This is Vassar: The newsletter for Vassar College Alumnae/i and Families

Photo credit: Courtesy Vassar College / Buck Lewis

Vassar's Chaplains Reflect on Changing Times

Two days after Glass’ Krieger Lecture, Vassar hosted a unique Sesquicentennial event: “Believe it or not: 150 years of religious and spiritual life at Vassar,” co-billed as “the changing face of religious and spiritual life at Vassar.” It brought together five of the last six chaplains who have served at Vassar since 1970: Rev. George Williamson Jr., Ph.D.; Rev. Allison Stokes, Ph.D.; Rev. Janet Cooper Nelson; Rabbi Shirley Idelson; and Rev. Samuel Speers, D.Min.

Michael McCarthy, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Philosophy and Jonathon Kahn, Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion and the Program in American Culture(s) lent additional perspective, while Rabbi Rena Blumenthal, Assistant Director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and Rose and Irving Rachlin Advisor to Jewish Students, served as moderator.

The panel participants drew a sharp contrast between Vassar’s first 100 years and the half-century since. The first four college presidents were all Baptist ministers who served as the moral leader of the campus community. In 1938, the chaplaincy was born, and for a number of decades, the chaplain was also on the faculty, adding clout to the position. From 1968 to the present, the college has had seven chaplains.

The last 40 years especially have been a time of change and transition. Some has been superficial, as the title of the position has morphed from chaplain, to director of religious activities and chaplaincy services, to director of religious and spiritual life. But it echoed a more fundamental shift in the role of the office, and the nature of religious and spiritual life on Vassar’s campus.

Growing diversity in Vassar’s student body, combined with increasing religious pluralism and tolerance, has been the norm in recent decades. So has students’ continual search for deeper meaning and truths, even if that search happens outside the bounds of traditional, mainstream organized religion.

The panelists also acknowledged an intellectual dimension to religious and spiritual life, noting distinctions between religious piety and religious knowledge, and between religious literacy and religious observance. Idelson found the spirit of intellectualism and religious critique at Vassar non-threatening. “Challenging religious traditions,” she noted, in both their forms and their content, “was not the same as disparaging them.” What’s more, Vassar has had vibrant religious communities on campus: Christian fellowship, Jewish, Muslim, Black Baptist. “Vassar was a prayerful place for those who wanted to pray,” Idelson explained.

Most recently, Speers, the current director of religious and spiritual life on campus, has seen a strong growth in contemplative practices, especially outside the bounds of the R&SL office – yoga via athletics, meditation at the library, mindfulness and stress reduction via counseling services. He also noted a new phase in the ongoing evolution of Vassar’s religious and spiritual life, proposing the addition of a third term: secular life. It is time to ask a new set of questions, he said. Is a liberal arts education a secular experience? As education becomes more modern, does it become less religious? Are religious convictions at odds with critical thought? Is one presumed non-religious on campus until proven otherwise? – PB

March 2011

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