God on Campus

Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim leaders discuss the spiritual and religious challenges students face in college

One of the guiding principles behind Busted Halo has always been that the journey in search of deeper meaning—that countless young adults are already on—is an inherently spiritual one. The transition to college life can be particularly difficult; for many it is the first time living away from home and the lack of structure can shake some students down to their foundation. But it is also a great time for students to ask the “big questions” about their lives and beliefs. Fortunately, most campuses are well equipped with people who can help with this sort of seeking.

We found spiritual leaders representing four different faith traditions from campuses across the country—from Columbus, Ohio and New Orleans, Louisiana to Southern California—and asked them to talk with us about the issues they see among new students and how they suggest dealing with them. With religious diversity on the rise and religious knowledge on the decline we spoke about the state of interfaith relations on campus and how students can best navigate the exciting—but sometimes dangerous—waters of college life.

Our panel included:

Amir Hussain, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Theological studies at Loyola Marymount, Los Angeles; author of Oil and Water: Two Faiths, One God Amir Hussain, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Theological studies at Loyola Marymount, Los Angeles and author of Oil and Water: Two Faiths, One God
Fr. Larry Rice, CSP, Director of the St. Thomas More Newman Center at Ohio State University
Rabbi Yonah Schiller, Executive Director of Hillel at Tulane University, New Orleans
Rev. Scott Young, Protestant campus minister; Co-Founder and Director Emeritus of the City of the Angels Film Festival, Hollywood.

Busted Halo: What advice do you give to a friend or relative just starting college? If you could, condense it into one piece of advice.

Prof. Amir Hussain: On all my syllabi I give students a two-page handout that talks about that. As professors we sort of assume that students will understand the difference between high school and university but no one tells them! The kinds of things that they can expect in high school are totally different than your university professor.

“Nobody cares if you were the quarterback on the football team. That can give you a tremendous amount of freedom to be the person you want to be and to re-invent yourself in an atmosphere that will give you the freedom to do that in a healthy way.”
-Fr. Larry Rice

Fr. Larry Rice: One thing that I often tell freshman is that when you arrive on campus you have a fresh start. When you get here nobody cares who you were in high school. Nobody cares if you were a cheerleader. Nobody cares if you were one of the outcast kids. Nobody cares if you were the quarterback on the football team. If you’re not the quarterback on the football team here, it doesn’t matter. And that can give you a tremendous amount of freedom to be the person you want to be and to re-invent yourself in an atmosphere that will give you the freedom to do that in a healthy way.

Rev. Scott Young: The two things I would say are first that friendship is the most important thing in life, and spiritual friendship is really important, Four years of a concentrated pool of friends that you won’t have, most likely, anywhere else in the rest of your life. In addition to all the other things you feel you need to accomplish, learning how to be a friend and finding friends is an indispensible life skill. That started in high school but it’s very different doing that in college. But it needs to be stated and there’s a skill to it that needs to be learned. The other thing is that since we’re such a career-crazed kind of training program these days in college, a reminder that you’re here to learn how to learn. You get to learn for your entire life and you’ve got a concentrated period of time around a bunch of learners that know how to learn so…learn how to learn.

Rabbi Yonah Schiller: The healthiest approach to college—and I find that people are in the toughest place when they don’t exercise this right—really experiment, experiment and flex your curiosity. What gets people in trouble is that they find the same friends, they find the same things to do. College affords you access to great professors, people you never would have been friends with before, and experiences that would have not been deemed cool to take part in while in high school. These opportunities breed a sense of search and exploration and ultimately, meaning. That’s the thing. If I were to really tell incoming students one thing it would be “Make sure college is meaningful!” but that wouldn’t say anything. The only way to do that is to say this: it’s really an amazing time to explore a bunch of different things, and to really take advantage of that.

BH: Where have you encountered success in faith traditions working together on campus?

Fr. Larry Rice: We’re very fortunate at Ohio State because we have a very active University Interfaith Association and that is our formal connection to the university. That group meets every 2 weeks during the school year. That helps us develop good professional relationships between the religious professionals on campus and it also gives us the opportunity to collaborate on some projects. Some have been kind of emergency things like responding to the shootings at Virginia Tech ., when we wanted to do some kind of prayer service. We do an interfaith service at Thanksgiving and at the end of each year we do a memorial service for the students who have died during the course of that year. Because we are such a large campus we have over 52,200 students…we typically have 20-25 student deaths during the year. So the Interfaith Association does an interfaith memorial service every spring and that’s something that the University community very much appreciates.

Prof. Amir Hussain: I’m at Loyola Marymount, which is a Catholic, Jesuit University. Half our students are Catholic the majority are Christian. Of 6,000 maybe 200 or 300 are Jewish maybe 50 are Muslim. In an interesting way what we sometimes see is more dialogue and discussion between Muslim and Jewish students, at this campus than you might at other campuses because Muslims and Jews are both in the minority in a dominant Christian culture. When I taught at Cal State North Ridge the majority of the students there were Christian but maybe 20% were Jewish here it’s a very small percentage and a very small percentage that are Muslim. We’ve got a really active campus ministry and as part of that there is an interfaith component. So there is a Hillel on campus with a Rabbi (that’s the Hillel director and they do programming), I am the person who is sort of helping out with the Muslim student association, we’re small enough that we don’t need to have a full time Imam on campus but we’ve done a couple of things both around Muslim holidays like Ramadan that’ll take place starting in the next couple weeks and Jewish holidays, of Passover particularly, and Jewish students will do Seder and invite everyone to it…for many of the Christian or Muslim students this is their first time being involved with any kind of Jewish ritual.

Rev. Scott Young: My current assignment at USC and UCLA is primarily with faculty and graduate students but at my undergraduate assignment a few years ago at Cal State University Long Beach we had a very active interfaith and ecumenical campus ministry group. Each of us would bring a student leader and once a month we’d have a round table discussion in which each of the students got a chance to share what they were learning and thinking from own faith tradition. Occasionally there would be collaborative efforts—all the different Christian groups would get together on Ash Wednesday and have a service. We’d have frequent lectures and encourage the other student groups to attend the other student groups’ lectures. So it’s a very active and intentional attempt to have multi religious experience and exploration going on at Cal State Long Beach. At USC the outgoing—she’s just retired—Director of Religious Affairs Rabbi Susan Laemmle. She had a group of about 45 directors; all the undergraduate leaders from all the various religions represented on campus would meet monthly. So there are some really great stories of interfaith and multi-religious dialogue on those two campuses anyway.

Rabbi Yonah Schiller: I’ve had basically two types of experiences doing interfaith activities. One is more classic and I’ve found to be less fruitful—bringing together [students] and talking about Israel-Lebanese tensions during the war in Lebanon last summer. We brought Muslim and Jewish students together, and a number of Catholic and Christian students showed up as well. I found the people who came were really the people who were already on board—people who were willing to sit there with a bunch of Muslims or a bunch of Christians and talk openly about what they’re doing. At one point I thought what are we doing here? These people are basically already friends and we’re just sort of stroking ourselves as opposed to really getting into it and illuminating and bridging the real gaps that may exist. I’ve done another activity that was much more successful and much more informal. I hosted an open mic night and I had some Jewish students play. There was a guy from Egypt on campus and he came and he sang. He teamed up with a Jewish guitarist and did a traditional Egyptian hymn. It was this incredible sharing experience—not cerebral it didn’t push people’s buttons. It was just really and truly a sharing. I found it to be one of the more effective opportunities where people came together.

“I find students who come from really conservative protestant churches are not aware that there are other conceptions of God out there. When they run into them they really have a hard time knowing how to respond.”
-Rev. Scott Young

BH: You find that you’re already preaching to the converted when you do these nights of discussion and dialogue? Do you find for the people that are outside of that select group that there are tensions that need to be addressed among different faith traditions within the university context?

Rabbi Yonah Schiller: Oh definitely. I think they’re either explicit or they’re implicit. They’re definitely there. The majority of students are not aware of their own prejudices—only when they’re asked a few questions—what do they think and what do they believe—and when they’re pressed on it I think you might come to some pretty shocking conclusions.

BH: Can you give some examples?

Rabbi Yonah Schiller: From a Jewish faith perspective—the Jewish people believe in monotheism, and it is a challenging idea to consider God would be manifest in the form of a human being. If you asked a typical Jewish student (generalizing), “How do you feel about another faith that may not see it quite that way?” They might say, “I never really thought about it but that’s my version of God.” If you pressed, “Well, how would accept another person’s version of God as being that? Would you call that God or would you call that something else?” I think these are the kinds of questions they haven’t really thought about. They might come to the conclusion, “That’s not God, that’s something else, that person might be deceiving themselves.” Those are the kinds of conversations where a lot of work can be done. I’m sure each one of us spends a lot of time reaching out to students just in our own faith. Certainly the same kinds of efforts could be made ecumenically.

BH: When students come to college as freshman, where do you think they are spiritually, emotionally? What do you do in your different ministries to help them?

Fr. Larry Rice: I think that often when students get to campus, particularly at a large campus like Ohio State, they’re often ‘off-center’ anyway because it’s a huge place and it’s a new experience for them they’re surrounded by new friends and new people and it’s a challenging place to be. On top of that a lot of them come to campus with a frighteningly low level of religious literacy both about their own faith and the faith of others. So part of the challenge for them is to settle into a much more diverse environment than they’re used to with new friends that may have a different religious background than they’re use to and to try and find their place in that when their knowledge of their own faith is often not as deep as we hope it would be. That’s often the challenge I see for new students coming in.

Rev. Scott Young: I find students who come from really conservative protestant churches tend to have what I call “over-belief.” It’s narrow. They are not aware that they’re other conceptions of God out there, quite often, and so when they run into those they really have a hard time knowing how to respond.

BH: What do you find the typical response to that? Is there retrenchment? Is there an effort to move into that?

Rev. Scott Young: I think there are a wide variety of responses, for the person who is rigid and has over-belief I think you can predict what their response would be—they come out in an apologetic manner defending the God that they understand and everything else is perceived as a threat. Then you have students come to the university maybe starting to question their inherited faith and are open and willing for the more informal dorm discussion that pops up in a place like UCLA where you have such a wide variety of religious practice and belief. It kind of runs the gamut. The person who is raised in mainline Protestantism they tend to come with under-belief, so often they’re hungry for something more than what they probably received in their church life. Whereas the over-belief person—some of them are ready for something more exploratory.

BH: Could you talk about any of the prejudices and misconceptions that students have encountered? Do you see minority students who are tired of the role of “representative” of their faith, sometimes with a very low level of religious literacy? Do you find that students are engaging in those conversations, do you hear about those afterwards? Are people coming to you with frustrations, “ I can’t believe how stupid people are about Islam or Judaism, listen to what this guy said to me back in the dorm?

Prof. Amir Hussain: We get a lot of that religious illiteracy now. We’re a Catholic Jesuit university, a lot of students who are Catholic come here because they know the reputation of the place, its Southern California sunshine, three miles from the ocean, if you’re a student from Elizabeth, New Jersey.

BH: Sounds good!

Prof. Amir Hussain: [laughter] Exactly. The students that know we’re Catholic know the Jesuit notion of not just excellence in education but they know that this is a place where social justice is valued, it’s more on that side of the Catholic spectrum as compared to other sides. A lot of our students are from California and so they’re exposed to that interfaith world without necessarily having the knowledge. What I mean by that is—they may have come from Orange County where there’s a Buddhist temple on their street but they’ve never visited it. Their best friend from school is Jewish, or their father’s boss is Hindu. So they will come—for example—to my World Religions class; I always ask them why they’re taking my class. They’ll say openly, “I’ve had 12 years of catholic education; I want to learn something about other traditions.” Or some of them will say, “I want to learn about religion from a perspective that isn’t coming from within that. That isn’t, ‘Here’s what the Catholic Church teaches about other religions.’”

“There’s a real discrepancy between people’s spiritual drive and their language to apply anything meaningful to it. A lot of my work is trying to bring a language to spiritual intuition.”
-Rabbi Yonah Schiller

In that, levels of religious literacy amaze me sometimes. In my World Religions class we were talking about Judaism, and talking about the Ten Commandments. A student raised her hand and said “I think this is really neat.” I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Well I’m Catholic and we have the Ten Commandments too.” [laughter, groans] To me what would seem to be basic knowledge simply isn’t there. With the Muslim students there isn’t hostility or antagonism. I’ve had Muslim students, that when their roommates meet for the first time and realize that they are Muslim, and the other one is Christian there’s a curiosity. It’s a curiosity not a hostility. It’s “Oh, well what do you do? Do you pray five times a day? Do you do this?” In that sense learning about the other person is really done in a good way. We’ve had negative incidents on campus as well—prejudice toward Jewish or Muslim students. That happens too. You may have people that come with preconceived notions or prejudices about traditions other than their own.

BH: Actual acts?

Prof. Amir Hussain: Oh actual acts—graffiti that’s been scrawled on dorm room doors—things like that. The good thing is that the university has been very positive in their response to it.

BH: Are the students pretty sympathetic to the victims?

Prof. Amir Hussain: Absolutely. Again because I think those that know—this is a Jesuit institution with an emphasis on social justice—that comes up over and over again. We have the Mass of the Holy Spirit as the kick-off to the year, so its very clear that other people are welcome to that, not just other Christians. As part of that mass they’ll have a group of interfaith leaders and the idea that you’re welcome to be a part. During the communion ritual—it’s perfectly okay for you to come up and ask for a blessing and not take communion.

BH: Yonah, have you found a certain level of religious illiteracy since arriving at Tulane?

Rabbi Yonah Schiller: There’s a real discrepancy between people’s spiritual drive and their language to apply anything meaningful to it. Their concept of literature and science is significantly more evolved than their concept of a Jewish God. The tension is that the students haven’t become less spiritual because of it; they’ve just become more confused. The question is now “How do you overlay…what do you do with all that spiritual energy?” A lot of my work—a lot of the things I’ve seen on campus—is really trying to bring a language to that kind of spiritual intuition, if you can call it that. Jewish institutions in general have failed the young people, it hasn’t been the most inspiring experience—as a general rule—it’s sort of one of the last places they’d look if one is on a spiritual journey. A student wouldn’t say “Well I’ve gotta speak to a rabbi.” They might look to go to India, or look to go traveling, or look to get into the latest cultural event or trend.

BH: Busted Halo® is geared to a generation of people who talk in terms of being spiritual without being religious. To unpack that question is part of what we do. I’ve got to imagine that the experience Yonah just mentioned is a problem. Students have the spiritual drive without the language to describe it—and then they go off into these other traditions. That’s got to be happening with these other faith traditions.

Fr. Larry Rice: This is a huge problem for Catholic young adults and part of it is the way our religious education system is structured. We basically tell them that ‘you have to stay in religious education until you’re confirmed,’ and then your confirmation is your ticket out. So they think at 14 years old they have everything. So we have this terrible problem of religious illiteracy but they think they know it all. So the challenge there, is to open their eyes to this whole depth or our religious and spiritual tradition that they have NO clue about. And to help them have the language that they need to be able to speak about these things.

In my experience a lot of Catholic students when they get to campus don’t have a great deal of religious literacy. They are often unable to converse intelligently about what they believe with other people. Sometimes that results in problems, especially when they start interacting with much more religiously literate evangelical students. So there’s often a problem in how they have the language to have that kind of discussion. There’s also a problem—it’s not so much a problem at Ohio State right now—but occasionally there are problems with ‘pressure groups’. Which are religious groups that exert emotional pressure on students to become part of them, sometimes they’re referred to as cults, that’s not a very useful term. On our campus, we refer to them as pressure groups. When a student is not able to articulate what they believe in and why, these pressure groups can swoop in when they spot a vulnerability and they start disassembling that student’s faith tradition and try and put their own in its place. That’s always a risk for new students on campus. We try and do some education around those kinds of pressure groups so that our students aren’t quite as vulnerable to that.

BH: That’s a big fear for parents and students themselves, I’d love everybody to comment on how they counsel people to handle that?

Fr. Larry Rice: I don’t have a lot of good stories around this, because the first thing that these people do is they cut off all their contacts with the church as an organized group. They often don’t come to me when they’ve got those questions. When I see them it’s often a year or two years later when it’s all fallen apart and they come back to the faith tradition of their parents, of their origin, and then they want to try to figure out what happened. I’m often there for the cleanup, I’m not often there for the battle.

Check out (and download) our 2009 Freshman Survival Guide here.

This article was originally published on August 18, 2008.