a pattern in which many find a metaphor for the journey through life,” said Bates College chaplain Kerry Maloney.Like much of the spiritual and religious expression at Bates, the image of the labyrinth – solitary, personal, and centered on the individual ‹ is a long way off from compulsory chapel and other institutional religious observances of the past that assumed a collective, homogeneous religiosity.

And like society and college students around the country, today’s Bates students reflect not only an increasing spiritual and religious diversity, but also an unsated search for inner peace, a search often taking place outside the traditional milieu of institutionalized religion. “Look at The New York Times best-seller list,” said Maloney, an ordained United Church of Christ minister and former chaplain at Boston College who has served as Bates College chaplain since 1996. “There is a deep-seated hunger, and it’s not just millennial angst.”

With traditional church attendance at an all-time low in the United States (and lowest among college-aged people) and family influence uneven at best, students come to regard their collegiate experience not only as a time to seek academic enlightenment, but also a chance to engage in a search for spiritual peace in a hopeful way. “This is a generation that is being challenged at every turn: in their families, their communities, their nation, and their world,” wrote Jeanette Smith Cureton ’67, co-author of When Hope and Fear Collide: A Portrait of Today’s College Students. “What is remarkable is that their hopes have not been engulfed by their fears.”

As with most New England institutions, religion played a vital part in the College’s founding. Oren B. Cheney, a Freewill Baptist minister and founder of Bates, knew his brethren well. He wanted his college not only to educate the children of Freewill Baptists from hamlets like Paris, Parsonsfield, and Edgecomb, but to welcome all students, male and female and regardless of religion, who had the desire but not the means.

By the 1950s, like at many colleges, the only vestige of Bates’ religious origins was compulsory chapel attendance and Christian services during Convocation or Commencement weekend. Jim Leamon ’55 returned to Bates as a member of the history faculty in 1964, soon joining a committee to disband mandatory chapel by 1967. “Most people felt it was not serving any useful function,” Leamon remembers, citing various half-baked secular presentations and a weekly religious service. “I would have rather not gone to chapel,” remembers Jonas Klein ’54, who is Jewish. But it wasn’t necessarily the Christian worship that bothered Klein. “I was less happy about the imposition on my time.”

“Certainly, compulsory chapel was not a symptom of a community, but rather was a failed attempt to create community,” said Carl Straub, professor of religion and the Clark A. Griffith Professor of Environmental Studies. “It had little to do with religious worship.” Although chapel services were intended to give expression to the College’s shared beliefs and convictions, that conviction had evaporated, said Straub, “leaving an empty husk. Once anything becomes compulsory, it’s already dead.”

In the intervening years, Bates has played an uncertain role in the religious life of its students. “Bates tended – like many elite private schools – to look at religion as a purely private activity, not as something as the center of institutional life,” said Harvard minister and professor Peter Gomes ’65, a former Bates Trustee.

Today, the College tries harder to accommodate its students’ religious needs, while at the same time maintaining its secular institutional outlook.

Last year, a Muslim prayer room and a Buddhist shrine were created in the Multicultural Center, also where Jewish students hold Friday-night Shabbat dinners. The Bates Chapel now houses weekly multi-faith, ecumenical Protestant and Roman Catholic services, as well as concerts, lectures, and forums to address issues of social justice and campus concerns. A small congregation of faculty, staff, and students meets Sundays in the Frye Street Union to hold Friends’ meetings. Last year, special celebrations and services were held by various campus groups for Diwali; the Jewish High Holidays, Sukkot, and Passover; Solstices; and the Christian observance of Holy Week. Those interested in more of an eclectic journey attended the frothy “Beginner’s Guide to Enlightenment: A New-Age Pop Spiritual Sampler,” featuring whirling dervishes, yoga, T’ai chi, I ching soccer, massage, and Reiki.

Despite the many spiritual and religious offerings at Bates today, Maloney is the first to admit that attendance at traditional religious practices on campus is not overwhelming. But though the campus may not look religiously active on the surface, Maloney said, scratch it and you’ll find deep interest in issues of religion and spirituality. Her responsibility as chaplain is “to support, to sustain, and deepen their lives. But if that was my only responsibility, I wouldn’t have met some of the most contemplative people on this campus. They are the ones responding to the desire to transcend themselves, forming communities of resistance and hope in response to suffering.” As an example, Maloney mentions the 51 individuals who participated last year in the Rural and Urban Immersion programs held during Bates recesses, where students worked with the poor by day in a variety of social service settings and participated in evening seminars on homelessness and welfare reform. Each night concluded with student-led prayer and reflection.

In her Wood Street office, Maloney often refers visitors to a prominently displayed framed quotation from the Presbyterian minister Fredrick Buechner: “The place God calls us is the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” She believes that the search for one’s spiritual self doesn’t have to become an exercise in navel gazing. Criticisms commonly hurled at those rooting around their souls – “self-indulgent, narcissistic, escapist” – don’t apply to most Bates students, whose “search for meaning and whose desire for living responsibly and responsively in a world full of suffering are deep and genuine,” she said. “The spiritual life isn’t about escape from the world and its problems; it’s about deep immersion into them. The search for a vocation, for a life’s calling – which may or may not be the same as the search for a job – has always been at the heart of a liberal arts education.”

Maloney sees the spiritual search at the heart of the historic Bates student dedication to social justice and community service projects. “I think discerning and following your call is perhaps life’s most spiritual task,” she said.

“I hate the word spirituality,” Straub said, obviously influenced by his teacher many years ago, the theologian Paul Tillich. “It plays into a false distinction between mind-body and spirit-nature. Spirituality reminds me of ghosts – ephemeral, gauze-wrapped illusion.”

Students, however, love to distinguish between religion and spirituality, much to Straub’s dismay. “‘I’m not religious, but I am spiritual,'” goes the familiar student mantra, said Straub. When students embrace a mishmash of spiritual offerings, rather than organized religion, it’s a sign that “religion has failed to provide creative articulation to what it means to be human.” Students see religious institutions as synonymous with moralism or pietism, and students today don’t want to be seen as being moralistic toward others. “Students are trying to say something positive by trying to say they’re not religious,” Straub said. “They don’t want to go against their reason.”

Not all Bates students, however, make a distinction between religion and spirituality. Amadu Cisse of Senegal, grew up as a Muslim in a culture where “religion and spirituality go hand in hand. The distinction between the two is very blurred.” A math and chemistry major, Cisse prays two or three times daily in the Muslim prayer room at the Multicultural Center on Campus Avenue.

Stacey Berkowitz ’01 of Chappaqua, N.Y., serves as co-president of the Jewish Campus Community and as a member of both the chaplain’s advisory council and the Multicultural Committee.

“It’s hard being Jewish in Maine,” Berkowitz said, but ironically enough, as a result of being one of a relatively small number of Jews on campus, she has decided to become a rabbi. “Bates is not a traditionally religious environment, but it does energize you to be a religious individual. People don’t know too much about religion and depend on their peers.” The necessity of providing definitions and answers led Berkowitz to “take a step backward, figure out my role in Judaism. My perspectives and understanding were enhanced. I would never be a Jewish leader at Brandeis,” she said. “At Bates, I can make a difference.”

Cisse, raised in a traditionally Muslim society with a small Christian minority, agrees that Bates students, although not particularly religious, exhibit a healthy curiosity about classmates’ beliefs and traditions, that in turn helps to strengthen self-definition. Returning home for a visit, Cisse found his friends – believing that America was primarily a place to party – skeptical that he had even been away. “I returned home in a way more serious about my faith. I had discovered Islam is my religion and my identity. At home, I did not go to mosque every Friday. At Bates, I do.”

By the time she applied to college, Erin Wells ’02 of Cincinnati, Ohio, realized she would have to “make my own way.” A practitioner of the Wiccan religion – “similar to Native American shamanism, where divinity exists everywhere in male and female form” – she knew she wanted to be “somewhere the trees grew and I could commune with nature.” Touring colleges, she and her mother walked into the Bates Chapel, adorned with banners of the major world religions and earth symbols, and were struck by its inclusiveness, its “acceptance of things that aren’t based entirely on the Christian realm.”

Maloney enjoys working with people of all religious traditions as well as those who have no formal religious traditions. “Many are on a spiritual and intellectual path that prompts them to have more questions than answers.”

Straub meets those same questioning students in his philosophy, religion, and environmental studies courses. He says the questions flow from students because they’re fundamentally ignorant of religious traditions and history. “Fewer and fewer students come to Bates and places like Bates who have any kind of religious nurturing,” he noted. “Fewer and fewer families of Bates students are participants in religious communities and institutions.” As a result, Straub sees an absence of “any sense at all of histories, faith propositions, and doctrines of religions.” The numbers bear out his personal observations. A 1996 survey by the Barna Research Group of Ventura, Calif., found that only 37 percent of Americans had attended a church service in the previous seven days, down from 49 percent in 1991. For 18- to 30-year-olds, attendance is 34 percent.

Yet at the same time, like Maloney, Straub sees among students a “very enduring, human quest for a sense of identity with what they perceive as central to life itself. There are not clear answers anymore to the enduring existential questions. The symbolic or cultural power of the traditions have evaporated for these kids. Ask them what they understand God to mean, and they don’t really know.”

They don’t know, but like many Americans, they enjoy the search. According to Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow, author of After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s, many Americans engage in the “spirituality of seeking,” cobbling together a personal faith from a variety of traditions, in “searches that are characterized more often by dabbling than by depth.”

On the other hand, John Springer ’00 of Greene, Maine, has brought deep religious belief and knowledge to the classroom. A joint major in history and education, Springer regularly attends his hometown Baptist church and is about to begin a senior thesis on the role of the Freewill Baptists in founding Bates. At Bates, said Springer, “religion is looked upon as controversial and negative. ‘Spiritual’ is a way to say ‘I believe in something. I don’t know what, but I don’t have to live by any rules.'” College students, Springer said, are viewed as open-minded and liberal, while religion is viewed as strict, closed, and parochial. Springer notes that his friends at Bates – as well as those at Middlebury, Williams, Kenyon, and Dartmouth – are interested in the environment and “finding” themselves. But those explorations and religion don’t line up for Springer. “‘God created the earth’ is a little different from ‘the trees are the trees are the trees,'” he said.

Springer confronted questions of personal faith in both Eli Minkoff’s “Evolution and Biology” course and “Introduction to the New Testament,” taught by Bob Allison. Each challenged Springer’s religious convictions and, ultimately, strengthened them. “Much in religion is taken on faith. You need to question things to determine if they still make sense, to determine how you want to lead your life.”

In trying to accommodate the many, Bates has moved away from identifying itself as a Christian community. So have many other colleges, where, for example, nary a mention of Jesus Christ is heard on college-wide ceremonial occasions. That’s Bates’ loss, said Straub. “The ritual language of the College on its college-wide occasions now reflects a studied secularity, whereby it has lost all meaning. One of the ironies of the big push for cultural diversity at Bates is that we do not tolerate very well religious faith and conviction. And we seldom hear, in the litanies celebrating multiculturalism, a reference to the religious roots of all the diverse cultures that we seek to celebrate. The Muslim prayer room and the Buddhist shrine are the result of student interest, not institutional interest.”

The College’s Baccalaureate ceremony, the Sunday service of worship foreshadowing Commencement the next morning, might be the only time visitors to Bates see the public expression of religion at Bates. Including readings from different faiths and a litany written by class leaders, the service is noticeably oriented toward the students, and it is planned and led by members of the class. For Maloney, Baccalaureate personifies the “spirit” of the graduating class “as it has met and responded to the spirit of this beautiful and troubled world.”

The class of 1999, for example, chose “Journeys” as its theme. Described by the chaplain as a liturgy – “a work of the people, as the root of the Greek word suggests” – the service honored the distinct journeys made by class members, who entered under an archway covered with cards carrying blessings, poems, prayers, and truths offered by family members, faculty, and college staff. From original poetry to quotations from prophets, saints, and philosophers, from handpainted watercolors to cherished family photographs, the messages conveyed love and optimism.

As in Peter Gomes’ day, Bates tries to guide students to the place where reason and religion meet. “For me, it was the first place people could be intelligent on one hand, and religious on the other,” said the Harvard preacher, who believes that students today seek the same thing he was looking for 35 years ago: “A way of making sense of life without losing intelligence.”