Exploring spirituality (101)

Exploring spirituality (101)Review by Kristin Louderback2004-11-0123The Centrefalse

Spirituality 101 By Harriet Schwartz Skylight Paths Publishing (2004) $16.99

Here’s a little assignment for you. It will be relatively painless, and you likely have already done it today. Walk across your campus and look at the sidewalk chalkings and the fliers. Of the ones that you pass, how many deal with religion? Spirituality? Youth groups? If the trend has hit your campus, you are likely to see an abundance of spirituality-related posters. This plethora of options, or even just the fact that religion and spirituality are openly promoted by the student body, makes a college campus a unique place indeed. Sure, you will see ads for cheap futons and rewards for lost puppies; you can find those in any office building. But where else can you be invited to a Hillel event, a discussion about the Palestinian-Israeli conflicts, and a Campus Crusade for Christ call-out meeting, all on the same bulletin board?

The rest of the education system has not been so quick to accept or encourage spiritual growth, however. The separation between religion and education has been a topic of heated discussion in recent years as people challenge anything from the recital of a prayer at commencement to the debate about school children reciting the phrase “under God” every morning in the Pledge of Allegiance (Associated Press, 2001; Mears, 2004). These cases are indicative of a larger movement of Americans desiring “spirituality” rather than “religion.” In other words, people want to recognize their higher power/being(s) of choice without the confines and structure of a certain religion. According to a national opinion poll of adult Americans done by Blum and Wepin Associates (2001) for Spirituality and Health Web site, 59 percent of Americans describe themselves as both religious and spiritual, while 20 percent see themselves as solely spiritual. In addition, the poll indicated that individuals who considered themselves to be spiritual were heavily influenced by their spirituality: 80 percent of people who define themselves as spiritual said their spirituality influences every aspect of their life; only 42 percent said religion plays a major role in daily life (Scott, 2001).

So what do these attitudes toward religion and spirituality mean for college campuses? Largely, it has meant increasing campus diversity, acceptance, and exploration, which is not difficult to fathom given the number of religious groups that make their presence known on campus.

“Spirituality 101,” by Harriet Schwartz, was published with the intent of helping college students and higher education professionals sort through—or search for—spiritual life on campus, and the introduction offers some food for thought that permeates the entire book: Wisdom often arrives when we have the opportunity to think and wonder aloud (Schwartz, 2004).

The book offers 40 personal student reflections about their own spiritual life, each categorized into chapters including “Finding Your Place,” “Spirituality and the Classroom,” and “Spirituality and Your Social Life.” Contributors come from a variety of faith backgrounds—Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Pagan, and everything in between. The matter-of-fact, down-to-earth tone that each of the contributors adopt while inviting you to be a part of their spiritual journey makes for easy reading. The book also includes a handful of practical articles written by faculty and others involved in higher education to suggest ways of putting the spiritual lessons into practice on campus. Schwartz solicited both student and staff contributions by contacting campus faith leaders, faculty members, and student organization leaders from across the United States, attempting to cover as many faith backgrounds as possible.

Though there is an abundance of life experiences crammed into “Spirituality 101,” each contribution aims to answer the following three questions: Who are you? Who do you want to be? What can spirituality do for me? The perspectives vary, and it may be difficult at first for a Lutheran to see through the eyes of an Orthodox Jew, or a Catholic to identify with a Buddhist, but as one continues to read, it becomes increasingly evident that the more ways you look at the world, the clearer it becomes.

Who are you?

If you can answer this question without hours of reflection, you probably do not know yourself very well. Contributions that deal with this question largely emphasize the importance of keeping your eyes open all the time and always being ready and willing to learn.

When attempting to answer the question of who you are, you likely first think about your education, hobbies, and yourself in terms of your close personal relationships. Students who addressed this question either directly or indirectly operated under the belief that the more we learn about others, the more we learn about ourselves.

One Johns Hopkins alumnus states: “You can use other people’s opposition to your faith to challenge, change, reaffirm, and strengthen your faith” (in Schwartz, 2004, p. 6). Knowing what other people believe and why can give you reason to question and contemplate what you believe and why.

This same student later likens one’s faith to a career path in the sense that both help to form one’s identity:

If you decide to become a chemistry major, you would need to take courses to learn about the topic, talk to professors in the chemistry field, and build relationships with other chemistry majors who might help you with studying and research. In the same way, your faith in God needs the same time, dedication, and effort because it’s what you’re interested in and it, to some degree, defines you. (in Schwartz, 2004, p. 56)

A Lutheran student immersed in a predominantly Catholic college found confidence and understanding when he was forced to discuss his own beliefs in a “Christian Prayer” course. He says his experience in religion class led him to believe that like-minded people tend to stick together for the sake of avoiding confrontation and debate. He says that “the result of this lack of differing viewpoints is narrow-mindedness, a sense of superiority, and, often, being less than well-informed” (in Schwartz, 2004, p. 39).

Likewise, a quote on the same page attributed to Simeone Weil says that “The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like the condemned man who is proud of his large cell” (in Schwartz, 2004, p. 39). The overriding theme is that, no matter how much you think you know, there is always something more to learn, so take advantage of the experience of college life and learn something new. One student eloquently sums up his college experience of making friends of other faiths: “A few snapshots of understanding made me happier than a lavishly produced feature film of the truth” (in Schwartz, 2004, p. 183).

Who do you want to be?

College students often translate this question into the ever common “What’s your major?” or “What do you want to do when you’re done with school?” Several student contributors featured in “Spirituality 101” acknowledged that these questions that are asked so often are not necessarily the ones that deserve the most attention. A University of Chicago graduate boiled it down by saying: “The important questions are not really about doing, so much as they are about being; not what will you do, but who are you and who do you want to be?” (in Schwartz, 2004, p. 238). He also offers some questions to ask as substitutes for the monotony of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” including:

  • What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?
  • What do you do that makes you feel most alive, most human, and most in touch with other humans?
  • Which kinds of work do you admire the most? (in Schwartz, 2004, pp. 237–38)

    The complexity of these questions and the degree of self-examination, or even scrutiny, that they require make them intense and intimidating, but answering these questions honestly can lead to practical applications on a college campus and the surrounding community.

    One Brandeis University graduate reflected on her experience of at first subbing, and then taking on a more permanent teaching position at a local Hebrew school while in college. During her experience she felt, and cherished, the responsibility of being a good role model, as well as the importance of community. Her experiences off campus led to more involvement on campus, and eventually led her to choose a career in Jewish education. She realizes the impact that going off campus had in developing her spiritual and professional life: “Would these doors have opened for me had I not accepted that substitute job my freshman year? Maybe. Would I have known to walk through those doors? Maybe not.” (in Schwartz, 2004, pp. 211–12).

    What can spirituality do for me?

    Several students focused on everyday struggles and doubts in their own faith and spirituality, and even question whether they have room for it in their life. One contributor wrote a selection titled “Fighting with God” focusing on the Sept. 11 attacks as a time of doubt and loss of faith. In the following months as others “looked to their faith to put the pieces of their lives back together” (in Schwartz, 2004, p. 109), she withdrew from things that she once valued, including her spirituality. Eventually her sorrow lifted with the help of her campus minister and understanding friends, and she felt enriched by the transformation she experienced as she reconnected with her life. She says she knows now that faith has its challenges, but she will “embrace these things as part of my spiritual journey, knowing that where I am and where I am going is enough” (in Schwartz, 2004, pp. 108–10).

    Another student, who considers himself a “pilgrim” because he has spent much time on a “quest for something conceived as sacred,” says that “if you want to find that which is sacred, you must open your eyes and your heart and live one day at a time” (in Schwartz, 2004, p. 115).

    A Unitarian Universalist and Pagan contributor shares that she often has difficulty defining her religions to curious inquirers. To explain effectively, she must first evaluate her religions according to what they mean to her and make a sort of hierarchy for what she believesthe most important points to be.

    Though people intuitively strive to find answers, sometimes there seem to be none. A student at the College of the Holy Cross says he struggles daily with the rituals of Catholicism, and finds himself just going through the motions. He writes that “since we ourselves are unexplainable, we certainly cannot understand the complex workings of the world around us,” and that “we must have faith in the uncertainty of the world” (in Schwartz, 2004, p. 27). These are such simple statements that one cannot help but think about them. “Spirituality 101” and its student contributors encourage readers to ask questions for the sake of asking questions, not necessarily to try to come up with definite answers.

    “Spirituality 101” and the college union

    “Spirituality 101” is written for college students in the sense that contributors, students, and staff, deal with the issues from a student’s point of view. This makes it a valuable resource for student affairs professionals, especially those involved with college unions and programming, as college unions are often the heart of campus activity.

    The most important thing that union and activities professionals can take away from “Spirituality 101” is the awareness that spirituality has become a buzzword on campuses, and students are pondering if, and where, it fits into their lives. It is important for those involved with students to be aware of their interests and concerns, and as your previous walk across campus indicated, clearly spirituality is one of them.

    Additionally, “Spirituality 101” both covertly and explicitly, encourages readers to explore diversity on campus. Contributors say that by learning about other faith traditions readers can gain appreciation and identity for their own spirituality. A contributor who is a student at a school with “a bad rap for political correctness” (in Schwartz, 2004, p. 44) states that we should not hide differences behind friendly euphemisms because of the fear of offending others. When we stop being afraid of offending people and really want to know and understand others, he says, “we have stepped away from sickly sweet courtesy and stepped toward enlightenment and acceptance” (in Schwartz, 2004, pp. 42–44).

    College should not be seen as merely an opportunity to earn a degree, and “Spirituality 101” urges us to go a step further by striving for both enlightenment and acceptance. Isn’t that what college should be about?

Associated Press. (2001, May 18). Judge halts prayer at graduation ceremony. CNN.com. Retrieved September 20, 2004 from http://cnnstudentnews.cnn.com/2001/fyi/teachers.ednews/05/18/school.prayer.ap.
Mears, B. (2004, August 23). Supreme Court rejects pledge challenge. CNN.com. Retrieved September 20, 2004 from www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/08/23/pledge.allegiance/index.html.
Schwartz, H. L. (2004). Spirituality 101. Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing.
Scott, R. O. (2001, Spring). A look in the mirror. Spirituality and Health. Retrieved September 15, 2004 from www.spiritualityhealth.com/newsh/items/article/item_4249.html.
Updated Nov. 9, 2012