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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

From the heart

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Here’s an experiment. Suppose you’re an academic – your preferred social discipline – and you encounter in research the life of a person of faith. You decide to examine this person. From our intellectually liberal standpoint, we would want to approach this person’s life with detached respect in regards to their historical background, their experience, their religious or spiritual practice and its function in their life. Religion and spirituality become another lens to consider the state of a human being. We strive to be understanding of the whole person with “academic respect.”

How about a change of conditions for this experiment? Throw out that “abstract” person being studied in the books and replace them with a real, breathing, religious individual. Oh, and not just any person, we’re talking about someone from your community, your community on campus. Could be your next door neighbor on your floor, or that fellow way, way across from you in the LDC. You least expected this person to have an intangible belief. Can you predict what happens next?

From what we have listened to and seen from others’ experiences, we think that the student might say something along these lines to their religious colleague: “Umm, sure, it’s okay you are religious, but . . . I mean. . . I don’t know how to put this… you really believe in God?” (Replace “God” with any other religious doctrine or spiritual belief for any number of possible questions, it has the same effect too.) Would your academic respect still stand? Does it translate to a respect from the heart of your fellow Carl?

We interact regularly with students from many walks of life as Chaplain’s Associates, especially in interfaith spaces. A thread we’ve sensed from our chats with students is a disconnect in the academic respect we aspire to when considering religious belief, and how we actually live and react towards religious people among ourselves. Sometimes, the experiences of students of faith on campus are disheartening. They range from the little snide comments made of an aspect of their lives, to hostile instances whether motivated by ignorance or spite. Whether we like it or not, religious identity shapes perceptions of people at Carleton.

It is not a coincidence that academic respect for religion doesn’t always translate to that respect from the heart in our relationships with each other. We know all too well people have had negative experiences with religion, notably the oppression of a gender or sexual orientation deemed “indecent” by a religious institution. We understand the skepticism given to religion as vocal minorities manipulate beliefs in the name of some reactionary cause, and one need not look abroad for examples. It’s no wonder Christianity and Islam (to name a notable few) here carry so much baggage. And we know our religious institutions, many of our churches and synagogues, masjids and temples, can seem so static in the face of the modernity of the past two centuries. It’s further no wonder that it contributes partially to the growing trend of secular atheism in some parts of the world.

But for anyone to dismiss religion, given all of these problems, is lazy thinking. Within and without different religions, many voices seek to make new inroads in understanding the human condition and our relationships with each other and higher powers. Sometimes these voices are marginalized or silenced, or simply not part of the traditions we were raised in. People of faith are plural in their practice and beliefs, striving for renewal and transformation. And surely while not everyone may believe in the supernatural, we share the same world of thinking in which we struggle to make sense of an “order” or “harmony” in our communities, societies, families, and ourselves, whatever that may mean for you. Isn’t it a part of our liberal arts experience at Carleton to have an examined life, contemplating on a world we live and aspire to live in? All of us do it, whether we believe in God or not–and we all have a place here at Carleton.

As a testament to the dynamism of people of faith, students here do struggle with their identities and their institutions in striving for a life that is authentic and well-motivated. We ourselves continue to face the challenge with experience in changes: one of the writers (Meg) is Baha’i, having converted after years in the Presbyterian tradition; and the other writer (Gaston) is a “liberal” Catholic who finds truer faith in ways that the Vatican fails to see.

Moving onwards and searching together, we must make connections with each other, with respect from the heart. Surprisingly, the first step between students can start with that very question from our little experiment: “You really believe in God?” If someone asks about our religiosity, regardless of the skepticism behind it, it’s a sign of someone trying to get it, to understand us beyond the academic context, to understand us from the heart. That’s the ultimate goal. Just try to ask with a little less snark, and a little more openness. We can work it out, mind to mind and heart to heart.

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