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God and Man at Dartmouth

Today's post is from Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. Patel is the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, an international nonprofit building the interfaith youth movement. This post originally appeared at On Faith, the Washington/Post Newsweek forum on religion.

Patel I chuckled to myself wondering what William F. Buckley, the author of the landmark conservative tract God and Man at Yale, might have thought of this year's Baccalaureate Service at Dartmouth College. In addition to Christian hymns and Bible readings, there was a Native American prayer offered in the Yuchi language, and recitations from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions.

The main speaker – yours truly – was a Muslim.

One theme of Buckley's classic work is that God should be at the center of people's intellectual journeys, and therefore should play a far more significant role on campus. And when Buckley spoke of God at Yale, he meant the Christian idea of God. (According to a recent New Yorker piece by George Packer, Buckley refused to promote David Brooks - now at The New York Times - past a certain stage at his National Review because he was not a "believing Christian".)

Buckley would be happy to know that religion is once again being taken seriously on college campuses, but one of the reasons is because of the diversity of traditions present. Jews, Catholics and Protestants have had an institutional presence on campuses for many years, and colleges (including Wellesley, Duke, Princeton, Brown and Georgetown) are increasingly hiring Muslim chaplains to minister to the growing numbers of Muslim students on campus. Dartmouth has all of the above, plus the first ZaZen Chaplain I've ever met on a college campus.

Dartmouth, like many other campuses, also has a staff person specifically devoted to organizing interfaith projects, in the recognition that fragmentation around faith too easily leads to dangerous division.

I spent some time talking with the Al Nur Muslim Student Group at Dartmouth. The President is a white convert, as is the Muslim Chaplain. Of the four women present, two were of African ancestry, one of South Asian heritage, and one was ethnically mixed. Some wore headscarves, some didn't. One graduate was going back home to Lahore where she planned to become a teacher, and another was heading off to Germany on a Fulbright to study religious identity and citizenship there.

Robert Spencer, under the sponsorship of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, had made a high profile visit to Dartmouth this past fall, as part of IslamoFascism Awareness Week, and I was interested in how Al Nur had responded to that.

The only way they could, they told me: by organizing "IslamoFashion Awareness Week."

College campuses are one place that a "big tent Islam" is being built – a community that welcomes all Muslims regardless of theological school, ethnic background or level of observance. The encounter between these different interpretations produces a space of remarkable dynamism and creativity. People ask questions they would never have thought to ask before, and develop answers far more sophisticated than the ones they are accustomed to giving.

The same is true for faith on campus, period. One of the frustrations of my own college experience is that religion was rarely a part of the discussion, either as a personal matter, or as part of the broader discourse on multiculturalism. That's changing, both because students are reporting that spiritual concerns are indeed important to them and because religion is all over the front pages of newspapers and students need to know something about it as they enter the real world.

I share with most progressives a commitment to inclusion, and I share with Buckley a commitment to tradition. The new trend of taking faith seriously on campus amidst diversity should make both camps happy, largely because it is being done with an eye towards pluralism.

As Diana Eck, America's most widely-read scholar of religious diversity (who, incidentally, began her observations of the changing religious landscape at her own university, Harvard), notes about pluralism - it is not simply an acceptance of diversity, but a direct engagement of that diversity, including a serious understanding and commitment to the tradition you come from yourself.

You can read Patel's Dartmouth address here [pdf]. Read his other posts on the Faith Divide at the On Faith site here. Patel will be giving the the Starr King President’s lecture at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, Saturday June 28th. Rev. William Sinkford and youth activists will respond. Rev. Rebecca Parker moderates.