Religion

East Central University reverses position on its chapel

East Central University, facing complaint, agrees to remove religious symbols from chapel. But after criticism, institution halts the removal.

The Duke Divinity email fracas and the perils of seeing academic work as a vocation (essay)

There is no official tally of how many resignations have ensued from reply-all email battles in the academy, but the count recently went up by one. The Catholic theologian Paul J. Griffiths of Duke Divinity School will reportedly leave his named chair in a year. This news came after a contentious email exchange between Griffiths and his colleagues over an invitation to a workshop on racial equity.

According to the published emails, Anathea Portier-Young, an associate professor of Old Testament, had emailed the school’s faculty members and students, “strongly urg[ing]” them to attend a voluntary two-day training on anti-racism. Later that day, Griffiths replied, claiming that the training would be “intellectually flaccid,” “definitively anti-intellectual,” a “waste” and a “distraction” from the school’s mission. Following this exchange, Griffiths has said that there were disciplinary moves made against him, including his being banned from faculty meetings.

In one of his messages to the faculty, Griffiths says that his case is about intellectual freedom. The conservative commentator Rod Dreher wants to make it about the illiberalism of the academy and its legion of intolerant “social justice warriors.” (Incidentally, Griffiths is on the record as skeptical toward liberal claims of tolerance.)

The case is also about the way academics think about their work. Judging from his emails, Griffiths seems to think of academic work as an exceptionally high calling, a vocation. He is hardly alone in thinking so. As a former theology professor at a Catholic college, I appreciate Griffiths’s sense that he is doing something of metaphysical importance.

But even a theologian has to remember that a professorship is also -- and perhaps mainly -- a job. That means that collegiality matters. It means that efforts to make the school more equitable for its students and faculty members matters. Indeed, by defining what they do in terms of vocation, scholars may do the profession and the people in it much greater harm than the “anti-intellectual” programs that Griffiths condemns.

The concept of vocation has religious roots in the calling of prophets, patriarchs and disciples. Yet even in the Bible, there is a conflict between vocation and ordinary work. In the gospels, Jesus calls his initial followers away from their work as fishermen and then gives them an unusual mission to preach and heal without accepting money. They are supposed to be itinerant, kicking away the dust of inhospitable towns as they leave them. Jesus expects that ultimately, his followers will be imprisoned and put to death for the sake of their call.

Griffiths writes that the work of the Divinity School’s faculty, “to think, read, write and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession … is a hard thing. Each of us should be tense with the effort of it, thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it, consumed by the fire of it, ever eager for more of it.” In a sense, the passion with which Griffiths views his work is admirable. It is no doubt a major reason why he was able to become a leading scholar of Catholicism after already being a leading scholar of Buddhism, his CV stretching to 28 tightly spaced pages.

Vocational language surely has a place in divinity schools. But to ask any worker to be so stretched, to thrum, to burn and to be eager for more -- it can be inhuman. Ideals like this are what lead faculty members to burn out, because not even Duke has the resources to support workers being treated as an infinitely malleable substance. This kind of zeal for work also gives cover for neglect of the humdrum work of managing an institution and getting along with coworkers. Compared to Griffiths’s vision of academic work, any meeting, any report, any regulation meant to make a university an easier place for people to work and learn debases the highest good.

The academic with a sense of calling is tenacious, possessing “the ability to don blinkers for once and to convince himself that the destiny of his soul depends upon whether he is right to make precisely this conjecture and no other,” in the words of Max Weber’s lecture “Science as a Vocation.” Only a zealot who cannot tolerate perceived error sees an easily deleted email invitation as an attack on an ideal, an attack that must be countered. I should know; I’ve succumbed to zeal myself and been too quick to reply all with a sharp refutation of a minor point. Weber called the academic vocation a “strange intoxication.” It keeps the scholar fixated on a problem, even when it’s the wrong problem.

Ideals always come with costs. Stifling the ideal of the academic vocation might mean that some geniuses went unaccommodated while the decency of office life was tended and bureaucrats were appeased. Weber, for his part, thought the vocation was a necessary intoxication. According to him, academics can only bear the indignities of graduate programs, the job market, peer review and promotion and tenure -- indignities academics themselves invented -- if each one “finds and obeys the daemon that holds the threads of his life.”

But the costs are even greater if the ideal of the vocation crowds out academics’ ability to see that they are workers. Belief in vocation keeps grad students and postdocs performing what Miya Tokumitsu calls “hope labor.” They do skilled labor for little pay now in the hope that they will one day get the big reward of a tenure-track job. It goes without saying that their hope is often in vain.

The costs of vocationalism also include the strains that itinerancy places on dual-academic-career relationships, as well as untold amounts of harassment endured and swept under departmental rugs, and labor rights and benefits not argued for or unacknowledged. After all, if you have a calling, why let mundane concerns get in its way?

No doubt, someone could turn my argument around and say that the Divinity School faculty who welcomed the anti-racism workshop are too zealous in their sense of vocation. I don’t know enough to say; only Griffiths has made his case public. But the faculty members whom Griffiths criticizes at least acknowledge that, as a place of learning and work, the school has a racial climate that is worth understanding and improving.

Griffiths closed his initial email by exhorting his colleagues to “Keep your eyes on the prize,” a cynical echo of a civil-rights theme. Depending on the prize, focusing intently on it can take your eyes off your surroundings. It can make you stumble into the people around you, knock them down, flail about to steady yourself and then wonder why they insist on living in the muck.

Jonathan Malesic is a writer living in Dallas and an adjunct faculty member at McCormick Theological Seminary. He is working on a book about the spiritual costs of the American work ethic. (Twitter: @jonmalesic)

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Benedictine College to Rebrand Yoga Classes

Benedictine College, a small private Catholic institution in Atchison, Kans., delayed the debut of its recreational yoga classes this spring after some at the college expressed concerns over the spiritual and cultural influences present in yoga teachings.

The college planned to roll out the yoga sessions alongside the opening of a new student recreation center earlier this year, according to Steve Johnson, spokesperson for Benedictine.

“It was meant to be a breathing and stretching exercise class for the health benefits and the stress relief,” Johnson said. “We never had any intent of it to be a religious class.”

However, some factions within the college worried that the yoga teachings would be tinged with “Eastern mysticism,” Johnson said. Still others felt that by excluding the spiritual aspects of yoga and stripping it down to a strictly physical exercise class, it could no longer be called yoga.

Benedictine did begin offering other fitness classes at the recreation center this spring, but the college decided not to offer the yoga class until they could get a better idea of how it should function.

It will be available to students this fall.

“What we’ve done is just kind of clarify that this is a class that is about exercise and doesn’t contain any spiritually or culturally sensitive material,” Johnson said.

Benedictine had already been offering a stretching and breathing academic course through the health education department. The substance of that course will not change, Johnson said, but the course will be renamed to reflect the absence of spiritual, religious or cultural associations.

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An Orthodox Jew describes his positive experience at a Christian university (essay)

Michael A. Helfand, an Orthodox Jew, describes how his experience at a Christian university has given him a window into how faith-based institutions successfully promote religious diversity.

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Anti-Semitic Fliers at U of Illinois Chicago

At least 100 anti-Semitic fliers were distributed across the University of Illinois at Chicago campus last week, according to The Chicago Sun-Times, adding to the litany of anti-Semitic incidents that have occurred on college campuses in recent months.

The fliers suggested that Jews control a disproportionate amount of wealth in the country -- it says Jews make up 2 percent of the population, but that 44 percent of them are among the top 1 percent of Americans.

The creators of the flier appear to be citing two Pew Research Center studies, with links provided at the bottom of the page, but the numbers used do not match the data on Pew’s website.

In large font, the flier also says, “Ending White Privilege Starts With Ending Jewish Privilege.”

Eva Zeltser, a UIC student and president of a Jewish organization on campus, said she found about 100 fliers strewn throughout the library and student centers.

She posted a picture of one of the fliers to her Facebook page, and as of Sunday, it had been shared over 4,000 times.

“My heart is broken,” she wrote in the post. “These are acts of pure hatred and intolerance.”

The university also released a statement condemning the fliers.

“Such actions do not reflect the values we hold as a community,” the statement said. “As we investigate this recent event, we strongly encourage all members of our university to exercise their right to free speech in a manner that recognizes these principles and avoids prejudice or stereotypes.”

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Student Body President Under Scrutiny for Tweets

The student body president at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota is under scrutiny for anti-Semitic tweets he posted almost three years ago, The Star-Tribune reported.

The student, Mayzer Muhammad, who is Muslim, has apologized for the language he used on Twitter in 2014 and said he regrets having been so careless.

The tweets were unearthed about a year ago by Canary Mission, a website that keeps a record of any individuals or groups it says use hateful rhetoric about the United States, Israel and Jews. Muhammad has a full profile on the site with several screenshots from his social media accounts, which he deactivated in response to angry comments.

The president of St. Thomas, a private, Catholic liberal arts college in St. Paul, rejected Muhammad’s anti-Semitic comments in a statement last week and said the university would not tolerate hate speech.

“It is deeply disappointing that the president of our student government or any other member of the St. Thomas community would be accused of anti-Semitic discourse,” President Julie Sullivan said.

Among the comments posted on Muhammad’s Canary Mission profile is one tweet that says, “If you support Israel in any way, shape or form, please unfollow me right now ’cause those people are the scum of the earth.”

Another reads, “The yahood [Jews] will get what [sic] coming for them Insha’Allah.”

“I am absolutely sorry and regret that I chose my words so poorly,” Muhammad told The Star-Tribune. “What these organizations are portraying me to be is an anti-Semite, and that is something that I am not.”

Muhammad remains in his post as president of the undergraduate student body. He has made efforts to repair his relationship with the Jewish community, including by meeting with the university’s rabbi in residence last week.

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Thomas Aquinas to Open in Massachusetts

Thomas Aquinas College is expanding its footprint from California into Massachusetts, venturing into the Northeast at a time when many colleges and universities worry about a projected drop in the number of students in the region.

The Catholic college with a great books curriculum, which is located in Santa Paula, Calif., said Tuesday that it plans to start a new branch campus on the donated former grounds of a secondary school in Northfield, Mass. Plans call for Thomas Aquinas to take over its new campus on May 2 of this year before officially opening it in the fall of 2018. (Note: This paragraph has been corrected to reflect that the college's branch campus is starting on the former grounds of a secondary school that remains in operation in another location.)

Thomas Aquinas plans to ramp up on the new campus slowly, starting with 36 freshmen accepted in each of its first four years and then slowly growing the student body to between 350 and 400 students. Its two campuses will start out as parts of the same institution, with one governing document, faculty, Board of Governors, curriculum and accreditation. Leaders are keeping open the option of making the two campuses independent at some point in the future, however.

The college will accept its new campus as a gift from the National Christian Foundation, a philanthropy organization that received the grounds from Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. Hobby Lobby purchased the property in 2009, four years after the Northfield Mount Hermon School decided to move off the campus in a consolidation.

The deeply religious family that owns Hobby Lobby purchased the campus for $100,000 and invested millions of dollars into it while planning to transfer it to a Christian institution. Possible candidates mentioned over the years included a new college named for C. S. Lewis, Grand Canyon University, the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board, Olivet University, Azusa Pacific University and Liberty University, according to reporting by MassLive.com and the Associated Press.

The Northfield campus that Thomas Aquinas is set to receive is about 90 miles northwest of Boston. It is listed at 217 acres with 500,000 square feet of dormitory and classroom space. It also has other buildings including a library, gymnasium, science hall and chapel.

Keeping the student body on Thomas Aquinas’s California campus at or below 400 has been a priority, said its president, Michael F. McLean, in a statement. Doing so keeps an intimate feel, he said. But the size limit led leaders to consider a second campus as the college turned away applicants.

“Given the tremendous challenges and costs involved, the question would have remained no more than academic -- but for this extraordinary opportunity that the National Christian Foundation has offered us,” McLean said in the statement. “Never did we imagine we could acquire a campus so fully developed and so beautiful.”

Plans call for Thomas Aquinas to share part of the campus with The Moody Center, which will operate a museum and archive related to evangelist Dwight L. Moody, who originally established the property in Northfield.

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To understand today's world, more students should study religion (essay)

“I often say that if I headed back to college today, I would major in comparative religions rather than political science … because religious actors and institutions are playing an influential role in every region of the world …”

This quote from Secretary of State John Kerry has been posted to my office door since last fall, when it appeared in an op-ed he wrote in America: The National Catholic Review. Of course, the idea of understanding religion and religious individuals resonated strongly with me, a professor of religious studies at a liberal arts college. But I believe the reasons for this sentiment are lost in the public discourse around both education and religion in the contemporary United States.

Turn on the evening news, open the morning newspaper or log on to any news page online and you will find a wide variety of stories that have some reference to religion. Syrian immigrants, evangelical voters, the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, anti-Muslim rhetoric, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, neo-Catholicism under Pope Francis -- all of these recent stories and more would be fundamentally illuminated if viewers and readers had knowledge of the religious actors. Contemporary discourse in America, both in the public domain and in academe, is often quick to posit that these stories are “really” about politics, power, class, social standing and the like, and people often refuse to take the religious aspects of the narrative seriously. Yes, of course, any of these issues can be understood within a broader context of social and cultural concerns. Nevertheless, this contextualization does not give license to disregard the religious angle as superficial or otherwise unimportant.

Whether we like it or not, individuals and communities are inspired by their religious identities to take action in the world. Those actions can have positive effects on the world, such as social outreach or providing a sense of community to adherents, or negative ones, including violence against rivals or intolerance for others. The fact remains, however, that their actions are often rooted in religious ideals, or their worldview. The principal concern of religious studies is to expose differences in those worldviews so that we might understand the beliefs and practices of a wide variety of cultural actors. Different religious groups imagine the world differently, and that affects how they respond to contemporary concerns.

The academic discipline of religious studies does not train students to be Catholics or Buddhists or Jews any more than political science trains students to be Democrats or Republicans. Even though I teach at an institution that is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, my department is not wedded to Lutheran doctrine or even Christian identity, but to a scholarly desire to understand the world’s inhabitants and cultures. We train our students to read closely, think deeply, write cogently and, above all, analyze carefully the important -- and sometimes decisive -- role that religion plays in the lives of cultural actors across the globe. I often tell my students that it is our responsibility to use a “dispassionate third-party perspective” when viewing the religious phenomena, to understand and analyze while withholding judgment.

If the only people who understand Christianity are Christian, or Islam are Muslims, or Hinduism are Hindus, we are condemned to a world of misunderstanding, conflict and sectarianism. If we cede understanding of religious ideas to religious individuals, we lose the capacity to comprehend the motivations behind the thoughts and actions of anyone beyond our own religious tradition.

Don’t get me wrong, the discipline of religious studies is not imagined as a substitute for religious training. Faith communities will always have a strong desire and need to train members and leaders for service in their own religious communities; that enterprise is a permanent fixture in traditional religious practice.

However, for those aspiring to leadership in the 21st century, knowledge of the religions of the world from a nonconfessional perspective is not a luxury but a necessity. Study of the variety of religious traditions around the world makes it abundantly clear that different people operate under different assumptions about the way the world works. To understand their actions, we must also understand their motivations.

That distinction between the discipline of religious studies and training within religious communities is often lost when considering the topic of religion in an educational setting. But, as Thomas Clark, a former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote in the majority opinion of Abington v. Schempp, “It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion …” This sentiment is, perhaps, more true now than when Justice Clark wrote it in 1963.

This “complete” education that Clark mentions includes the habits of mind that we cultivate in our students. By combining the ability to understand motivations beyond ourselves with other disciplinary perspectives within the liberal arts, we train students to interact with the world in a responsible and informed way. The broader context of this type of education opens our students to a wide variety of skills, including language study, quantitative and scientific reasoning, and the various perspectives offered by the social sciences. All those tools and disciplinary lenses contribute to a nuanced view of the world that goes beyond vocational training. It also equips our graduates with agile minds that can solve problems and understand perspectives that we are yet to encounter.

In an environment that increasingly stresses skills that are immediately marketable, humanities departments often feel that we must justify our existence and our usefulness to employers. Consequently, you see the publication of brochures and the creation of websites that emphasize problem solving, critical thinking and cogent writing. Those are fine goals and, I would argue, our curriculum equips our graduates with these skills.

But the most important attribute that the academic study of religion offers to our students is even more vital and far more concrete: the ability to understand others. In a world in which we are increasingly exposed to difference of all types, what could be a more vital skill for navigating the future?

William "Chip" Gruen is an associate professor of religion studies at Muhlenberg College.

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Study finds gap between expectations, personal attitudes on religious diversity among freshmen

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Students say colleges should be welcoming to people of all faiths, a new study finds, but their own attitudes toward different groups vary.

Gordon professor says she was punished for criticizing college's request for exemption to antibias law

Gordon professor accuses college of retaliating against her for opposing controversial request that institution be exempt from federal law barring discrimination against LGBTQ employees.

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