REED HOME Gryphon icon
Feature Story
reed magazine logoSpring 2008

Celia Gellman ’09 (left) with Chaverim members lighting Hanukkah candles

In response to the “spiritual listening project” commissioned by the Dean of Students’ office in 2006, three members of the Reed religion department sent a letter to President Diver, the Dean of the Faculty, and the Dean of Students in February 2007, expressing concern that the project ran counter to Reed’s founding principle of nonsectarianism. The letter, signed by professors Michael Foat ’86, Kenneth Brashier, and Steve Wasserstrom, said, in part:

…Perhaps the instigators of the project felt that the term “spirituality” is tradition-neutral or even uncontested. There is a growing body of recent scholarship that would suggest otherwise. We would commend, as a starting point, Wade Clark Roof’s work, Spiritual Marketplace, as well as Zinnbauer, Pargament, Cole et als., “Religion and Spirituality: Unfuzzying the Fuzzy” in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 36 (1997). Zinnbauer, citing Roof, notes that “the label of ‘spirituality’ has been adopted by identifiable groups of believers.”…It is interesting that “spirituality” was the word chosen for the “listening project,” because in identifiable groups “spirituality” has a positive value as a living personal experience in contrast to “religion” which is often represented as formal, institutional practice. The groups the Zinnbauer study identifies as holding most closely to this distinction are New Age groups, mental health workers, and non-traditional Episcopalians. Because surveys often rely upon a kind of working definition, and because such definitions might tend to tacitly espouse some person or group’s criteria of what makes an idea or practice “religious” or “spiritual,” we find the project and possible services hard to square with the nonsectarian principle that Reed would remain unaffiliated with “any religious denomination whatever.”...

Maybe we are making too much of this. The interviews and assessments [in the spiritual listening project] might be intended simply to find out things on the order of whether or not students need a ride to church. But we note with grave concern that the project is not directed toward other ways in which students might make their lives meaningful…political associations, cultural affinity groups…That is, it singles out spiritual (again, defined by whom?) ways of making life meaningful from among other ways. There is, at a minimum, the possibility of a fostering attitude here. More to the point, the way it is framed might tend to grant privilege to certain religious outlooks (the spiritual ones) over others (nomocentric/practice oriented traditions and ways of life).

The religion professors’ letter prompted a detailed response by President Diver, which was also circulated to the faculty. Following this exchange, the faculty debated and approved the following two motions, at a faculty meeting on April 23, 2007. The motions were brought to the floor by Robert Knapp, Reginald F. Arragon Professor of English and Humanities.

Motion 1:
The Faculty affirms the instruction of the Will that founded the Reed Institute and expresses its desire that Reed College shall forever be and remain free from sectarian influence, regulation or control, permitting those who may seek its benefits to affiliate with such religious societies as their consciences may dictate.

Motion 2:
It is the sense of the Faculty that it is inconsistent with this principle of non-sectarianism as stated in Amanda Reed’s Will that the College or any entity within it, whether of the Faculty or the Administration, engage in activity that might reasonably be interpreted as valorizing any particular religion, religious practice, or form of spirituality. Individual members of the College may of course join as private persons with any affinity or religious grouping of their choice. Nothing in this motion shall be construed as limiting the freedom of academic departments or programs to engage in the critical study of religious traditions, or of departments, programs, or offices of the College to sponsor speakers or events that foster a vigorous and vital academic community at Reed College.


reed magazine logoSpring 2008