KC Wednesday: The Challenge of Religious Tradition
This week’s KC Wednesday post comes to us from the Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education Knowledge Community and is written by David Norenberg, Director of Career Services at SUNY Canton
“For many people, religion is a rigid concept, somewhat like a stone that is passed from generation to generation. We don’t add to it, change it or challenge it, we just pass it along. But even the most cursory study of the history of religions would undermine such a view. Religious traditions are far more like rivers than stones. Like the Ganges or the Gallatin, they are flowing and changing. Sometimes they dry up in arid land; sometimes they radically change course and move out to water new territory.” Diana Eck – From Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey From Bozeman to Banaras
I was recently asked by a professor to do a presentation in her class on “my religious tradition.” Aghast I asked, “What religious tradition?” If you had asked me on the street what religion I follow I would have said “none” and then added “I lean Buddhist.” Being asked about my “religious tradition” though seemed to be asking a bigger, more involved question.
My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all ministers. The first half of my life revolved around going to church and church activities. Being in church all the time often behind the scenes, I ironically got to see more than a child probably should of the dark side of human nature. In college, like many students I struggled with what I believed. Still, looking back, it would be hard to argue that my “religious tradition” was anything but Christian.
College, and more so graduate school, was for me a time of profound questioning; of coming to understand the world and my place in it. I was lucky to have faculty and staff at my alma mater who refused to give me answers but rather heaped question upon question. I learned, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke enjoined, “to love the questions themselves” and began a different tradition: one of questioning and questing.
In 2001, a dear friend and I began a series of programs that sought to heap those same pithy questions on college students. We initiated the first program out of personal interest, but uncovered a deep need as Astin & Astin’s research into the spiritual life of college students has illustrated. Our students are asking questions of meaning and purpose and we, generally in higher education, are not listening.
In 1994, Wellesley College developed a definition of spirituality: “that which moves us towards wholeness.” It is a wonderful definition that side-steps the freighted and sometimes contentious language of religion and recognizes the common experience and yearning felt by so many. Further, it provides a vast array of seemingly endless topics and program ideas for colleges and universities to bring to their students.
Together my friend and I developed five different program series. Each is designed to meet once a week for eight to ten weeks during a semester. They have brought to students pithy questions on such topics as human nature, society, loss, fear, the natural world, love, letting go, and identity. We set out to create one program, but the students themselves have demanded the development of the rest. Every semester for more than 10 years, we have cultivated a ‘spiritual tradition’ of carving out space, offering questions to students, and giving them the opportunities to follow their own path and spiritual quest.
Like the quotation from Diana Eck above, my religious tradition was handed to me like a rock, but it has been a river too. It has been an irresistible torrent, it has dried up and left me desiccated, it has sprung forth again from the dust and it has radically shifted course. My religious tradition has been shaped in large part by Christianity, but to me the more important tradition, my spiritual tradition, is that of a questioner and quester. Higher education needs more spiritual practitioners not to provide direction, certainly not to give answers, but simply to provide a space, ask good questions and share the journey.