Faculty and Staff Interfaith Panel Discusses Intersections Between Religion and Academic Life

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.

On Thursday, February 27, a panel of five faculty and one staff member  discussed the intersections between religion and academic life. Facilitator Joyce Tompkins, Religious and Spiritual Life Adviser and Interfaith Coordinator at Swarthmore, began the discussion by asking the panelists a series of questions about the intersection between spirituality and intellectualism in their academic lives. The panelists were each given seven minutes to respond. Their individual responses were followed by a question and answer session.

Catherine Crouch, a member of the Protestant Church and professor of physics and astronomy, was the only panel member involved directly in the natural sciences. Crouch discussed the relationships between faith and scientific knowledge. To serve as counterexamples to the belief that science and religion are incompatible, she cited past physicists and astronomers. One notable example was Kepler, whom she paraphrased as saying that his own work was a way of “thinking the Creator’s thoughts after him.”

Crouch said that our scientific processes today have their origins in faith.

“We take it for granted that science is rooted in the conviction that the universe is comprehensible,” she said, citing the process of discovery in her academic work as a holy sort of experience.

Helen Plotkin ’77, visiting assistant professor of religion and ordained rabbi, said that she views religion as not so much “a set of beliefs as it is a two thousand year old book club.” She said that she believes in the study of faith, everyone is “part fish and part ichthyologist,” meaning that the studied share an identity with the studier. Much of her religious and academic practices center around the reading of scripture.

“I do my work more as a student of the texts than as an owner of the texts,” Plotkin said. “However, there is a great satisfaction in studying texts that are about oneself.” She pointed out the overlap between who we are and what we learn.

Although President Rebecca Chopp was raised in a secular family, she was drawn to religion on her own and sought out Christianity through friends and neighbors. Chopp described her religious experience as an intellectual journey rather than an emotional one. She highlighted several important aspects of her faith, including a sense of restlessness and pursuit of a vision.

“You can’t have it until you’re finally united with God,” Chopp said.

George Lakey, visiting professor of peace and conflict studies and practicing Quaker, said that his religious journey caused him to question existing paradigms and explore notions of peace and violence.

“I think I’m on a slippery slope towards pacifism,” Lakey recalled telling friends.

He pointed to the history of Quakerism as a religion that challenged existing beliefs: although Quakers never carried guns on the American frontier, they were the safest settlers, the least likely to be attacked or killed.

Although he believes in pacifism, Lakey doesn’t intend to convince others of the rightness of his ways. Instead, he wants to open their minds to alternative paradigms.

“Just because you know the earth is round doesn’t mean you have to go to the other side,” Lakey said, implying that his students can be aware of other points of view, whether or not they choose to live within those frameworks.

Registrar Martin Warner spoke about the importance of truth in aspects of his academic and spiritual life.

“Truth is a bedrock of my professional work,” he said.

Warner pursues this through the study of Christian scripture, though he is especially interested in the resonances between religions. He described taking apart a story as a search towards truth.

“I think we open it up in a wonderful way that […] makes it richer and deeper,” Warner said.

The final faculty member of the panel, Milton Machuca-Gálvez, visiting assistant professor of Latin American studies, spoke about his experience being raised Roman Catholic in El Salvador. He believed that growing up in such a spiritual environment instilled him with a deep sense of faith.

“It was like being branded,” Machuca-Gálvez said.

In addition, his identification as a gay man shaped his religious experience, and Machuca-Gálvez eventually found that his spirituality changed over time. He described his religious sensibilities as being more peaceful than they once were.

“It’s like going to see an old friend. It informs a lot of what I do,” Machuca-Gálvez said.

A question and answer session followed the individual statements. One student asked how members of a dominant religious group can express their faith while being conscious of their privilege.

Crouch cited the tenets of Judaism and Christianity that advocate helping the poor and oppressed. She said that those religions believe that God urges them “to use what power they had to help the weak.”

“Privilege exists […] to be used for good,” Lakey said. He wants people not to hide their faith, but to use faith and privilege “to be powerful allies.”

Several faculty members referenced interfaith dialogue as a way of addressing and combating that privilege. Chopp said that as a member of the dominant faith group, one should engage with other faith groups to counter the idea “that there’s only one right way.”

Another student asked about the difficulty of being taken seriously in an intellectual environment while still identifying as spiritual.

Chopp sympathized with the sentiment. She cited an example of a time she was told, “You have a brilliant mind […] and you’re wasting it with religion.” Chopp, as an ordained minister and former professor of theology, clearly disagrees with such sentiments.

“I’m still waiting for an argument that convinces me that one can’t be extremely intellectual […] and still have a mystical connection,” Chopp said.

Crouch questioned the idea that it is possible to live life through a purely scientific process.

“How could you live your life if you only lived according to repeatable experiments?” Crouch asked. “Life isn’t a repeatable experiment.”

To Crouch, religion fills in the gaps and explains experiences that are not understandable by science alone. Her synthesis of religion and science in her worldview gives a “coherent picture to the world around [her].”

An audience member asked whether religion is “there every day or when you need it.”

Machuca-Gálvez said that his religious connection was “sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker.” He compared it to a watch, saying, “I have to wind it to make it work.”

Several panelists agreed with Machuca-Gálvez’s metaphor.

“The more you practice, the greater your capacity for experience,” Chopp said.

One questioner asked about how they hoped to see Swarthmore continue to engage in both spiritual and intellectual discussions. The panelists saw interfaith dialogue as having increased in recent years. Plotkin said that for continued growth, she would like to see the “breaking down [of] boundaries between having an identity and studying an identity.”

Plotkin discussed the process of creating meaning when reading a spiritual text.

“Reading happens in the space between two people and the space between their voices,” she said. Plotkin compared this process to Swarthmore seminars and interfaith dialogue as a whole.

The faculty panelists and several audience members shared their hopes that interfaith dialogue would continue to develop at Swarthmore.

Featured image courtesy of Salman Safir ’16.

1 Comment

  1. It is interesting to see that Swarthmore College is holding common ground with Princeton’s Witherspoon Institute, which was founded with Robert George’s help. The Witherspoon Institute’s first sentence of their mission statement reads “The Witherspoon Institute is an independent research center that works to enhance public understanding of the moral foundations of free and democratic societies.” winst.org I wonder if Swarthmore’s Institute will publish books etc along the lines of the Witherspoon Institute publications. I particularly found “Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles” to be of interest.

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