John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Like Some of our Students: Looking for the Meaning of Faith

October 23, 2013John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

I have been aware for some time that although the practice of conventional religious behaviors, like church attendance, falls off dramatically for first-year college students at residential colleges and universities, their interest in matters “spiritual” does not. And in this context, by spiritual I mean questions and thinking about ultimate values for living one’s life, perhaps in the realm of the sacred, but certainly also the secular. The basic question then for higher educators like me becomes do we respond to these spiritual interests of our students, especially those of us who work in state supported institutions, where, let’s hope, there is some respect for the principle of separation of church and state; and if we do respond to these student interests and needs, how do we do so?

I am writing this post a few days before I will be attending the annual Students in Transition (SIT) Conference organized by the University of South Carolina’s National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, which I founded in 1986. For approximately the last 15 years at both the SIT and the First-Year Experiences Conferences, my wife, Betsy Barefoot and I have been asked to join the leader of the conference series, Mary Stuart Hunter, in facilitating a session entitled “Spirituality, Authenticity and Wholeness in Higher Education.” This is an adaptation of a session we saw done at the 1997 meeting of the American Association for Higher Education, facilitated by Alexander and Lena Astin, Laura Rendon, and Art Chickering. We thought it was powerful and secured their permission to replicate it. Basically, this is a session for reflection and sharing, in which a variety of higher educators share their values and to what extent their current college or university employer is acting in ways that are consistent with the values of the individual educators. The idea here is that when our values are congruent with those of our institutional leaders and policy makers, then we feel more congruent, more whole, more authentic. And when we feel that way this rubs off on our students and they too are more likely to feel congruent with the institutional values and ethos. The challenge comes, of course, when the institution makes decisions, engages in practices that are not consistent with the dominant values of its community members. Just how do we cope with that and at the same time attempt to remain authentic and whole?

I want to make it clear that I write this with a self-identity by which I would describe myself as a very secular man, who attempts to use both feelings and rational thoughts to comprehend the challenges I face. I am not a member of any organized religious group. But I do have a set of values that are most important to me and by which I attempt to live my life. In that respect I would say that I engage in spiritual thinking and acting.

What really triggered my thoughts in this piece are two things—1) the actions of the Tea Party in shutting down the US government and wreaking havoc on the world economy and 2) a sermon I heard recently.

I said above I am not a member of any religious faith, although my culture is decidedly white, anglo-saxon, Protestant, because of my family upbringing. But I do accompany my wife fairly regularly to her Sunday church service at All Souls Episcopal Cathedral in Asheville, North Carolina. I do this as an act of fellowship with and fidelity to my wife. The most recent Sunday that I went with her we were delayed on our 35 mile drive to church by a serious accident on an interstate we must use. And that resulted in our arriving in the middle of the sermon, just as the Priest, Father Todd Donatelli, was saying something to the effect of “…..and this is why I support the Affordable Care Act.” Wow. That really got my attention. I was not used to explicitly political statements coming from the pulpit. This made me interested enough that I did something I had never done before: about a week later, while on a solitary walk on our mountain top, with the wonders of the internet and my I Phone, I logged on to the Cathedral’s website which made it possible for me to listen to the entire sermon, and how the priest got to be talking about the Affordable Care Act ( see and the sermon for October 6th).

This sermon was delivered at the end of the first week of the recent government shut down. I had become painfully aware of what the Tea Party didn’t want: the Affordable Care Act. It was less clear to me what they did want instead. As I struggled to understand their beliefs, I was persuaded that these beliefs were for these fellow citizens a matter of faith.

And that was what this sermon was about: faith—the meaning of faith. And as this priest laid this out—or at least this is my interpretation of what I think he was arguing, faith is not what you believe, even though that is often a conventional meaning of the term “faith.” Instead, he went on, faith is how you live. And how you live is a function of the choices you make. Our thoughts about who should govern, what we want government to do, who should receive health care and how, these all relate to beliefs that lead to choices, and in many cases actions. I came to understand then the Tea Party faith as I observed their actions. It was certainly not the faith (choices/actions) I wanted for the health care of the American people, the flaws of the ACA notwithstanding.

I have written before of my theme of needing to be reminded of what matters most, of what I have already learned and come to understand—and now must continually put into action.

This reminded me of a course I took my second semester of college, as I was getting myself off academic probation at Marietta College, Sociology 101. It was the most intellectually liberating course I took in college and thank goodness I had it in my first year. My professor was also my new academic advisor, which was not a coincidence. I remember the epiphany I had when I really came to understand the power of what he was teaching me: Sociology studies human group behaviors. Humans learn their behaviors in groups. Humans create beliefs about the goodness and badness, rightness and wrongness of things and these become their values. And they use these values as the bases of their behavioral choices. So if I could understand their values I could understand their behaviors and even predict them. And that would help me enormously in my interactions with fellow human beings. And fifty years later it would help me understand the Tea Party—up to a point.

I know my students are searching for this definition of faith: how to live their lives through the choices they make. And I am still doing the same. In my own work with students I always found it useful to focus with them on their choices. But I never called that a matter of faith. But I do see now and agree that faith is not what you think or say you believe, but how you live. And we see that through the choices we make as individuals and as a country.

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