Secularity and the liberal arts:

The spiritual and the scholarly

posted by Varun Soni

“Reconceiving the Secular and the Practice of the Liberal Arts” uncovers the tension at liberal arts colleges between religious expression and critical thought, and it highlights the fact that many faculty, staff, and students have difficulty reconciling their spiritual and scholarly lives within the secular context of the liberal arts. Indeed, many college and university communities wrestle deeply with the complex questions of secularism and spirituality posed by the “Secularity and Liberal Arts” working group.

In order to organize and oversee issues and opportunities for religious expression and spiritual reflection within a secular context, a number of research universities have established an Office of Religious Life (ORL) or its equivalent on campus. Additionally, several universities, such as Stanford University, Princeton University, Emory University, and the University of Southern California (USC), have instituted the position of “dean of religious life” to replace the traditional university chaplain position. The designation of “dean of religious life” signifies that the position exists within the academic mainstream of the university, and it ensures that those who occupy the position have both spiritual and scholarly professional backgrounds.

Accordingly, deans of religious life and ORLs have a broad spectrum of core responsibilities across the university that involve both the spiritual and the scholarly, such as: providing pastoral care and spiritual counseling for the university community; overseeing student religious groups and campus religious directors; delivering invocations and benedictions at ceremonial events; enforcing the university religious holiday policy; supporting religious accommodations for students, faculty, and staff; producing public events and programs across disciplines and domains; promoting interfaith engagement and religious literacy; developing community outreach and service initiatives; and teaching and lecturing in different university contexts.

As both the dean of religious life at USC and a constitutional law scholar, my conception of secularism mirrors that of both the working group and the US Constitution. Just as it is helpful for universities to think through constitutional aspects of federalism within the context of university governance, it can also be instructive for universities to follow a constitutional approach to secularism within a multifaith university environment. Contrary to popular opinion, the First Amendment does not mandate a “wall of separation” between religion and the state but, rather, prohibits the state from establishing or endorsing one religious tradition over another. According to First Amendment jurisprudence, it is possible for the state to engage with religion in a non-preferential, non-proselytizing capacity and still be considered “secular” in a constitutional context.

Establishing an ORL is a creative solution for universities to engage with religion on campus through a non-denominational approach that is consistent with the principles of the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment. ORLs do not establish any specific religion as their baseline; rather, they work with all the religious traditions represented on campus in order to provide a supportive environment for the free exercise of religion. At USC, the ORL certifies and oversees more than ninety student religious groups and forty campus religious directors, which collectively represent a remarkable geo-religious diversity. By operating in a truly multifaith context, ORLs do not endorse or promote any religious tradition over another, and therefore remain true to the constitutional spirit of secularism.

ORLs are deeply invested in interfaith engagement and community service, and will often convene student leaders and groups in order to increase religious literacy and promote interfaith dialogue. The modern research university remains a unique and powerful location for engagement and reconciliation, and ORLs, through their various programs and events, have the remarkable opportunity to encourage students to think about how their faith can be part of a solution to the world’s great crises. Through interfaith advocacy and programming, ORLs directly engage with the dilemma that, as the working group’s report puts it, “faculty and students alike were perplexed by how to substantively engage with and learn from deep commitments different from their own.”

Another new development that challenges educators to reconceive the secular is the emergent voice of those who self-identify as spiritual but not religious (SBNR). By recognizing the rise of a self-identifying SBNR community, the working group’s report echoes the findings of UCLA’s “Spirituality in Higher Education” research project. In diverse demographics across the country, and especially amongst the current millennial generation of university students, there is an increasing awareness of spirituality, in addition or as opposed to religion, and this manifests on campus in different ways.

For many, spirituality refers to the introspective search prompted by the ultimate questions of meaning, purpose, and identity. This desire to engage with the ultimate questions impacts and inspires faculty and students alike, and ORLs play a significant role in facilitating such conversations and encounters. At USC, the ORL has reoriented itself around “meaning” as opposed to “God” so that it may be relevant to the entire university community and not just those who self-identity as religious. Additionally, USC’s ORL has launched a new spirituality initiative, which explores the ultimate questions through the lenses of sports, service, and the arts.

For the last ten years, the USC ORL has hosted a monthly speaker series entitled “What Matters to Me and Why” (WMMW), which is a national program found at ORLs across the country. WMMW features faculty and staff discussing choices made, difficulties encountered, and commitments solidified in their lives’ journeys. Based on the success of the WMMW model, USC’s ORL recently initiated two other speakers series – “The Soul of Medicine” and the “The Spirit of the Law” – which feature medical and legal professionals discussing how they find meaning and purpose in their careers, how they connect the personal and the professional in their lives, and how they use their degrees in creative and innovative ways. Through programs such as these, university communities are proactively engaged in conversations focused on how the ultimate questions impact the lives of faculty, students, and staff.

Whereas the working group focuses primarily on issues of secularism and the liberal arts within a classroom setting, ORLs grapple with these challenges outside the classroom. Indeed, many of the transformational moments of a student’s university experience happen outside the classroom – through student groups, athletic and social organizations, travel abroad opportunities, community service, and other forms of extracurricular engagement – and ORLs have the opportunity to engender “out of the classroom” experiences that connect their constituent groups directly with the ultimate questions of meaning, purpose, and identity.

As educators reconceive the secular in the liberal arts context, they should think deeply about the interplay of spirituality and scholarship on campus, and the unique opportunities that colleges and universities offer for community service, interfaith dialogue, and religious reconciliation. In thinking through the role that administrators play in framing and shaping these issues, ORLs and their equivalents provide an important case study for how religious expression might engage with critical thinking in a secular, liberal arts context.

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