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The Last Word

A Country and College of Many Faiths
by Bil King, Ph.D., professor of religious studies

“We are a nation of many faiths and of those with no faith at all. The religious practices of all must be respected.” - President Barack Obama

Listening to President Barack Obama’s inaugural address, I wondered how the ideals he articulated might connect to the Albright community, specifically to campus spiritual life and the work of Albright’s Multifaith Center.

Several of his remarks seemed aimed at those negative pundits who regard religion as the catalyst for conflict and violence in the world today. This“clash of civilizations” approach to religion and culture implies that religious diversity invariably breeds fear, suspicion and “holy wars.” All would be well, they usually suggest, if we jettisoned religious faith altogether.

In contrast, President Obama embraced a positive role for religion and religious pluralism, as had presidents before him, calling us “a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and [significantly] nonbelievers.” Though referring to “God” and scripture as part of his own personal faith history, the president refrained from identifying the nation with Christianity alone. It was as if he believed that idealism, compassion, and a desire for equality, justice, and freedom form common threads woven into the fabric of all religious communities.

He underscored that message the following day when he invited Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other religious leaders to participate in an interfaith National Prayer Service at the Washington Cathedral. Prayers and words of guidance for the nation flowed in all directions.

What was equally important in his address was the president’s suggestion that America’s “patchwork heritage” of religious faiths and cultures “is a strength, not a weakness” in finding solutions to our national ills. How many people really believe that?

No one doubts that religion is a contributing factor in global conflicts today, as in the past. Yet recent studies also show that countries that have the greatest degree of religious freedom and diversity are the countries least likely to suffer from religious violence and most likely to have an engaged and cooperatively minded citizenry.

How does all of that relate to Albright?

President Obama’s approach to religion meshes well with the educational philosophy that led to the creation of Albright’s Multifaith Center 10 years ago. The center was the brainchild of President Ellen Hurwitz, Albright’s first Jewish and female chief executive officer. Faculty and many students warmly endorsed the idea, as did more than 50 alumni and friends of the College who formed a presidential task force on campus spiritual life and values a few years later.

The Multifaith Center, headed today by Chaplain Paul Clark ’73, is located on Linden Street, right across from student residence halls. Its presence there symbolizes the centrality of the life of the spirit in the business of the campus and displays the College’s focus on the spiritual needs, doubts and quests of each student.

Like President Obama, the people who created the Multifaith Center believed that religious diversity and interfaith engagement are positive “assets and resources” in “creating and sustaining community life” and in “promoting academic excellence.”

Current members of the Multifaith Executive Council have spoken to me about the way the center creates a safe haven in which students feel free to explore questions of meaning, to express their faith in their own ways, to encounter the reality of other faith perspectives, and to discover the commonalities that link them together. The goal of the center is not to “dilute” the faith of students, but to help them look beyond differences and stereotypes. The center currently accommodates Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Chinese, Buddhist, Hindu and other traditions. It provides an “Open Tent” forum for all students to engage in religious questioning. And it is currently exploring the creation of a chapter of Interfaith Youth Core, founded by Eboo Patel, an Indian American recently appointed by President Obama to his new White House office on faithbased neighborhood programs.

Learning “about” religion in the classroom is one thing; it is something else entirely for students to come face to face with the humanity and sincerity of those who have a different faith experience and perspective. That kind of direct encounter is what leads to educational and personal transformation.

By mirroring the religiously pluralistic national and global scene, the center
hopes to show students how to practice creative citizenship in an
increasingly diverse and complex world. When conflicts and
misunderstandings do arise, as they must, the center turns into a place
where the spiritual sources of anger and defensiveness can be named
and exorcised.

Thus, Albright’s Multifaith Center indirectly supports President Obama’s
optimism when he suggests that religious
freedom and diversity can be positive forces. Our students
need to know that religion does not generally wrap people
up in mantles of anger, animosity, suspicion and violence.
Rather, religious people tend to see a spirit in one another that
transcends particularistic differences, generates constructive
debate, energizes cooperation, and nourishes maturity.

- Bill King, Ph.D., is a professor of religious studies at Albright.

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