Among the many signs that religious life in America is currently undergoing profound transformations, none is more clear than the nascent but increasingly evident signs of spiritual interest on college campuses.
Not like the kind of the l950s revival at evangelical colleges nor that of the l960s for civil rights and peace, today’s expression reflects the escalating interest in eclectic, trans-cultural spirituality of the larger society. In an analysis in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Jan. 16), Diane Winston of the Center for the Study of American Religion cites growing evidence that collegians today are enthusiastically embracing a wide variety of religious practices with little regard for creedal, communal and traditional faith.
Evidence comes from a recent study led by a research team at Indiana University of religion on four campuses: a state university, a small liberal-arts college, a historically black college, and a Catholic university. Today’s students are concentrating on spiritual growth and experience rather than theology and history. They explore opportunities in native American practices, Jewish spirituality, Buddhist meditation, Oriental medicine and similar practices.
Winston suggests that most older academicians and religious leaders have either dismissed this revival as the latest fad, or as “cotton candy” spirituality (sweet but not substantial), or as just young adult initiation rites into adulthood. However, such attitudes overlook the long tradition of major changes in American religious life first occurring on campuses among society’s next generation of leaders. Perhaps the most important long range effect of the new interest will be revealed in how these new believers get along with those from totally different faith commitments, such as Sikhs, Jains, Hindu, Buddhist, and others.
Winston concludes that religious life is undergoing huge transformations, but it is now diffuse, rather than monolithic; it is `trans-religious’ as it seeks to find common ground among the many traditions now accessible to the new generation of seekers.
If religious life on campus is a kind of laboratory for unorthodox theologies and liturgies that have not yet found official approval within denominations and most congregations, then same-sex weddings seems to be a popular experiment being undertaken. There are a growing number of university chapels conducting same-sex unions, reports the Christian Challenge magazine (January/February). Princeton University’s United Methodist chaplain recently married two gay men in the chapel for the first time, even though the United Methodist Church disapproves of such ceremonies.
Church officials have not moved to discipline the minister, who plans to conduct more of such services. The UM faces a similar situation with Emory University, a church-affiliated school. Although same-sex ceremonies were at first forbidden by UM officials, the university’s board ruled that same-sex weddings can occur in campus chapels if they involve clergy and others from denominations that approve of the practice (such as the United Church of Christ). Stanford and Harvard University chapels (which are non-denominational) have also recently changed their policies to allow same-sex ceremonies to be conducted.
Another dimension of campus life is the growth of interest in traditional religion. The Cincinnati Post newspaper (Jan. 2) reports on a “revival” of traditional Catholic spirituality taking place at the city’s Xavier University. Large groups of student are attending a new evening Mass, and some students are starting to pray the rosary and have vigils before the Eucharist.
Some are also criticizing the Jesuit university for not being Catholic enough. The American Enterprise magazine (January/February) reports that in 1996, a Duke University professor “provoked a campus furor” when he called for the closing of the college chapel. Angry students from Christian and non-Christian faiths bitterly denounced the idea. Meanwhile, at Jesuit Georgetown University, students are protesting the plan to remove crucifixes from classrooms.
(Christian Challenge, 1215 Independence Ave., S.E., Washington, D.C. 20003; American Enterprise, 1150 17th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036)
— This article was written with RW contributing editor Erling Jorstad