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Adele S. Bonney


The Rev. Dick Thomas, from his 29-year tenure as college chaplain and professor of history, can offer a broad perspective. Many alumni have spoken to “The Rev” about their significant religious experiences at Cornell, which he attributes to the administration’s ongoing commitment to care for students’ spiritual needs. He also knows, however, that “the shape of how that’s done has changed through the years, and an alum from 30 years ago will probably not recognize the ‘outward and visible signs’ ” of this commitment. What has caused the change? According to Thomas, “Students’ needs are not the same.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, he explains, denominations had strong youth programs, and students, “most of them churched,” came to Cornell with a desire to continue their youth group activities. Those students had strong religious convictions and an understanding of themselves as Christian. With the post-1960’s decline in church attendance came an increase in the number of students Thomas describes as “religiously illiterate,” while a small group has emerged whose religious zeal comes from experiences in relatively conservative religious groups. More recently, another type of student is entering Cornell in greater numbers, according to Thomas: “those who are open to religious language but are uncertain about its meaning. They’re likely to be interested in wicca or feminist theology or New Age ideas, but they lack the tools to think about them.”

The Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel ’89, who succeeded Thomas as college chaplain in 1996, agrees with his observations and adds her personal perspective. “Those of us labeled Generation X have been described as a generation of despair,” she notes. “There’s a deep yearning for mystery, meaning, and hope within us. This is a spiritual quest.”

Thomas applauds his successor’s efforts to meet the needs of current students with what he sees as a “more informational type of worship and an openness to diverse liturgies.” Among the variety of activities Quehl-Engel plans or sponsors are weekly worship opportunities—an ecumenical chapel service and a service of Holy Communion. She also provides pastoral care, leads an informal, weekly spiritual nurture group, and leads contemplative retreats that take students, faculty, and staff to area monasteries each spring. She advises the 15 students on the Peer Ministry Team whose ministry ranges from planning and leading worship and other programs to compassionate listening.

The number of students who choose not to attend chapel does not discourage Quehl-Engel, who has contact with many more engaged in questioning and faith-seeking. Her view of chapel attendance is supported by a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education headlined “Study Documents Students’ Spirituality” (Dec. 3, 1999). The two-year study looked at four campuses (none identified), including a private, church-related college of 3,000 students. On all four, the authors found that “participation in religious organizations and attendance at worship services are low, but such head-counting isn’t an accurate reflection of students’ interest in religion.” Instead, they noted the popularity of religion classes, also seen at Cornell.

David Weddle and Charles Vernoff make up Cornell’s religion department. With the broad range of their personal experience and professional interests, the two professors are able to offer a three-track program of Christian studies, Jewish studies, and comparative religion. Weddle has also developed courses on Islam and religious sects. “We focus on primary texts,” he emphasizes, “and train our students in critical analysis and interpretation, as well as the empathetic imagination to enter genuinely into the world views of other cultural traditions.”

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