January 16, 2009

At new religion office, room for all faiths

Rockefeller Memorial Chapel Dean Elizabeth Davenport asserted both the continued relevance of spirituality on campus and her commitment to serving students of many different traditions Wednesday afternoon at the Divinity School as she revealed her plans for an Office of Religious Life.

On a campus more interested in J. Z. Smith than Joesph Smith, the office will be designed to provide leadership to students of every religious tradition, "from atheists to Zoroastrians" Davenport said, noting her previous experience as a religious mentor at the University of Southern California. She also touted her ecumenical chops. "I enjoyed my role as mentor to atheists," she said.

The Office of Religious Life will offer opportunities for religious exploration outside Rockefeller Chapel by forging relationships with the many seminaries of Hyde Park and beyond, Davenport said. It will also help address issues such as the conflicts between religious holidays and the academic calendar, which pushed back next autumn quarter to start after Yom Kippur.

Davenport emphasized the growing importance of this interdenominational approach to religious life on today's campus. "It used to be that people had a clear sense of religious identity," Davenport said. "Most died as members of the same religious faith into which they were born. This is less true today, when we have the idea of elective choice in faith." She noted that 20 percent of students come from families with mixed traditions, and that these students are often drawn toward questions of broad spiritual exploration rather than specific faith-based reflection.

Davenport also acknowledged the difficulty facing many students in maintaining a balanced spiritual life at the U of C. "In the university environment, individual beliefs are put under the microscope, and things that we want to believe are upset. Many undergraduates experience this University as a hard place to hold onto religious beliefs for that reason."

The structure of the Rockefeller Chapel itself poses an interesting challenge to serving students of diverse religious traditions.

"You can't fight a building like that," Davenport said, referring to the challenge posed by the obvious structure of Rockefeller Chapel in her quest to cater its programming to a broad scope of religious traditions. "Despite the lack of formal iconography, it's problematic by virtue of the shape of the architecture."

Although its resemblance to Europe's Gothic Christian cathedrals may prevent it from feeling like a spiritual home to many members of the University community, Davenport is determined to open it to many nontraditional uses. In addition to the Inter-religious Center in the basement, Friday Muslim prayer services are also held in the chapel. One of Davenport's plans is to use the chancel, the area by the organ, for practices such as restorative yoga and meditation.