This semester, “Bursting the Bubble” will focus on undiscussed issues on campus as they affect students’ daily lives.
Last week, Robert Ives ’69 was appointed Bowdoin’s new director of religious and spiritual life, which inspired us to think about the nature of spirituality at Bowdoin.
When asked about the College’s religious culture, David Smick ’15 replied, “I think it’s personal, if noticeable at all. The only time I really saw that there was religious interest here was last year at Easter time; half the people I know, including myself, went home to celebrate.”
A variety of students we spoke with echoed Smick’s observation. At a secular institution like Bowdoin, it is no surprise that religion is not outwardly prominent on campus. However, this does not imply that students do not contemplate their spirituality.
While exploring different belief systems two summers ago, Lucy Walker ’14 came across Western Buddhist teachings. The following fall, she serendipitously stumbled upon a table for a new club called Circle at the Bowdoin Student Activities Fair.
“It was just what I was looking for at that moment,” said Walker. “Circle is a safe space for students to come together no matter their religious or spiritual beliefs. Even if they don’t identify with any sort of religion at all, it is a comfortable, confidential forum where we can share our experiences and connect with other people on their journeys.”
Through Circle, Walker found a group of students on campus who have a similar desire to live more mindfully. Though Walker defines spirituality as a process of personal exploration, she emphasizes the importance of connecting with other spiritually curious individuals.
“I found Circle to be a place to share what I was beginning to discover and to connect with other people through what I was exploring on my own,” said Walker, who is now a co-leader of the group.
During her initial days at Bowdoin, Leah Kahn ’15 also sought out a community to help ease her transition to college life. Coming from a Jewish household, Kahn wanted to continue celebrating the traditions from her upbringing.
“I saw Hillel at the Activities Fair and went to the first Shabbat dinner, then kept showing up because it was a fun group of people,” said Kahn.
“I associate Judaism with my family and visits to my cousins’ or grandparents’ house for dinner, so being around this new group of students through Hillel felt very welcoming and familiar,” said Wahn. “The people drew me to Hillel; it wasn’t so much that I wanted to be more involved as a Jew at Bowdoin. I would consider my involvement with Hillel as more cultural than spiritual.”
Now a board member of the Bowdoin Hillel, Kahn’s view of Hillel as a cultural group parallels her larger personal views on the role of religion in life.
“For me, religion is about the traditions and events you do together, the food and the people, the shared knowledge because you’ve grown up in the Jewish culture,” explained Kahn. “The more spiritual questions like ‘Does God exist?’ are not as relevant to my Judaism, especially at Bowdoin.”
In contrast, other students choose to join faith-based organizations that have a strong focus on religious practice in addition to cultural traditions. Andrew Hilboldt ’13 was raised in a Christian household and wanted to grow stronger in his faith during his time at Bowdoin.
Hilboldt joined the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship (BCF) as a first-year and became close with BCF staff leader Rob Gregory. He shared an idea with Gregory for creating another opportunity for students to remain connected with their Christian faith—inspired by a group he came across when touring Amherst College as a member of the varsity squash team.
“At Amherst, I met up with a friend I knew, and she took me to a Bible study for athletes,” said Hilboldt. “I realized Bowdoin didn’t have one and thought it might be cool to start it.”
At first, Hilboldt was wary of coming to a college with such a secular reputation. Ultimately the lack of a religious culture became more of a reason for him to choose Bowdoin. Hilboldt felt a responsibility to show how multi-dimensional the Christian faith could be.
“I noticed at Bowdoin that there was this notion that you were a Christian or you weren’t a Christian—it was very much black and white,” Hilboldt said. “If you were Christian, you didn’t go out and drink, didn’t socialize.
“Unfortunately, much of college life is debaucherous, so a lot of people think ‘Oh, I was Christian in high school, but in college there’s no place for that,’” he added.
In order to change the simplistic notion of Christianity on campus, Hilboldt created the Athlete’s Bible Study, a weekly group open to all members of the Bowdoin community but aimed at athletes and sports fans, which discusses living a Christian life through study of the Bible. He wanted to lead by example, and show that a Bowdoin student-athlete can continue to lead a devout life.
“My motivation for starting Athlete’s Bible Study was targeting that audience of people who put their faith on hold,” said Hilboldt. “I wanted to show that someone can play a sport, go out, be smart, and be a Christian who has a strong faith.”
Hilboldt was concerned that his fellow believers might have been hesitant to identify themselves as Christian because they were not participating in formal religious activity.
“You don’t have to be doing something as part of an organization to be living a Christian life,” Hilboldt said. “For me, playing squash in a way that serves God is just as valuable as reading the Bible for an hour.”
Hilboldt strongly believes there is a place for Christianity in athletics and sees parallels between religious teachings and sports training.
“I use Christianity to enhance my performance on the athletic field. There are so many analogies in the Bible about pushing ourselves physically and mentally as a team and the importance of sportsmanship,” said Hilboldt. “Christianity can be seen as motivation to reach our potential in sports for more reasons than self-gain.”
While Hilboldt is not afraid to speak openly about religion, he is more cautious when it comes to defining spirituality.
“I definitely know of people who say they’re spiritual but not religious,” said Hilboldt. “My dad always says there are non-believers, seekers, and believers. I think the people who toss around the word ‘spirituality’ are the ones in that seeker category—they’re curious,” said Hilboldt.
Though students may be quietly questioning their religious or spiritual beliefs, Hilboldt, Walker and Kahn all corroborated Smick’s recognition that in general, Bowdoin students seem to only prioritize religion and spirituality during the Christmas season or high holidays.
Hilboldt notes that even for those who do belong to religious organizations, putting faith into practice is often limited to the group’s meeting times.
“If you’re in a religious group, that’s like an extracurricular activity as opposed to part of an everyday lifestyle,” said Hilboldt. “You don’t see religion in everyday life—it’s much more a special thing.”
Kahn also feels that religion is not a large part of life at Bowdoin.
“The majority of my friends don’t do anything in regards to spirituality or religion,” he said. “You don’t hear of too many people going to church every Sunday or having to deal with the dining hall because they keep Kosher.”
Walker agrees that Bowdoin students generally appear to be non-religious or non-spiritual, but questions the underlying reasons for this attitude.
“In general, Bowdoin just feels like a very secular place, and I’m not sure if that’s to do with the structure of Bowdoin as a whole or if it comes down to students not having the space in their schedules or minds to really make that kind of inquiry,” said Walker.
Though Hilboldt, Kahn and Walker come from different religious backgrounds and have distinct ideas about spirituality, they all believe religion or spiritual growth is vital to their Bowdoin experience.