The University Chapel is an awe-inspiring building, big and beautiful enough to make even a godless heathen wonder if it’s not time to start hedging his bets. It occupies an honored place at the center of campus, just as it did when it opened 80 years ago as the heart of Princeton’s Christian worship. As the posters hanging all around campus at the start of the fall term reminded us, Chapel was “Princeton’s First Tradition.”
Chapel still is a very important tradition at Princeton. But it is now one among many religious traditions, as this year’s Opening Exercises, which were held in the Chapel, made clear.
After the members of the freshman class had filed in and taken their seats, a procession of administrators and campus religious leaders followed, led by a student swirling a brilliantly colored Japanese kite on a long flexible pole. Three other kite bearers followed, as well as four African drummers in colorful headdresses and robes.
The ceremony itself also was determinedly multidenominational. Parts of it would have fit easily into the first service held in the building 80 years ago: a responsive reading from Psalm 104, hymns sung by the Chapel choir, organ music, and even “A Prayer for Princeton.” But it also featured texts from Judaism, Islam, and other faiths. Raj Ranade ’10 recited the Gayatri Mantra from the Vedas, from Hinduism, and Olaf Sakkers ’11 read one of the Bodhisattva Vows, from Mahayana Buddhism. Nonbelievers took part, too. For her reading, Joy Li ’11 chose a passage from The Catcher in the Rye, describing it as “from the secular humanist tradition.”
“I actually call myself an atheist,” she explains later. “But I thought ‘in the atheist tradition’ wouldn’t sound as good. And I think that being a secular humanist is much more being actively for a standard of ethics and the good treatment of other human beings. Atheism doesn’t necessarily have that implication.”
Says Paul Raushenbush, one of two associate deans in the Office of Religious Life (ORL): “Religion is happening on campus.”
And indeed, on the same late September night that the Muslim Students Association (MSA) was hosting 150 students for its annual Fast-a-Thon in hopes of teaching them about Ramadan, students from the multiple evangelical groups were in the midst of a weeklong prayer marathon. This was a feat of organization as well as devotion: Each student had signed up to pray for a 30-minute slot, and the group effort went on around the clock for one whole week. For members of the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, or PEF, this was in addition to the 20-minute prayer meeting they hold every day at noon in Murray-Dodge. That same night, a campus group called Century One, in honor of the time when Jesus Christ walked the earth, was meeting for Bible study at Murray-Dodge. And an hour later, at 9 p.m., the Christian fellowship Athletes in Action began gathering next door, in Whig Hall, for a meeting that was decidedly more raucous than the others. Even without AiA members from the football team, which had departed for an away game, the group numbered 45 men and women. “It feels bigger than it is,” says Gordon Scharf ’09, a wrestler turned sprint football player, “because the people are bigger!”
On Friday evenings at the Center for Jewish Life, between 50 and 80 people usually convene for Sabbath services and then are joined by others for a Sabbath dinner. Rabbi Julie Roth, at Princeton for four years, introduced white tablecloths two years ago in hopes of making the dinners (prepared in the building’s kosher kitchen) a highlight of each week. Students can celebrate and learn about Judaism not only from Roth, but from a Chabad Lubavitch rabbi, Eitan Webb, and a couple, Rabbi David Wolkenfeld and his wife, Sara, who help advanced students in their studies in a beit midrash, a room with sacred texts. “Princeton is a great place to be Jewish,” Roth says emphatically. (Nonetheless, she says, one of her greatest challenges is to persuade parents of prospective students that Princeton today is not the unwelcoming place it once was for Jews.)
“Religion is less weird than when I was a student,” says Dana Dreibelbis ’78, a lay Lutheran minister, in between talking to students at the bustling activities fair in Dillon Gym in the fall. “It’s more acceptable, more of a regular topic.”
At the activities fair, tables for religious organizations stretch up and down both sides of one aisle, creating a kind of Religion Row amid the dance and musical and political groups. There’s Hallelujah!, which is made up mostly of African-Americans who meet on Sunday afternoons for a jubilant, piano-driven church service. The Crossroads Christian Fellowship gives students a chance to talk about their faith in smaller, more intimate meetings, usually in a student’s room. There’s the Manna Christian Fellowship, made up mostly of Asian-Americans; and the large Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, which organizes song-filled prayer sessions, Bible-study, retreats, and service trips, and has an offshoot called Safeguard that aims to protect students from overdoing it at weekend parties, The PEF is one of a select number of campus groups lucky enough to have its own University-recognized chaplain, Bill Boyce ’79.
There are a cappella groups with a religious slant, like Kindred Spirit, whose members come from the PEF, and Koleinu, which sings Jewish songs (the name means “our voice” in Hebrew). And the track team has its own Bible-study group, which meets on Tuesday nights. “We use the Bible as a starting point,” explains team captain Michael Maag ’09, who hosts the meetings in his room. “But we tend to view the time as more of a ‘life study’ where we try to help each other learn to live better — more spiritually, more attuned to what actually makes humans happy. It’s a focus that’s relatively scarce in the daily routine here.”