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Learning about religion at Stanford University with Steven Weitzman, Professor

In California and maybe even the United States religion is a hot button subject. Mention it and all sorts of bells ring. It is the case at Stanford where a class examining religion at Stanford University is held and students look at religion as it is understood on their campus is studied. This unique class is offered by Steven Weitzman and Kathryn Gin Lum. Professor Weitzman says of his class, “Since the class was an experiment, we kept the numbers very small--to just five. It should be offered on a regular basis, but the teacher who plans to continue it will cap it at fifteen. She (Kathryn Gin Lum) and I conceived the class as a novel way to introduce the study of religion without requiring students to learn about an established religious tradition--something that turns many students off or that proves difficult for them because of preconceived ideas about religion or the study of religion.”

Steven Weitzman (Courtesy Stanford University)
Steven Weitzman (Courtesy Stanford University)

I think that Stanford has a thoughtful and maybe for some unusual definition of the purposes of and reasons for thinking about religion for both students and faculty at the University. This world class institution located in the Western part of the United States in California about an hour’s drive by car South of San Francisco has an open air campus, meaning students can walk in the open between department sections on the University campus.

Stanford News calls the requirement of religion as a viewpoint by the University: “These typical assignments for a religious studies course were accompanied by an analysis of the Stanford University Founding Grant from 1885. The document established Stanford as a non-sectarian university, yet one that also sought to teach students about the "immortality of the soul, the existence of an all-wise and benevolent Creator, and that obedience to His laws is the highest duty of man."

The author of the Stanford News article quotes Professor Weitzman: Weitzman, a scholar of Jewish antiquity, and Gin Lum, who specializes in American religious history, weren't quite sure how students would react to the course. However, as Gin Lum put it, "Stanford has so many strange myths and rituals" that it did not seem like too far a stretch to apply to it theories and methods used in religious studies.

This seemingly unusual statement by Professor Gin Lum who wonders how the Stanford student will react to religious studies couldn’t be verified by this reporter since she wasn’t available for interview. But speculating on the subject makes me wonder what the young generation wonders about the subject, and what they think of their own faith and the very matters of religious identity in their world. But let us turn to Professor Weitzman who has some thoughts on this matter, though I, myself, suspect there is a kind of emptiness about the generation for by media reports they appear bereft of real faith practices and at least interest in practicing the Christian faith in America. Perhaps a purpose of the class is to give students a better handle in their own lives some sense of their own sense of religious identity as well as their identity itself in campus life and the life of religious life in the world. This is a class of big ideas and bold concepts.

"We live in a world where 80 percent of the population identifies with one religious community or another, and where a number of our major conflicts around the world are driven by religious motivation," said Weitzman, who recently led the first Stanford study abroad program to Israel in 25 years.

"To understand the world, you need to understand religion," he said. However, he added, the study of religion is not high on the priority list for most students. Weitzman said that non-religious students might think it a waste of time, while religious students may fear that formal religious studies might attack their faith.

"Alarm bells go off for both groups," Weitzman said, so he and Gin Lum found a way to introduce the core questions of religious studies (What is religion? What is ritual? What is myth?) through a lens Stanford students could identify with – Stanford University itself.

To contextualize the importance of sacred spaces in the study of religion, the class read excerpts from Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane alongside discussions about the role of Memorial Church at a university that from inception was decreed to remain "nonsectarian ... and entirely free from all denominational alliances."

The class also examined the ways Stanford culture embodies the social dimensions of religion, which Weitzman says includes "bringing people together, creating a sense of cohesive identity" and "generating meaning."

In an effort to get a sense of how students and the campus members feel about and have reacted to their religious sensibilities and tastes over a longer period of time in the real way of their practices, I contacted the Dean of the Stanford Chapel who responded in this full and remarkable manner by email. This is his email response:

Dear Peter,

1) The Stanford Founding grant of November 11, 1885, stated that the Trustees shall "Lay off on the Palo Alto Farm a site for, and erect thereon, a church." It also stated that it should be the Trustees' duty "To prohibit sectarian instruction, but to have taught in the University the immortality of the soul, the existence of an all-wise and benevolent Creator, and that obedience to His laws is the highest duty of man." It also stated that the purposes of the university were "to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization, teaching the blessings of liberty regulated by law, and inculcating love and reverence for the great principles of government as derived from the inalienable rights of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

From this, I take it that the founders, who identified personally as Christians, wanted the university to have a spiritual and moral core, but did not want the university captured by any particular Christian denomination; in effect, to be open to the religions of the world. They used general statements of the era about immortality, a benevolent Creator, obedience to divine law, and inalienable rights of man rather than sectarian statements about Jesus and his role in salvation. A rabbi who was invited to speak at the dedication of the church in 1903, and was a regular guest preacher in the early days of the church, explained that Mrs. Stanford sat in the pews of the church on Sunday mornings "at the feet of preachers of every possible denomination and of no denomination. There has not been a single instance where the university would even permit criticism of its guests. Unitarians, trinitarians, infidels, Brahmins, Buddhists, Mohammedans, materialists, atheists, all have been heard, all were welcomed, the main condition of their welcome being that they must have something to say."

In my tenure of experience on the Stanford campus (2000-2014), virtually all forms of spiritual, religious and ethical life are respected and nurtured here. The Office for Religious Life in particular affirms community in the broadest sense, both encouraging particular kinds of faith observance, supporting free exercise of religion, and also striving to connect people through interfaith dialogue and through positive relations between people who would call themselves religious or spiritual and those who would claim to be humanist, agnostic or atheist.

2) Through a variety of surveys conducted on the Stanford campus, it seems that about 50% of our students identify as Christian (around 30% Protestant, 20% Catholic, and 1% Eastern Orthodox); around 10% Jewish; 3-5% each as Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim; and 25% "none" (or humanist, agnostic or atheist). There are also smaller religious traditions represented under 1% each, like Baha'is, Sikhs, Native Americans, and Unitarian Universalists. From a national research on spirituality in higher education that I've been involved with, we've found that more than 80% of college and university students express an interest in "spirituality" while 90% affirm that non-religious people can live lives that are just as moral as those of religious believers. Although non-attendance at any religious services doubles during college from around 20% to 40% from freshman to junior year, spirituality shows substantial growth in college. Likewise, faculty describe themselves as "spiritual" at the 80% level, but as "religious" at a lower level closer to 60%.

3) The Stanford Memorial Church was designed as the centerpiece of the Stanford campus. As Jane Stanford said, "While my whole heart is in the university, my soul is in that church." She also said, "Take away the moral and spiritual from higher education and I want nothing to do with his or any other university." One of the sayings she had carved into an interior wall of the church was, "Religion is intended as a comfort, a solace, a necessity to the soul's welfare; and whichever form of religion offers the greatest comfort, the greatest solace, it is the form which should be adopted, be its name what it will." The church is absolutely stunning, both inside and out -- from its sandstone and tile walls and roofs to its mosaic front… from its stained glass windows depicting the life of Jesus and Christian saints and Jewish prophets (carefully alternating male and female in this university founded as co-educational) to its interior mosaics depicting stories from the Hebrew Bible. It has spectacular organs (one with 57 stops and 3.702 pipes and another with 73 ranks and 4,332 pipes) and a six-second acoustical reverberation time within the sanctuary. Its designers did well in making it the kind of place of worship that its first chaplain described on its dedication day in 1903: "We begin anew today…no less an experiment than this: to test whether a non-sectarian church can minister to the spiritual needs of a great university… It has been built on love; not to teach a theological system, not to develop a sectarian principle, but to minister to the higher life."

Best wishes, Scotty

Scotty McLennan
Dean for Religious Life
Memorial Church, Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305-2090

Returning to the class on religion specifically, I note Professor Steven Weitzman was interviewed in The Stanford Daily and this biographical mention was in that story by Josee Smith:

Steven Weitzman is a professor of Jewish Culture and Religion in the Department of Religious Studies and the director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies. Weitzman came to Stanford from Indiana University five years ago and currently serves as the resident fellow in Roble Hall, accompanied by his wife — an ordained rabbi — and his four children. The Daily spoke with Professor Weitzman about his work on campus and his own thoughts about religion.

TSD: In what other ways have you tried to incorporate religion into your time at Stanford, outside of this initiative?

SW: I’m a scholar of religion, so my courses are about religion. I’m not a promoter of religion, and I don’t see myself as a religious person. I take religion seriously and I identify as Jewish, but I don’t have any religious motivations that I am aware of. I do find value in helping people understand religion, especially religions that are different from their own.

I function as an advisor for a student-initiated course called Interfaith at Noon, which will be offered again in the spring for the third year. It meets once a week over lunch, with a theme that functions as the focus of a quarter-long discussion that brings in guest speakers and involves the students in a discussion amongst themselves. The first year, the theme was religion and the stranger, so what religion teaches about one’s responsibility to strangers, to others, to the marginalized. Much of the focus was on religion and immigration policy. The second year was on religion and the ethics of wealth, and the third is likely to be on religion and politics.

The class itself, as the reader can see, was formed to match a vision set down by the founders of the University. I thought it interesting to get a viewpoint of the founder’s vision of religion. In one quote, Professor Weitzman, put it this way: “… the founders of Stanford were religiuns but non sectarian. They wanted to Stanford to be non-sectarian as well, not affiliated with any particular denomination. And yet they were also influenced by Christianity; and Jane Stanford was especially interested in the afterlife. But if one looks carefully at the architecture and symbolism of Stanford, one can see interest in other traditions--ancient Egyptian religion (as in the Mausoleum built for their son)... spiritualism and other religious tradition.” Fascinating.