Originally conceived as an non-sectarian ecumenical space, its neutrality was challenged in the 1960’s when students called for denominational worship within it, and the chance to worship outside of it—an accommodation for those discontented with the building’s explicitly Christian design.
For Reverend Scotty McLennan, however, Stanford’s Dean of Religious at Life, the explicitly Christian design conveys an important lesson for students in the 21st century.
“Diversity of visions… and understandings of the truth are an opportunity for energetic engagement and dialogue with one another” he declared in a sermon delivered during University Public Worship in 2001.
The Christian character of the church, he insisted, must be understood in the context of pluralism.
“A pluralist approach does not mean giving up our Christian commitments, if we’re Christian, or our Jewish or Muslim commitments if we’re Jewish or Muslim. Indeed, we need those commitments if we’re to be credible dialogue partners.”
For McLennan, unambiguous religious affiliation does not preclude tolerance or acceptance of other views. Rather, it vitalizes discourse, “opening up those commitments to the give-and-take of mutual discovery and understanding.”
In a reversal of Jane’s Stanford’s original provision—prohibiting sectarian worship in the university—explicit religious expression is now prominent on campus.
There are 35 religious groups registered with Stanford Associated Religions, under the auspices of the Office for Religious Life. Groups meet frequently in CIRCLE for prayer in the multi-faith sanctuary, as well as for religious study sessions and social activities. Memorial Church hosts regular denominational and interfaith services. There are also two Hillel buildings that provide daily programming of Jewish and general interest.
Such organization indeed provides a platform for substantive engagement between communities.
“We have, at least a couple times a year, a joint day of prayer with the Muslim community,” said Rabbi Mychal Copeland of Hillel at Stanford.
“We come to each other’s prayer spaces, learn about each others prayers, and share meals together,” she continued.
Inter-communal exchange is not only religious in character, but also social.
“We organized Alternative Full Moon on the Quad with the Islamic community, and we also did Food and Finals with them,” said Gloria Munoz, president of Undergraduate Catholic community.
“We’re in the process of [organizing] playing broom ball with RUF (a Presbyterian group)” she continued “and we’ve played with Mormons in the past.”
According to Isaac Bleaman, former president of the JSA, the Jewish community has hosted AHA, the Atheist student group for Shabbat services and discussion.
These exchanges transcend what Jane Stanford thought possible. She feared denominational affiliation would lead to a divided student body and thus ordained strictly universal worship on campus. Contemporary religious life at Stanford affirms that unambiguous affiliation is not only non-divisive, but also the basis for substantive relations.
Religious expression in the public sphere of campus, however, is not completely untroubled.
The nature of a Liberal Arts institution presents challenges to religious students, both socially and academically.
First, the permissive environment in matters of sexuality and substance consumption can create what feels like an unwelcoming culture for those with traditional religious sensibilities.
Alternative Full Moon On The Quad can be seen as an effort by religious groups to counteract what may be an exclusionary culture for a minority of students.
While liberalism admirably celebrates freedom of choice, it is a complex matter when the decisions of the majority disaffect a minority—whether ethnic, sexual, or religious.
Some students communicated the difficulties of expressing their beliefs in a secular environment, despite Stanford’s reputation for an accepting and politically correct atmosphere.
“I’ve noticed that Stanford students tend to feel more comfortable expressing themselves around other people of other faiths” said Sahar Khan, editor of Avicenna, the Stanford Journal on Muslim Affairs. “There is more inhibition with people who don’t have a religious belief.”
Munoz, President of the Catholic community, mentioned the Anselm society, a group that supports traditional marriage, who were criticized by LGBTQ interest groups.
“They just want to make sure students hear both sides of the story,” she averred. In her mind, the commitments of liberalism should honor both opinions.
“I have seen that, when liberal students are intolerant of more conservative students. [They’re] going against [their] own beliefs.”
The scenario is complex, however, precisely because both sides feel targeted and are not tolerated by the other.
Academic study can also serve as a challenge to religious students.
Rabbi Copeland mentioned problems with the Structured Liberal Education program where students had difficulty reconciling their belief in the divinity of scriptures with the historicist analysis they engaged in.
“Students feel like they have to make a choice between the faith they grew up with and the things they learn.”
Copeland argued that such challenges are ultimately beneficial. “Students emerge with stronger faith. There is no longer fear that the whole wall will crumble if one of the bricks is taken out.”