On March 6, David King released an article entitled “A Regretful Piece to Have Written — On the State of Religious Discourse at Haverford.” To say it was eloquently written would be an understatement: David conveyed his ideas thoughtfully and respectfully, striving to be as inclusive as he could in his representation of religious life at Haverford. Still, I had my qualms about it, and, as one might anticipate (based on the fact that this article even exists), I intend to address them here.
Before I begin, though, I want to start with a story.
Over winter break of my sophomore year, I went on a trip to Italy with my mom. It was the first (and only) time I had ever been to Europe, and I was extremely excited. As we walked through the streets of Rome one night, slightly exhausted after having just stepped off the plane, I began telling her a story about my semester. Though I don’t remember the exact details, I mentioned fairly loudly somewhere in the story that we were Jewish. In response, she quickly hissed, “Don’t say that out loud here! You don’t know how people will respond.” I remember feeling confused, anxious, and unsettled. Though I knew that anti-Semitism existed and I had experienced it firsthand, the tinge of fear in my mom’s voice conveyed a different message: people might hate us or hurt us here, all because we are Jews.
The first thing to note, then, is that my experience and David’s experience with religion at Haverford are markedly different. We come from fairly different religious communities–I am Jewish, whereas he is United Methodist–and our relationships to our respective religions are drastically different. Although I consider myself the most religious person in my family, my interest with Judaism is more based in academic pursuits rather than ritual immersion. What I mean to suggest is that I care more deeply about religion and the instrumental role it can play in rectifying social ills than I do about deeply investing and following its various doctrines and dictums.
I appreciate David’s turn to the problems that religions can individually create. It would be a lie to suggest that religions themselves have not led to the ostracizing, othering, and overt hatred of groups rendered outsiders. At the same time, though, I want to push David’s critique of religion further by suggesting that it also functions to produce systems of power imbalance internally. That is to say, we can’t just lump all “religions” together as a group and assume that they experience marginalization on Haverford’s campus in the same way. Jews are different from Christians are different from Muslims are different from Hindus, and members of each group experience the world in different ways. To simply discuss “religion,” then, is to have a discussion about a discursive unreality, some singular “thing” that simply does not and cannot exist.
For David, the issue of “relegation” was mostly one of spatial orientation and feelings of being silenced. That is to say, David seems to have suggested that Christianity was being “marginalized” at Haverford because it was housed in the campus center and because people are not always willing to deeply engage with and internalize Christian doctrine. But in a nation beyond Haverford, the “relegation” that people who practice religions endure is often the product of being religious minorities in a predominantly Protestant Christian nation. As a Jewish woman–and keep in mind, Judaism is one of the most dominant religious minorities in American society–I’ve seen my fair share of anti-Semitic rhetoric and behavior. In middle school, I watched as my classmate threw money to the floor and demanded that his friend, the “cheap Jew,” pick it up. I’ve spent hours staring at my nose, self-conscious that it might be too big for my face and make me “look Jewish” (translation: “unattractive”). In fact, even at Haverford, I’ve heard students use the term “dirty Jew” as an insult (if you’re interested, you can feel free to talk to me about it). Every so often, as a joke, I like to redirect people to the small divots on my scalp where–if they look closely enough–they can “find my horns.” Embracing a dark, self-deprecating sense of humor is just the aloe that I use to calm the subtle burns of others’ ignorance. I doubt, however, that this (and other forms of hatred perpetrated against other religious minorities) was the sort of “relegation” that David had in mind when he wrote his piece.
So why am I bringing this all up? And what does it have to do with David’s article, anyway?
To some extent, I lead up with all of this to suggest that I do agree with David: there aren’t particularly robust forums for conversations about religious experience at Haverford, and the community would certainly benefit from providing more spaces for student reflection. At the same time, however, I think these spaces would only remain fruitful if they addressed the lived experiences of religious students and did not try to impose doctrine or beliefs onto others. The sort of proselytization that David’s article seemed to subtly call for, to my mind, would not be conducive to productive relationships to religions. I also worry that these spaces would become a microcosmic reimagination of global religious discrepancies within the United States. That is to say, I am concerned that Christian voices would ring out the loudest while religious minorities–who may experience different forms of marginalization on Haverford’s campus–would once more be silenced.
We might begin thinking through this problem by working through the basic premise that David presents: that “religion, truly practiced, is inherently good, granting that we, as fallible humans, cannot achieve a good in any perfect sense.” Though a noble sounding claim, I find his statement perplexing. Left (perhaps intentionally) vague, “religion” becomes flattened here such that it really means Protestant Christianity. Beyond that, the notion of religion(s) “truly practiced” leaves much to be desired: can we ever say that religion is being truly practiced? If so, how do we account for the ongoing interpretive transformations that religious practice undergoes over time? In fact, how do we account for the dissonance within larger communities living in the same time, such as the rift we currently see between Orthodox and Reform/Reconstructionist Jewish communities regarding whether women can count towards minyan? And what if our constructions of “good” differ? If I believe that it would be good for a religious community to facilitate processes of criminal justice reform, but others disagree with me, how do we account for distinct perceptions of “good”? Even if David’s acknowledgment that we “cannot achieve a good in any perfect sense” were to hold, how do we jointly account for the fact that we cannot know what “good” is and yet there remains an ongoing need to achieve it? Let me be clear–none of this is intended as an affront to David’s religious convictions, nor do I think for a second think that he “yearn[s] for the days of the Crusades, the Inquisition,” and so on. Rather, I mean to extend this conversation so that it might actually prompt meaningful discourse in terms of religious practice and thought on Haverford’s campus.
David further suggests that his “bias stems from actually seeing religion practiced well.” Implicit in his claim here is a suggestion that religion is not practiced well at Haverford. I’ll be honest: I’m in no position to claim that I personally practice my religion well–I violate just about every Kosher rule on the books, and I haven’t stepped foot in my synagogue since I became a Hebrew School dropout circa 2011. At the same time, though, that doesn’t invalidate my connection to Judaism, my continued passion for religious academia, and my desire to engage with religion in order to make the world a better place. It doesn’t mean that, because my life is not “entirely oriented and reoriented around the implications of [my] convictions,” that I am not truly practicing my religion (and we might again think about what “truth” actually means). And it certainly doesn’t mean that other students haven’t been thinking just as deeply about religious life, even if they aren’t as vocal about it. I know plenty of Jewish students who keep Kosher the best they can in the Dining Center and attend Shabbat services at the Rohr Center or Jewish Student Union each week; I know Christian students who continually look to probe their relationship to biblical tradition amidst their own experiences with student life and attend church every Sunday; and I know atheist and agnostic students who, even in their disbelief of divinity, have sat with me for hours discussing their understanding of religion and the world. Those are just the students I know. There are Hindu and Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, and Baha’i students all engaging with others on this campus, thinking through what it means to occupy religious spaces as Haverford students.
The difference between the students of faith(s) who I know and those that David describes is that their concern is rarely with the “relegation” of religious students to the back corner of the campus center. They are more deeply concerned with questions, such as: What are we doing for students who keep Kosher and follow Halal? Are we making the Dining Center amenable to their needs and concerns? How do we address the fact that students celebrating Ramadan often have to concurrently take finals (and this is a particularly relevant concern, given the fact that this will be the case during the 2018-2019 school year)? How do we ensure that students celebrating Lunar New Year, Diwali, Nowruz, and Orthodox Christmas are all provided ample respect? As religious students, we need not ask that others listen uncritically while we preach at them about the teachings of our faiths–that is not what it means to be a secular, pluralistic institution. But what we can ask is that the Haverford community offers its respect to religiously-inclined students and strives to be just a little better than a world where most religious communities experience pain, violence, and disenfranchisement on a daily basis.
Imagine, then, if we could find a way to foster communities of mutual understanding, rather than enforce directive impositions or restrictive assertions about “goodness” or “rightness.” Maybe we’d manage to really engage one another in productive ways. This doesn’t need to be a public display, as some of the best forms of religion are private, and that sort of private space can allow for as deep of a connection with spirituality as do more public demonstrations. At the same time, though, to suggest that religion itself has actually (and not merely in some sort of scientific imaginary) been incapable of eliciting social transformation is a genuinely unwarranted claim. Religious communities and interfaith organizations have been on the front lines of social justice movements ranging from the Civil Rights Movement and 1980s AIDS activism to modern day desires for economic justice, immigrants rights, healthcare accessibility, and so on. Theologians and religious scholars alike have written countless works dedicated to explorations of ability, race, class, gender, and sexuality that have advocated for meaningful inclusion for minority groups across a Western geopolitical landscape. And every day I witness firsthand the ways in which my peers studying Religion at Haverford have provocative conversations about the role that ritual, belief, representation, and tradition can play in transforming the society in which we live. So I agree with David, yes, religion does tell us something about the world and allow us the space to change it–but it would be remiss not to acknowledge that there are plenty of people on Haverford’s campus and beyond who already believe in the power religion can hold and engage with religion in innovative and exciting ways.
As I turn to conclude, I would like to leave a final note on David’s imploration to religious and non-religious people alike. For those of you who are religious–embrace your religion, like David said! You have every right to study it, relish in it, live it and love it. And, as the Hebrew Bible states, “love them [others] as yourself”: offer religious minorities the space to express their needs, validate their experiences, and strive to work together to foster a world that is amenable to all forms of difference.
For those of you who are not religious–you should feel no obligation to immerse yourself within religious spaces. It comes as no surprise, and David mentions this a few times, that certain religious communities have been quick to commit harm against LGBTQIA+ communities, people of color, and disabled communities alike (think Westboro Baptist Church, even in its most watered down forms, think the KKK, think white Christian supremacy at its worst). David is right: this is not what religion needs to be nor is it often what religion can be. But in the moment we live in, religion can and has been used to reinstate the marginalization of many people. Should you feel unsafe, disenfranchised, hurt, or scared–do not feel any need to turn to the sacred texts of communities that have threatened you. Though you can and should respect that some of your peers may be deeply invested in their faiths, you have no obligation to those communities or spaces besides offering them your respect and expecting that they should offer you theirs in return. If you are interested in pursuing religious thought at any point, know that there are plenty of people (myself and David included!) that would love to help you navigate religious exploration and that can point you to areas like liberation theology, intersectional feminism and religious thought, disability activism and biblical exegesis, queer religious theory, and so on. But that decision is entirely yours, and it is one that you should make depending on whether you feel it would be conducive to your spiritual and emotional health. You can “shy away from [religion’s] controversies,” particularly when those “controversies” directly impact the way you and those you care about live, love, and exist in the world. And so I implore you, do what makes you feel most comfortable and happy on Haverford’s campus and in the world beyond. It is in making the decision to take care of yourself and secure your mental well-being that you are embracing the “good” that religion can create.