It was with great regret that I sat down to write this piece. Every so often, the Clerk Editorial Board gathers ideas for special in-depth series that explore and engage a certain topic we feel is pressing on the collective Haverfordian mind. For the third time, the Clerk has shot down religion and religious discourse as a series, stifling an effort to promote, discuss, and mediate what is one of the most pressing questions we face both as a generation and as a campus: why do religions matter, and if they do, why is religious discourse necessary? With all due respect to my fellow board members and writers for the Clerk, I must express my deep and continued frustration with both our refusal, and the refusal of our institution, to meaningfully engage in religious dialogue.
I begin from the claim that religion, truly practiced, is inherently good, granting that we, as fallible humans, cannot achieve a good in any perfect sense.
Make no mistake: I am not in any way an apologist for the atrocities of religion, nor do I have any nostalgia for a gilded past. I do not want to return to the Middle Ages, nor do I yearn for the days of the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the Colonial period (so much of which was done under the façade of religious zealotries). I am under no illusion that organized religion has truly done horrible things in the past, continues to occupy oppressive spaces of power in the present, and will likely continue to do so in the future. But I am willing to state, rather forcefully, that this is not and can never be religion at its truest.
Following that claim, it is also necessary that I present here my biases. I was raised in a United Methodist congregation called Aldersgate. It was there that I was baptized, and it is there that I call home. It was those people who first taught me what love and other-worldly generosity looks like. It was at Aldersgate that I was first introduced to the beauty and mystery of the Christian intellectual tradition.
So yes, I am biased, but bias is not inherently bad. The bias I received from childhood taught me to see religion, specifically Christianity, as it should properly be practiced. My bias stems from interactions with people who have dedicated their lives to the service of others because they fundamentally believe that God is present with them and in them, and they have the ability to see it. My bias stems from moments like my church opening its doors to our Muslim neighbours when their mosque was undergoing renovation so that they could have a place of worship. My bias stems from weeks and months spent with others in Christian service, each of us doing our best to reject colonial notions and fight imperial ideology through mission.
My bias stems from actually seeing religion practiced well.
From this biased experience, I know that religious faith presents a complex system of beliefs and truths about the world that enter and connect every part of a religious person’s life. I say this because another reason we must have religious dialogue is because religion and faith, contrary to popular liberal belief, actually can tell us something about the world, about human nature, about spirituality, consciousness, and connected reality, and it can provide a glimpse into dimensions of experience that cannot be grasped through scientific materialism. Doctrines, teachings, explorations, and discoveries within the religious traditions have for thousands of years directed thought and understanding. It is important to note that this is true, not just in spite of the rise of science and technological modernism. Science, technology, and the materialist philosophies underlying them have, along with the rise of liberalism, relegated religious knowledge to a private affair that does not and cannot contribute to social knowledge overall.
Haverford is not immune to this plague: we too relegate religious knowledge to a dimension of the personal. Considering the religious history and Quaker roots of our institution, this is particularly troubling. Haverford sells itself as a Quaker institution, and there is a sense in which this is true, as there are certain traditions at Haverford (speaking out of silence, quorum, confrontation, etc.), and yet the school split from organized Quakerism long ago, and one need only look at the last year to understand that we make decisions as an institution that are quite separable from any promoted quaker values.
All things considered, Haverford pretends to be a pluralistic enclave where everyone is tolerated, but not everyone is tolerable. And yet, in such a purportedly pluralistic setting, we constantly feel the need to confine religion to the private sphere, to the private room, off in the corner of the Campus Center where no one can hear its messages proclaimed. If we are pluralistic, why are claims about God shunned? If we are pluralistic, why are claims about the nature of the world that come from the mouth of religion forcibly moved to a small, multipurpose room? For the life of me, I cannot fathom how this can be true.
I ask these questions genuinely, not simply out of an addiction to rhetorical force. Religion is a kind of knowledge of the world, and yet, it seems as though we would rather shun religion away, place it in a small, compartmentalized space and allow it to fade away into a distant memory. It seems to me as though we would rather ignore it than engage it with it. It is only when religion appears to “invade” the public sphere (as though religion were ever not public) that we want to engage it, and even then, our engagement is sad in that it hardly does justice to the claims religion is making, or to the foundations of the counterargument. This I think is in part because of an acute lack of understanding of religions and their traditions. I know I am speaking abstractly here, but the reality of the collective attitude towards religion can be summed up in a very simple formulation: “as long as you keep it to yourself and it doesn’t interfere with me, you are welcome to practice your religion.”
For a supposedly pluralistic society, this is an absurd way of speaking. It also places practitioners of religion in an impossible situation. To be true to one’s religious convictions is to have oneself entirely oriented and reoriented around the implications of such convictions. For example, the Christian who is true to their religious convictions cannot help but interact in a specifically Christian manner. They cannot confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord of the world” and then follow that up with “but that’s just my personal opinion,” without already giving ground on how that claim is a completely and utterly transformative one. The same is true for the Muslim whose day is constructed through and oriented around the ritual practice of prayer. To hold true to one’s religious convictions is to have one’s life inextricably understood through those convictions. Thus, the idea of “keeping religion to yourself” and “not interfering with the public sphere” is always already denying a true confrontation and engagement with any given religion.
This is a call both to religious peoples and not.
To my friends of a religious persuasion, I ask you, I beg you, do not shy away from the complete and utter practice of your faith. Continue to engage it, learn its history and its dogma, understand and confront criticisms of it, question its controversies and buttress your understanding; do all that you can in order to live your life according to your faith, because the witness of your life is the greatest gift you could give your religion, and the world. Religion can orient your life: do not be afraid to let it.
To my friends who are not of a religious tradition, I urge you to read about religion, to read its sacred texts and saintly writings, its teachings and dogmas, to understand its virtues and its evils. Engage with it in a genuine fashion. Do not shy away from its controversies, but give them their due. Think of their implications and their histories. Puzzle and think about the claims it makes, however foreign they might be to the modern eye. Do not take religion lightly, for it has been and can be an important force for good in the world.
I feel I must end with the claim (quite an uncontroversial one, in my opinion) that the world needs its churches, its synagogues, its mosques, its temples, its houses of prayer, and that Haverford is no different. What is otherwise a picturesque campus lacks even a single building with a remotely religious tinge to it. It is worth noting that, for all intents and purposes, religion as a matter of public identity at Haverford is confined to a small room in a corner of the campus center.
These spaces are where the world is confronted, where it is reconstituted and given light. It is in these homes, these houses, where the notion of humanity is reclaimed from the brink of capitalist nihilism. It is in these places of worship where boundaries of difference are first understood, seen as they really are, and then broken down in the unity religion gives. It is in these places that the violence of the secular world is given resistance.
It is in these places where the world is rethought. At Haverford, where there is a persistent delusion that all conversations have already been had, we must begin to rethink, and in a sense we must remember, the necessity of religion and religious discourse. For without it, we simply stoke flames of religious discord. Without this rethinking, this remembering, this reimagining of what it means to have religion, the milieu of prejudicial assumptions about “religion” and its “evil nature” will remain, and we will not have the ability to see each other as we are, to see each other in ourselves, to see the world as it is, and to see the hope we are given by the idea that there is a self to which we are all drawn, together, in rejection of the violence of difference so palpable in our modern world.