The Role of Religion in a Secular Bubble: A Two-Part Feature

Oberlin And the Shift to Religious Pluralism: What is the role of religion at Oberlin College? This question might not seem relevant to many students, but this two-part series will address just that. Part one will examine the general history of religion at Oberlin and recent efforts to cultivate a more pluralistic model of religious life. The second part, appearing in this section next week, will focus on the perspectives and experiences of religious students on campus.

Julia Herbst

As a school with a diverse religious and spiritual population and a long religious history, questions about how the administration does and should manage religious life are cause for much discussion. This debate is especially active in recent years due to the creation of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and the development of many new faith-based organizations. Today, the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and its affiliated organizations have the challenge of both adjusting to the changing religious beliefs of students and also promoting multifaith dialogues that include all viewpoints. This current multi-religion model is significantly different than other models for spiritual life that have existed over the years. When Oberlin was founded by missionaries in 1833, the Protestant faith was vital to the school’s mission. Reverend Greg McGonigle, Director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, believes that despite the fact that religious life has evolved since Oberlin’s founding, the same progressive ideas commonplace on campus today can be traced back to the school’s earliest roots. “Religion has a long history at Oberlin,” said Reverend McGonigle. “Oberlin College was founded by progressive, social reform Evangelical Protestants who really wanted to create a utopian community here … And, of course, some of those commitments led to our early commitments to [the] abolition of slavery and women’s rights and civil rights and, I think, the kind of reformist sprit that continues in things like LGBT equality and environmentalism.” In the early 1900s, Oberlin, like many other colleges and universities across the country, experienced a period of increased secularization and in 1966, the decision was made to move Oberlin’s School of Theology to Vanderbilt and focus attention on the newly formed Department of Religion instead. By the 1980s, the College was admitting more non-Protestant students and made the decision to transition to a religious life model that included Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faiths. This system existed until as recently as 2007–2008, when the College decided to move toward a more pluralistic faith system. This year, according to the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, there are approximately 24 different religious communities active on campus. This number includes many newly formed groups such as a Baha’i group, the Bhakti Yoga Society, the Oberlin Buddhist Fellowship, Chabad, and the Oberlin Meditators. Other organizations that were previously dormant have also experienced a resurgence in the past year, including the Unitarian Universalists and the Queers and Allies of Faith group. “We have a lot of different religions that haven’t really been here before,” said Reverend McGonigle. “We live in a world in which religion continues to play an important role on our society, [and] in politics … Building interfaith relationships and community and understanding became more of a focus, and [so the] College decided it would create this multifaith model in which we would seek to provide strong support to particular religious communities … and then encouragement for multifaith interactions and dialogue.” Oberlin’s religious groups take different approaches to creation of these multifaith interactions. For instance, the Muslim and Jewish communities both participate in Shabbat services each Friday night. “When I came here four years ago, a Muslim colleague invited me to have a Shabbat dinner in a student co-op on Friday night,” said Presidential scholar of Islam Professor Jafar Mahallati in an e-mail with the Review. “I expected the Shabbat to be fully of a Jewish character. [However] the Shabbat dinner and prayer under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Shimon Brand began unexpectedly with Quran reading … I cannot imagine any symbolism more powerful than listening to related scriptures and sharing meals to bring students of the two religions together.” For some students, multifaith discussions happen in everyday interactions with peers.

“I think that the general experience at Oberlin is that everybody’s really interested in learning all types of different things,” said College sophomore and member of the Ecumenical Christians of Oberlin Anita Peebles. “So people will be really genuinely interested in what I believe and why I believe it … Generally, really good discussions come out of it, and everybody’s united by this passion for what they believe in and wanting to be open and learn about other people.”

Other recent attempts to develop multifaith discussions include events like this year’s Friendship Day and the upcoming Interfaith Service Day. The Interfaith Service Day, which will take place this Sunday, is open to students of all religious and secular identities and will attempt to discuss the connection between service and faith. Organizers hope that this day will serve as a starting point for planning efforts related to President Obama’s 2011–2012 Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. “We just signed onto … [the] President’s challenge for campuses to engage in interfaith community service and interfaith cooperation,” said Reverend McGonigle. “We’ll be looking at an administrative level and curricular level, as well as at a community level, at how we can promote interfaith cooperation at Oberlin.” Despite these efforts, many of those involved in religious life on campus agree that further steps should be taken in order to create a truly pluralistic environment. “Oberlin is just starting to have a campus culture change,” said Adah Hetko, College junior and Multifaith Community Service Coordinator with the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, who is working to organize the Interfaith Service Day. “Interfaith work isn’t really yet part of the established campus culture as something radical and current [or] sexy and activist, but I think that it will be and it should be because it’s a really … pressing issue, and we really need to talk about religious pluralism.” Reverend McGonigle agrees. “I think we have a long way to go in terms of really cultivating a pluralistic environment, which is what I hope we’re moving toward,” he said. “ I actually think that it’s very important to our educational mission that we’re really having robust conversations about religion so that whether students are religious or not they can … engage with religious people and see the value in that world view, even if they don’t hold it themselves.”