*PODCAST* State of Sewanee: a conversation about religious inclusion on campus

Chris Woolverton (C’17) serves as head Angel of the Sewanee Angel Team. Lucas Crossland (C’17) serves as head sacristan. On Friday, November 18, the two joined Lam Ho (C’17) for a conversation about religious inclusion. The text below is an entire transcript of their conversation.

LH: How do different faiths tie into the “glue” of Sewanee’s campus?

CW: Well, I feel like we’re in a very interesting position here at Sewanee, in that we are in fact owned by the Episcopal Church. That’s one of those things that is very interesting to me. You know, when I was giving tours of Sewanee… that was one of the first things I had to explain: yes, Sewanee is owned by the Episcopal Church, but it’s connected in a very weird way that a lot of people wouldn’t think about. We are under the umbrella of Episcopal education, but that doesn’t mean that every aspect of our experience is governed by the church here. I think the tradition here is excellent in that it is a place in which we can all exist in unity and where, at least in terms of intellectual discourse, there’s a lot of respect for the plurality of belief systems here at our fine university.

LC: I just want to start by saying that I don’t represent the views of the Episcopal Church; my views are my own. But I will say this: while I think that Episcopal heritage is a core tenant of our institution, the Episcopal Church gives room for different expressions of that faith. Most famously, the Episcopal Church is the via media, the middle way, and I think throughout history it has given precedent to an intellectual exploration of faith. So with the institution of the Episcopal Church, whether it’s their faith or not, [one brings] their own views to the table.

CW: Right. And personally, and I won’t represent every person who’s not necessarily theistic, I do find the religious community incredibly welcoming and opening to people like me, who in other circles would be deemed a heretic. I feel completely welcomed and able to participate in a larger way. I feel like religion is not defined—when it’s defined with very clear boundaries, leaves a lot of room for exclusion. For instance, defining religion as purely belief is highly reductive and not necessarily useful and leaves out many of the community aspects and aspects I’d say are positive influences in my life.

LC: People of non-faith would be under that umbrella, right? But I think in some regards, you have to recognize—whatever you call it—there’s a certain spirit when people come together, even in a family or a non-religious meeting. Whether you call that a meeting the spirit of God in a Christian context or just a spirit in commonality among people, I think it’s important then to say that the faith of Sewanee is community in whatever form that takes. And that same spirit, you can call it community, is really a “glue” that holds our campus together. It would be hard just to be an individual outside—it’s impossible, maybe, to be an individual outside of the community. I think a community could lend itself to excluding individuals, but in an ideal world, where that doesn’t exist, it would be hard to define oneself outside of the community that is Sewanee.

LH: So, then, let me ask you—and Chris, you mentioned pluralism already. With that, how do you think Sewanee’s tradition (in this sense, community) gives way to pluralism on campus? Do you think there are ways that different faiths can coexist? Do you think, for the most part, that the Episcopal Church represents the community here in Sewanee? I know that’s a lofty question, so—

LC: I don’t know the statistics, but I think the students who identify as Episcopalians are a minority.

CW: Yeah, church-going Episcopalians? I’d say that’s a relatively sparse demographic here.

LC: I’m only asking that, I guess the norm—if this were an Episcopal institution, the norm would be Episcopal rituals. And so in that regard, it’s really hard to give way to different viewpoints in changing those traditions, like Convocation and graduation take place within a liturgical service. And so I think Sewanee, as a private institution, can say, “We’re not gonna touch that.” But as far as public discourse, then I think Sewanee is very open to having different viewpoints, especially when it comes to faith.

CW: Absolutely. And Vice-Chancellor McCardell summed it up really well in the letters in the wake of some of the acts that have been committed in the name of President-elect Trump, with some of the frankly hateful rhetoric that has been existing in country as of late. In that way, I feel very well-represented by the vice-chancellor at the time, that we as a community are really standing up for understanding and one another, and a grossly larger human empathy. And I think that’s—as far as my experiences with the Episcopal Church, that’s one of the things that I would glean from all the teachings, is that there is no one necessarily right way and that being welcoming is the most important aspect of our lives.

LC: Well, “the Episcopal Church welcomes you, right?”

CW: Exactly. You see it on signs wherever you go, around the South.

LC: And it’s a catchy phrase. It’s a catchy phrase. I think the problem with that phrase—and I know this isn’t a conversation for that, but I think it could tie in with Sewanee—is all you do is put up a sign, and that’s all you have to do, and it creates a passive culture. Same with Sewanee. I think in today’s political arena, we can’t just leave it at open conversations that happen here. We would have to take action, which it sounds like Vice-Chancellor McCardell has done it by writing that letter. I’d be interested to see what he does with that letter as far as Sewanee’s campus. Does he take some of those ideals and try to implement them?

CW: Yeah, and where is the action behind the rhetoric?

LH: So in our discussion of inclusion, particularly within this conversation about Vice-Chancellor McCardell’s letter to President-elect Trump, how do we continue to have an inclusive community that takes into account Trump voters who might tie that to their religious beliefs?

LC: I’d be interested to know what specific religious ideals led them to vote for Trump because I find Trump very antithetical to my Christian ideals. And I say my Christian ideals as to say they’re mine, and how I’ve come to learn about them and how I’ve studied them. It’d be prejudiced of me to say that they don’t have a place at the table, Trump supporters. I might respond to them in a way that says conservative ideals have a place at the table because you need both conservative and liberal ideas on the table. What I don’t think belongs at the table is when they’re exclusionary based on prejudice and racism and anti-anything.

CW: That’s highly accurate. I do understand that, you know, much of the fervor from President-elect Trump was derived from a very real feeling that I can’t take away from a certain number of people in the United States. I can’t say, “Your feelings were not valid and you did not feel represented in the United States government.” However, I do think there’s a more constructive way than necessarily being exclusionary. There’s a better path towards understanding your own fears and your own disenfranchisement and your own representation that does not involve lashing out and bashing others. There’s a way that we can engage in civil discourse that doesn’t involve declaring a ban on an entire group of people. And so I do support their right to free speech, and I do support their right to their opinions, and their entitlement to their feelings and values. I’m just starting to draw the line in rhetoric that’s sort of grounded in misunderstanding, and a non-willingness to engage with human empathy.

LC: And I’d be interested to know—Trump hasn’t said really anything as far as his own personal faith, but his actions lead me to believe he is not a Christian. And so a large group of Christians voted for Trump, and I would love to know what about his actions that they like and voted for.

CW: Right.

LC: In that regard, I think they could have a place at the table and have a constructive conversation.

LH: Where do you think these conversations are happening? Where do you think religious and political discourse—civil discourse, as you define it—is happening today?

LC: In dorm rooms. In classrooms. In The Sewanee Purple’s office right now.

CW: I’m in a religious studies class right now called American Religious History. I’d recommend it to all those who are listening. It’s a good class. It’s very interesting, the make-up, compared to other classes I’ve been to in Sewanee because it’s mostly freshmen and it’s mostly people who have never been engaged in religious studies in a classroom type sense. It’s always been in a Sunday School type sense or in a personal, private type of way. Conversely, I think that allows us to be critical of other people’s ideas and what they say rather than who they are as people. Does that make sense? The way that I’ve seen it in the classroom is that it allows us to think critically about a subject without destroying one another, and I think it sets up very well in that I then take the tools I learned in class in dorm rooms or the Pub and, you know, at Stirling’s. Yes. In places I would never otherwise have been willing or had the tools to engage. Because we have begun fostering a sense that we can address these questions fairly and address these questions without damaging others. I think that’s invaluable as far as who I am as a person and that’s where it’s hard to define the value of a liberal arts education. But it’s right there—it’s being able to look at something holistically, critically, but also, you know, passionately and emphatically. And that’s where I see the value in my liberal arts degree and where I see the value in spending these three years at Sewanee.

LC: I think “inclusive conversation” merits more than exclusive conversation, and I think when these conversations are happening, like Chris said, it’s very important to critically think about these things and not let personal feelings get in the way, which is very tricky when it comes down to faith because some people—because the tenants of their religion cannot approach the Bible or religious texts or religious feelings critically. But, you know, it’s important to note where a person is and who they are, and there’s a way to discuss without being exclusive. Am I answering the question?

LH: To clarify, and perhaps this is extremely loaded, but is it the very idea of a safe space allows people to express their ideas, and not just their personalities, that is going to ensure that groups that perhaps would have disagreed with the safe space are protected? I think people who feel as if they’re the political minority or the political minority who predicted the outcome that we got, because I think most of us didn’t—is it this idea that we don’t have to assume the way someone voted is who they are? It’s almost an irony that I think we’re hashing out right now.

LC: I see what you mean, and I think Chris touched on this. There’s a way to talk to somebody—it’d be easy to say, and we’ve seen it, that Trump supporters are stupid or white trash. These are some of the stereotypes. But there are some intelligible people, there are some students here on this campus that have the same formation that I have, that I can’t make that assumption about, who voted for Trump. And something in their being or their thinking pushed them to vote for Trump. I don’t discredit that. So in approaching that, and approaching conversations on this campus, I think we all need to recognize that even in hearing critiques, or offering critiques, it can’t be about the individual but about ideals of conservatism or liberalism or the conservative party of the democratic party.

CW: Yes, like Lucas said, he speaks for Lucas, not the entire Episcopal Church. And in the same way, when we go to the voting booth, we are all saying, “This is Chris, me, right now, voting as an American and this is what I’m feeling at this moment when I voted. And in the huge, broad context, the only person who can speak for your personal experiences is you. So I’m very interested in not blanketing entire groups of people, which is really difficult for me, honestly. Which is difficult with this election result because I want to label, you know? I want to label, you know, this is white nationalism, neo-crypto-fascism. Just because it’s fun and easy. It’s easy to drink the poison, as Stephen Colbert said. It feels good.

LC: And being negative about it, and being a sore loser, when in reality, I mean, now’s the time to roll up our sleeves and go to work, whatever side you fall on. I mean, Trump supporters want a better society, those who didn’t vote for Trump want a better society, and how do we build towards that? And I think it’s critically thinking about other people’s decisions and our own decisions and beliefs and realizing that criticism doesn’t have to be a negative thing, but you need criticism to grow. You know, whether you listen to that criticism or not. But why do we grade papers and why do professors put comments on them? It might hurt our feelings when we first see the grade or comments, but if we listen to those comments or [criticism], then we get better.

CW: Exactly. The reason you and I can have this conversation right now and engage these issues correctly is because we’ve given a lot of thought as to how we have been wrong. Like, you know, that’s—that’s what I was just hashing out: these are all the ways I’ve labeled, but I understand that that’s not really productive, you know, thinking critically about my ideas. I’m in the boat of being cautiously optimistic that we are at a turning point in American society in that both sides are getting to the point where they are interested in both sides of American politics or all sides; I’d say it’s a plurality, you know, interested in a discourse that is constructive rather than destructive. In the same way that someone who’s—

LC: And getting back to what opened this conversation, I think pluralism is needed for any society or campus or community to thrive, and homogeneity is bad, and I’m very skeptical of homogeniety.

LH: One question I have is that, as two white men from the south having this conversation, how do you think you’ve reached this conclusion that critical conversation and critical thinking really lead to a healthy campus dynamic? I think—that’s almost an optimistic way to look at this. Chris, you coming from Mississippi, why is it that you, versus the people next door, have the views you have?

CW: That’s an excellent question. And it’s one that’s almost impossible for me to answer given my lens. As you said, I am a very well-off white man from the south, and it’s incredibly difficult for me—impossible for me—to assume a lens from someone with a totally different background than mine. But I think understanding that is one of the steps that I have to take to understand that my own thinking is not perfect. The world does not revolve around me; the world is full—

LC: Are you sure?

CW: I’m sure. I’m 100 percent sure. The world is full of people who have any number of experiences that inform their decision-making or beliefs, and the fact that I can say—it would be incredibly hubristic of me to say that I have the one right way of being. Lucas makes a face; he says he does. Yeah, so in that sense, I think diversity is—it’s a cornerstone of critical thinking in that—how can we examine our own lens if there’s no way to look at it from the outside?

LC: I’ll say this the best I can. Without being mean, you’re crazy if you don’t want diversity. I’m being serious. I think it only gives way to more individuality to have a more diverse campus because the more homogenous something is, the less I get to be myself because I’m trying to blend into what is the norm. And I understand that that is some people’s experience. I will recognize that, but my hope for campus is that it only gets more diverse because it only makes us a better institution, and it only makes us a better academic institution to have more voices.

CW: How much more human can you get than having a broad spectrum of the human experience?

LC: Exactly. And to me—I don’t want to move into hippie-dippy world over here, but that’s beautiful. Recognizing my own experience and hearing other people’s experiences—it’s just truly beautiful to me, and that’s a large aspect of my faith, is listening. Some people call it the ministry of listening, and I hope I do that. People really need to tell their stories.

CW: And silencing them is not productive.

LC: It’s not productive, and it’s only harmful.

CW: I think we’ve—it’s great seeing, I don’t know, how sort of different a world we have here is, where this has almost become normalized. We’ve almost become normalized to the fact that there should be a diverse community, that there shouldn’t be one thought, hive mentality, than there is.

LC: But I think the dangerous part of saying that is, the moment you think you’re diverse enough, you’ve settled. And you have to keep striving.

CW: That’s why I said I’m hopeful; I’m hopeful that we are continuing to move in that direction. While I’ll say there’s never going to be a utopia, because by definition it does not exist—it’s in no place—I will say that it is noble to try. Just because there’s no utopia, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt for a better society. That we shouldn’t attempt to shift the spectrum, to shift the paradigm.

LC: I’m skeptical. I’m critically skeptical about utopia because in my mind, utopia is a homogenous place. That’s my experience; maybe that’s—

CW: Yeah, I mean utopia in the sense of the world; I don’t mean Thomas Moore’s utopia.

LC: No, I know.

CW: I mean a perfect world, in a sort of philosophical sense.

LC: Yeah, but struggling and hurts and pain is what makes us better. We can strive for the perfect world, but I think if we had a perfect world, I wouldn’t want it.

CW: That the journey is better than the destination?

LC: Most definitely.

LH: If y’all have closing statements, would you like to say them?

LC: I encourage anyone listening to this to critique us.

CW: Yes, and to reach out to either me or Lucas… This was a test of the waters, an experiment, something where there were no rules. And we hope that we did an okay job of talking about anything, but I’m sure we didn’t. Prove us wrong. That’s the challenge to the audience here.

LC: And I hope this is the beginning of other conversations between us, and other people.

CW: I like this idea for The Purple. I like the idea of people having conversations that aren’t—you know, because I feel like most people having this conversation would feel like they’re totally alone in their thoughts of how we exist as a community and how we think together.

LC: We’ll find out whether we are alone or not.

CW: Exactly, and that’ll be fun to see.

LC: Thanks.

CW: Thank you.

One thought

  1. THOT: I truly wonder if the students participating in the conversation have ever pondered what the Sewanee King Jesus Window TM depicts? They speak in glowing terms about the goal of ever-increasing diversity of faith among the students and others in the current Sewanee community in residence. What in the Window would even hint at such a foreign notion? Jesus is sitting on His throne over the University with the earth as His footstool. He has His crown and scepter, and is the King of The Domain. A monarchy is by definition a totalitarian form of government, No room for diversity as far as governance,
    When the Eucharist is frequently celebrated in the Episcopal liturgical tradition, what are the priests pouring in the cup? Wine. What does the wine represent? The blood of Jesus Christ. No one else’s. No room for diversity here either.
    The students also mention the Episcopal tradition as the Via Media, or middle way. Instead, I suggest that the focus is on the Via Dolorosa, which is Jesus’ route to the cross.
    The Gospel of Jesus Christ is offered to every one, and is universal in its appeal. It is also exclusive in its efficacy, since Jesus made it crystal clear that He is the ONLY way to the Father. One day, every knee shall bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Jesus also clarified that a personal relationship with Him is at the heart of His Gospel, not faithful adherence to the dictates of any religion, when He explained to those who listed their faithful exploits in His Name, but had never entered into an intimate relationship with Him, that “in that day” they would be told to depart from Him. No room for diversity of thought here either. Diversity of people who chose to enter into personal relationship with Jesus…YES. Diversity of thought as to how to enter into eternal life…NO.
    For after all, Jesus did not come into the world to make bad people good; He came into the world to make dead people ALIVE! Since He is the Life, there is no room for diversity here either.

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