Spirituality and health
Spirituality and health
Finding your own faith
BeWell talks with Rev. Scotty McLennan, Stanford’s Dean for Religious Life, about the meaning and significance of faith, how to find it within, and how to find it on campus.
Why is faith an important part of a person’s well-being?
Without faith, we would be mired forever in existential angst! Faith is often misunderstood as something that is “blind” or a “leap.” However, faith just involves having a sense of meaning or purpose to life. Faith is an integration of all that we know about what truly, ultimately matters — intellectually, emotionally, scientifically, aesthetically, and personally. Faith comes in many different forms: some traditionally religious, some spiritual but not religious, and some entirely secular. Looked at the other way around, faith at its best is the grounding for everything that we are. Like love, most of us experience faith at least sometime in our lives — although there are some of us who do not, like Albert Camus’ main character in The Stranger (L’Etranger).
What would you recommend for someone beginning their spiritual journey?
Don’t be a spiritual couch potato. Get up and start climbing the mountain — in virtually any direction. As a Hindu priest once told me, there are many paths up the spiritual mountain. Some paths are cul-de-sacs or lead over cliffs, but many will direct you toward the summit, whether they go through meadows or woods, streams or swamps, thickets or rock faces. There are trail crossings along the way where you can meet spiritual travelers with different experiences that might be helpful to you in your own trekking. However, you won’t get anywhere by sitting on the couch and viewing the mountain from a distance. Practically speaking, some people find it easiest to begin their spiritual journey through yoga and meditation practice, others through attending various religious services, others through participating in music and art and drama, and still others through faith-based social service and action. Really, there are as many starting points as there are people.
What religious traditions are encouraged at Stanford?
You name it — and if it isn’t here yet, let’s get it started! There are currently 35 different organizations in Stanford Associated Religions (SAR), including Baha’is, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. There is a group called AHA! (Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics) which meets for fellowship, organizes events on campus, and engages in dialogue with religious groups. There are many different kinds of Christians, from Roman Catholic to Eastern Orthodox to Evangelical Protestant to Progressive Protestant. We used to have Unitarian Universalist and Zoroastrian groups on campus; I’d love to see them back. I’m particularly excited that we now have a facility called the CIRCLE (Center for Inter-Religious Community, Learning and Experiences), comprising the whole third floor of the Old Union, where people from many different religious traditions can rub elbows, learn about each other, and experience different kinds of worship and spiritual practice.
Does modern life pose any special challenges to faith?
Sure it does, and it should. Religion is ages-old, we often feel too busy to access our spiritual dimension, and the meaning of life always seems to be changing as we are confronted with the new. Applying ageless wisdom to current conditions is always a challenge, and one taken up by preachers in religious services every week with scripture that dates back thousands of years. Fortunately, many of those writings have literally stood the test of time. On the other hand, as the Dalai Lama said recently here on campus, if modern scientific evidence clearly refutes any tenets of Buddhism, then those Buddhist tenets will have to be rejected and Buddhism will have to change. Christians long defended the earth as the center of the universe before they finally yielded to scientific evidence, and now many Christians are struggling with biological evolution. The science-religion dialogue will continue to be a major challenge. On the other hand, the secular orthodoxy of so much of modern life has its own limits. Greater spiritual awareness — for example, through practices like meditation and yoga, which have been scientifically validated as good for your health — will also make us happier modern people.
Any parting words of advice?
Don’t take advice. As Siddhartha learns in Hermann Hesse’s novel of that name, get out and have your own religious and spiritual experiences. It’s your own life, your own heart, your own soul, and no one can tell you how to become enlightened. That’s your personal work to do, although there are wonderful communities around to help you out. John Donne reminds us, of course, that no man is an island, and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached that we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Thus, love and compassion are ultimately at the center of the meaning of life, as I see it. Around Stanford, the Office for Religious Life tries to be a resource for you, wherever you might be on your spiritual journey. Check out our website at http://religiouslife.stanford.edu … and may you never stop growing.