President’s Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Religious Diversity at Princeton
January 18, 2012
On a mid-November evening this fall, the Princeton University Chapel glowed with candlelight and reverberated with the sounds of devotional music and sacred narratives. Hundreds of Princetonians and members of the public filled the chapel’s soaring nave as musicians, dancers, and readers gathered in the chancel to celebrate Diwali, one of the most important holidays in the Hindu calendar. Also known as the Festival of Lights, Diwali brings many strands of Hinduism together, as well as a number of other Eastern faiths, and is jointly sponsored at Princeton by our Office of Religious Life, through its Hindu Life Program, and the student-led Princeton Hindu Satsangam — a Sanskrit word denoting those who come together in search of truth.
This is the fourth year that Diwali has been celebrated in the chapel, coinciding with the appointment of the University’s first Hindu chaplain, Vineet Chander, in 2008. Like many initiatives at Prince-ton, it has already become a popular tradition, reflecting not only the increasingly pluralistic nature of religious expression on our campus but also our institutional commitment to creating an environment in which students of every faith — and of none — can bear witness to their beliefs with confidence in a climate of mutual respect. By celebrating Diwali in the chapel, the Office of Religious Life, led by the Rev. Dr. Alison Boden, is affirming that a magnificent monument to what President John Grier Hibben called “the record and the spirit of Christian history and Christian art” is now a sacred space for all.
This has allowed the chapel to remain what its builders intended long after Princeton ceased to be an overwhelmingly Protestant institution — a focal point for religious life and a symbol of its importance to many members of our University community. The chapel’s inclusiveness is at its most visible during Opening Exercises and the Baccalaureate Service, which bring together many religious traditions, but throughout the academic year, the chapel and nearby Murray-Dodge Hall and the Center for Jewish Life are humming with multi-faith activity — from Friday’s Muslim Jummah and Jewish Sabbath services to Sunday’s ecumenical Christian service of worship and Roman Catholic Mass; from Hindu pujas to Sikh langars.
Formal observances like these are only one aspect of religious life at Princeton, as students gather for fellowship, service, and study in a quest for meaning in their lives. At one moment, evangelical Christians are studying the Gospel of John; at another, composer Daniel Asia is reflecting on the interaction of Jewish prayer and music; at another, the Princeton Buddhist Students’ Group is having dinner; and at still another, Muslim students are extending a helping hand to the homeless and hungry in Trenton. Though outwardly quite different, the goal of such activities is much the same — to create what Princeton’s Muslim chaplaincy, also established in 2008, describes as “providing students with the space and opportunity to explore their faith — spiritually and intellectually — in a safe and nurturing environment.” This speaks to an important dimension of religious life at Princeton. With the help of 15 chaplains, for the most part supported by outside bodies, students are encouraged to strengthen their own religious communities and to deepen their own faith; to celebrate rather than submerge religious differences. Princeton’s Muslim community is a case in point. Under the thoughtful leadership of Imam Sohaib Sultan, the Muslim Life Program has established an “Islamic Literacy Series” of semester-long classes and special seminars designed to help Muslim students, as well as non-Muslims, better understand the teachings of this faith. The program also hosts a well-attended series of encounters called “Islam in Conversation,” in which prominent Muslim scholars, artists, and social activists reflect on a wide range of issues, often in dialogue with a member of our faculty.
And so, to the extent that we can gauge it, diverse religious expression is flourishing at Princeton. At the same time, the Office of Religious Life is dedicated to building bridges — not of theological and spiritual agreement, though commonalities frequently emerge, but of understanding and engagement — between faiths as well as between religious and nonreligious students who, each in their own way, are seeking purpose while at Princeton. This robust yet respectful dialogue finds its fullest expression in the Religious Life Council, a group of 30 undergraduate and graduate students chosen on the basis of formal applications with a mandate to explore their respective beliefs in an atmosphere of absolute trust. It takes time to build such confidence, but over the course of many private and public dinners, members of the council reach a point where no topic is out of bounds — from polytheistic elements in Christianity to the legitimacy of same sex marriage.
In learning about other world views, often for the first time, these students develop a fuller and more nuanced understanding of their own. The religious education that occurs within the council and in other inter-faith settings is very much in line with what we hope to achieve by bringing students of different cultures, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds together in one class — a new self-awareness and a new appreciation of the other. As Dean Boden put it in a recent sermon, “let us remember that others can often teach us the most about ourselves — about what we hold dear.” And that, for me, is the ultimate reward of religious diversity at Princeton.