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Immature Speculations

in Columns/Musings of Mariani/Opinions by

This is a poorly researched, ill-structured, half-baked attempt to answer a question I do not know. It is uncertain this attempt should even have been undertaken, and it is unclear this description is accurate. In the face of such uncertainties, I can only ask you to read this article as a personal favor, inasmuch as the possibility that you will read it creates the possibility that at future points in time you will reflect positively upon your decision and act of reading it, creating the possibility that my creation’s existence could at least be partially justified through even a single contribution to another being’s existence and conceptions.

I think there are forces we can somehow conjure that are beyond any explicit or even theoretical framework of understanding that we could possibly devise with science, reason,philosophy, or even religion, if religion is only defined as the practice of a particular theology. Our inability to articulate these forces as thoroughly as compliance with our intellectual values requires, does not preclude us from talking about them, but it makes it difficult to determine what they really are. Yet we cannot hope for better ideas not yet conceived to spread like wildfires and solve our problems, because even when good ideas have been popular, they have never prevented us from making mistakes. The articulation of perfect principles is insufficient so long it is possible for us to defy even our most dearly and authentically principles. Saints and heroes make mistakes; in fact many of truly remarkable and courageous people of the past are motivated by a desire to correct mistakes they made which they know they cannot solve without total dedication, and perhaps not even then. We will not solve our problems by trying to find specific solutions to them, no matter how broadly we define the scope of problems. Something like faith or instinct or hope or humanity or culture or humility or confidence has been so thoroughly lost as to be beyond our contemplation or at least far outside of our interests. Whatever we have lost as a civilization or a species or whatever constitutes us is something I think Children have in abundant supply.

To expand on the previous point, that children tend to possess a component of the human being that currently has an inadequate and unbalanced role in how adults manifest themselves within existing societies, I want to describe what I think this component is or at least what its attributes are. I think it is possible for children to interact with the world and with themselves in a more integrated and better way than adults. Children are not just required to listen to their adults and teachers; they simultaneously have an easier time complying and defying both. We only authentically listen to those we are convinced are the most thoroughly able to conceive of problems and solutions. As we accept fewer solutions as the number of problems multiplies in a compounding fashion, a consequence which itself contributes to the existence of the widespread and complete uncertainties that produce this climate of intractable uncertainty. Simultaneously we can only manage to significantly resist the most outrageous and unjustifiable authority. Our mistrust extends even to our own ability to believe in ourselves as beings, even as we our intimidated and controlled by the petty and the superficial whose capacity of action is surely less than the capacity of action the good and the kind and the wise and the loyal and the
humorous and the creative.  

I think that we think our abilities are the products of faculties, like reason or our creativity or our humanity or our biology rather than these faculties themselves. The implication for this is we cannot create or destroy anything in existence but we can only be involved or affected with the birth and the death of things. The distinction between a process like creation and a process like birth is that a human creation come into existence through processes we can at least partially understand, whereas processes like birth, or capacities like reason, we intimately participate in, yet do not cause and do not understand. No separation exists between understanding and action or between reason instinct and feeling. When we utilize our core human faculties we can transcend the lack of understanding and the lack of courage which seem to alternatively dominate us, because the act of engaging with our core faculties requires partial courage necessary to act upon we understandings we understand to be limited. We do not have to know everything or even believe that it is possible for us to do so, but rather we must, I think, forever be disturbed by unanswered questions and the possibility not only of evil forces but also of our complicity with these forces.

Personally I find it possible to have faith in humanity and therefore also in the desirable reality produced when there is an egalitarian distribution of power that I and others pursue to make possible. We practice what we understand to be the specific actions this faith requires, and in the long and human activity I am joining when I attempt to do the right thing.

I think that I cannot identify my problems with an amount of certainty sufficient to overcome the socially reinforced cowardice and complacency which sabotage my ability to
do good, but then this conundrum itself might by the identity of the problem. Perhaps I must learn to be thoughtful in such a way that I do not make the mistake of letting my fear stop me from being courageous.

Battling Islamophobia, at Swat and beyond

in Columns/Opinions by

On Thanksgiving day, a taxi driver in Pittsburgh was shot in the back by his passenger because he was Muslim. For some years now, Islamophobic sentiment has been on the rise in the US. Following the Paris attacks just over two weeks ago, it has become clear that there exists what is essentially an industry of Islamophobia that is continuously gaining legitimacy. It leaves me deeply disturbed to see so many lives lost and a nation thrown into grief and turmoil at the hands of utterly senseless violence, as I’m sure it would any thinking, feeling individual.

More specifically, as a Muslim, it breaks my heart to see my religion being so grossly misrepresented by the perpetrators of such acts. What I find especially infuriating, and frankly quite frightening, is the willingness with which so many Americans blur, and often entirely erase, the distinction between ordinary Muslims and the extremist fringe. In my view, the actions carried out by these extremists are so far removed from the tenets and essence of Islam that they cannot even be considered Muslims in the true sense. And from my own experience and extensive interaction with other Muslims, I can guarantee that I am not alone in my beliefs. Those who claim that Islam promotes violence do themselves, and the rest of us, a great disservice. Such people possess neither any substantial insight nor a genuine desire to better inform themselves. By conveniently oversimplifying the issue, they merely end up generating more hate and playing right into the hands of terrorist groups like ISIS, whose express aim it is to make life unbearable for Muslims in the West.

My faith is a core part of my identity — it is something that has given me direction, support, and a sense of peace that is all-encompassing and beautifully overwhelming. In other words, my experience of Islam is diametrically opposed to the image of Islam put forth by extremists and mainstream media alike. The former manipulate Islamic teachings to aid their social and political agendas, and the latter have made it their job to further propagate misconceptions by means of clear biases, exaggeration, and selective reporting. The numbers speak for themselves; Muslims make up approximately 0.9 percent of the American population. It is inconceivable that such a small minority could pose such huge danger to the rest of the population, and yet we see a considerable amount of energy being channeled into combating the so-called Muslim ‘threat’.  There have been numerous revenge attacks on Muslims in the US in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. But what is perhaps more troubling than these incidents is the stance many politicians have chosen to adopt. More than half the nation’s governors have stated their aim to refuse, or at least make very difficult, the settlement of Syrian refugees. Ted Cruz, a Republican candidate for the 2016 presidential election, has recommended that while Christian refugees should be allowed into the States, the same opportunity should not be extended to Muslims. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is in favor of closing down mosques and making it mandatory for Muslims to carry special identification cards that note their faith. Ben Carson, another Republican candidate, believes that a Muslim would be fit to be president of the United States only if he or she was to “reject the tenets of Islam”. The list goes on and on, but I think you get the picture. It has become acceptable to hate Muslims, and to try and pretend otherwise would be to tell a blatant lie.

Being at Swarthmore, I am lucky not to have encountered the kind of racist discrimination embodied by these statements. I don’t doubt that there may be some people on this campus who also subscribe to such views, but I have never had a negative experience. I am in an insulated, protected space; clearly, Swarthmore is not a representative sample of the US population at large. It is scary even to place myself in the shoes of the countless Muslims in America who are not part of such a safe and accepting environment. At any rate, it is unlikely that I will settle here in the long term; my problem is a somewhat temporary one. On the other hand, I can only imagine the challenge faced by Muslims who call America home. It must be incredibly difficult to have to reconcile two crucial parts of one’s identity, when those parts are so often forced to be at odds with one another.

If you saw me on the street, you probably wouldn’t be able to immediately tell that I’m Muslim. But ask me a few questions, and it wouldn’t be long before you know. And then what? No one should ever have to feel the need to hide parts of their identity. I refuse to feel that way, and I refuse to be told what my religious identity means by someone who has absolutely no connection to it. I’m still waiting for the day that I’m not ‘randomly’ selected for a security check when flying into the US. Maybe I’m waiting in vain, and maybe I’m being naïve, but I believe it has to get worse before it gets better. And because we as Swatties know better, I think it is our job to make the necessary change, to stop sitting on the sidelines, to stand up and speak out.

Working out with God

in A Still Small Voice/Columns/Opinions by

Hello friends, and welcome back to another semester at Swarthmore College, another semester of the Phoenix, and another semester of my column, A Still Small Voice. I use my space here to comment on my religion and on spirituality on campus, in the media and in our culture at large, as well as to document and reflect on some of my personal religious experiences. This week’s column is mostly the latter.

As some of you may know, I come from a basically secular family. We don’t go to church and my parents and grandparents are deeply skeptical about “organized religion”. This wasn’t a problem for me at all until I got back from Swarthmore and found myself facing a roughly three-month void in my spiritual schedule. Here at Swat, I’m inundated with religious life. Last semester, for example, I found myself at two Bible studies, a large fellowship meeting, a worship band practice and a meeting for worship at the Friends Meetinghouse almost every week. Additionally, I attended nearly every interfaith event I possibly had time for, as well as occasional lectures sponsored by the Religion Department. Clearly, I was a fanatic. My life revolved around exploring my faith, pushing the boundaries of understanding divinity, and opening my heart to God’s wisdom.

Back in the Boro, there were none of these events. I have no home church, and only one of my hometown friends is religiously convicted. As I busied myself with the work of summer — chasing summer camp kids around the playground, wandering through the woods, and playing music with friends — I found myself focused less and less on my developing spirituality. Late one night in mid-August, I tossed and turned in bed until midnight. At that point I realized that I’d not taken time to pray seriously or read Scripture all summer! I got out of bed, wandered into the living room, and read from the Bible and prayed for nearly two hours.

It might have just been the late hour, but I found myself struggling to digest any of the material. Verses I’d delighted in dissecting just weeks prior now seemed more like reading code. Eventually, I felt like I couldn’t do any more work. I went back to bed and finally fell asleep.

At that moment, I realized something pretty profound: I was way out of shape! Spiritually, I’d atrophied to the point where I could barely pick through a verse. I realized how disconnected I’d felt from divinity and how God’s voice — the still small voice this column’s named after — had grown quieter until its once steady hum was now a barely audible scratching. It seems to me that, like muscles in the physical body, the spiritual muscles that we work out when we pray, study texts or participate in worship activities can also stiffen and shrink if they aren’t regularly and rigorously stretched. These activities might be called “spiritual practices” for a reason.

Since my experience on that August night, I’ve turned up the intensity of my private devotion, committing myself to pray at least daily, spend more time in the Word and absorb sermons or messages from preachers in diverse denominations. I’m back on campus now, and I look forward to taking advantage of the myriad spiritual experiences that my tradition has to offer. As a Christian, I have access to small group Bible studies and large group fellowship meetings courtesy of Swarthmore Christian Fellowship: InterVarsity, Pizza and Parable Bible study with Swarthmore Progressive Christians, weekly Mass with Newman Catholic Fellowship and plenty of local Sunday morning services to choose from.

Now, I won’t sugarcoat it. My spiritual life is way easier because I’m a Christian. It’s easy to be a Christian in the United States, and the College does not support the spiritual growth of students of subordinated faiths to the extent it should. It’s hard to be Muslim in the United States, hard to be Buddhist or Hindu or Jain or Sikh or Jewish or Wiccan or of any faith less popular than Christianity. However, I would encourage all students, regardless of their faith or philosophy, to seek out individuals who think like you or that might be interested in learning more about your tradition. That community, that fellowship, is absolutely critical to working out your spiritual muscles — I felt the cost of that solitude this summer. As the saying goes, “you can’t be a Christian on your own”.

If you’re interested in finding Swatties who believe like you do, or at least have a similar background if not similar beliefs, please contact one of your Interfaith Interns — Zachary Arestad (zaresta1@swarthmore.edu) or Sanaa Ali-Virani (salivir1@swarthmore.edu), or Swarthmore’s Religious and Spiritual Life Adviser, Joyce Tompkins (jtompki1@swarthmore.edu). The Swarthmore Interfaith Center is committed to promoting and supporting religious practice and dialogue between people of every faith and philosophy. Check out our Facebook page for information on all existing groups and contact us for support chartering a new one.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” — 1 Corinthians 12:12

Students strengthen spirituality on campus

in Around Campus/Campus Journal by

This week, Sharples lit a menorah and sidelined the condiments bar to make room for a Christmas tree. These religious symbols were praised as festive, and widely appreciated once people found the condiments bar again. However, such prominent displays of faith on campus are rare. Although mentions of Quaker values are as routine in school functions as the “God Bless America” at the end of the State of the Union, students have noted that more in-depth discussions of spiritual matters are generally avoided.

“It’s not something that you talk about,” said Suness Jones ’16, who is the Tri-Co president of the Newman Club, an organization for Catholic students. “You talk about your sexuality, maybe your political beliefs, but rarely is [spirituality] amongst those questions.”

Joyce Tompkins, the interfaith coordinator, observed the same. “The default is secular, so there’s an assumption that you’re not religious unless you come out as a religious person.” Borrowing language from the gay rights movement, she praised the openness newly possible in conversations about sex and gender, but said that “religion’s kind of still in the closet. It’s…the last bastion of that old way.

Some of the prevailing arguments for secularism rely on a perceived dichotomy between faith and science; the full acceptance of a belief without supporting facts seems counter to academic logic. Secularism allows students to discuss “spiritual” questions of the meaning of life without any attached religious baggage.

Usually Swarthmore’s Quaker values are considered within the secular framework. However, Professor Mark Wallace of the religion department suggested that college founders’ incorporation of their faith into the school’s structure leaves it an “undercurrent” in student life. He sees intent in the open layout of the campus. Because “nature is really the dominant feature,” Swarthmore physically reflects the Quaker focus on “interior life, finding your own spiritual life…[It] really tries to be a sort of secular monastery, where students can pursue their own path intellectually and spiritually,” Wallace said.

Religion classes are not meant to serve as a conduit to spiritual experience, so they attract students from everywhere on the spectrum between skeptical and devout. Wallace said that most of his students do not come from a strong faith orientation. Those who do are often challenged by the switch to a detached, academic approach. Students generally “keep the two parts, [personal beliefs and class learning], in watertight compartments,” Wallace said.

Jones, who struggled to navigate a religion class during her freshman fall, deplored the necessity of this distinction. “I think it’s completely intertwined…the more I learn here, the more I’m able to see God in everything,” she said.

For Salman Safir ’16, an intern at the Interfaith Center and the director of the Muslim Students Association, the distance between academic and traditional experiences of faith becomes problematic when it goes unrecognized. Classes may provide analysis of the impact of faith on culture and politics, but according to Safir, true “religious literacy” is best gained firsthand.

Most faith groups, including those managed by Safir and Jones, are open to students regardless of their background. Safir believes that aside from supporting their members, religious communities can provide an educational service to the campus as a whole. “It’s our responsibility to put a real non-academic spin on it: this is what it means to be Muslim in a post-9/11 world. You have the more academic side [from the classes] and also a more personal side,” Safir said.

Safir is a founding member of Swarthmore’s Muslim Students Association. When he arrived last year, its previous incarnation had been disbanded due to a lack of interest. All religious organizers interviewed spoke of the ongoing struggle to achieve critical mass. Tompkins cited a lack of the resources which might attract more religious students as one factor which has led to low participation on campus. Less commonly practiced religions, such as Islam and Buddhism, have functioned largely without the administrative support Tompkins would have liked to see. It was a major victory for her to secure the hiring of a part-time Muslim student advisor, who will begin work next term.

Leaders are hoping to strengthen the small groups associated with their specific traditions, and on a larger scale, they are engaging in interfaith dialogue.

Kelilah Miller, Swarthmore’s Jewish life coordinator, believes that these community building efforts are very relevant to the school as a whole. “I’m interested in helping students think deeply about what it means to be part of a community. What does it require of you? What can you expect of it? When it gets hard, what do you do? When there’s conflict, what do you do?” she asked.

According to Miller, religious communities can serve as models, but not everyone will view them as such. “People have radically different understandings of community, which are somewhat culturally determined,” she said.

Quaker values have lately been cited as the impetus for campus-wide community-building discussions. However, Miller feels that their focus on universalism is not always productive. Religious communities are bound by their particulars, while Quaker tradition prefers to remove boundaries and de-emphasize ritual. “Quaker values are a normalizing force,” Miller said. “To have [multiculturalism], we need to have multiple cultures.”

The existence of a secular norm makes students of faith uneasy when it allows others to dismiss a part of their identity. While the silence on religion outside of Bond Hall may give an impression of homogeneity, great diversity exists in spiritual views and religious expression at Swarthmore. Over time, perhaps it will become more openly celebrated.

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