I have often heard it said that Swarthmore is a very secular campus. I would agree with that statement insofar as the most prevalent attitude towards religion here seems to be one of disinterest. In some cases though far from all, this disinterest gives way to active condemnation. Of course, there is also a vibrant and reportedly growing religious contingent. Still, all in all, I doubt it would be fair to describe Swarthmore as a whole as a very religiously inclined campus.
Yet, for all the talk of secularism and even anti-religious sentiment at Swarthmore, I have always had an odd little feeling I must confess: Swarthmore is such a God-filled place. I know that statement sounds supercessionist. I do not mean to co-opt other people’s reality by “filling it with my god.” If you want no part of it, I completely respect that sentiment. But just as you may perceive that particular bend in an often overlooked tree as inexplicably moving or find its flowers especially fragrant, I can’t help but feel God’s presence in a very special way when I am at Swarthmore, and my life here is enriched by it.
I’m sure if we talked about it, we might be able to draw out some similarities between my encounters of the divine and other people’s secularly framed experiences. If I believe in God and you don’t and we both look at a waterfall, I may have a “God moment” while you have an equally personally meaningful experience to which you do not wish to affix any religious or even spiritual words. Perhaps much of what we feel may even be the same – it would be an interesting experiment to take on. So just what would be “godly” about it to me?
I’ll hazard a few words about “the God feeling” and my experiences of the divine. In every day life, I encounter God mostly in places of natural beauty or moments of transcendence. I feel God at work when I think about the underlying structure of things or when I witness evidence of unity or harmony around me. The very thought of God fills me with wonder and I tend to think of God as the source of all wonder, so I feel my God sense tingling whenever I feel awestruck, from the classroom to social situations and beyond. I also encounter God in other people, in acts of love or kindness, and in particularly “providential” words or occurrences. I am convinced of God’s existence anew when I get the sense that all things exist for a purpose, and that these purposes converge towards one, greater order. God is what makes things feel complete to me, and my encounter with God extends far outside of church.
For me, my spirituality is almost like another sense. It is yet another channel through which I receive and process information about the world. It is a lens through which I see the world. I have no absolute certainty that the picture I see is accurate, but it somehow seems to make sense of the world around me in a whole new way and fills me with this giddy feeling that I am a piece in a gigantic and elaborate picture and that all of the pieces fit together, even if I can’t quite see how just yet.
I expected to be challenged in my faith when I came to college. Under the surface of diverse backgrounds, we find a diversity of values. You can’t tell people’s values (or most interesting things about them) just by looking at them; rather, values slowly emerge through repeated conversations and interactions. This kind of diversity is very enriching, but it is not “easy” by any means, and it often calls us to reconsider our own values. Then there is also the issue of constancy: I, for one, am not the person I was when I first came to Swarthmore as a bright-eyed freshman. In my time here, I have taken many classes and had myriad discussions that have caused me to question my outlook on life. Most importantly, I have had to make a host of new decisions that have prompted me to re-conceptualize my relationship to the divine and the kind of moral consequences that derive from it.
As typical as such a journey may seem, I do believe that many of my spiritual challenges, while perhaps not unique to Swarthmore, have been brought on in a particularly strong way by the kind of intellectual and social atmosphere at Swarthmore. For example, on countless occasions, I have been asked to defend my faith in the context of a rigorous intellectual lifestyle, particularly one supposed to be predicated on reason. People have questioned my status as a “liberal” on account of my religious beliefs and have scoffed at the more “conservative” of my views. I have also been personally attacked for my affiliation with the Catholic Church, an institution a number of people perceive as having perpetuated repression and inequalities throughout history.
I would be lying if I said it has been easy to live out my faith here. However, I must also acknowledge how much I have learned from these challenges. In a place full of people with similar religious backgrounds, I may have been able to just go through the motions of religion without too much thought or variation. At Swarthmore, on the other hand, I have felt consistently accountable for my choice to continue practicing religion. I have learned to explain what I believe more effectively and I have been invited to re-examine those things I couldn’t quite explain. In a way, Swarthmore has really shaken my Catholic identity, but in another sense, it has helped it to grow deeper, more open-minded, and more genuine. It has also helped me develop a healthy dose of humility and uncertainty about my presumed relationship to truth.
I don’t pretend that my approach to religion and spirituality is the only one or even the right one. I recognize that there are many different ways to see the world. Still, through thick and thin, and despite moments of doubt or despair, this way is one that feels very deeply satisfying to me. My religious identity is not a walk in the park every (or any!) day, and there are aspects of it that regularly stump, confuse, or upset me, but on the whole, it is a vibrant part of who I am and how I function, and I wouldn’t want to give it up.