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College Is My Religion

January 28, 2011


Library Hall (now Architecture Hall) Unitversity of Nebraska (Lincoln) graduation postcard, circa 1880's. Courtesy of the UNL Library's digital archives.

Religion is practically impossible to define.  Of course, that doesn’t stop people (aka academics) from trying to define it.  However, inevitably something gets left out that is oh so obviously a religion while something else gets included that no one ever thought of as one.  For example, I have recently come to realize that College (capital ‘C’) is my religion.

I know, I know.  I’ve been purporting myself to be a Buddhist for many years now, but seeing as there are self-described Christ-Bu’s, Jew-Bu’s, and Cath-Bu’s, just to name a few (still searching for the elusive and perhaps mythical Mu-Bu), surely I can be a Col-Bu.  Just to be clear, that stands for College-Buddhist, not Collie-Buddhist, although I’m sure there are a few of them out there, too.  But they don’t read blogs.  For those of you who do, here’s how I know I am, in fact, a Collegiate.

Defining religion according to what a group of people does or does not believe is problematic.  In the early part of the modern era, Western scholars defined it in theocentric terms.  Then they ran up against Buddhism, Daoism, and other Eastern religions and that bubble burst.  Now the best they can do is point out that religions are concerned with the ‘great mystery,’ that persistent feeling that there is more to life than meets the eye, whether we call it God or enlightenment or atman or Optimus Prime.  More recently, scholars have attempted to identify religions based on what groups of people do.  Six elements have been identified that practically all religions have in common.  It is based on these six elements that I reach my conclusion.

1) Tradition – It perpetuates any system, institution, ideology, etc., and what has more tradition (aka desire to perpetuate itself) that a university?  When presidents and chancellors talk about revitalizing their institution (re?vitalizing) they talk about recommitting to the principles of education.  It is based largely on the idea that the past was better than the present and should therefore be preserved. New colleges seek to establish traditions quickly, and what survives to become tradition does so because, in some way (often imperfectly), it works.  Preserving what works is in our own best interest.  Thus, thirsty Thursdays (and no Friday morning classes).

2) Symbols – University of the West’s symbol is a lotus.  Obviously, this symbol is borrowed, but there is nothing new to that.  The symbol stands in for ideas that can seldom be put into words, in this case, enlightenment.  However, more important, symbols have emotional content.  Every time I see UWest’s lotus (or Nebraska’s ‘N’), I think “That’s me!” with a sense of belonging and affinity.  Symbols only work when they are collective.

3) Myths – ‘Myth’ doesn’t mean false.  Myths are symbolic narratives, stories with emotional content that help us relate to ourselves, the world, and our institution.  Colleges survive based on the myth that through them we will learn (institution), grow (self), and, some day, get a job (world).  Of course, ‘myth’ doesn’t mean true either.

4) Rituals – Okay, I skipped as many of these as I could, but I was still aware of them going on all around me.  I’m talking about freshmen orientation, braving dorm life, hazing, painting oneself strange colors and screaming one’s lungs out in twenty-four degree weather, homecoming parades, and, finally culminating (one hopes) with the cap and gown march.  Rituals are myth and symbol in action.  They bring order to life and give us a way to relate to the ‘great mystery’ of how many jello shots the average coed can handle before she’ll sleep with you.

5) Prayer & Sacrifice – Anyone who’s ever pulled an all-nighter in the faintest of hopes of turning a C- minus into a B+ understands these two and why they are grouped together.  Prayer, or as we Collegiates call it, studying, is a form of focus.  Sacrifice is giving up something in order to achieve something as a recognition of the connection between life and death, or passing and failing.

6) Scripture – Finally, there are, of course, the sacred words.  In pre-literate societies (aka high school) these were spoken.  But in college, we like to put them in books.  There are many denominations of College, just as there are many denominations of Christianity or Buddhism, and they all emphasize different sacred texts or parts of sacred texts.  In the hallowed halls of the English Department it may be Shakespeare or Keats.  Amongst the quiet frenzy of Architecture it is often Meis or Venturi.  In the gleaming biology labs it’s Darwin.  So on and so forth.  In fact, scripture is such a great part of college life, that it demands much prayer and great sacrifices ($180 for a calculus textbook?  Are you shitting me?)

In the end, each of these six elements plays into the one central concern of practically all religions, whether they be monotheist, polytheist, pantheist, panentheist, misotheist, deist, atheist, agnostic, or nontheist – that ‘ultimate concern’ is salvation.  In the Christian sense, this means “deliverance from sin through Jesus Christ” (Encarta English Dictionary), but that too is just a means to an end.  In the broader sense, salvation means saving from harm, and in the religious sense, the end of suffering.

Religions exist and survive not because of assurances of salvation after death or in the next life, but because of how they help us deal with suffering right here and right now, in this life.  Even such posthumous promises are just means of providing reassurance that helps us feel better now.  They give us purpose and hope to continue the life we are living now with just a little bit less anxiety over the future.

College is all about the future.  Salvation is found in the jobs we’ll have when we graduate, the houses we’ll be able to afford, the cars we’ll drive, the income brackets we’ll belong to, and the amount of cosmetic surgery we’ll be able to provide our spouses.  Promises of these things yet to come gives us the hope and drive necessary to knock out just one more paper, one more exam, one more round of crippling student loans, despite the fact that the future remains a mystery.

In order for things to get better, for us to achieve salvation, we must have a connection to the ‘great mystery.’  Religions says this emotional, experiential, non-rational connection will save us. All past suffering will be made right.  Our salvation, like our student loans, will be total, absolute, and eternal.

This is why College is my religion.


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