Celebrating Religious Pluralism

Published in the September 12, 2018 edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Each fall during Opening Exercises, the University Chapel hums with the soaring sound of organ music and dances with the swirl and flourish of colorful kites. Student speakers read prayers from multiple faiths and spiritual traditions, and entering freshmen pause amidst the festive buzz of Orientation activities for a contemplative gathering devoted to the University’s ethical commitments and mission.

Student members of the interfaith Religious Life Council gather in Murray-Dodge Hall.The interfaith character of Opening Exercises reflects an inclusive vision championed by Dean of the Chapel Frederick Borsch ’57 in the 1980s and carried forward today by Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel Alison Boden. Dean Boden strives to make it possible for Princetonians to pursue their faiths and spiritual projects, however they define them. Through worship services, interfaith dialogue, lectures, choirs and concerts, sacred text study, and more, the Office of Religious Life (ORL) enables a wide spectrum of theological opinion to flourish and encourages respect for diversity and ethical reflection.

For many members of our community, the ORL plays a vital role in making meaning in life. The ORL staff believes that all people experience a continuous process of seeking to understand who we are and why we are here. This journey of reflection and self-discovery happens in many ways—religious, spiritual, ethical, and secular—and ORL supports all of them.

Some find meaning through worship—ranging from the ecumenical Christian worship service held in the Chapel each Sunday and the weekly Jummah Prayer led by Imam Sohaib Sultan to regular Shabbat services in the Center for Jewish Life and the Saturday morning Satsang led by Hindu Chaplain Vineet Chander. Others study the Bible, Bhagavad Gita, Torah or Qur’an.

Throughout the formative college years, the ORL encourages students to explore who they are and how to integrate their belief systems into daily life. For example, international travel opportunities allow students to put their values into practice.

Under Dean Boden’s tenure, delegations have examined the intersection of religion, human rights, and social change in Cuba, worked with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists in Thailand and Myanmar, and explored arts, religion, and culture in Ghana, to name just a few. Recent trips organized by the Center for Jewish Life have traveled to Morocco and Greece to immerse themselves in Jewish history. This fall, Dean Boden will lead an interfaith delegation to Oman to study reconciliation and healing in the wake of conflict, and Associate Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel Theresa Thames will guide a civil rights tour of the southern United States.

The opportunity to learn across difference lies at the heart of each of these experiences. The ORL believes that religious and theological diversity fosters productive and illuminating conversations. In these interfaith interactions, the ORL welcomes individuals’ deeply held religious beliefs while cultivating an ability to listen to differing viewpoints in the spirit of respect and dignity.

To support an environment inclusive of all faiths and identities, recognized student groups, including religious organizations, are open to all students. While organizations do not need to be registered with the University, those that receive this formal recognition must abide by Rights, Rules, Responsibilities, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of identity characteristics, including religion. For example, Koleinu, Princeton’s Jewish a cappella group, and the Chapel Choir, which performs every Sunday at the Chapel’s main service, embrace members of all faiths.

Many of our students celebrate these religious and theological differences and embrace the potential for interfaith dialogue. Some of these exchanges take place through organic encounters in the Center for Jewish Life or Murray-Dodge Hall, both of which have been renovated in recent years to improve accessibility and create dynamic communal spaces. Others occur through more formally structured forums such as the Religious Life Council (RLC).

The RLC is an undergraduate organization committed to fostering conversation among students of all faiths. The RLC reflects a long tradition of interfaith dialogue at Princeton that dates back to 1981, when Dean Borsch established an Interfaith Council. This group met at his house for regular dinner discussions on what they called “Big Questions.”

Today, the RLC convenes weekly dinners under the leadership of Associate Dean of Religious Life Matthew Weiner. Members from across the spectrum of religious belief make an intense commitment to fostering civil dialogue and cultivating interfaith friendships. The RLC also hosts public events including Interfaith Thanksgiving, Interfaith Day of Service, and a range of lectures. This robust slate of programming remains a national model for interreligious student work.

Visitors to Princeton’s campus often remark upon the dazzling diversity and vibrant strength of religious expression on our campus. What they observe is a credit to traditions with deep roots at this University, and to Dean Boden, the staff of the Office of Religious Life and other Princeton religious organizations, and the many community members and leaders who renew and supplement those traditions for today’s students, faculty, and staff.

- C.L.E.


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