Religion at Kenyon
What role does--and should--Kenyon play in the religious lives of its students?
L ike many other parents thinking about colleges for their children, I am concerned about religious life on campus. And so it is that I find myself in a quandary. Kenyon, my alma mater, is such a terrific place that I would like my kids to attend the College. But, if there is no Jewish community for them there, how can I even consider it?
These thoughts came to me--not for the first time--when the Bulletin Contributing Writers Group gathered at Kenyon in the summer of 1996 to brainstorm about topics to be featured in future issues of the magazine. My realization prompted other questions about the College's role in students' religious life. Should Kenyon even play a role? To what degree? Does having a variety of worship experiences available to students influence applicants to the College? Viewed from the pew, what is the relationship between town and gown? Does religion even matter to eighteen-to-twenty-two-year-olds these days?
When my call went out for students interested in talking about their experiences of religious life on campus, I expected only a few responses. To my surprise, nearly sixty e-mail messages flooded into the public-affairs office with offers from students eager to talk about their experiences at Kenyon. It seemed a nerve had been touched that few realized was pulsing.
In the course of my interviews with many of those who responded, I was struck by the depth of thought and readiness for religious expression on the part of so many young adults. Campus opportunities have met their needs to varying degrees. Some students came to the College eager to worship only to become dissatisfied with the community. Others arrived avowed atheists and found religion. One young woman I spoke with was drawn to Gambier for the chance to become a part of Harcourt Parish first and a Kenyon student second. A couple of students strengthened their religious commitment but left the College because it didn't provide them with adequate resources to practice and engage with others of their faith. Each has a story to tell.
The question of a college's responsibility to create or provide opportunities for students' religious expressio is complex. (As of this writing, five Orthodox Jewish students were about to bring suit against Yale University for the right to live off campus. Yale's residence halls are coeducational, a living situation the students deem incompatible with their beliefs.) While balancing calls for diversity and celebrating differences, colleges also strive to be appropriately simmering melting pots. A liberal-arts institution such as Kenyon affords a mingling of outlooks, philosophies, races, and religions that would be difficult to come by in the "real world." The exchange of ideas that is an outgrowth of this mingling is part and parcel of a liberal-arts education.
By seeking students from a wide range of backgrounds, the College will naturally draw students who worship in mosques and churches, synagogues and meeting houses. If these four years are a time of intense intellectual growth, they can also set the stage for a spiritual quest. While Kenyon exists to support its students' academic pursuits, I believe it should also, to some degree, support their need for religious expression. How the College strikes this balance can affect enrollment, course offerings, students' lives, and the life of the Gambier community itself.
Arriving first-year students receive a pamphlet distributed by Kenyon's Board of Campus Ministries that details the options for worship and other means of becoming involved in religious activities. Liz Keeney, the College's former dean for academic advising, saw the need to reconfigure Kenyon's approach to student religious life. "We came to believe that, rather than having a large amount of money tied up in a chaplain coming from a faith tradition, we could better serve the student body by freeing up that money for programmatic activities," she recalls. "We then asked the leaders of the various faith communities represented at the College and in Gambier to chip in in terms of chaplaincy." Keeney herself represented the Quaker community, and she drew on others to serve on the board and to act as counselors to students.
While at Kenyon, Keeney made it her mission to encourage as many varieties of religious experience as possible. "When it comes to students from small faith communities," she says, "we work with them on an individual basis. When they've asked for support to go to Ohio State University to break Ramadan or to attend the Bahai cultural festivals, we've made transportation available. We've worked very hard to help when those needs have been made known to us."
When we spoke, Keeney was preparing to enter a graduate program at the Earlham School of Religion, and she recalled with satisfaction her work at the College. "I've been able to help a number of students who have wanted to bring speakers to campus," she noted. "We brought in some amazing people." Two favorites were Quaker healer John Calvi, brought to campus in coordination with the AIDS Committee, and Benedictine, Greek Orthodox, and Tibetan monks who visited the campus as part of a series sponsored by the religion department. "The turnout was amazing," Keeney remembers. "We had to turn people away from the Tibetan monks."
Donald J. Omahan '70 has worn many hats during the eleven years he has spent on campus since his graduation. In the 1970s and 1980s, before leaving Kenyon to become a dean and vice president at Albion College, he held such positions as dean of student housing, dean for academic advising, and acting dean of students. Now back at the College as dean of students, he says he has seen a change in student interest in practicing religion. "There is a bit of a resurgence when it comes to faith issues among the students we attract," he notes. "If you look at the offerings of the religion department now as opposed to twenty years ago, you'll see that they're so much more rich and varied. Students are also looking for hands-on practice of their faiths. They want to find out more about them."
Omahan ties this search to a trend that has also been noticed by others in the administration. "We're seeing more students who don't have a strong religious background, he observes. "Many of them have not had as rich an experience with the practice of religion as their parents and grandparents had. To the extent that we can provide a richer array of opportunities for religious expression, we're doing a better job of educating our students."
In Kenyon's Department of Religion, the drive for that richer array manifests itself in course offerings that span the gamut from Modern Catholicism to Taoism; from an interdisciplinary inquiry into the Holocaust to readings of Genesis. With an average of more than two hundred fifty students enrolled at any one time, the religion department has the potential for exercising an influence over a substantial number of minds and souls.
Opportunities for off-campus study abound, and religion majors are encouraged to take advantage of them. During the 1996-97 academic year, Associate Professor Joseph A. Adler served as resident director of the Great Lakes Colleges/Associated Colleges of the Midwest Japan studies program at Waseda University in Tokyo. Religion students also have the opportunity to study with Oden, whose seminar on ancient Israel last year was dubbed "incredible" by one student I interviewed.
R aised in the Disciples of Christ, Amanda L. Wagoner '98 of Louisville, Kentucky, says, "My religion classes have pushed me to look closely at my faith more than anything. I've had to examine it in an academic environment. How do I take the age-old stories taught to me in childhood and look at them in a new light?" Wagoner joined the Kenyon Christian Fellowship (KCF), a student organization, toward the end of her first year, but she says she found the atmosphere rigid and judgmental. "KCF was good for me in that I was able to talk about religion with other young people," she recalls. "But the person who ran it did not open up to different ways of looking at Christianity. I have a liberal point of view, and I was considered an oddball. I think faith in all sorts of religions has an importance and that differences in belief need to be recognized."
Wagoner, who gives campus tours to prospective students and their families, comments on how few people ever ask about worship opportunities at the College. "I gather that most parents are looking for a school that makes no religious demands and takes no religious responsibility. If anything," she notes, "they ask if Kenyon's affiliation with the Episcopal Church affects the curriculum."
At the other end of the spectrum, recent graduate Alisoun C. Davis '97 of Newville, Pennsylvania, says she chose the College precisely because of its ties to the Episcopal Church. "I didn't come to Gambier to be a college student," she says. "I came here to live in the village. I felt comfortable in Gambier."
For Davis, a large part of living in the village was connected to her role in Harcourt Parish. "I'm a cradle Presbyterian," she says. "My family is religious, and I knew wherever I went to college I would attend church services. I couldn't have gone into Mount Vernon on a regular basis; I wanted to worship where I lived."
Now a first-year student at Princeton Theological Seminary, Davis says she relished her experiences as a member of Harcourt Parish. She even served on the search committee for a new rector. "The people are fantastic," she declares. "We had twenty-five active members and another twenty who came on a semiregular basis. If you show an interest, they envelop you. There's a lot of room for students to step in and help out. I really loved worshiping with my professors and the people in the town. Kenyon should give professors credit for the valuable contributions they make outside of the classroom."
Brian S. Mason '98 of Littleton, Colorado, echoes Davis's enthusiasm for Harcourt Parish. Raised a Lutheran, he attended Mount Vernon churches and the Methodist church in Gambier before choosing to join Harcourt Parish. "My faith and my religious experience are important parts of my life," he says. "But especially since coming to college, they have become very private and personal aspects. I love being able towalk out of my dorm, stroll down Middle Path, and go to church with other people from the College community."
Mason says he, too, attended KCF meetings, but he admits he "quickly became unhappy and unfulfilled by them. I found the people at KCF to be passive and unstimulating or overly fundamentalist and even judgmental. I got very little out of going to the meetings, so I stopped.
"I think the opportunities for religious life on campus are few," adds Mason, "but those who partake in them are generally satisfied and committed. I'd just like to see more opportunities."
McIlvaine Professor of English Perry C. Lentz '64, a long-time member of Harcourt Parish, is enthusiastic about student involvement in the parish. "The students are the lifeblood of the parish," he says. "They bring such vitality. They are fully integrated into our community. That's the good news. The bad news is that they graduate."
Lentz has seen the links between the College and its Episcopal heritage fade over the years. "In the nineteenth century," he notes, "Kenyon was an outpost of an evangelical wing of the Episcopal church. Although the College remains one of the eight colleges and universities of the Anglican communion, the ties are now very loose. Service is tremendously important to young people, although service programs aren't necessarily congruent to the liberal-arts education Kenyon offers. Nevertheless, I tend to think the College should seek to place more emphasis on its Episcopal tradition.
"I can understand reluctance in some situations for ties with any kind of Christian church," Lentz says, "but the Episcopal church has a distinct history. The Episcopal church has celebrated intelligence and the Word. I have never found anything incongruent between the Episcopal tradition and the liberal-arts tradition."
Omahan also understands the importance of that tradition and expresses the hope that Harcourt Parish's new rector "will not only appeal to current members but also attract students to the parish who want to experience Episcopal services."
I n his role as dean, Omahan is charged with creating opportunities for students from myriad backgrounds. He admits the greatest challenges lie in meeting the needs of students from minority religions. Nader Qaimari '99, who says he has found no other Muslims with whom to worship, claims he vacillates between accepting the isolation and wanting to campaign for change. "I expected I'd be in a minority at Kenyon, but I was surprised not to find any other observant Muslims," he says. "I don't even sense there is a Muslim community. There are organizations for many other religions, even Hinduism."
Qaimari notes that he chose Kenyon both for its prestige and for its proximity to his family in Toledo, Ohio. He says he has been able to return home for some religious celebrations; at other times academic responsibilities kept him on campus. "Fasting is difficult here," he notes. "During the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunup to sundown, it's our custom to awaken at two in the morning for breakfast. I can't do that here. The meal times don't fit my schedule."
While Qaimari recognizes his minority status, he wishes he had the easy sense of community shared by Alisoun Davis and others. "Throughout my elementary and high-school experience, and now at Kenyon, I've had to take tests on Muslim holidays," he says. "I expect this living in America. To me, the most important thing the College could do is to recognize that there is a Muslim presence here. For example, the Kenyon calendar has every Christian and Jewish holiday on it. I'd like my holidays to be recognized, too.
"I know there have been Muslim students here in the past," Qaimari notes, "so I don't know why there isn't anything here for us. Maybe I'm going to have to create it myself."
Since coming to the College, President Robert A. Oden Jr. has discussed the issue with the Board of Trustees and others involved in campus life. In talking with him, I sensed he would elcome Qaimari's energies in creating a strong Muslim community; Oden is committed to making changes. "There are students and parents who ask, to their credit, what is available," he notes. "Given our location--rural, small-town Ohio--the most searching questions tend to come from Jewish applicants and their parents. In response, Don Omahan's first assignment when he became dean of students was to form a local committee to inquire if what is available at Kenyon was at all adequate for a student who asks those questions.
"It's important to Jewish parents not only because of our location but also because of their concerns about the numbers of Jewish students on campus," says Oden. "It's also important for Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. There are opportunities for Christians, but for those whose religions are less well represented in American, we are spending the requisite time to research the needs and the best ways in which to address them."
Oden is pleased to see student initiatives in this direction. "One of the great things about the College is the way in which we make it possible for students to create their own organizations," he observes. "One of our responses is, Yes, you can, and it's up to you,' when they ask Can we do X or Y?' It's wonderful preparation for life."
Allison M. Sladek '98 of Lakewood, Colorado, says she appreciates Oden's openness to student innovation. "Kenyon does a good job welcoming students who come up with an idea," she notes. "The Christian prayer groups receive support, but the ball is in the courts of the students. If there are students who are motivated to make it so, things happen. But if there are not, well, those things are less prominent on campus."
U nfortunately, the lack of religious community with which they could identify has been the deciding factor for a few students who have left the College. What didn't seem to matter during their application process grew in importance once they settled into life on campus.
Rebecca L. Levin '00 of Madison, Wisconsin, is one who has wished for more administrative support for Jewish student activities. "I agree with President Oden that Kenyon provides support for student initiatives, but I think the need for support for religion is different," she says. "Say I'm interested in fencing; I could start a fencing club. Religion for some people is a culture; for others it's the meaning of life. You might be able to talk someone into joining a fencing club, but with religion, you can't simply say, Try it, it'll be fun.'
"When it came time to pick a college," Levin recalls, "Jewish life on campus wasn't my main focus. Now, I wish I'd given it more thought. Jewish life here is pretty much nonexistent at the moment." Levin served in the campus Hillel organization but felt frustrated at the lack of continuous support. "It would be nice if the Snowden Multicultural Center was filled with books and magazines that pertained to Jewish identity," she ventures. "And an on-campus director would be helpful. You can't expect students to devote their entire lives to Hillel, because there's so much else going on."
In an ironic twist, the College's atmosphere of intellectual inquiry led Andrew H. Shenkman '99 of Greenwich, Connecticut, to take his Judaism more seriously. "Kenyon makes you think about the major issues in life," he observes. "What is the meaning of life? What is justice? I was thinking about it beforehand, but the College doesn't offer the resources to tap into what it means to be Jewish. The atmosphere's very academic, which is what you'd expect. If you're interested in religious meaning, you won't get that here."
Discussions with a visiting rabbi fed Shenkman's burgeoning interest. The more interested he became in following Jewish ritual and observance, the harder it became to remain at Kenyon. "It's a big trade off," he says. "I really enjoy the kind of education I'm getting here, and the setting is beautiful. I like the size of the college. In fact, I ooked into a lot of schools and there is absolutely none in the country, small like the College, that offers the liberal-arts education Kenyon does and an active Jewish community."
Neither Levin nor Shenkman returned to Gambier this fall. (Levin transferred to Macalaster College, Shenkman to the University of Michigan.) If they had returned, they would be heartened to learn that the College is currently seeking a full-time director of Hillel. Trustee Alan E. Rothenberg '67, whose daughter Sara Rothenberg graduated from Kenyon in 1996, has been a prime force behind the creation of this new position. "The problem we have faced is that while the Hillel at Ohio State University has a superior facility, their coordinator could only ride circuit to Gambier a day or two a week," he says. "There was no continuity. There was no way he could draw students who might not normally come to events.
"There is a core group that holds things together," Rothenberg notes, "but in the past the process was fired by the faculty. As critical families moved away, the leadership dissipated. President Oden has been very enthusiastic about looking to provide an environment similar to what the Catholic and Episcopal students enjoy."
Rothenberg's desire to strengthen Jewish life on campus is also based on the bottom line. "Depending on who you ask, most of the 10 to 12 percent of Jewish students on campus are full-paying students," he observes. "Economically, the College would love to make this a more attractive environment for the Jewish students they haven't known how to attract."
W hile work is afoot to make Kenyon more attractive to students from minority religions, Jefferson S. Barlew '98 of Signal Mountain, Tennessee, sought out the College precisely because it was a secular institution. Soon after arriving on campus, after attending services with Methodist and Baptist congregations, Barlew joined Harcourt Parish.
"It's been helpful to be here in terms of my general spiritual growth," he says. "I've been challenged in a lot of ways with the relationships I've had. I'm not sure how much is Kenyon and how much is being this age. My faith has changed; it's stronger. I'm more focused on my own relationship with God than on keeping up with the standards of a community."
Barlew reflected on the tension between the heavy partying that is a part of campus life for some and his choices. "Kenyon has taken a bad rap in some quarters as a party school," he opines. "I'd like to make it known that there's an active and alive Christian community at the College. Sending your son or daughter here is not throwing him or her away. It's possible to maintain and enhance your faith here. Christian or not, there's a community here that's not a party scene, one that is respectful of other people's choices."
Melissa L. Kravetz '99 of Tarzana, California, has chosen a religion that many would consider decidedly "other," yet her commitment is serious and based on a spiritual quest that began early on in her life. The daughter of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, Kravetz "believed in God in a Judeo-Christian sort of way" but received no formal instruction in either of her parents' faiths. Following the deaths of three loved ones--a babysitter, a grandmother, and a close friend--Kravetz, age ten at the time, "stopped believing in anything altogether."
An assignment in fourth grade on Egypt, and further study in Greek mythology, led Kravetz to develop her "own" religion. "I decided nature was really all I needed," she recalls. "I've always been fascinated with animals. I started doing a lot of reading on ecological processes, and I combined that with Greek mythology and found that a lot of my beliefs fit with the Wiccan religion. I found the religion before I knew it existed.
"Wicca isn't a pagan religion," Kravetz explains. "And it's not Satanic. There's no god figure per se; mostly it's worship of nature, not of a deity. That is why it can't be satanic. We don't believe in a godso we don't believe in a devil. Wicca is the worship of natural processes."
Kravetz hasn't found a community on campus. "I know of two first-year students, but I don't know how interested in Wicca they really are," she says. "And I know I'm not qualified to lead any sort of group celebration. So I've withdrawn back into my original state of practicing solitary Wicca. It works well for me."
F inding what works is the underlying quest of any young adult. The college years bring intense introspection and attempts to define one's place in life. For all the media reports on campus hedonism and Generation X apathy, Kenyon is home to a heartening amount of religious inquiry, active debate, and genuine searching. In the classroom, Perry Lentz has seen a rise in what he calls "a great hunger" for the religious perspective.
"I've grown more and more aware of the need to present the religious perspective in my classes," he comments. "Increasingly, students come completely devoid of it; it's an unfamiliar way of looking at reality. The percentage of students who don't know the Bible or the Torah at all is astounding. The Noah story is a blank except in a cartoonish sort of way. It's a realm of experience they are dimly aware of, like rock concerts are something I'm dimly aware of. So much of our culture is built on these stories. This makes it difficult to teach a lot of it, yet at the same time I see a lot of interest in the area.
"We are rather past the era when substantial numbers of students were in rebellion against their religious upbringing," he continues. "We're in a period now of dealing with the children of those young rebels. And they are surprisingly interested. It's not so much that they're aspiring to a doctrine or religious commitment as it is that there's a real sense that they're bereft of an entire way of looking at reality. They become alive when you talk about such issues, the sense that we know what justice is and that we can live up to it. I find myself less hesitant about showing the religious heritage from which I come and to which I am committed."
Not all students have been fortunate to find Lentz's respect for religion in their classrooms. Anne Katherine Forbes '00 of Quincy, Illinois, was raised Methodist, but in high school she began to practice Catholicism, her father's religion. She says she has been surprised at the lack of respect for religion that sometimes crops up. "In some classes," Forbes comments, "if you discuss your religion you're looked down on. Some people snicker under their breath." Forbes says her intelligence has been doubted precisely because she believes in God. "I don't think intellect is at odds with Christianity. In fact, I think it helps. You double check. When you read Freud, you think, Where is this man coming from?'"
Forbes says she is struggling to find her niche in two of the Christian organizations on campus--KFC and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. "The more liberal Christians on campus are often ousted by our conservative counterparts," she notes. "I never thought my views on God were so liberal, but compared to some of the people here they are. I smoke, and some conservative Christians ask, If you're a Christian, why do you smoke?'"
Forbes says her dream Christian organization would be a "fellowship that catches all types of people--and is nonjudgmental. We need fellow Christians who love God and themselves enough not to stand on their soapboxes and ostracize others."
Professor of Religion Donald L. Rogan's more than thirty years of teaching at Kenyon have given him a unique perspective. Unlike Lentz, he says he is no longer astounded at his students' lack of points of reference. "The state of religious education in American churches has been foul for generations," he remarks. "It's not effective. So much of the pattern is that, as kids reach confirmation or Bar or Bat Mitzvah, that's the last they see of the inside of a worship center. They don't become adults at that point; they beome absent children. That pattern has been around for a long, long time.
"What we notice in reference to a lot of kids who come from a religious background is they try to jettison that in college," Rogan continues. "Call it the four-year day off. I don't think it's abandonment so much as a phase of growth."
T he growth Rogan alludes to is alive and well on campus. Faith is jettisoned and retrieved. Academic inquiry reigns, all the while struggling to make room for unanswerable questions. One imagines Faith and Intellect shuffling down Middle Path, deep in debate. Indeed, the conversations spring to life all over campus.
Joel G. Lee '98 of Madison, New Jersey, admits to going through what he calls the "typical college religious turmoil. The more educated I got, the more intellectual a road I took, the more difficult a lot of aspects of the church became for me." The grandson of Southern Baptists, Lee was raised in the Episcopal church. "We're a musical family, and we settled on the Episcopal church because of its musical program. And we share the church's feminist liberal outlook."
The aesthetics of the service have kept Lee's attachment to the church alive even as he struggles with issues of dogma. "I find myself more and more in disagreement with the church," he says. "However, there are a lot of things I enjoy as cultural and social phenomena. I think it's certainly possible to be an intelligent religious person. I don't think faith and intellect are mutually exclusive but my sense of faith in church doctrine has taken a back seat."
A religion major, Lee spent four months in India at the Bodh Gaya Buddhist pilgrimage site; he also spent a month at a Hindu goddess pilgrimage site. The semester had a direct impact on how Lee perceives his relationship to religion.
"When I was in India, I was asked, Are you Hindu? Are you Christian? What they meant was, What is your cultural, your communal identity?' They were not asking about faith or belief. So I say, Yes, I am a Christian,' even though I have a myriad of problems with Christian doctrine."
Cara B. Blum '98, a political-science major from Prospect, Kentucky, says she became involved in Kenyon's Hillel because she "needed something to fill up a resume." Raised in a secular household, Blum says her pursuit of Jewish study has enabled her to make peace with the faith versus intellect issue.
"Love and fear of God, rightly understood, only comes about through intellectual endeavors," says Blum. "It's important to study the natural sciences because through them you can understand the divine sciences. Once you appreciate how infinitely complex the universe is, that's when you can best appreciate the glory of God and how much we have to be thankful for."
George O. Faerber '00 of Delaware, Ohio, describes himself as being "passively divorced" from his Lutheran upbringing. "Putting faith in faith, all of my trust in something that doesn't have any form, is difficult for me. Just accepting there is an afterlife with no proof, for example. For me, the problem is figuring out how to have faith in something that doesn't make sense in a tangible way. Right now, I'm too rooted in science to accept certain things without rational explanations."
Faerber admits, though, that he sometimes feels at odds with his need for scientific confirmation. "The concept of an afterlife is appealing to me," he muses. "It's comforting to think that when you die it doesn't end. The concept meshes well with my personal wants and desires, but it doesn't seem possible." He pauses, the need to believe still humming in the silence. "There have been times I've had a feeling of not understanding what's going on but of having a sense of an outside power that makes me unworried about it. Maybe I should get over my atheistic leanings; maybe I could use that sense of an outside power to start filling in the blanks."
Since time immemorial, this need to fill in the blanks has driven cultures to find ways to explain their univere. Oden respects the enduring nature of this struggle. "You can't go far enough back in history not to see humans being religious," he says. "In the late nineteenth century it was predicted confidently that religion would disappear. Anthropologists, economists, psychiatrists, all said it was part of a primitive age. It hasn't gone away but instead has gotten stronger. A phenomenon that has far from disappeared as the staunchest critics predicted is something that I would want to study."
And so the study, the debate, the calls for community continue. Out of chaos, order. Kenyon's challenge remains to foster an atmosphere in which Faith and Intellect continue to wrestle, to converge, and ultimately to stand hand in hand.
Debra Berkowitz Darvick, a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group, lives in Birmingham, Michigan, where she is a freelance writer.
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