Focusing on Faith Diversity at Smith

Olivia Goodman '14News Editor

April 7 marked the kick-off of Spirituality and Inter-faith Awareness Week: Exploring the Intersection of Ideas, Practices, and Beliefs, sponsored by the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life. The week included four special events: Beyond Belief: Unusual Spiritual Journeys; “I Celebrate Both”: Balancing Religious Heritage with Social Identity; A Special Soup, Salad, and Soul Lunch Discussion; and Pet-A-Pet Day.

Matilda Cantwell, the first Interfaith Fellow at the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, helped organize the week in response to student reports about the “taboo” of talking about individual spirituality and organized religion at Smith. The goals of the week were to raise the visibility of the Interfaith Council on campus as it moves toward becoming a chartered organization, and to raise awareness of the religious diversity and interfaith collaboration on campus by highlighting the “intersectionality” of religious identity in the context of other social, cultural and spiritual affiliations.

In addition, the Center hoped to support the work of student Aine Sweetnam ’13, who is researching about students wary and/or neutral about the subject of religion on Smith campus (and who coined the acronym “SWANS” for her project).

While the week did look at the role of religions – particularly Christianity and Buddhism – Cantwell singled out the idea of “spirituality” as something distinct though related from religion and discussed the importance of the term. She also touched upon the significance of the week given the polarizing religious extremism often tied to American politics.

“Spirituality calls us forward into our ethical commitments and keeps us going when things are hard. I am interested in the idea that we can use that word, while simultaneously recognizing that religion can be hard to talk about and requires care and thoughtfulness,” Cantwell said. We don’t have to be experts on religion to express curiosity, and we can be sensitive without being silent. Religion has hurt many people, and in the global context of the United States, many feel stung by the political rhetoric of the Christian right. I am interested in all of us learning to speak back without dismissing religion altogether.”

Cantwell also commented on the talk given by Robert Jonas, the founder and director of The Empty Bell, a contemplative sanctuary in Northampton with a special emphasis on the Buddhist-Christian dialogue, and on the arts. “This event was a first-time ‘pilot project’ so we wanted to draw upon existing resources. We have a pre-existing relationship with ‘Cathedral in the Night’ who helped bring Jonas to campus. We felt his program, which is about the overlaps between Jesus and the Buddha, and Christian and Buddhist practices, were perfect for the themes of the week.”

Smith graduate Anna Logowitz ’07 held the discussion “I Celebrate Both” on Thursday, which dealt with the topic of balancing religious identity with other affiliations. Logowitz spoke about the importance of maintaining awareness of the interaction between faith, interfaith and other identities.

“As members of the discussion pointed out, there will always be outliers in every group – religious or otherwise – and these are often people with interstitial identities. Sometimes they move away from the center of their groups by choice, but often also they are pushed there,” Logowitz.

Interfaith Council member Red Uttormark ’16 commented on something she took away from the week – the role of religion and spiritualism for a college student. “Something I have been thinking a lot about, and I hope was conveyed to some extent during the week, was that college does not need to be a period without religion or spiritual practice. The spiritual community on campus has made great efforts to be conscience by recognizing, inviting and affirming other groups on campus that have felt marginalized by organized religion at some point.”

“Beginning discussions on multi-faith or multi-identity-faith experiences as something that comprises a community of its own, not merely a collection of outliers from other communities, can help change the perspectives of those who push people to the fringes, but also helps those pushed change their own story,” Logowitz said. We are something specific, special and interesting, not a cultural afterthought. Sometimes we are the bridge between communities that mistrust each other. This is hard, but it is also wonderful, and a topic well deserving a place at the table.”