Last Sunday, I spoke with one of my dear friends about God. We were walking down some path strewn with magnolia petals, as the sun finally shone through the trees, talking about the trees, the breeze, the news. I’ve known her since September, when we met during new-student orientation at the Center for Jewish Life. And as our friendship has solidified—as if human ties, those most fluid of bonds, could ever freeze!—the divergence of our political, religious, philosophical, pedagogical, and even culinary beliefs has become clearer; and as friends are prone to the longer they are friends, we came to excavate in that sweet way those tiny moments from the past that so inform their present. Memories, along with the proclivities and fears that comprise human life. This motion toward understanding is reiterated in every close friendship.
But until she asked if I believed in God, as we walked, unnoticeably absent was any discussion of our respective ‘spirituality’ or ‘religion’ or ‘theology.’ Unnoticeably—it wasn’t only absent from our friendship, but also from my thoughts about our friendship. This ‘category’ of beliefs, which regards the presence of some supernatural, or supremely natural, power.
Coming from a Jewish high school, this seemed strange to me. There, my classmates and I were required to either attend prayers or participate in discussion groups about religion every day. Our course load included courses on the Torah and Rabbinic literature, and modern criticism regarding both, courses that every student had to take, and there formed a sort-of common religious knowledge for the entire student body. Further, the school was small, and all the students and almost all the faculty were Jewish. The religion influenced every aspect of student life, from academics to retreats to friendships to extracurricular activities, and so no student was not conscious of Judaism or lacking in beliefs about it. In short, my high school had an atmosphere of spirituality, in which issues of religion were daily points of discussion and thought.
It would be inane to expect such an intensely spiritual environment at Princeton, as diverse and diffuse a place it is; to seek to impose any such situation would be weird and wrong. But that consciousness of religion is certainly marginal and shadowed on campus and is certainly not part of any common discourse between students, confined to existing, insofar as it does, in particular groups and settings. Where religious engagement—in the sense of having to do with religion—happens on campus, from what I have seen, it is wonderful. A few weeks ago, I went to one of the Religious Life Council’s open meetings, this one on dance, and heard and thought about the intersections of movement and spirituality; afterwards, we went and danced on the lawn in front of Prospect House, experimenting with some of the ideas just discussed. Every week, I go to Friday dinner at the Center for Jewish Life, and even though there is little explicit religious content aside from the blessings over the food, those meals too are reminders of religion. I have roommates who participate in various Christian groups and those, from what I hear, are good as well. But the point here—and this is, to a lesser extent, the case with other “topics” like politics or even academia—is that religion has been segmented and sectioned away.
One might argue that, given the history of religion, this is a good thing. That, given its (continuing) legacy of forced imposition and violence, ensuring its compartmentalization, à la separating church and state, and its “volunteer” membership ensure the freedom and safety of all members of the Princeton community. I would not disagree with that; I would very much agree with that! Having myself experienced such religious requirement, at home and school, I know that such requirement is destructive and self-destructive. Few people who would fall anywhere near the category of “reasonable” would support foisting any type of obligatory religion on the student body of a secular university.
But I think some religious consciousness would deeply benefit everyone. Not practice and not belief, but a certain awareness and sensitivity to the possibilities of religion. What it lent me and each of my high school classmates was an appreciation for slowness, a willingness to imagine and to consider the potential meaning of the seemingly mundane. Because if you are exposed to religious texts and questions—as I was, and as students here aren’t—by the nature of discourse, you cannot but help to think about them. Confronted by such questions as “do you believe in God?” you must answer, and to answer is to consider all possible answers among which is “yes!” Once there, you consider what “yes!” would imply about the world, about yourself, and so on, and you have a more meaningful sense of life, without ever believing in the “yes!” Further, whatever your beliefs are would inevitably be challenged by others who, naturally, have different beliefs, and through those discussions, you would gain a better understanding of yourself and the other.
What is here especial about religious discourse is that religion is always bound up in pausing, separating, sanctifying. Think about it: what do temples signify if not the setting aside of space, physically apart from the everyday toil? And what are the Sabbath and the holidays and the fasts if not the clear demarcation of a certain amount of time as holy or different? As in the Torah God rested on the seventh day, religion is founded—and perhaps humanity is, too—on non-work and abnormality. This is not just Judaism: firstly, all religions have holy days which are observed in ways that distinguish those days from all others, and most have places of worship; secondly, the very essence of religion involves appealing to a higher power or inner power not present in any tangible way and, thus, distancing yourself from the bustle; and, thirdly, while religion is often, and often rightly, deemed self-serving, because it involves that appeal to the other, inside or out, it demands the relinquishment of control, which is also a removal—of your hands, perhaps.
Just this past week, I took a day off of classes to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover; I went off campus, to a family home, with a backyard and dog, and participated in a delicious and thought-provoking seder, the ritual meal that serves as the foundation of this holiday of freedom. It was the ultimate break from school, but it simultaneously informs my experience at school via its demands for questioning and relaxing and remembering. Going to services of any sort, or even thinking about going, or not going, but actively so, breaks from the perpetual grind.
Religion, then, seems to be diametrically opposed to this suicidal achievement craze that exists significantly in the student body. (Obviously, religion gets tangled up in politics and crime and money, and gets sullied thus, but let’s consider it as described.) In essence, it has nothing to do with that with which we are preoccupied: jobs, money, grades, members of the opposite or same sex with whom we would like to copulate, getting drunk, eating, sleeping, and so on. In some sense, you might say, in its self-segregation it has nothing to do with everything. I would say, it has everything to do with nothing—no thing, that is—and everything to do with everything, because of the way religious sensibility squiggles out of the Sabbath and the mosque and the church and meditation center and informs every action from then on.
How would this influence the life of your regular ol’ daily Princetonian? A consciousness and thoughtfulness about religion would shift his or her daily routine from a series of interconnected points to a full experience, in which between-class jaunts are no longer motions toward other places, but meaningful in themselves: look at the flowers! Look at the green grass and the beautiful people frolicking upon it! Look at the cobblestones and their wondrously warped edges! Look at the sky—what is the sky? What is the edge of a cobblestone in April rain? Who are those people and what is that bonds me to them? There is no need to answer these with “God”, for merely to think of them, to think at all there, is edifying. Further, such a consciousness necessarily through contemplation contextualizes and, perhaps, realigns your values and sense of purpose, away from self-obsession and toward the recognition of the world as intricate and beautiful and sad, and far larger than just yourself; religions are communities, too.
I think, if every Princeton student—and I know this sounds tyrannical—if every Princeton student was forced to encounter a religious text or experience regularly, our campus would be slightly more relaxed, more compassionate, and more thoughtful. For years, I was forced to exist in a highly religious environment, and forced to practice some myself, and I grew to resent that. But what that religious consciousness has lent me, and can lend anyone is far more subtle: the ability to see what lies behind the objects that consume our lives, the ability to see what lies between where we were and where we’re going, and, thus, the ability to appreciate more fully, against forces of production and exchange and competition, the present and the present wonder of the world, as it is, unchanged and unmoved, just chilling. For when my dear friend asked me that question—“do you believe in God?”—I was a little thrown off and stopped walking, and I looked around at the wonderful garden in which we live, and the clear sky above, and said, “I don’t know, mango.”