Faith faces challenges and freedoms

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March 23, 2010

1:01 AM

The gamut of belief systems in college is infinite. No two people undergo the exact same spiritual journey, and the first two installments of our look at religion on campus demonstrated that variety: a reformed Jew, a Christian, an atheist, a Muslim and an apathetic believer. Some found their beliefs changed, while others found them enforced. In particular, Mike Landis ’10 and Yael Gilboa ’11 found that their personal experiences confirmed their religious identities.

Mike Landis became a Christian his senior year of high school. He said his experience with faith has been very individualistic.

“I would say it was primarily personal, but that’s more in light of how I think the faith works,” he said. “I think it is something to be shared; you have to have both at the same instant, but you don’t find your identity in the group. Your identity as a Christian is just between you and God.”

A religious studies major and possible philosophy minor, Landis said he feels that all of his classes have shaped his views, but have not necessarily challenged his faith.

“There have maybe been some classes that brought up some harder questions that I’ve had to deal with what I believe, why I believe it, the veracity of the Bible and everything,” Landis said. “Different things were different struggles at different times.”

Landis had high expectations for philosophy classes.

“When I first started, I thought, ‘Oh, this huge ivory tower of all this intellectual knowledge.’ But when I got in the class, I just realized that everyone’s sort of on the same page,” he said. “They may have lots of facts and knowledge, but no one’s going to be fully versed in everything. I feel what’s sort of happened is, as I’ve gotten more exposure to atheist views, other world views, critical analyses of the Bible, they all have their own flaws too; and they’re very biased on their presuppositions.”

Landis found that his academic analysis of his Christian faith strengthened his beliefs.

“I think that what’s been good is engaging with the academic studying of [Christianity] has taken away the fears of the unknown,” he said. “They’re sort of on the same level as me. We’re all subject to our culture whether or not we want to believe that — we can see that through all of history.”

Landis partially attributes his faith to supernatural experiences. He categorizes those encounters as instances when God pointed him to a relevant, specific, but completely unfamiliar Bible verse, or times when God spoke to him. One experience with a friend was of a darker nature.

“I was praying with a couple friends one time, and I saw this dark hooded figure behind one of my friends,” he said. “It was pretty freaky, but I was like, ‘This must be my imagination.’ But at that moment my friend said, ‘I have this terrible pain in my neck, right behind.’ Like the thing is right here [Landis points to right behind his neck], and we prayed about it, and it left.”

After the prayer, Landis’s friend said the pain was gone, and Landis told her what he’d seen. Landis finds that experience impacts everyone’s beliefs; no one is objective.

“Everyone has biases and presuppositions,” he said. “But I think that people that want to say that they’re objective — they’re completely blind to their own biases. I think that people want to think that intellectualism is over the experience, but that all they’re really doing is living out their experiences.”

Yael Gilboa ’11 has had a wide variety of experiences with her Jewish faith.

“I went through a serious swing,” Gilboa said.

Upon entering the College, Gilboa joined Hillel, wanting to participate in a Jewish group with both social and religious functions.

“It’s not very big, but I think it’s a really good place to get together,” she said. “It’s a good way to keep my cultural identity.”

Gilboa says the small size of the Jewish community at the College has allowed her to explore her own religious identity.

“It’s not like JewPenn [University of Pennsylvania] or WashJew [Washington University], where there would be three services of Hillel every night,” she said. “But for me, I think it’s good that I came to a school where there are few Jewish people because I realized how important it is to my personal identity.”

Throughout college, Gilboa became more involved in Hillel, and her annual summer visit to Israel inspired her to keep Shabbat like her orthodox grandmother. Gilboa explained Shabbat as the practice of not using electricity, handling money, working or having anyone else work for you on the Sabbath. It begins with lighting candles Friday night and ends Saturday night.

“It was really, really peaceful for me, and I did it for about a semester and a summer, just for my own personal reasons,” she said. “I just felt like, ‘Hey, I’m Jewish, let me try this out; I feel like it resonates with me.’ And so I did it, and it was great.”

During her sophomore year, Gilboa continued to keep Shabbat and be kosher, but another visit to Israel that winter break changed her views again.

“I figured out that I wasn’t doing it for the reasons that others were, and it was no longer a peaceful thing,” she said. “So I didn’t keep it anymore because it wasn’t good for me. But there are people in every religion who undermine your efforts to be either more or less religious. I think it’s true, particularly in orthodox religions. You have people who say, ‘Oh well, good job, but you’re doing it because you’re supposed to, not for the right reasons!’”

Gilboa now participates in weekly Shabbat services and the yearly Passover dinner with Hillel.

“I think in the long run, what I have right now is good,” she said. “Sometimes it’s nice to be around people of the same religion because you can understand things in the same way.”

She also teaches Hebrew to children at Temple Beth El on Jamestown Road, despite the synagogue being different from her more traditional Jewish faith.

“It doesn’t necessarily cater to the needs of all Jewish students on campus,” she said. “For example I come from a conservative Jewish background, so one of the problems I face as a teacher there is teaching the students to read Hebrew rather than transliteration. One of the things I’d try my freshman year was going to a Saturday morning service. But then you realize this is Williamsburg — there are 20 million churches and one temple.”

Like others, Gilboa gained greater intellectual freedom at the College.

“If you choose to open your mind and let yourself be exposed to these different things, then you can be exposed to a lot more,” Gilboa said.

Whether or not students begin college with the intent to explore their religious beliefs, after four years, many leave with an altered perception of faith. Some encounter new ideas in the classroom, while others find their beliefs strengthened in religious groups or through personal relationships. College can be an environment for students to explore their beliefs and take advantage of the diversity of thought, which is what makes these four years so unique.

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