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Faith informs scholarly pursuits


Adele S. Bonney


His early experience with Jewish, Southern Baptist, and Hindu traditions causes Charles Vernoff, professor of religion, to joke, “I was a comparative religionist as a child!” Now he helps students learn to integrate such truths. Vernoff, who locates his “personal base” in Judaism, believes “all great religions connect with some universal aspect of personhood.” While his personal experience and academic field may be more closely related than most, Vernoff is not the only faculty member whose Cornell experience offers “a seamless link between my professional and personal lives.”

“As a scientist, I’m fortunate to be observing the wonders of the created world in a special way,” says Truman Jordan, professor of chemistry, whose scientific perspective is knitted tightly with his religious faith in “a cosmos that’s designed — no human could have created it.” He enjoys having a great deal of personal contact with students, whether his advisees, work-study students, or fellow intramural volleyball players. “Twenty years ago some students might have had a weak church background. Now more of them have none at all,” he says. But he believes in the institutional commitment of Cornell “to helping students find and integrate new knowledge into a personal wholeness,” adding, “As a Methodist, I’d argue that they will come to the right answer.”

Christina McOmber, visiting faculty member in art, was discouraged from her youthful dream of becoming a Baptist minister because she was female. So she took a path that led her to teaching and a field—art history—“with many opportunities to share something of the importance of spirituality in various cultures of Christianity.” McOmber also wants to be a role model for students. She worships with them, and “my faith informs how I look out and care for them.” As a feminist she appreciates that “Cornell acknowledges not all Christians have the same perspective” and believes that “introducing students early on to the diversity of opinions among Christians will make them less likely to leave the church when their beliefs are challenged in the future.”

Leon Tabak considers his faith the foundation of his work, even though the associate professor’s field is computer science: “It’s the rationale for a teaching career at a place where we’re trying to do more than dish out facts.” Tabak believes activities like his participation in the Roman Catholic group on campus may serve as modeling for students, but he also likes to get more directly involved with them around faith issues, inviting students to go with him to another college to hear a speaker on the Pope’s relationship with Judaism, for example. He has written editorials in the Cornellian and is always ready for a lively discussion of religious belief or moral philosophy, especially related to incidents on campus. Individualist that he may be, Tabak also finds a deep fulfillment at Cornell, where he knows “I’m a member of a larger community that’s committed to a larger purpose.”

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