Everyday, I walk by St. John’s on my way to campus, and the pure, driving force behind cathedrals never fails to fascinate me. The stained glass is scientifically impressive, the flying buttresses are architecturally interesting, and the high ceilings are an HGTV dream. The physical features of a beautiful church are incredible on their own, but the building process is truly enigmatic. So many people, working tirelessly and altruistically to construct a specific, extravagant shrine they never quite see to fruition. This work is a product of faith, a selfless declaration of belief and morality; it is incredibly difficult to translate to the modern, secular world. Perhaps, this resonates with the difficult placement that religion finds in contemporary society—our culture believes strongly in empirical data and individuality, which disallows blind faith in something larger than humanity.
At Columbia, religious imagery pervades campus, from the statue of Athena that graces Low Steps to the seal of the school. Next time you walk into Butler, look above the door, and you’ll see “In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen.” In Thy light shall we see light.
The Psalm is simple, but the message nearly opposes the general campus culture. Essentially, it conveys the knowledge we acquire as contingent upon religious practice and moral structure. The centuries-old motto of our school puts spirituality first, and discovery second. When Columbia was founded, this spirituality was based in religion; in modern, secular times, however, this spirituality is probably more analogous to caring about the moral state of oneself and others. This campus culture tends to reinforce ambition, self-reliance, and academic success above all else, making the idea of putting kindness before intelligence feel revolutionary.
Many would argue that this is because the world has simply more become secular. I don’t entirely disagree; I have never considered myself religious. Yet, my life has always been adjacent to religious narratives. My grandmother tells stories criticizing an Ireland where God was equivalent to guilt—where the practice of religion was founded on confession and penance. Yet, she still walks my grandfather to mass on Sundays. At home, we’re theoretically Catholic: We go to mass exclusively on Christmas and Easter, and perform all the major sacraments. When I was growing up, however, there was no pressure to conform to any specific belief. Instead, I was simply asked to engage with the moral principles of Christianity, and to use these principles to inform my worldview.
This is to say that the Bible is interpretable like any other literary work; therefore, it invites analysis. This process of analysis can only operate if two requirements are met. First, the reader must move past plot and engage with larger themes of the text. Second, the reader must also develop an inherently personal relationship with these themes based on the specific experiences.
The first dictionary definition of religion is “the service and worship of God or the supernatural.” This definition itself constricts the potential for individuals to extract some moral gain from any religious system of beliefs. That is to say, if you place a religion’s entire structure of morality upon believing in the power a specific individual, this entire structure is easy to disavow. Essentially, in denying the deity or the surface narrative of a religion, individuals also decry the moral system that the narrative represents. This seems to be a major modern argument against personal involvement with religion. Those who are avidly religious often refuse to remove themselves from blind, entrenched beliefs. Those who disclaim religion have deemed it trivial or irrational.
I fear that the student body of Columbia has fallen into this stagnant opposition to all things religious. Arriving here, the diverse range of moral standpoints is impossible to ignore. Like I’ve pointed out previously, the student body here tends to obsess over curated individuality. As a result, there’s a feeling of being adrift here—unanchored among the drastically varying opinions and principles. The campus thrives on discourse surrounding diversity and identity, but still tends to ridicule religious affiliation or belief. I get it—we all like the empirical.
However, this limits the potential good that religious structure and moral systems can provide the secular world, especially because empiricism and religious values are able to coexist. For example, my Dad calls himself a “Christian atheist,” explaining that the values of Christianity, like an adamant belief in honesty and principles like “love thy neighbor,” are imperative to his life. They remain so, despite the logical improbability of the Christian deity. With this example in mind, I’m not asking us to accept any religion, or its surface-level narrative, as fact; instead, we should engage with the more inclusive, larger themes this narrative presents.
These themes were pervasive during my formative years. In moving here, away from that bubble of religious value systems, this interpretable structure of morality I used to access all but disappeared. Columbia is a secular institution; it has no underlying set of defined, religious values, but that shouldn’t mean it must keep itself separated from any publicized value system. The administration keeps relatively quiet about supporting a unified body of major goals and convictions, which perpetuates the lack of communality that students experience on campus. Our mission statement is a list of facts; it does nothing to characterize aims and values, or capture the undercurrent of the campus. When we engage in discussions about the lack of school spirit on campus, this very concept of spirit is left undefined. Without an idea of what this University truly stands for, what foundation is there to even build a community on?
Our campus should be a kind of cathedral. It should embody a value system that our student body works for and towards. Perhaps, the University needs a secular kind of creed—an interpretable set of values that students may consider when joining the community. Perhaps, we simply need to pay more attention to the old motto, and thematically reinterpret it. As a University, we should look for guidance within a system of morality, and engage with a system of values, even if only to challenge them. It must work to not only produce good students, but good people as well.
Natalia Queenan is always looking for pretty churches to visit. She would love to hear your recommendations, religious text interpretations, and brilliant ideas to improve campus spirit at email@example.com. Miss Interpretations runs alternate Wednesdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.