In the coming months, I hope to initiate dialog on a subject often overlooked at Swarthmore: religion. While many people would describe our campus culture as very secular, it is a fact that religious life does exist here. Much like sexuality, spirituality is something we all engage with in one way or another, whether or not we choose to identify with any particular religious tradition. It is a similarly complex, intensely personal. Religion is also an axis of ideological diversity at Swarthmore: I know students here who are militantly anti-religious, but I also know preachers’ kids and future rabbis. I know people who seek to develop their spirituality both in and out of the official structure of organized campus groups, whether or not they would call themselves “religious.” Not least of all, I know many who have a difficult, troubled, meandering relationship to faith marked by questioning and uncertainty. But ultimately, our respective differences in religious views and practices warrant respect and reward any genuine efforts we make to understand each other.
As Swarthmore students, we were all initiated into the College family through the ritual of First Collection. This beautiful ceremony did more than simply mark the first time our respective class years were gathered as units or foreshadow the next time we would all sit together in the same amphitheater for graduation. It provided us with a ritualistic symbol of the kind of community into which we were entering. It gave us a memorable image of that community’s values. Still, when I look at the candle that remains on my windowsill to this day, I see more than a piece of wax. I see a piece of Swarthmore’s ethos that harkens back to our Quaker heritage. In Quaker tradition, the inner light is the individual’s personal connection to the divine. For me, it reminds that, even in the most frustrating moments, I have something to learn from any and every person around me.
Last week alone, I had two very different conversations with Swatties on the subject of personal relationships to faith and religion. One was an overwhelmingly positive experience, the other not so much. I would venture that the operative difference was not the arguments themselves but rather the spirit with which participants entered into the discussion. In one discussion, I felt like the other person was genuinely trying to understand where I was coming from and see something deeply unfamiliar to him/her from a different perspective. In the other, I felt like the other person did not care very much about what I had to say, but saw our conversation as a logical game wherein s/he could score points by pointing out the errors of my ways.
I have been involved in the religious scene at Swarthmore in a number of formal and informal ways. My personal experiences at Swarthmore, my studies, and my conversations with my peers have done much to challenge me in my faith. Today, I am a lot less certain about many religious and moral matters than I was when I came in as a bright-eyed freshman. Still, I know that my relationship to religion and spirituality, in all its meanderings, contradictions, and evolutions has always been one of the main forces shaping my identity, values, and outlook on life. Repressing this fundamental part of who I am would be like dousing my inner light.
Instead, I try to mind the light by honoring my conscience and other people’s the best I can. If there is something The Daily Gazette loves, it is fiery conversation. Anyone who has read The Gazette knows of the sea of comments that often follows articles and the wave of controversy these comments can generate. It is certainly not my intention to stir up trouble for the sake of it. I have no desire to make anyone angry. However, I see The Gazette as a unique forum in which ideas can be excised out of the otherwise inert stone of personal monologue. My proposal is modest: I want to ask some honest questions and spur reflection. Of course, I will make some claims of my own in the process, but I am much less interested in asserting those claims then I am in entering into what I hope will be a meaningful and enriching discussion. I trust I have much to learn from other perspectives, as do we all, and I eagerly welcome your questions and challenges.
I hope that this column may open a new path of dialog on campus and be just a little part of the kind of personal and collective reflection in which we must engage if we are to truly “mind the light.”