If she can help it, Washington Post journalist Sally Quinn prefers to avoid the phrase “spiritual journey.” Quinn, who co-moderates the blog “On Faith” with Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, finds the words overused. But she is quick to acknowledge that people’s relationship to faith can change over time — and having interviewed hundreds of scholars, politicians, and other American leaders about their religious viewpoints, she knows that the undergraduate years are often a period of remarkable transformation.
“I always ask about college,” Quinn said, “because often people will say that when they got to college they became confused, they started questioning their own religious traditions, or they rejected what they had learned as children.”
“So this is an excellent time for you to be having a discussion about faith,” she said, looking at the group of students and chaplains gathered in Beren Hall at Harvard Hillel on Sept. 23.
The group was there for a lunchtime panel called “Engaging Religious Difference: Personal Quests for Purpose,” during which Quinn interviewed five undergraduates to elicit their spiritual biographies. The event was part of “Faith Live on the Harvard Campus: Personal Quest, Public Conversation, and Global Citizenship,” a daylong series of events about the role of religion in life at Harvard and throughout higher education in general.
“It can be difficult for students to find a space where they can speak their mind on these issues,” said Bernie Steinberg, president and director of Harvard Hillel and chairperson of the program. “We wanted to give students the opportunity to speak in their own voices and connect with each other on questions of meaning, faith, and purpose.”
Sponsored by the Harvard Chaplains organization, the day included the panel at Hillel, conversations with members of the Harvard Pluralism Project, dialogues among freshmen at Annenberg Hall, and fast-breaking prayers (Iftaar) with the Harvard Islamic Society. The culminating event — which drew a crowd of nearly 400 — was a “Celebration of Diversity and Hope” on the Science Center lawn. Students enjoyed dessert, interfaith musical performances, and a talk by Quinn, who addressed her own relationship to religion and spirituality.
The five students Quinn interviewed at Hillel come from diverse religious backgrounds: Sadia Ahsanuddin ’09 is Muslim, Rachel Esplin ’10 is Mormon, Ilan Caplan ’10 is Jewish, Liz Cook ’10 is Presbyterian, and Mihiri Tillakaratne ’09 is Buddhist. Nearly 50 students, faculty, and chaplains — representing an equally varied group of faiths — gathered to hear their stories.
“I’m going to grill you,” Quinn warned with a smile, before launching into the first interview. She asked each participant to share his or her religious upbringing, then inquired if the students’ convictions had changed since coming to Harvard. Several of the panelists noted personal transformations.
“Lately I’ve been going through changes, boiling down what it means to be Christian,” said Cook. “I’ve stripped away the layers and discovered that the most important thing for me is my relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Esplin, who is president of Harvard’s Latter-day Saint Student Association, noted that the pluralism she encountered at Harvard helped invigorate her beliefs.
“Where I am from in southeast Idaho there isn’t a lot of religious diversity,” she said. “It has strengthened my faith to learn about others.”
Ahsanuddin, on the other hand, recounted a difficult soul-search.
“My faith was strengthened here, but it was a rough ride,” she said. “When I first came to Harvard I started to question my faith. I wondered, is there even a God if people are believing so many different things? How should I approach ideas of objective morality and truth?”
After a long struggle, Ahsanuddin’s convictions were reaffirmed.
“I had enough to base my faith on, enough to ease my qualms, that I was willing to take the step and accept Islam and all else that came with it,” she said. “I realized I am definitely a Muslim and that’s that.” Ahsanuddin also mentioned that she found the Harvard Islamic Society to be a supportive resource as she grappled with religious questions.
Noting that Harvard students were a busy crowd, Quinn asked several panelists how they found time for prayer.
“I do the ‘official’ prayers three times a day,” Caplan said, “but I also leave time for individual prayer, such as when I’m walking through Harvard Yard or before an event during which I would like God to be with me in a more conscious way.”
Tillakaratne had a similar response.
“I meditate at least two or three times a week for 15 to 30 minutes,” she said. “But I also try to be aware of each moment while walking down the street to class. For me, meditation is an ongoing thing,” she added.
When asked if she was able to clear her mind, Tillakaratne laughed.
“As a senior worrying about exams and finding a job next year, it’s hard to find clarity of mind! But meditation does help. It takes me at least 10 minutes of meditation to stop worrying and calm down to a point where I can be fully present,” she said.
A few of Quinn’s questions focused on practical matters such as clothing and marriage.
“Will you marry someone Jewish?” she asked Caplan.
“It is very important to my family, and I don’t take that lightly,” he said. “It is also important to me to continue my identity which is intimately connected with Judaism. The people who are closest to me — my family — I expect I will need to be able to share that piece of my identity with, both practically and internally, and so it is probable that I will end up marrying someone Jewish, though I can imagine other options as well.”
Quinn then asked, “What do you feel about the watering down of Judaism through intermarriage, such as concerns so many Jewish leaders?”
“I’m uncomfortable with the terminology of ‘watering down,’” Caplan replied, “because I think individuals can find great fulfillment in interfaith relationships, and I think the mixing of religions can lead to higher spiritual awareness as much as it can lead to anything else.”
Ahsanuddin’s interview took a lighthearted turn when Quinn asked her how she keeps her headscarf in place.
“We use safety pins, and you can also wear a cap underneath to fit the cloth over so it won’t slide,” she said. “Curly hair doesn’t give you as much trouble.”
On a more serious note, Quinn was curious to know if the students had encountered religious intolerance.
“People are often critical of the Mormon religion and sometimes call it a cult,” she said to Esplin. “Have you experienced this?”
“The vast majority of people are incredibly open-minded at Harvard,” Esplin said. “There is always a lot of curiosity, though, because people don’t know a lot about Mormonism.”
Ahsanuddin, who is from the Bronx, said that she experienced hostility and tension following the events of 9/11.
“People would say, ‘Why don’t you just go back to where you came from?’ or they would stare coldly,” she said.
In Beren Hall, though, the atmosphere was nothing but respectful. Personal opinions may have differed, but the commitment to the broader project — discussing faith in an open, tolerant environment — was evident among all five panelists.
“Giving people the opportunity to speak about their own religious identity is the first step in building bridges to others,” Steinberg said. “We hope that the transfer and exchange of values will lead to real, positive action in the world.”