Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Naked College Quad

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Naked College Quad

Article excerpt

Gray and magisterial, squarely planted in the heart of campus, Bowdoin's chapel keeps watch over all who traverse the quad. During my own time at Bowdoin, it was usually empty. Like an antiquated board member of a Fortune 500 company, the chapel was appreciated but generally ignored. The questions it offered were not asked by the student body; the answers it held within its great stone walls were not sought.

This was not due to a policy of hostility, at least not one that I was aware of as a young man in the class of 2003. A good many faculty members treated religion with a kind of detached skepticism. Those who taught religion usually approached it as a sociological phenomenon. A few observed a religious tradition to some extent; out of nearly 160 faculty members, I knew of about five who were Jewish, about five who were Catholic, and about ten who were identifiably Protestant.

It was hard to tell just how religious the Bowdoin faculty was. Most had signed the metaphysical privatization contract tendered them by elite modern institutions, promising that they would hold their theological convictions largely in check. The personal expression of religious views on campus seemed gauche, fit more for a YouTube outburst than a rational discussion.

If you wanted seriously to debate religious ideas, you could take classes in the religion department. Otherwise, one might study the "religious account" of the world, but it was not a serious conversation partner in the classroom. Even religious students sought answers along non-religious lines. They trusted the hard sciences and distrusted moral absolutes.

And quite apart from formal philosophical concerns, there was the ever-present pull of hedonic undergraduate life. This is itself no mean force in forming worldviews and feelings and thoughts about religion.

My experiences receive some corroboration in What Does Bowdoin Teach?, a recent report by the National Association of Scholars, written by Peter Wood and Michael Toscano. Wood is president of the association and an anthropologist of repute, Toscano the association's director of research projects. (Full disclosure: I am quoted in one part of this study.)

The study suggests that while "theistic religion" is treated as "the special concern of a few," so-called "secular religion," characterized by a pious, reverential approach to nontheistic issues, is "the common ground of student cultural life." The study is not without its idiosyncrasies-as Bowdoin professor Jean Yarbrough has pointed out, its "Western-civ-isdead in Brunswick" narrative misses several survey courses on Western political thought-but it offers a rare thoroughgoing treatment of the intellectual and spiritual framework of a top liberal arts college.

What Does Bowdoin Teach? sheds light on the state of religion at Bowdoin, a topic that has drawn scant attention in the conversation about the report. Due to the close connection between diversity-which Bowdoin says it wants-and religious expression, this subject deserves more consideration than it has been given.

It was just this interplay that made Bowdoin exciting for me. Physically, I traveled to Bowdoin from just a few hours away. Intellectually, as an Evangelical, I crossed a few lightyears. I had friends from every major religious tradition and many more whose self-spun worldviews evaded the grasp of any defined system.

A young Muslim woman elaborated the five pillars of Islam while braiding my hair in an ill-fated experiment (I will speak no more of this, other than to note that Allen Iverson was the catalyst). A stoner from backcountry New England told me calmly over a meal in resplendent Thorne Dining Hall that he could not say murder was wrong, so committed was he to his moral relativism. I had gay and lesbian friends who shared with me their struggles with their sexuality. Though our worldviews conflicted, we had civil and stimulating conversations.

As an Evangelical, I did not always know how to engage my friends, and I made the mistakes a young, impassioned college student sometimes does. …

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