Welcome on behalf of the College Chaplain and Interfaith Council!
Salem Academy and College have a rich spiritual history, which continues to bring soulful texture and meaningful cultural enrichment to our campus. Salem Academy and College’s story began in 1772 with a local Moravian Church’s vision to provide an expansive education for women and girls in the community, a radical aim in its time. Today, given Salem’s religious roots, Salem College continues to be a place that emphasizes thoughtful and embodied religious and spiritual life for our manifold students. Our campus is only as strong as the strength of its welcome to students, each on their own particular path. Salem is always working to nurture a community where students who identify as Muslim or Catholic, Atheist or Buddhist, “none of these” or “done with all of these,” feel a deep sense of belonging, a community where they can grow, reflect, grieve and celebrate as whole people. Whatever their journey, our office works to ensure that Salem students engage the “big questions” as they reflect on the meaning, ethics and values of life at personal and collective levels.
The Office of Religious and Spiritual life, headed by our College Chaplain, Rev. Dr. Aminah Bradford, offers opportunities to grow within the context of one’s own spiritual tradition by organizing a religiously diverse team of chaplain affiliates who offer everything from group studies of religious texts and prayer gatherings to celebrating religious fasting and feasting days. If there is not a chaplain affiliate associated with a student’s tradition, we hope they will let the College Chaplain know right away!
Why so much talk about Religion and Spirituality?
Great question, and the answers are many:
Given Salem’s historical connection to the Moravian Church, an attentiveness to questions of the sacred, of meaning, of ethics and values is part of the genetic make-up of our institution. A liberal arts education is comprised of more than just information, it’s also about formation. It is more like an ecosystem where attentiveness to healthy relationships and patterns of living, dynamic formation and growth are all part of what makes a strong student who is prepared to integrate knowledge into a life that isn’t fully knowable. In other words, Salem doesn’t seek to graduate only knowledgeable students but also students who are wise, who can discern how to apply their knowledge in ways that promote health and peace, who feel able to navigate the complexities and ambiguities and moral quandaries that life holds and to do so not just as an individual but as one whose life builds into the common good of a world that is deeply interdependent.
In the past one to two decades the science of spirituality in health repeatedly demonstrates that spiritual health is part of the larger wellness picture. “Spirituality” in this case is not tied to a specific religious tradition but to a person’s sense of living connection to something beyond themselves. Spirituality is a person’s sense of what is sacred and a way of making sense and meaning out of a world that is packed with beauty and pain, hope and despair, and surprising wonder-filled encounters of peace and joy. “Spirituality” can be a reference to what transcends what we can know in our material bodies, to matters of heart or soul, but spirituality can pertain just as much to the physical realities of our day-to-day lives. Given these interconnections, Salem College’s Leadership in Health Science and Health Humanities is working to incorporate education around spiritually integrated wellness. As demonstrated through the Spirituality Mind Body Institute of Columbia University’s research, “spirituality and religion positively impact health and wellness across the continuum of care. In prevention, treatment, and the experience of severe and recurrent mental illness, both primary and co-morbid outcomes are improved when the patient and their family receive spiritual and religious support. Understanding the critical intersections of spirituality and mental health can increase the overall effectiveness and quality of treatment across an individual’s continuum of care.” The Office of Spiritual and Religious life works to ensure that both from the student life co-curricular side and the academic curricular one, spiritual wellbeing are understood as integral to happy and healthy humans.
Thriving Friendships and a Compassionate Campus
Recent research shows that building friendship across religious differences on campus deepens students’ capacities for empathy and respect for difference. As noted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, emerging data also indicates that “although students may develop such relationships on their own … college administrators can play a crucial role in fostering them. When colleges create opportunities — such as campus spaces, policies, and programs — to nudge these relationships along, friendships among students from different religious backgrounds thrive.” Our office partners across campus to build opportunities for friendship across religious boundaries.
New Secularism, Spiritual Wisdom and Holy Envy
The Office of Spiritual and Religious Life and the Interfaith Council provide opportunities for students to practice navigating religious differences, which requires the habits of self-awareness, self-regulation, differentiation and humility alongside exposure opportunities. While the US is facing a decline in organized religious life, religious diversity is on the rise, as is the intensity of faith-based ideologies and conflict; see: PRRI’s Data on the Religious Climate in the US. Fundamentalism, which we associate with lower tolerance for nuance, difference and a higher tolerance for violence, extremism and exclusion, is also growing globally. As our students learn to stay at the table with those with whom they disagree, or even by whom they are offended, they are cultivating a way of being that contributes both to their own wellbeing and the health of the community.
Although Salem college is no longer formally tied to one religious tradition, this does not mean we are an a-religous campus, where students are asked to check their ethical and religious commitments at the door of the classroom. That would be what some like ethicist Jeff Stout at Princeton would call a secularized campus. That is not Salem’s goal. Students should feel welcomed and able to bring their full selves into the project of education, a choice that requires learning to express and hear one’s own beliefs and those of others, navigating belief-based conflict, and learning to discern between discomfort and threat. In other words, Salem students are learning to live bravely.
At Salem College we work to embody what Princeton’s Jeff Stout has called a New Secularism. Rather than taking a secularized, which aims to keep religious beliefs from influencing classroom discussion or campus life, Salem College prepares its future graduates to contribute to a healthy society where our they understand and even relish in the exciting but challenging position of not being able to, as Stout puts it, “take for granted that their interlocutors are making the same religious assumptions they are.” This kind of religiously inclusive conversation or “New Secular” space both requires and produces certain virtues. As Vassar’s Jonathan Kahn has put it, this kind of healthy secularism requires “a discussion between religious and non-religious [students] who are acutely aware that [a truly hospitable campus] requires an extraordinary balance between prizing and cherishing one’s own convictions and the awareness that these same prized and cherished conventions are contestable, and may at times act as a bludion against [others].” When students learn to see their own beliefs through the eyes of others’ differing perspectives, we believe that the wisdom and skills needed for a healthy democratic and diverse society grow.
While quite often students will begin and end a conversation disagreeing with the other’s perspective, opportunities to cherish and respect the strengths and beauty of other traditions can also emerge in a way that matures one’s engagement of their own tradition in a way that Barbara Brown Taylor and others call “Holy Envy.” In her book Holy Envy, Taylor credits former Bishop of the Church of Sweden Krister Stendahl for the phrase. In a 1985 press conference, he share three guidelines for interreligious engagement in a deeply pluralist space. He explained that when we seek to learn about another religion, we should learn about it from those who are devoted to that tradition, rather than the religion’s enemies. Further, we should not hold up the worst parts of one tradition to the best parts of our own. And finally, he invited his listeners to leave room for what he called “Holy Envy.” It is in our deep appreciation for the gifts of another’s tradition, that we learn what it means to love those who are different and even become better adherents of our own tradition.