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Religious Affairs: Understanding Interfaith on Campus

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Rev. Janet Cooper Nelson
University Chaplain, Director of the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life, and faculty member at Brown University

Rev. Janet Cooper Nelson is university chaplain, director of the office of the chaplains and religious life, and a member of the faculty at Brown U...


Andrew Hibel
Chief Operating Officer and Co-Founder, HigherEdJobs

Andrew Hibel is a Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of the leading academic job board, HigherEdJobs. After starting their first jobs in highe...

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Why is it important to understand religious diversity on campus? In this month's HigherEd Careers interview, Rev. Janet Cooper Nelson discusses topics surrounding multifaith college communities. Also highlighted are opportunities on how to educate a campus on different faiths and traditions in order to promote people coming together from varied spiritual backgrounds.

Andrew Hibel, HigherEdJobs: Rev. Cooper Nelson, what does your role as university chaplain and director of the office of chaplains and religious life encompass?

Rev. Janet Cooper Nelson, Brown University: I direct a multifaith office of chaplains and affiliated religious leaders who oversee the care of the university community - faculty, students, staff and alumni/ae and the moral, spiritual, religious and convictional aspects of our life.

Hibel: You have a very distinguished background1 with much of it being involved with ministry in higher education. What prompted you to choose the path that combined both?

Cooper: At heart I am teacher first and a pastoral presence second. I am convinced that our colleges and universities are places where students and faculty bring both of their intellectual gifts and challenges, as well as their deepest heartfelt dreams. The combination is so rich and fulfilling and the range of what we need to do together is nearly limitless.

Hibel: On most college campuses, interfaith or the interaction of people from different religious faiths and traditions is present. What types of religious diversity is occurring on campuses across the country?

Cooper: Students from every faith and cultural tradition - both American and international - are drawn to the excellence of the American system of higher education. Quite literally, we are welcoming in greater numbers each year a broader diversity of spirituality and religion on our campuses, opening truly rare opportunities for intercultural learning and interfaith collaboration and learning.

Hibel: What interfaith understanding, cooperation or competence should universities be supporting?

Cooper: As much as they possibly can, but with the depth that befits the caliber of education and nuanced understanding that we require in the classroom and laboratory. This required a vast development of religious literacy among our current leaders of higher education

Hibel: How do universities best foster this interfaith growth?

Cooper: First, they must know who is present in the community and what the needs of the evermore varied set of identities requires; and then we must also face and understand our own histories. Most of our campuses have not been inclusive and we now must demonstrate effectively that we are capable of welcoming everyone.

Hibel: What are the implications of the constitutional separation of government and religion for higher education?

Cooper: They differ for state-funded institutions and private ones, but they differ less than one might think. State-funded institutions must be careful to demonstrate that they are not relegating their religiously identified students to "second class," denying them access to student activities funding or organizational support in the form of professional expertise. Private institutions may well continue affiliations with religious communities, but if they receive federal funding they are not permitted to fail to accommodate a diversity of belief and practice even when some of that may be in controversy to the beliefs of their communities of affiliation. I'd like to think that higher education generally will realize the truly rare opportunity that exists in the convergence of difference that a modern academic community is for creating some rare moments of dialogue and cooperation.

Hibel: How can interfaith campus groups bring to attention the beliefs that faiths share when world events happen that highlight the positions of religions that divide a campus?

Cooper: Some of this will emerge directly from the deep affection that students develop for one another as they live and learn together, even if they arrived from not only divergent backgrounds but even when the differences between their communities have been quite strident. But I am convinced that fostering this growth takes the guidance and teaching of highly skilled professionals on our campuses who are chaplains, directors of religious life, deans who work on multicultural understanding and identity development and faculty in many disciplines. This work is critical in all programs of higher education - undergraduate and graduate - and it is fascinating and heartening work that is truly new.

Hibel: What are the opportunities and also implications of student religious diversity and accommodation on campus?

Cooper: The opportunities are vast and hold tremendous promise for allowing students in the "laboratory" of higher ed communities to experiment with new modes of collaboration and exploration. However, the implications of not doing this work while students are in residence and studying together are also vast. We risk hardening the stereotypes that are rampant in society. We may well deepen the cynicism that is always near that the discordant aspects of religion are the only last dimensions. We may well discourage religious identified students in their pursuit of intellectual growth by failing to integrate spiritual and religious growth with intellectual depth. Because some of this reflects my fear of missed opportunities it is important to note that each of these concerns has a dazzling, positive correlate for what the years of a university education can begin - a life of deeper respect for difference and the intriguing and demanding work of envisioning a world where coexistence is highly prized goal.

Hibel: When an unexplainable tragedy strikes on a school or college campus our different religious beliefs are often put aside and communities unite as one. Why do you think this happens and why is it important on a college campus?

Cooper: Tragedy sets all of our labor on a different horizon line and asks us powerfully, 'What really matters?' Many of the "grammatical details" of our religious practice and belief melt into a background place where kindness, compassion grief, understanding, and tears are our shared experience. Our nation and our campuses are in the midst of such a moment. We ask better of ourselves when the stakes are high. We can do this with less sorrow more often, and if we do, we arrive more nearly together in the hardest of times, which is a great comfort and strength.

Hibel: What is religious literacy and what minimal competence may be important for higher education professionals to demonstrate?

Cooper: This is not easy to answer yet. Most everyone agrees that it is a good thing, most everyone agrees that we don't have it, and we are now working hard to understand what level of literacy do professionals in our schools, hospitals, courtrooms, banks, and in every professional setting need. I think we may need to promulgate a phrase I've begun the use, "Piety for many; Literacy for all", to help the jittery to understand that this is not a project to suggest that one must be prayerful. It is rather an effort to suggest that the current level of illiteracy is contributing negatively to the work of global and personal understanding that is needed to do our most important tasks well.

Hibel: What advice would you give someone who is seeking to begin a career in the area of religious affairs on campus?

Cooper: First, I would extend a warm welcome (to them). The ranks of new folks needed to do this work must swell and their skills and knowledge need to be carefully nuanced and deep. Time in graduate schools of religion or divinity school is highly recommended; knowledge of student development is not adequate. The capacity to make connections to the broad work of identity development is also important. This work is organizational and programmatic, but it is also teaching and educational - so it holds enormous variety and richness. Join us!

All opinions expressed by Janet Cooper Nelson are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of HigherEdJobs.


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Reply Jennifer Peace said...
Thanks for a great interview! Many wise words from Janet Cooper Nelson. As a seminary educator working with a neighboring rabbinical school (Andover Newton and Hebrew College) I wholeheartedly echo what Janet says here in terms of the need to build the ranks of our religious and educational leaders with the skills and knowledge to do this work with depth and nuance. Thanks!

01/02/2013 11:37 AM

Reply David Lester said...
Disappointed that the interview did not address the ever-increasing numbers of non-believers on college campuses -- sometimes called the 'Nones'. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that 32% of adults under age 30 have no affiliation. These young people need secular means to address the types of life questions traditionally handled in faith-based settings. Some universities have humanist chaplains, such as Greg Epstein at Harvard and Barry Klassel at Rutgers. There is substantial support in many venues for religiously identified students, but support for the 'Nones' is almost non-existent. We can do much more to work toward a secular society based on wisdom and ethical values.

01/03/2013 08:01 AM

Reply Shelley said...
Thank you, David. That's just what I scrolled down to post. If Rev. Nelson is worried about religious students being relegated to "second class" status, she should try being a non-religious student.

01/03/2013 09:59 AM

Reply Patrick Van Gelder said...
incredible to read this, I think higher education and belief in the supernatural is a contradiction. I mean we would all laugh our heads of if someone seriously says that she/he is promoting the belief in elfes. If you just use 3 of your brain cells, you will realise there is not such a thing like a god or gods.

01/04/2013 04:38 PM

Reply Geneva said...
Great article Janet and interesting comments from readers. While it does seem true that colleges provide few supportive resources, specifically geared toward non-believers, the spriritual aspects of community are present everywhere. Whether or not we believe in a god, or gods, a most salient point here is how we treat one another in our efforts to achieve various levels of co-existence.

01/06/2013 11:10 AM

Reply Akshat said...
I think higher ed careers and belief in the supernatural is a contradiction.

01/07/2013 06:10 AM

Reply Christopher Couch said...
I enjoy this interview. The comments are specific and encouraging, especially for those of use who would like to serve in this calling.

01/09/2013 11:07 AM

Reply Rev. Janet Cooper Nelson said...
Thank you for raising the question of believers/ non-believers.

Clearly, substantial communities of both are present within most University communities-- sometimes, even within a single human being across the seasons of life.

As the comments to this article display-- much current discussion regarding religion is quite narrowly construed to be about argument and belief-- the existence of God seems to be the axis for much of this. Early cosmonauts returned from their journeys beyond earth's atmosphere to report not seeing God as though this was the irrefutable evidence that God's existence was not credible. For some that is all there is to say. However the categories of *belief* and *non-belief*; even the category of "God", while broadly employed (though not universally so) in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are not common globally in religion.

Comprehension, competence and professional support for identity development within the multi-religious context that exists on most University campuses in the United States requires broad religious literacy and suggests a very different interaction and knowledge base than dividing the community into *believers* and *non-believers*. The category of "None" that is showing up in bigger numbers in demographic studies does not correlate well with the category of non-believer. It does correlate positively to the absence of specific religious affiliation--e.g. belonging to a tradition of believers that has a recognizable name.

Academic culture as expressed in scholarship and intellectual critique in the past 4-5 decades has been quite caustic about institutional religion. Some campuses may be chilled, even hostile environments for religiously-identified students of many Traditions. (Several comments to this article are interesting in this regard) Describing the campus climate across the nation is not at all easy.

Religious and non-religious students across the nation report both broad ignorance and resounding silence about these matters in classrooms and they also report recent change in this area. There are still public and private expressions of unsupported and unchallenged generalizations regarding religious people and their beliefs as: backward, unscientific, authoritarian, homophobic, misogynist, etc. If present this climate is easily compatible with the development of humane, civil and informed discourse about the broad diversity of human identity and experience and will require significant address by all offices related to diversity support. These observations, if proved, are actionable under the umbrella of the promise of non-discrimination.

Sidestepping legalities for the moment, it may be useful to consider the term *conviction* as perhaps a more useful one than *belief*,-- when trying to understand and to support the deepest commitments of students and faculty. *Convictions* may be framed and expressed in the Traditions and vocabulary of a long-established global religious communities. However, they may also be expressed in entirely new modes of belief and practice; in eclectic amalgams of sacred and secular modes, as well as framed in an entirely secular or political terms.

Nonetheless these are the convictions of the community in residence on our campuses

In truly inclusive environments our challenge is to engage the life, mind and learning of the person entrusted to us for a brief season to deepen their understanding of the individuals and communities that form their past, present and future. As neighbors in a campus community we may be able to prize the art of co-existence, diminish the exhausting din of argument about who is right, and grow to admire, even love, one another in all the remarkable ways we are alike and different. I remain compelled by this hope and feel strongly that the practice and approximation of this work on our campuses is the appropriate laboratory experience for developing better global citizens. Here at Brown that is our largest project and we are pursuing it carefully and gratefully.

01/10/2013 03:03 PM

Reply jeremy scott said...
Rev. Nelson,
Thanks for responding in the interview and the additional responses in the comments section of the higher ed careers. How would one with seminary education and a desire to serve in this capacity become better fit for a chaplain position like the one you described?


01/11/2013 11:54 AM

Reply David Lester said...
And so we should turn again to research by the Pew Forum, this time on religious literacy, which found that the most religiously literate group of Americans was those who defined themselves as atheist/agnostic (followed by Jews and Mormons). Though I was initially heartened to see a lengthy reply from Janet Cooper Nelson, I am once again disappointed that there seems to be little recognition that those of us who do not ascribe to a religious faith actually have a viewpoint that is more substantive than simply a rejection of dogma, and that our needs are underserved in the campus community. Instead our views are dismissed as religiously illiterate, and our expression of these views as caustic, hostile, and an exhausting din. This is a distressing response, and leads me to believe that what is needed is a bit more non-religious literacy in the form of a deeper understanding and appreciation of the actual lived experiences of those in the university community who define themselves as non-believers, and a consideration of what mechanisms are in place on campus for development of individuals and communities to grow together in ethical citizenship.

01/13/2013 06:18 PM

Reply jcn said...
Mr. Lester, my comments about religious illiteracy are descriptive of campus climates not of groups or individuals whether atheistic or theistic.
In the Pew Study you are correct that those who identified themselves as agnostic or atheistic did receive the highest score in the literacy, however I am sure you agree that agnostics and atheists should not be lumped together. In all groups, the level of religious literacy was low, less than 50%. Surely this is an unlikely environment for the thriving of our national commitment to both liberty and toleration.

02/05/2013 01:43 PM

Reply jcn said...
Mr Scott,

Professional organizations for academic chaplaincy may be good starting places-- the Association of College and University Religious Affairs (ACURA); the National Association of College and University Chaplains (NACUC): National Campus Ministry Association (NCMA); as well as the offices that exist inside Traditions for this work-- whether Hillel, The Catholic Campus Ministry Association; and the denominational offices in Protestantsism and a variety of movements. Getting hired in an institutional chaplaincy post usually requires experience in higher education which may well be in another related field-- counseling, advising, teaching, residence work, student activities, etc.

02/05/2013 01:49 PM