The Quirky Conscience: Recognizing and Respecting Each Other’s Spirituality

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

In the coming months, I hope to initiate dialog on a subject often overlooked at Swarthmore: religion. While many people would describe our campus culture as very secular, it is a fact that religious life does exist here. Much like sexuality, spirituality is something we all engage with in one way or another, whether or not we choose to identify with any particular religious tradition. It is a similarly complex, intensely personal. Religion is also an axis of ideological diversity at Swarthmore: I know students here who are militantly anti-religious, but I also know preachers’ kids and future rabbis. I know people who seek to develop their spirituality both in and out of the official structure of organized campus groups, whether or not they would call themselves “religious.” Not least of all, I know many who have a difficult, troubled, meandering relationship to faith marked by questioning and uncertainty. But ultimately, our respective differences in religious views and practices warrant respect and reward any genuine efforts we make to understand each other.

As Swarthmore students, we were all initiated into the College family through the ritual of First Collection. This beautiful ceremony did more than simply mark the first time our respective class years were gathered as units or foreshadow the next time we would all sit together in the same amphitheater for graduation. It provided us with a ritualistic symbol of the kind of community into which we were entering. It gave us a memorable image of that community’s values. Still, when I look at the candle that remains on my windowsill to this day, I see more than a piece of wax. I see a piece of Swarthmore’s ethos that harkens back to our Quaker heritage. In Quaker tradition, the inner light is the individual’s personal connection to the divine. For me, it reminds that, even in the most frustrating moments, I have something to learn from any and every person around me.

Last week alone, I had two very different conversations with Swatties on the subject of personal relationships to faith and religion. One was an overwhelmingly positive experience, the other not so much. I would venture that the operative difference was not the arguments themselves but rather the spirit with which participants entered into the discussion. In one discussion, I felt like the other person was genuinely trying to understand where I was coming from and see something deeply unfamiliar to him/her from a different perspective. In the other, I felt like the other person did not care very much about what I had to say, but saw our conversation as a logical game wherein s/he could score points by pointing out the errors of my ways.

I have been involved in the religious scene at Swarthmore in a number of formal and informal ways. My personal experiences at Swarthmore, my studies, and my conversations with my peers have done much to challenge me in my faith. Today, I am a lot less certain about many religious and moral matters than I was when I came in as a bright-eyed freshman. Still, I know that my relationship to religion and spirituality, in all its meanderings, contradictions, and evolutions has always been one of the main forces shaping my identity, values, and outlook on life. Repressing this fundamental part of who I am would be like dousing my inner light.

Instead, I try to mind the light by honoring my conscience and other people’s the best I can. If there is something The Daily Gazette loves, it is fiery conversation. Anyone who has read The Gazette knows of the sea of comments that often follows articles and the wave of controversy these comments can generate. It is certainly not my intention to stir up trouble for the sake of it. I have no desire to make anyone angry. However, I see The Gazette as a unique forum in which ideas can be excised out of the otherwise inert stone of personal monologue. My proposal is modest: I want to ask some honest questions and spur reflection. Of course, I will make some claims of my own in the process, but I am much less interested in asserting those claims then I am in entering into what I hope will be a meaningful and enriching discussion. I trust I have much to learn from other perspectives, as do we all, and I eagerly welcome your questions and challenges.

I hope that this column may open a new path of dialog on campus and be just a little part of the kind of personal and collective reflection in which we must engage if we are to truly “mind the light.”


  1. I am excited for the column!

    One question: You say that spirituality is like sexuality in that we all engage in it, one way or another, whether or not we choose to identify with a particular religious tradition.

    How do you define spirituality? I’m fairly well convinced that I don’t think spiritually at all. I think deeply (I like to think), and philosophically. But I don’t believe that means I think spiritually.

    What do you think?

  2. I’m usually a little skeptical of the “everyone’s spiritual” line, if for no other reason than it can be off-putting to be appropriated into another’s categorization scheme. Still, I suppose that even the most non-spiritually-inclined would have to interface with their spirituality in the same way that celibate ascetics have to interface with their sexuality, even if by choosing to say “no” to it. Whether or not there exist “aspiritual” people as an equivalent of asexuals is open to question.

    In my own view, I define “spirituality” as the part within us that seeks to interface with that-which-is-bigger-than-us through a means that includes intellectual and emotional levels, but also touches on something deeper. Have you ever experienced something that, just as emotions are more deep-seated than conscious thoughts, is more deep-seated than emotions? As Losang Samten, the mandala artist who visited McCabe last fall, described the nature of the mind in Tibetan Buddism–it’s the clear blue of the sky which often gets covered over with the clouds of our thoughts (emotions and intellect aren’t really separate in Buddhism).

    Some reach this through interacting with divinities, others through the lover’s embrace, solitude in nature, artistic pursuits, or as Michael Jordan said, being “in The Zone”–those times where one achieves a single-pointed consciousness that is in one moment and nowhere else. In my own experience, some of the strongest spiritual experiences haven’t just been in “religious” settings, but also in private experiences of music or poetry, a particularly notable vision of nature, and in singing a powerful song in a group. No wonder these kinds of situations so frequently get absorbed into religious traditions–they’re some of the most common ways of getting over ourselves and letting our egotistical, busy-busy minds step back in the face of something more significant.

  3. Hey Conscience! A wonderful article, and I’ll look forward to hearing what you have to say in the future.

    While I think that the “one possible response” is a promising possibility, I’m also quite interested to hear what YOU have to say about spirituality. What is it? Why is it an important thing to talk about?

    Perhaps related, why must everyone, even the avowedly nonspiritual, need to “interface” with their spirituality? Of course, there are lots of things in the world in which I don’t partake (lots of different kinds of foods, for example), but I don’t usually need to “interface” with them at all–not even in the celibate/sexual way that the above post mentioned. So what is it about spirituality that makes it a question that everyone must answer?

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