Gray and magisterial, squarely planted in the heart of campus, Bowdoins 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 associations 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 non-theistic issues, is the common ground of student cultural life. The study is not without its idiosyncrasiesas Bowdoin professor Jean Yarbrough has pointed out, its Western-civ-is-dead in Brunswick narrative misses several survey courses on Western political thoughtbut 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 diversitywhich Bowdoin says it wantsand 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 light-years. 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. It was enlightening, however, to be around people who saw the world differently.
At times like this, you have a few options. You can lash out against your foes or embrace pluralism. Or you can swallow hard, accept that not everyone thinks the way you do, and get down to the business of respectful, honest, and intellectually serious debate.
At an ideologically and intellectually diverse school like Bowdoin, almost everyone is in some sense a minority. This requiresor should requirenot that everyone buy into some sort of extra-religious values code, but that the campus community practice true tolerance, which is to say that students and faculty make a pact: They will agree to disagree, to take one anothers views seriously, and to find genuine enjoyment not in a one-size-fits-all body of thought but in the give-and-take of serious debate.
In a polarized cultural moment, it is growing harder to sell this vision of a naked public square, or, if you will, a naked college quad. But this is a deeply valuable part of the Bowdoin experience. One learns to live and move and have ones being in a pluralized society on a campus like Bowdoin. One discovers the delight of genuine respect. One enters into the beginnings of what Martin Buber called the I-Thou relationship, experiencing communality with those one might instinctively avoid.
I experienced at Bowdoin the invigoration that comes from encountering strange new concepts, new worldviews, new memes that challenge ones own beliefs. Too many of us today approach the academic task like children playing in a youth soccer league. We all want a trophy merely for showing up. At Bowdoin, I had professors and classmates whose beliefs, I believed, were wrong, but who were smarter than me. They scuttled my weak arguments, but that strengthened my ability to reason and persuade and allowed me to clarify my own paradigm in the light of theirs. All of this was a tremendous gain for me.
It seems, from both the report and what I know of my alma maters culture now, that the school is a bit ill at ease with such diversity and tolerance when applied to some religious traditions. In their place, certain causesincluding homosexuality and the environmenthave taken on an almost spiritual cast. The fracas over a 2011 sermon on the sinfulness of homosexuality at a Protestant chapel service shows that freedom of religious speech is easy to tout but harder to sustain, particularly when the campus has essentially privileged what Harvey Mansfield has called samesexuality.
The creation of this campus culture extends, improbably but aggressively, to restrooms. I cannot comment on the posters offered for appraisal in the womens room, but in mens bathrooms at Bowdoin one is fairly bombarded with bold-typefaced opportunities to join LGBTQIA groups and get peer counseling on gender identity. On the postmodern campus, it seems, the restroom is the true ideological battleground, the bridge given to the modern Horatius to stake his fate. Take your stand against gendernormative tendencies, or fall into the Tiber, son of Bowdoin.
Speaking in 2011 at the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good, then-dean Craig McEwen called for campus solidarity while encouraging teaching and learning about difference. The center (and by extension the college) held an agnostic view of the common good, he explained, because we are acutely aware of the challenge of definition. Instead we have said repeatedly that our job is to promote discussion of the concept so students can come to their own understandings.
McEwen calls this call for solidarity while accepting difference a paradox. I think he is right. It is a fragile paradox at that. If Bowdoin is to value all its community members and to enfranchise all its students and faculty members, it must simultaneously unite them under the colleges commitment to mutual give-and-take while calling them to the courage of their own convictions.
Bowdoins Offer of the College, taken from seventh president William DeWitt Hydes writings, elegantly promises all matriculants the ability, as a result of a Bowdoin education, to be at home in all lands. Hydes words build on founding president Joseph McKeens call to students to serve the common good. Both presidentsCongregationalist ministers before they became college headscalled students not to balkanize their convictions, but to put them to work in service of humanity. This meant entering the broader world and engaging in the great conversations of the ages with acuity, respectfulness, and confidence.
Though the college has moved away from McKeens Evangelical doctrine, it can still make good on this offer today, if it will continue to allow campus groups of differing, even conflicting, views their place at the table. Should Bowdoin champion diversity while privileging, in the classroom and outside it, homosexual advocacy, center-left politics, sustainability, and gender construction, it will collapse the paradox McEwen captured, and render its students citizens at home only in gated communities, where everyone agrees with their views and no one does them the service of challenging them.
There is surely a placea very sizeable onefor confessional education. I teach at a confessional school and relish the work. But Bowdoin is not, and has not been for many decades, a school championing a fixed religious or ideological viewpoint.
It has chosen a different path. According to its own secular canon, one prized and repeatedly cited by current president Barry Mills, it celebrates and cultivates genuine diversity. Over Bowdoins history, it has offered courses that recognize the value of the Western canon. It has welcomed campus religious groups like Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and the Catholic Students Union that teach the historic Christian position on sexuality. It has taught from the great books and trained the eyes of its students on the millennia-old conversation over great philosophical and religious matters, not a code of totalizing ethics that permits no deviation and brooks no compromise.
With walls that speak to the sturdiness of faith and a spire suggesting the presence of the numinous amidst the festival of the rational, I believe the chapel has more to say to the Bowdoin community, past and present, than we might initially think.
I have traveled far from Bowdoin, but I remain thankful for the school and its openness to diverse voices. The electricity produced by the great contest of ideas I entered on campus spills over into my current life and work. I also see, however, that if true diversity at Bowdoin is lost, religion and religious groups could fall silent, to everyones loss.
Owen Strachan is assistant professor of Christian theology and church history at Boyce College.
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