About the Montanan
Yearning for Something More
Religious Life at UM
by Patrick Hutchins
Martin Luthers quote--Be a sinner and sin boldly. But believe and rejoice in Christ more boldly still--is a favorite among the college students, according to the Reverend Jean Larson Hurd, campus pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Having left home for the first time, she says, many of them find it comforting to know that theres still hope as they explore a world where sin sometimes appears synonymous with success. Indeed, UM students of nearly every religious background find the faith of their families tested by new friends, new ideas and new ways of thinking about the larger questions. At a state-funded, public university, religion must necessarily defer to the main business at hand: earning a degree. Yet the increased cost and importance of that degree can make the college years a stressful time that, ironically, turns some students toward a new religion or back toward one they left behind.
There is a perennial interest in religion among college students, says Paul Dietrich, director of UMs Religious Studies Program. Today he sees greater fascination with the diversity of religious practice among his students. Religious studies, he says, are a kind of mirror of societys interests. For example, today were seeing a lot of interest in Native American religion and philosophy, as well as in Buddhism, which reflects interests of the larger culture.
Alan Sponberg, a religious studies professor and a practicing Buddhist, also has noticed his students yearning for something more. Unlike earlier generations, many of todays students may not have any religious training at all, and they have a vague sense that something is missing, he observes. Yet he worries that their interest may be a little too generic. They are wary of intolerance and protective of their individualism, which can be very positive qualities, he says. But the net effect often is that really meaningful traditions arent explored deeply. In this eagerness to avoid the negative, the baby gets thrown out with the bath water. Sponberg believes that students are looking for religion that validates the feeling dimension, and when a religion becomes merely formal without emotional power, it fails to hold students interest.
Student Jim Pelger, who is completing an undergraduate degree he started at Penn State, is a prime example of someone who seeks answers outside the religious tradition he was raised in but remains wary of organized religion. Brought up in a conservative Protestant sect called the Brethren, Pelger now finds Buddhism more interesting than Christianity, partially because of its de-emphasis on a supreme being. I never accepted my religion growing up because of the incongruities, like how Christians dealt with materialism, he says. Im attracted to Buddhism because it feels more personal to me. The possibility of transforming oneself is very appealing. Even so, Pelger isnt currently a member of any organized religion but rather sees himself as a seeker. He believes most of his fellow students share his interest in things spiritual. Theyre here to fill requirements, he says, but outside of class, they want to talk.
Religion on Campus
Not all students reject the religion in which they were raised, and for most of them that religion is some form of Christianity. The 1999 campus telephone directory lists eleven campus religious advisers, all of them for Christian denominations with the resources to maintain a ministry. These include the Lutheran, Episcopal and United Methodist Campus ministries, which share space in The Ark on University Avenue; the University Christian Fellowship, which is associated with the Assembly of Gods Christian Life Center; the Catholic Campus Ministry, which operates Christ the King Church; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Institute of Religion. Other churches minister unofficially to the University community by virtue of their location near campus, such as University Congregational, United Church of Christ on University Avenue.
These, along with a variety of other Christian churches, offer students a smorgasbord of philosophies and creeds. The Reverend John Engels heads the University Christian Fellowship, which he describes as a charismatic evangelical congregation. (It is not to be confused with Jean Larson Hurds Evangelical Lutherans who, Hurd explains, use the term evangelical in the European sense of gospel-based, spreading the good news about Gods grace.) Engels directs an activist ministry that serves from thirty to fifty students with Wednesday evening prayer meetings and a philosophy that encourages foreign travel and volunteer stints at the Poverello Center and an inner-city outreach program. We try to get students to other countries before they graduate, he says, noting that a group of Montana students recently did relief work in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.
Another church with a missionary tradition is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Mormons. The Reverend Ron Woolstenhulme directs the Institute of Religion, which aims to give students a weekday religious educational experience. Woolstenhulme teaches academic religious classes, which can be transferred to Brigham Young University and other LDS schools. He estimates there are about 200 Mormon students at the University, 120 of whom are active in his program. These kids are very interested in the big questions, Woolstenhulme says. Our role is to give them professional religious training as part of an overall balanced life.
Several blocks away, the Reverend Jim Hogan, a Catholic priest, offers a distinctly different kind of religious experience at Christ the King Church. We welcome anyone, he says, but were not out to convert people anymore. Were out to do service. Hogan says hes seen the students attitude toward religion change every year since he arrived in 1984. Today, I see a strong interest among young people in peace and justice work. Each year he selects eight interested student interns who organize campus events, participate in retreats and, above all, work on their own spiritual growth.
One such intern was Joe Mudd. Maybe Im an anomaly, he says, echoing a sentiment common among the students interviewed who were serious about religion. Most students arent looking for religion [at the University]; theyre looking for a job. Born and raised in Missoula and a lifelong Catholic, Mudd, twenty-three, went through what he considers normal stages of growth. Eighteen-year-old boys go crazy, he says. Thats what they do. As he grew older, he began to appreciate what he calls Catholicisms earthy style, but, ironically, it was Sponbergs course on Buddhism that helped bring his faith alive. It made me want to become a Christian in a practical way, he says. Prayer and meditation give you time to focus and breathe. The idea of regimen that goes with Buddhism is something that a lot of Christians have forgotten. Religion becomes central to life rather than just a peripheral activity. Yet Mudd does not see himself as a candidate for the priesthood. I think Im more of a teacher than a shepherd, he says.
The Reverend Peter Shober of the University Congregational, United Church of Christ believes that conventional religious practice for people of college age is a bit of an oxymoron. Shober has no campus ministry, per se, but sees a lot of students anyway, thanks to his churchs location just off campus. He observes that the churchs role has reversed itself in recent years, becoming less the guardian of the status quo: Churches are emerging as countercultural, he notes. Theyre becoming a balance to corporate consumerism. Thirty-five years ago the Sabbath was an assault on personal freedom. Today its an assault on corporate society.
Native American religious practice on campus is harder to pin down. Professor Henrietta Mann, who teaches Native American religions and philosophy in the Native American Studies Program, says she surveys more than five hundred and fifty different tribal philosophies in her course. Despite the course title, Mann says, we dont even like to use the term religion because ones spiritual journey is woven into ones life. It isnt a separate activity. A member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, Mann refers instead to the unique spiritual or sacred traditions of each tribe, which may include the sweat lodge and use of various herbs like sweet grass, sage, cedar needles or tobacco and the vision quest.
Other World Religions
Besides mainstream Christianity, two other major religions that spring from the same Mideastern soil, Judaism and Islam, also are present at UM. The Islamic faith has long been practiced in Missoula, according to history Associate Professor Mehrdad Kia, who teaches a popular course on Islam. Kia notes that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States, with more than seven thousand mosques nationwide. Weve always had Muslim students here at the University, he says, because of the foreign students who come and because of the sheer numbers. There are more than a billion Muslims in the world today. Although Americans tend to equate Islam with the Arab world, Kia notes that the largest Islamic number of Muslim students at UM come from Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia. Muslim activity on campus, he says, is quieter now than it was a few years ago because several of the more energetic student organizers graduated. Still, the faith is practiced regularly in private homes and designated prayer rooms around campus.
Judaism has a low profile at the University. Ed Rosenberg--chair of the chemistry department and the campus liaison to Har Shalom, the Jewish community in Missoula--says last year only thirteen entering students officially declared their Jewish religious affiliation on their UM applications. He believes that is because the kind of students who need to be surrounded by a strong Jewish cultural identity simply dont come to Montana. Still, there is a lively Jewish community in Missoula that gathers for Passover, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and other important holidays and welcomes interested students. Although there is no resident rabbi in town, Har Shalom brings in Rabbi Gershon Winkler from New Mexico for these events. Winkler, a Hebrew scholar with the delivery of a standup comic, frequently gives popular public lectures at UM.
Two different branches of the Bahai faith--which emphasizes the spiritual unity of mankind--attract followers at UM. Undergraduate Neil Chase, a practicing Bhaii, says This is the largest religion in the world with no rite ceremonies and no clergy.
Along with these major world religions, an interest in more exotic religions flourishes quietly on campus. Katherine Weist, an anthropology professor who teaches a class on non-Western religious practices, says students arent limiting themselves to traditional answers. I sense a real searching, driven by the Western penchant for questioning, she says. In Tanzania I was struck by the peoples belief without questioning. Here, students question everything. Weist notes that a nonscriptural religion like shamanism, which is practiced by so-called primitive cultures all over the world, may offer answers that science cannot. Science cant answer the big, existential questions in America today, she says. Students are searching for understanding, and even traditional churches arent making it unless they change.
Matters of the Spirit
In the end, religious beliefs are deeply personal. For UM students, like Pelger, who are experimenting with new churches--even new religions--as they search for answers, a wide range of beliefs and philosophies are available. Yet even across the spectrum of religious communities--from Engels mission-driven evangelism to Shobers open and affirming Christianity, from Islam to neopaganism--a healthy spirit of ecumenism seems to prevail.
Religious communities, at their best, can include a wide range of people, Hurd says. I have seen a radical feminist tree hugger and an ex-Navy Seal Republican, who dont agree on anything else, agree to give each other acceptance and respect. Weist goes even further: They [her students] are concerned about the condition of their world, and theyre really committed to helping. They are not so much public-spirited as people-spirited.Patrick Hutchins is a frequent contributor to the Montanan.
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