With 9/11 as a catalyst, a campus institute encourages students to let down their guard and talk about religion.
We grow up being told that certain topics aren’t considered polite conversation at the dinner table. But each month, a group of UW students gathers to take a calculated risk. They talk about religion.
People may avoid discussing religion for fear of offending others or because they are wary of defending their beliefs in the face of skepticism or outright ignorance. But the students involved in these conversations — raised in different faiths, coming from diverse cultures, and following different academic paths — share a hunger for something that has been hard to find on campus: a chance to talk with others their age who also regard their faith as an essential part of who they are.
These interfaith discussions are central to the work and mission of the UW’s Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions, established to promote mutual understanding and civility among Jews, Christians, and Muslims after tensions arose following 9/11.
“I have always viewed [the institute] as a safe space to ask the hard questions,” says Laura Partain ’13, a Christian who was an undergraduate fellow with the institute as a sophomore and continued to attend its interfaith forums while studying Arabic, Biblical Hebrew, and Rabbinic Hebrew, and earning a degree in religious studies and a certificate in Middle East studies.
The phrase safe space comes up frequently when participants describe these forums. Students demonstrate their methods of prayer, talk about why they wear certain articles of clothing, and even discuss aspects of their religion that they don’t like. Students within the same faith sometimes have fundamental disagreements about controversial issues such as abortion and homosexuality.
“Whenever I would talk about faith before joining Lubar, it would always be among other Muslims,” says Lamin Manneh ’13, who came to the UW from The Gambia. “I would never get a chance to really sit down and ask a Christian, ‘What do you think?’ You’re shy, you’re wondering, ‘Are they going to be insulted?’ ”
A Part of Civil Life
Each year the Lubar Institute accepts eight or nine undergraduate fellows who organize the forums, which draw about two dozen students, and take part in interfaith service projects in the Madison community. They also advise house fellows in campus residence halls about how to talk with students who have questions about faith-related topics such as their roommates’ unfamiliar religious rituals or dress.
“These aren’t deep theological questions, but they’re the kinds of personal interactions that occur all the time,” says Charles Cohen, a professor of history and religious studies and the institute’s director.
During the past summer, the institute staffed a table alongside other student organizations at SOAR (Student Orientation, Advising, and Registration), and handed out lists of both religious studies courses and the more than two dozen student organizations connected to religion, including the campus chapter of Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics. They also offered M&Ms printed with images of a cross, a star and crescent, and the Star of David.
Christianity, Islam, and Judaism share common origins and values, and their histories have been intertwined for thirteen hundred years, but avoiding these connections creates little chance of peace in a world riddled with conflict that often springs from religious differences.
“We no longer have the luxury of being isolated from each other. … We had better learn how to navigate and negotiate those differences, because otherwise, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble,” Cohen says. “9/11 drove that insight home in one way, and I think it’s being repeated in lots of other less dramatic ways all the time.”
But what role can religion play at a public university?
“We are obviously not proselytizing. We have no interest in that; we shouldn’t be doing that,” Cohen says. “But religion is certainly an important part of American civil life, and so, I think it should be part of the civil life of a major campus.”
Some students of faith describe their UW existence as one of living two lives: their campus life and their religious life.
“If you’re not part of a religious community on campus, you will probably never talk about religion, unless it’s to do with politics,” says Stephen Buting x’14, a Catholic who served as an institute fellow last year and sees a future role for himself in the Catholic Church — either as a layperson or in the priesthood.
The notion that college students’ faith identities should not be ignored is expressed often by Eboo Patel, the founder and executive director of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, who spoke on campus last year as part of the UW’s involvement in a White House initiative to foster interfaith dialogue and service at colleges and universities.
“In the most religiously diverse nation in human history and the most religiously devout nation in the West, at a time of global religious conflict, how people from different faith backgrounds get along and what they do together is a crucial question,” Patel wrote recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “And so it must be a central question for our public universities as well.”
While there are no data on the faith practices or religious beliefs of UW students, during the last decade, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute has explored how students change during the college years and what role college plays in facilitating the development of their spiritual and religious qualities. More than half of the students in the nationwide survey rated integrating spirituality into their lives as very important or essential, a level not seen since the 1950s. Nearly 75 percent said they believed in God, and two-thirds said they prayed.
Based on Trust
Ulrich Rosenhagen, a lecturer in religious studies and history and assistant director of the Lubar Institute, leads its weekly forums and advises the student fellows. Rosenhagen is an ordained Lutheran minister from Germany and his wife is Jewish, a biography that makes him feel right at home in Wisconsin with its rich German heritage, and as a mentor to students learning how to have interfaith discussions. With his seminary training and PhD, he has two titles: reverend and doctor. But, he was quick to say at the start of one forum, “The reverend is more important than the doctor.”
During a forum, you are just as likely to hear someone passionately discuss why St. Francis of Assisi is his favorite saint as you are to hear someone else quote a Morgan Freeman line from Evan Almighty, a movie comedy in which he plays God. But the students tackle some tough and tense topics in the forum, too.
“The more interesting ones are the ones where people actually get real — where there isn’t just everyone saying, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ ” Buting says.
In recent years, the group watched the movie A Jihad for Love, a controversial documentary about Islam and homosexuality. Another forum held in a previous year discussed the battle over a cartoon of Mohammed that appeared in a Danish newspaper. An agnostic student argued for free speech, while Muslim students “appealed to a sense of sacredness,” Rosenhagen says.
“We had kind of a nice clash,” he adds. “But you can have these conflicts — you can have these issues and these clashes — as long as you know you can trust each other. Students sense this right from the start: the forum works only because it’s based on trust.”
The trust among the students solidifies during the forum’s annual weekend of prayer, when the students attend one another’s worship services: a Muslim prayer service on Friday night at a mosque, a Saturday Jewish Shabbat service at a synagogue, and a Sunday morning service at a Christian church.
Buting likens the intense experience to bringing someone into your home. “It makes it much more personal and intimate,” he says. “Bring them into your world; then you have a point of reference. People’s worldview makes a whole lot more sense.”
In some cases, students become visibly uncomfortable, but others are struck by the things that seem very familiar in a faith they had perceived as very different from their own.
“All of the specifics were different — different languages, different leaders of services — but they’re all, boiled down to it, very similar,” says Ben Agatston x’15, a Jewish junior who joined the institute hoping to form a more diverse group of friends. “And I think that until you go to all three, you don’t really realize the similarities.”
Manneh, the Gambia native, started attending the forums during his sophomore year after two friends from the Muslim Students Association invited him to attend a Catholic Mass with them. He was hooked and was accepted as a fellow during his junior year. He graduated in May with degrees in history and political science and is making plans to study African history in graduate school, but he hopes to start a similar forum for children in his country, where there is a Muslim majority and a Christian minority.
“We don’t have tensions — it’s very peaceful between the two groups, and we share the same culture — but when we talk about each other’s religions, it’s not talked about positively at all,” he says. “You don’t understand it; you don’t know why they do it. You don’t see the essence of it, so you can’t appreciate it.”
At the UW, the monthly discussions give students the opportunity to explore more of those connections — and where they diverge.
Last year’s final forum, for example, focused on the relationship between religion and the environment. Rosenhagen ceded much of that session to the students, with representatives from each of the three faiths highlighting how their religious traditions are tied to environmentalism. Buting took the lead on Christianity and discussed Franciscan spirituality, which focuses on living in poverty and renouncing worldly goods, as a potential means to protect the earth. At St. Paul’s Catholic Church, located on the UW’s Library Mall, that concept sparked a student group, Vita Pura, which encourages students to live more simply. Carly Braun x’15, a Catholic student who helped found the group, says it’s focused on small steps to help the planet, such as taking one cold shower a week. She jokes that she can’t get into that shower unless she reminds herself, “This is for Jesus.”
Rachel Lerman ’13 explained Earth-based Jewish holidays, including one she called “Israeli Arbor Day” [Tu Bishvat]. She also recounted spending the previous summer on a three-month fellowship at
a center focused on Judaism and environmentalism. There, Lerman connected her Jewish faith with those concerns, living in a tent and working on an organic farm to grow the food she needed.
“It’s consciously thinking about what we really need to live,” she said.
Saad Siddiqui ’13 presented from the Islamic perspective, telling the group that the concept of stewardship is inherent in the Qur’an and referencing a verse that he cited as, “We offered the trust unto the heavens and earth and the hills.”
The sessions are what alumni Sheldon ’51, LLB ’53 and Marianne x’55 Lubar had in mind when they established the institute to promote mutual understanding and civility among Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
Although the student fellows do not receive academic credit for their participation, at the end of their yearlong experience, they give credit — by writing reflections (see sidebars) about how the forums helped them learn about their own beliefs and those of others, and how they’ve grown as people and critical thinkers.
“I originally went in kind of with the wrong idea, because I had come to this campus and had to defend my faith so many times [when asked], ‘What do you believe? Why do you believe this?’ ” says Partain, who today is at the University of Texas at Austin, studying conflict and conflict resolution with a focus on the role of religious identities. “I grew into just really wanting to hear other people’s stories and to hear where they came from.”
Jenny Price ’96 is senior writer for On Wisconsin.