Swarthmore professors balance academia and faith

Justified or not, there often seems to be a perception that the faculty at liberal arts colleges are habitually hostile to people of faith. Five Swarthmore College professors generally countered this idea at a panel on “Balancing Faith in Academic Life” that constituted one of the final events of Religion and Spirituality on Campus Week.

Speaking as people of faith themselves, the panelists presented a broad picture of an interaction between academic and religious commitments that sometimes involved inconvenience but is, in a broader view, far easier to balance than many would expect.

Maria Luisa Guardiola of the Modern Languages and Literature department spoke first about her unique experience coming into contact with an entire range of religious literature upon leaving Franco’s Spain in order to attend graduate school in the United States. The experience taught her that there was “no need to reject faith in order to study academic subjects.” While imposing religion is never her goal, she does seek to challenge the conceptions students often have about faith in a way that the Catholic influence on Spanish-language literature makes both convenient and appropriate.

Elliot Ratzman spoke of the difficulty he experiences as a professor in the Religion department being perceived as a religious voice when that is not his intention. In order to guard against this, he finds himself needing to disclaim his own religious commitments as a check on bias, and in order to emphasize that the study of religion is a means of studying tradition and not of evangelizing. He spoke instead of his desire “to shed a light [on religious beliefs] that everyone can appreciate and find useful, if not inspiring.” One struggle he does experience, however, is balancing his moral impulses to stress particularly humane philosophies of religion, such as liberation theology and with the appropriate restraint in “pushing the good” in a non-denominational fashion.

Deborah Beck, a professor in the Classics department, discussed her experience as a Conservative Jew working in academia. She, like her colleagues, saw no essential conflict of ideas in the two fields, as “so much of religion is oriented towards action rather than belief,” and requires “a lot of knowledge and a lot of thought” to be practiced properly. She spoke of being startled by those who see a conflict, but does acknowledge that scheduling issues can crop up for her as an observant Jew; she noted her struggles to find an appropriate balance between missing three Shabbat services in a row or missing three important school functions at the end of the school year. Also, Beck expressed concern over an assumption that all thinking people are atheists, and a tendency in academia to behave as “a majority that does not know anything about a minority” of people of faith, who are sometimes referred to in “them” terms.

Faruq Siddiqui of the Engineering department presented yet another perspective on the religious experience in American academic life, having experienced actual religious strife firsthand in his native Bangladesh prior to traveling to the United States for graduate school. While noting that he tends to look upon any difficulties as a practicing Muslim and professor in a humorous light, he does sometimes struggle with the fact that “to be an Enlightened Muslim is to be considered an oxymoron in this day and age.” His family never imposed the tenets of Islam on him and his siblings as they were growing up, and in his adult life the tenet that has taken on special emphasis is the one that states that Islam should not be a burden. He recalled telling friends back in Bangladesh that you “don’t really need to drink to stay warm in winter,” and the kindness of his department head in not offering alcohol at his welcoming party.

Ginger Indivero of the Chemistry department, a Lutheran, “had trouble coming up with tensions” between religion and academic life. Indeed, she came to academic life upon leaving the private sector after experiencing a calling to work with young people. She sees her religion playing into “how [she] acts with the people around [her]” in her attempts to be a support for her students in a way that she acknowledges is not religious in essence. She also teaches Sunday school at her church, and is able to enhance her religious perspective with her scientific expertise, as when her ninth graders ask her about what they have learned about evolution, and she is able to reconcile the apparent contradictions that the students see.

The overall impression left by the panel is that academic and religious life are far less irreconcilable than many in the media portray. As one fellow professor remarked after the panel, “this group is less of a minority than it feels like.”


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