God on Campus

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

BH: How does it fall apart?

Fr. Larry Rice: Usually it comes to a head through some kind of conflict with their family, or their family sees them about to drop out of school or abandon their faith or something like that and their families react very strongly against those kinds of abandonments. They often will call the university to find out what’s going on. Once all those things happen that’s when the students suddenly have to wake up and suddenly figure out what’s most important to them.

Prof. Amir Hussain: Two different things. One is trying to teach the student about their own traditions. I will have, for example, Catholic students who that think Buddhism is neat. And you ask,“ Well why is that?” They’ll say, “Because there’s meditation.” And you want to say, “Well you have those traditions within Christianity.” Or the sense of discipline that comes from fasting. And you point out that the Lenten fast used to be more than just giving up chocolate. In some ways the interfaith stuff helps with that. I’ve done things with a colleague teaching Catholic Theology—he’ll bring in me as a practicing Muslim and a Buddhist monk from the Terravita tradition who doesn’t eat after noon. For Catholic students it’s a great chance for them to understand about fasting and where that fits in with their own tradition from people of different faith traditions. So it’s not like we’re trying to make them into Muslims or Buddhists but helping them to learn about their own identity.

At LMU we’re small enough that the pressure groups aren’t there, the pressure groups are within the tradition. You’ve got people saying the only authentic way to be Catholic is this way. And the Pope is this and the Pope is that. So it’s within the tradition not the Moonies or something like that coming in to pressure people. So the way that we deal with that is education around the breadth of their own particular tradition with different events. For example the Rabbi that we have that directs our Hillel is a Conservative Rabbi but he’s brought in Orthodox and Reform Rabbis to give talks. When our students have questions or concerns there’s different people you can go to. You don’t have to go to the priest on campus—there’s the resident minister, there are students involved in campus ministry, they can talk to me as their academic person, there may be a Jesuit who’s a priest who’s teaching them Spanish and they’re more comfortable coming to talk to him because he’s their Spanish professor not a priest—even though he’s a priest. You create those mechanisms so that students have a variety of people to choose from whom they will talk to about their issues and concerns.

“When a student is not able to articulate what they believe in and why, pressure groups can swoop in and start disassembling that student’s faith tradition and try and put their own in its place.” -Fr. Larry Rice

Rev. Scott Young: Here in Southern California area there were some tensions that existed between Catholic Newman Club and InterVarsity Groups. So several years ago we started a process of doing some listening sessions—myself and a Newman Club pastor actually organized this. So we had several years where our (InterVarsity) Campus Directors at different campuses and the Newman Club Directors would meet and bring students so we would have more of an understanding of each others traditions and respect that. As a matter of fact now in InterVarsity we have, I think it’s about 30-35 percent of the students in InterVarsity groups are practicing Catholics. And we also have several of our Campus Ministers who function as protestant campus ministers at Catholic universities. There was some tension about twenty years ago. We started an intentional program of trying for mutual understanding and InterVarsity is usually not one of the organizations that’s sites as a pressure group, although there are occasional accusations of that, in the case here in Southern California where there were some tensions we tried to find ways for mutual understanding and collaboration. Which I must say have worked quite well.

BH: When you say tensions, what are the issues that are coming up?

Rev. Scott Young: I think two or three things. One is that a lot of the Catholic students were getting involved in dorm Bible studies that InterVarsity was offering so sometimes that created a tension with the Newman Club and sometimes that created tension with Catholic parents. Occasionally there would be what I called earlier the ‘over-belief’ student and they tend to think that their belief and understanding of God is the only way. So we would have occasional tensions among students in Bible studies or in dorm discussions where that kind of exclusivist accusation would occur. Again, we try to do education, we try to do mutual respect for different traditions. That’s mostly what it was. Sometimes you’ll get Catholic students too who are literate—I understand that’s the exception [laughter]—I would say the same thing is true of Protestants. We have an huge problem with Biblical and theological illiteracy too—but when you have a student who’s gone to the trouble or inherited the faith from their parents or their parish sometimes their doctrinal clashes can be rather..uh..uncivil. [laughter]

BH: Because you’re with InterVarsity, you come from a Baptist background, would you also identify as evangelical?

Rev. Scott Young: I would accept it as one of many labels [laughter] certainly not the only one.

BH: So for students who come from these situations, who are feeling this kind of pressure, how do you deal with that?

Rev. Scott Young: In terms of the student who’s getting attacked by a high-pressure person? I don’t run into that too much anymore but whenever I have seen it I’ve tried to get the students to sit down and ask them “Well what’s really important to you?” So if they can understand where their value system starts, and then try to help them see “Well as strongly as you feel about your value system, the other person feels equally as strong” and then remind them that Jesus said “love your neighbor” and the golden rule. In a listening session sometimes that can be helpful. There are occasionally rigid students that need some sort of humbling from somebody else.

BH: Yonah, you’re down in New Orleans which is a very Catholic city. I’ve got to imagine there’s a different sense of Judaism down there. Have you seen that?

Rabbi Yonah Schiller: There is actually a phenomenon, I don’t know if it’s unique to the Jewish world, but there are these pressure groups that see the Jewish student as particularly ‘tasty prey.’ I was at the University of Florida and in Florida I experienced that in a very significant way. There would be preachers who would take up camp in the middle of campus and draw a crowd and often have these sort of open debates, that’s a nice way of saying it, they were more of a monologue. I’m sure this is not unique to that environment, but it would tend to draw the curious and in an environment where there is not a great religious literacy it was an object of fascination and interest for a lot of the students. It was a safe space for the average student to glean whatever they could glean without actually sitting down and having a significant conversation.

“Yes, that’s true but there’s also this big wide world out there and it’s an insult to the Torah if you can’t also exist in the wider world while at the same time being completely immersed in Torah.”
-Rabbi Yonah Schiller

In the Jewish world there exists fairly aggressive in-reach group, there are a number of them, and they tend to know exactly who they’re dealing with—a Jewish group of students who are not [religiously] literate—so they paint a black and white picture of Judaism and try to get these Jewish students to go to Israel and learn and enroll themselves in a very serious learning institutes. This can be an unhealthy situation because there can be a big kickback when everybody sort of wakes up and figures out where they are—very far from home and they often will not relate to the large distance they have traveled in a short period of time—and if this experience is negative one then the Jewish option for them becomes one that is sort of very far away. There’s a lot of damage that can be done and these very aggressive in-reach groups are in all major cities. It’s a style. It’s a certain approach that can turn off a lot of students and create a very unhealthy Jewish identity as opposed to a healthy one. There’s actually a little booklet in Israel—a booklet that’s been circulated in Yeshivot (Jewish learning institutes) in these classic places of learning called “How to not go off the deep end.”

BH: Could you send a copy? It sounds familiar! This is a Catholic story as well. [laughter]

Rabbi Yonah Schiller: I’m sure it’s not specifically Jewish, I actually don’t have a copy—it looks like somebody xeroxed it in their basement, it’s definitely been circulated. It’s wonderful, it gives you a checklist: Now that you’re interested in Judaism you shouldn’t think that that’s only thing you can speak with your parents about. All conversations don’t have to lead back to the Torah [laughter]. Those kinds of things. We laugh at it but for people who are really coming into it—this is powerful stuff—they’re new to it, but when they come into it for the first time it’s so all encompassing. You’re sitting on the shoulders of 3000 years of scholarship it blows them away—their little fragile 20-year-old existence is kind of morphed into this sponge and everything pales in comparison.

BH: How do you work with that?

Rabbi Yonah Schiller: I have the advantage of being someone who has learned in some of those institutions, so I have a little bit of breadth. So I can say, “Yes, that’s true but there’s also this big wide world out there and it’s an insult to the Torah if you can’t also exist in the wider world while at the same time being completely immersed in Torah.” That’s my perspective personally but it’s also the modern Orthodox perspective and oftentimes that stands in stark contrast to their orientation when they first are exposed to this way of thinking. It’s a challenge. I have a student right now in Israel who’s learning in a place that’s very intense and very closed off from the world and this is the kid who had been leading the sustainability movement on campus, super plugged in to all this modern progressive stuff. He’s fascinated with his new experience, he feels he has discovered Judaism with integrity, it’s got a purity to it, it’s simplified, it’s black and white, it’s very appealing to a very confused world.

BH: This is the crosshairs of what we’re talking about. I love what you just said “that at 20 years it becomes all encompassing” it’s a very vulnerable moment. How do you deal with, in some ways you got the most vulnerable population in religious terms?

Rabbi Yonah Schiller: I’d just like to say, as a vote for ‘religious extremism’ [laughter]—I think there IS a place for some people to really go off the deep end. To go and live on a mountaintop or go into some freaky place of learning and spend the rest of their life there and I think there is a value to that. But that’s not for everybody—and probably not for the vast majority of people— the danger of it is that those people burn out and then ask themselves where have they been for the last five years, where were my parents for the last five years, my brothers, my sisters, my friends? And they’ll come away from that experience shattered as opposed to built up, which, really misses the point.

Prof. Amir Hussain: Our students are your typical undergraduates, right out of high school, eighteen to twenty-two year-old undergraduates. For many of them this is their first time living away from home, the first time when mom and dad don’t take them to mass, they have that choice. Or they have the choice to go to the Buddhist Temple. For many of them I think there’s a sense of maybe not going for the first few weekends—but then through a service project you try to tell them that religion isn’t just the one hour you’re at mass, or the time that you’re doing your daily prayers or your meditations, but it’s how you live in the world. So trying to give them a sense of that. Sometimes it’s the projects that bring them in. They can go to spring break to Mexico and get drunk or they can go to spring break with the Center for Service and Action and help with homes or medical clinics, Alternative Breaks. So for the first year or two they may abandon the religious tradition in the sense of organized religious worship but by their junior year they’re back into it because it’s a different part of themselves that’s satisfied—‘serving other people is religious’ as opposed to ‘being in church on Sunday’ is religious; they get that idea.

Rev. Scott Young: Amir’s experience is reflective of some of mine. A lot of students arrive, even if their faith is underdeveloped, they often still come with the idea of faith as some sort of belief. And by the time they go through the college experience most of them find faith as doing rather than just believing; so it’s emotional, it’s engagement with different aspects of the world, it’s performing some sort of volunteer service. I think that replaces the old pedagogical programs in church life that just emphasizes our identity as Baptists or Methodists or Catholics or Orthodox Jews or fill in the blank, as this set of beliefs. They move into ‘doing’ religion.

Fr. Larry Rice: One of the projects that we are hoping to work on in the coming year or two is some kind of catechetical program that is designed specifically for college students that uses all the communications tools and all the media that they’re accustomed to using but that has faith-related content. It’s going to be a big project but there really is nothing available right now that really works effectively with college students to help raise their level of religious literacy and help them really understand what it is they believe and what the church teaches.

“You do have that student group that’ll go out and party at the same nightclubs as Britney and Lindsay and Paris and you hear those kinds of stories. What’s heartening to me is that there are students who are as appalled as I am.”
-Prof. Amir Hussain

BH: One of the challenges for students who are trying to live out religious beliefs, is finding friends who share their values. Do you deal with that programmatically? Individually?

Fr. Larry Rice: We work on that in a number of different ways. We try to not just engage students but also try to engage their parents. We gather parents’ contact information—they get our newsletters and e-mails—so we can partner with parents to try and sustain their kid’s faith. So when the students call home their parents can say “Oh I see this Newman Club dinner on Friday night, why don’t you check that out?” or “Why aren’t you going on one of these mission trips?”

Prof. Amir Hussain: The question isn’t alternative programs. We’ve got a wide variety of programs. We’re also ten miles from Hollywood. So you do have that student group that’ll go out and party at the same nightclubs as Britney and Lindsay and Paris and you hear those kinds of stories. What’s heartening to me is that there are students who are as appalled as I am by that and say “C’mon, you’re here at a university. If you want to go party with Paris at this Bel Air nightclub why are you here? Mom and Dad should get you an apartment in Beverly Hills. It’d be much cheaper [laughter]. We certainly do offer those kinds of programs weekly, spring break, winter break, I think there is a kind of culture here where service is seen as the cool thing, not as the nerdy-thing and its not narrowly defined—that service means you have to do this.

Rev. Scott Young: Universities themselves have recognized that there are all these problems so its not just Campus Ministry groups but the university itself has developed all kinds of programs to help students not to self-destruct. The other we’ve discovered at InterVarsity is that as much as we’d like to think that we as campus ministers are the go-to people for spiritual stuff a lot of times it’s the faculty. Now at InterVarsity we have a hundred of us, myself included, among a thousand staff people around the country who specifically work with grad students and faculty. They have a much more direct and easy access to students and often are the first ones to recognize signs of self-destruction. We’re working a lot with faculty members to help them know how to help the students in their classes.

Rabbi Yonah Schiller: We obviously work with the university—Tulane and the Hillel have a very close relationship. In terms of serving as an actual resource for the students it’s hard unless the students already have a relationship with us. It’s an interesting question, how to relate to the Paris Hilton phenomenon, not just in terms of being in driving distance to local hangouts, but in terms of thinking about that stuff and what takes up your mind space. A lot of my approach is really about figuring out how to relate on the students’ terms—where they’re at and help people see that there’s also a spiritual component to those worlds. My firm belief is there is real substance that fuels the interest and the passion that’s there. It’s not only a question of translating in terms of becoming religiously literate in the formal sense but the informal sense—the same issues that they’re dealing with, and not necessarily ones that point them to the sentence in the Torah or the Bible that says it, but just the general energy behind what you are experiencing, is profoundly a spiritual one.

BH: Can you talk about how you deal with that?

Rabbi Yonah Schiller: An obvious example is the whole sexual world on campus. Often there’s no understanding that there’s a spiritual component to sex, the thought is “if there’s a relationship, we can maybe develop something deeper” but other than that, sex on campus is basically just ‘friends with benefits.’ This is fundamentally flawed. Those actions do have a spiritual component to them, that’s why one person can often feel crappy when they’re done. It’s sort of connecting the dots a little bit. I find it’s easy for the students to ‘get’ that—I don’t think it’s a foreign element as much as it is unfamiliar to hear it articulated.

BH: How do you talk to someone at 20 or 21 about what this deeper conception of what sexuality means?

“One message our culture gives about sex is that it’s just one more commodity that you have to have as a successful human being. Students [who engage in sex] commodify each other and that’s where the dissatisfaction comes in – nobody wants to be used.”
-Rev Scott Young

Rabbi Yonah Schiller: In Judaism we see sexuality as the pinnacle of spiritual expression and if you feel crappy afterwards then you’re furthest away from where the Jewish perspective wants you to go. It’s not hard to find people in college feeling ambiguous, if not crappy about their sexual life—once you scratch below the surface. They’ll be like, “Yeah I hooked up with this person, yeah, I felt guilty, was it worth it? probably not, it was fun at the time but I feel bad about it now.” Why do they feel bad about it? Because there’s intimacy without connection. Our need for intimacy comes from a spiritual desire to be connected to people; the bad feeling comes from that connection not being rooted in anything real.

Fr. Rice: The way that I help students understand that is that to have that sexual behavior without a spiritual connection is essentially a lie, it’s saying one thing with your body and your actions that your heart is not in. It’s a fundamental violation of the truth, it’s part of the truth of human existence. All the messages that these students have grown up with tell them it doesn’t have to mean anything. But their own experience tells them it does mean something but it doesn’t mean what they thought it would or that the two of them had different understandings.

Rev. Scott Young: Part of the issue is that one of the messages that the culture gives about sex is that it’s just one more commodity that you have to have as a successful human being. Students engage in sex for lots of reasons obviously but one of the reasons—they commodify each other and that’s where the dissatisfaction comes in because nobody wants to be used. Among the other things that have been mentioned, this is another place where we can help students see the disconnect as to why they’re feeling crappy about the experience, that they’re feeling like an object. And it goes both ways, it’s not just females these days, males feel that as well.

Prof. Amir Hussain: It’s good sometimes too to help students see what images they’re giving off. Are they commodifying themselves? In order to look cool you have to be the blonde with the revealing clothes—so trying to get them to understand a little bit about the culture around them is important. And for us at LMU, Hollywood is within driving distance of campus.

Fr. Larry Rice: Well thanks a lot from the Mid-West! [Laughter.]

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

This article was originally published on August 18, 2008.