Forum: May-June 2008


Duke Chapel

Chris Hildreth

Getting Religion

Bridget Booher's article on religious life at Duke ["Religious Life at a Crossroads," January-February 2008] is interesting and informative, but the piece would have benefited from more attention to the fact that, in addition to the considerable efforts of Duke Chapel and the student religious organizations, the faculties of the divinity school and the department of religion have built Duke into an internationally respected academic center for theological and religious scholarship. The surge in religious involvement and interest among undergraduates is noteworthy but hardly unique to Duke; what marks Duke apart from many comparable universities is the richness and vitality of theological conversation already present, not only in extracurricular but also in curricular settings.

Warren Kinghorn M.T.S. '02
Nathan Eubank M.T.S. '05

The writers are, respectively, a graduate student in the doctor of theology program and a Ph.D. candidate in religion.

Bridget Booher's article portrays religion as a very good thing in our culture, and it seems to endorse the present trend towards religious diversity at Duke.

My question is this: Does its reference to "a welcoming environment for those who worship … no deity at all" mean what it says? Does its analysis of a proposed "Faith Council comprising representatives from major world religions" suggest inclusion of those who adhere to the moral worldview of secular humanism?

It should-because if the claim that learning more about other religions leads to a greater understanding and appreciation for one's own faith is to be valid, one's increased knowledge must encompass a healthy awareness of the kind of scholarly wisdom a good university ought to supply. It must include, for example, elementary sophistication in form criticism, which reveals the putatively sacred texts of the Holy Scripture in all major faiths as patchwork quilts [comprising] primitive oral traditions and scattered documents composed by scribes from various localities for various purposes.

It must also include an accurate account of the factional power struggles and the self-serving institutional rules and arrangements designed to perpetuate the dogmas and ritual practices considered proper (even necessary) by the powers that be at crucial moments in the evolution of each religion. It must acknowledge the rather astounding fact that all three Abrahamic religions are based upon the often quaint folklore of pre-modern Near Eastern tribes whose priests and kings wanted to bolster their authority with cosmic claims of legitimacy. It must ask young people who are inclined to be adherents of some religion to reflect on the extent to which-since their claims of metaphysical certainty are untenable-their own allegiance to a particular creed may be primarily a form of ancestor worship or tribal loyalty.

Above all, the general notion that religion is a beneficent reality in today's world must be emphatically qualified so as to rule out theocratic fundamentalism, whose menacing head has been raised in all three Near Eastern faiths. Educated citizens, including especially those produced by a splendid university such as Duke, should be wary of any religious ideology that threatens key achievements of Western civilization, such as commitment to pluralism in philosophy and law. Thus, any Faith Council set up at an enlightened institution of higher education must offer a place at the table to secular humanists.

Henry B. Clark II '53, Sacramento, California

The writer was a member of Duke's religion faculty from 1967 to 1975.

Sam Wells, dean of Duke Chapel, and Michael Goldman, campus rabbi for Jewish life at Duke and chair of the Duke Faith Council, reply:

We are grateful for Dr. Clark's interest in the new Duke Faith Council. The Faith Council was established against the backdrop of widespread assumptions that religions are either dangerous or irrelevant-views amply reflected in Dr. Clark's letter.

The conventional response in recent generations has been for faiths to demonstrate how useful and harmless they are. The Duke Faith Council takes a different approach. Its members recognize the profound conflicts between historic faiths and seek not to minimize or harmonize such differences but to study sacred texts together in order to grow in understanding of their own and one another's assumptions and foster significant friendships across traditions.

The Faith Council makes no attempt at a definition of "religion" and so secular humanism would not be a priori excluded. However, it is not entirely clear to us why Dr. Clark would wish to join a conversation with a group of people whose traditions he seems so little to admire.


*A shorter version of this letter appeared in the print edition.

Many thanks to Bridget Booher for covering a topic that has defined my life at Duke for the last nine years—religious life. Her portrayal of religious diversity on our campus was fascinating. Since I walk among these people everyday, I can testify to their existence, but it also appears clear to me that they were chosen specifically to highlight Duke's religious diversity without paying a great deal of attention to Duke's religious commitments.

While Duke Chapel assumes many roles on the campus, including the distinction of second most visited tourist attraction in the state of North Carolina (Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is first), the role it is least equipped to assume is the place where faith lives and grows. Faith lives and grows, I would argue, in particular communities where individuals come together on a regular basis to worship and work, to pray and play, and find in doing so that the whole of their life together is greater than the sum of their parts. It is the legion of volunteers and externally funded part-time and full-time religious leaders on this campus who foster the majority of the communities where faith lives and grows for students, particularly undergraduates. For the most part, Duke enjoys, pro bono, vast resources of time, money, and facilities via this multitude of faith communities. By way of example, the externally funded United Methodist ministry that I direct requires salaries, benefit packages, and program items costing nearly two hundred thousand dollars. We also own a house only steps away from East Campus, precisely because we want students to think of it and use it as though it is part of the campus.

Deep in the article Ms. Booher mentions the “cobbled together” space a few religious groups share in the “storage and heating equipment areas” of the Chapel basement. These are the lucky ones. Other groups routinely cart worship supplies in and out of classrooms after running the gauntlet of Duke's reservation system only to learn the room is no longer available. And all of us suffer the vicissitudes of relocation and cancellation because we are not of the University even while we are in it.

As Duke moves forward with plans to redesign Central Campus and works to integrate it more fully into the larger university system, the time is ripe to think about incorporating places where faith can be nurtured and mature. The Catholics need a place on Sunday morning where the entire community can celebrate mass together. The Muslims need a place for daily prayer that is not buried in the basement of the Bryan Center . The Presbyterians need space for programming that is not a major thoroughfare from one side of the Chapel basement to the other. Many more need meeting rooms, worship space, prayer rooms, storage space, and offices. All of us need a place where students can prepare meals and linger leisurely over them building trust and growing faith through the time honored practice of eating together.

It is shortsighted and unimaginative not to think of the needs of religious communities on our campus today simply because they might change tomorrow. Where would previous generations of chemistry students be today without the Paul M. Gross Chemistry Laboratory? That building no longer meets the needs of an integrated and interdisciplinary approach to chemistry, but not to build it in 1968 would have hampered all that has been accomplished at Duke in chemistry since then. The Chapel as a venue for a particular kind of protestant Christian worship—what we would call “high church”—works fabulously, but it doesn't work as well for other facets of the Christian faith. It barely works for Catholic worship and it doesn't work at all for the other top four world faith communions now represented in the student body. The religio component of our motto deserves more than an overcrowded basement that was only meant for storage space and duct work.

Imagine, nestled into the campus acreage, a faith village. It could have multiple venues for groups of varying sizes and from various liturgical traditions as well as a variety of faith traditions. The spaces could be adaptable and, thus, shared by many. Other spaces could be even more versatile for meetings or meditation with configuration of the room dictated by the particular needs of the ones using it. Imams, rabbis, gurus, priests, and pastors might have offices instead of “shoe boxes.” Imagine this cluster of buildings around an outdoor area that invites students to linger and mingle as they move between structured religious practices and informal discussions about these practices. Imagine how faiths on this campus might live and grow given a place to put down roots.

Jennifer Copeland '85, M.Div. '88, Durham

The writer is United Methodist Chaplain, director of the Wesley Fellowship, and a Ph.D. candidate in the department of religion.


Lessons Learned

I agree fully with Rosemary Thorne's critique of Teach For America ["Teaching for America, Training for Life," January-February 2008]. Two years ago, my daughter, then a first-year Hampshire College student, took an education course at Amherst with fourth-year students, most of whom planned to apply for TFA. The class featured a presentation by two TFA alumnae, and my daughter was dismayed when they spoke only of the program's benefit to themselves with little mention of the students they taught. To tout TFA as a stepping stone for more lucrative, "respectable" careers is reprehensible and continues to devalue the work of those who have a passion for teaching.

My daughter shared with me assigned reading which made two excellent points about TFA. One, would there ever be a Physicians or an Attorneys of America program with just five weeks of training? Two, whenever possible, school systems should assign experienced teachers to low-income, underperforming schools and place TFA members in high-achieving schools that do not present the challenges and needs that TFA members have been insufficiently trained to meet.

Research on TFA and academic achievement has shown that students of new, certified teachers perform significantly better in reading and math than students of uncertified teachers, including uncertified TFA members, especially in the elementary grades. In the District of Columbia, much is being made over the fact that the new chancellor, Michelle Rhee, is a TFA alumna. However, her first teaching year in a Baltimore school was so disastrous that she took additional courses, received her teaching certification, returned to the school, and improved students' test scores substantially.

It is a disservice to any student, particularly low-income students, to have inadequately trained teachers, regardless of their prestigious undergraduate education. Despite my daughter's school debt load and her significant teaching experience, she says applying for TFA is like "dancing with the Devil."

Melea E. Greenfeld '76, Silver Spring, Maryland

What Makes a Genius?

Your "In Brief" announcement in the January-February 2008 edition of the magazine that Tuan Vo-Dinh [a Duke professor of biomechanical engineering] was ranked forty-third on a list of the world's top living geniuses would not have stood out for me were it not for the fact that he was tied with Osama bin Laden. Has a typo been made or did a (sick) practical joke make it past the editor? I just can't believe that a moral dimension plays no part in assessing human intelligence. Howard Gardner (Harvard University) was a pioneer in the theory of multiple intelligences, and I am sure that he would find exception to the seemingly bizarre approach of Creators Synectics. Can anybody offer me an explanation, or an elaboration, on what you have printed?

Jud Hendelman '56
Montreux, Switzerland


Congratulations (I think) to professor Tuan Vo-Dinh for joining such luminaries as Muhammad Ali and Osama bin Laden, who are tied with him and Bill Gates at #43 on the list of the world's top 100 living geniuses. According to Duke Magazine , the determination was made by Creators Synectics, whose certified whiz-kids came up with the selection criteria. Readers were told that these included paradigm shifting, popular acclaim, intellectual power, cultural importance, and achievement. One might expect that beheading your foes, say, or making a living by knocking people out would work against selection for this elite group, but that's just the opinion of this dim bulb.

Since I am obviously no genius myself, it's difficult for me to fathom a formula that would have the good professor and Bill Gates tied with the other two aforementioned "geniuses." I shudder to contemplate who might be in the bottom tier of the genius group. Britney Spears, maybe?

This sounds like intellectual elitism run amok. I read the matter-of-fact piece to a few people, and they were aghast or thought it was some sort of joke. Is Duke Magazine to be praised for its journalistic impartiality or to be criticized for passing up the opportunity not to mention Ali and bin Laden? Or, once having done so, is it open to criticism for not at least acknowledging the potential for controversy somehow?

While we ponder the question, it is to be hoped that U.S. military forces arrange for the early demise of the group's most notorious member. That would open up a slot for somebody who is uncontroversial, brilliant, and meets Synectics exacting standards, somebody like, oh, I don't know, maybe Hillary Clinton.

Phil Clutts '61, Harrisburg, North Carolina


The Band Plays On

Let's all shout out a hearty "Ring-a-Ding-Ding-Ding-Ding" to Jacob Dagger for his beautifully written article celebrating the success of the Duke Alumni Pep Band ["Bonding Through the Band," March-April 2008]! While the acronym doesn't have quite the dignity of the DUMB, its creation is truly a gift to all of us former band members from founding fathers Nick Superina, Mike Rosen, and Neil Boumpani; Jeff Au's ongoing, now blue-blooded dedication to the program can never be praised enough.

Many years ago, I bought the Pep Band CD, and oh, how it brought back sweet memories of playing in Cameron when "Mel" (Gary, not Lee) ran the Mongoose against Maryland; we beat Notre Dame the week after they'd snapped UCLA's record winning streak; the Tater lit up the scoreboard every night; and the Jersey City kid launched the comeback of Duke basketball. Imagine my surprise, upon borrowing a tuba from the local high school in order to prepare for my first Alumni Pep Band game at the Meadowlands, that I'd hardly lost a thing.

I look forward, every season, to the opportunity to dust off my sheet music portfolio and play a few choruses of "Fight Fight" and "Blue and White." I love meeting some of the youngsters and new alums, and we sousaphone players are developing quite a bond at our recurring get-togethers.

What a fabulous way for the university to reward its band alumni. Perhaps one little vignette will capture it best: In the spring of 1989, as Duke was losing to Seton Hall at the Final Four, my sister-in-law was chiding me about the Blue Devils' demise. My nephew, Alex, who was ten at the time, railed at his mother, and vowed that HE was going to go to Duke, and he'd show her!

Lo and behold, Alex graduated from Duke in '00, a proud DUMB alum as well. Two years ago, his Air Force duties landed him back in South Carolina. Imagine, if you can, how wonderful it was for me to stand alongside him last winter blasting our horns together as yet another visiting team left the "friendly" confines of Cameron on the short end of the score. It was a moment that this uncle will cherish forever!

Skip Heyman B.S.E. '76, Virginia Beach, Virginia


Expensive Speech

Karl Rove as invited speaker ["Speakers Spark Debate," March-April 2008]? All ideology aside, why would the university invite a speaker who represents a government which can only be characterized as totally incompetent, in both foreign and domestic policy? This is not just about a point of view, but about intellectual legitimacy. Should I also assume that he got an honorarium for insulting our intelligence? Who might we expect to hear from next-a Holocaust denier?

Stanley Collyer '54, Louisville, Kentucky


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