The inscriptions inside Memorial Church, the death mask of Jane Stanford and the nod to the Egyptian ankh symbol formed by Palm Drive and the Stanford Oval all have one thing in common: Each was a topic of discussion for the students enrolled in a unique religious studies course at Stanford University.
Taught by Steven Weitzman and Kathryn Gin Lum, Is Stanford a Religion? applied analytical methods used by religious studies scholars to Stanford University. In this way, the course introduced undergraduates to the field of religious studies without focusing on any one specific religion.
Students explored various aspects of myth-making, a central tenet of religious studies, by reading the Book of Genesis, the Epic of Gilgamesh and anthropological studies about myth creation. These assignments typical for a religious studies course were accompanied by an analysis of the Stanford University Founding Grant from 1885. The document established Stanford as a nonsectarian university, yet one that also sought to teach students about the “immortality of the soul, the existence of an all-wise and benevolent Creator, and that obedience to His laws is the highest duty of man.”
“We live in a world where 80 percent of the population identifies with one religious community or another, and where a number of our major conflicts around the world are driven by religious motivation,” Weitzman said. “To understand the world, you need to understand religion.”
However, he noted, the study of religion is not high on the priority list for most students. Weitzman said nonreligious students might think it a waste of time, while religious students may fear that formal religious studies might attack their faith.
“Alarm bells go off for both groups,” he said, so he and Gin Lum found a way to introduce the core questions of religious studies – What is religion? What is ritual? What is myth? – through a lens students could identify with: Stanford University itself.
Stanford family legacy
University founders Leland and Jane Stanford “reflected a late-19th-century attitude of exploration toward religions other than their own Protestantism. They were interested in the Spiritualism movement, curious about Catholic art and intrigued by ancient Middle Eastern traditions,” according to Gin Lum.
This meant that the university they founded incorporated several religious traditions while remaining at its core a nonreligious institution.
While the Founding Grant set aside lands and funds for the creation of Memorial Church, the Oval – one of the most recognizable Stanford landmarks – was designed in the shape of an ancient Egyptian ankh, representing the concept of eternal life.
And even though the Stanfords considered themselves to be Christians, one of the “sacred spaces” the class discussed was the mausoleum in the campus arboretum where Jane and Leland and their son, Leland Jr., are entombed – it evokes ancient Egyptian religion.
The search for immortality greatly interested the Stanford family and led to their involvement with the Spiritualism movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Spiritualism, Weitzman said, claimed to be scientific in its attempts to contact the dead.
Weitzman and Gin Lum took the class on a visit to Green Library’s Barchas Room, where Stanford Archivist Daniel Hartwig laid out items belonging to the Stanford Spiritualism Special Collection.
As the group scrutinized indecipherable script written in chalk on a group of small slates, Hartwig explained that the writing had appeared during séances held at the Stanfords’ Nob Hill home as they attempted to contact their recently deceased son.
Religious diversity at Stanford
Although Stanford has a Department of Religious Studies, an Office for Religious Life and several student religious groups on campus, Weitzman said students don’t engage each other sufficiently on topics of religion or understand the religious diversity that exists on campus.
Student Montserrat Cordero said it’s because religious beliefs are not something many students want to share.
“I think people are afraid of touching such a personal matter,” she said.
Weitzman and Gin Lum assigned each student to approach two people in their dorms from different religious communities and ask them about their reasons for being religious.
Engaging fellow students in these conversations had the intended effects.
“I got to know my dormmates better as people,” Cordero said.