Speaking and listening, teaching and learning, challenging and being challenged....as a college professor, these are what I do. How fortunate. Is there a better way to earn a living? I think not, at least not for me. I am able to engage in these activities on a daily basis while working with young adults who are willing to open their minds, accept a challenge, and respond in kind.
This is the environment in which I find myself. A perfect fit you might say, and I would agree. However, you might think differently given that the college where I work has a strong and active religious tradition and the fact that I am philosophically an atheist. When I first accepted a position at the College of St. Benedict/St. John's University, I had some doubt about how well I might fit in. That concern has long been alleviated. If fact, if my life view were not atheistic, I would say that this is "a match made in heaven."
Before I continue, I should comment briefly on my theological position. When I claim to be an atheist, I do not mean to imply that I am anti-theistic. In fact, I am far from it. I have a certain envy of those who accept the existence of a personal god and find comfort in this belief. The critical problem for me is having to "accept" on faith rather than on evidence.
With that said, my intent in this essay is to express how someone, who is not religious, is able to feel a part of this religious community. Most certainly the fact that the community is also academic is helpful. However, the fact that I find myself at a liberal arts college is only a partial explanation. Of significance, I have discovered, is that CSB/SJU is Catholic and Benedictine. When I first arrived here, I had little of no sense of what these labels implied. Granted I sort of knew what it meant to be Catholic. After all, I know there is a Pope in Rome or, to be more accurate, Vatican City. But what did it mean to say we are Benedictine? I had no clue. As it turns out, it is this latter feature, not the academic, not the Catholic, but the Benedictine, that I view as being the major influence on what makes CSB/SJU special for both the religious and we heathens.
When I arrived in Collegeville to teach, I was hardly a novice to the profession. I had spent some years teaching at a private university and for shorter periods of time, I had taught at two other universities. As I assumed my new position, I was struck immediately by differences among my colleagues and students compared to those from my earlier experiences. The differences lay primarily in attitude and the way we interact with each other. Among departmental colleagues the WE was emphasized far more greatly than the ME. Territorial attitudes over lab space and equipment, very common in the sciences, were nearly non-existent. I was given a key that gave me access to each colleague's office. I was quite dumbfounded by this, but have since realized that the key is more symbolic than it is useful. For the most part, I have neither need nor desire to enter the office of my cell biology or ecology colleagues. The conveyed message is that we are all together working for a common good. The resources we have are here for us all. Lessening the physical barriers, also lowers the barriers to interpersonal relations. Seeking opinions or help from colleagues becomes routine rather than rare. We do this all the time and think nothing of it. This situation is quite different from my pervious experiences.
The way we do things is another feature I initially found frustrating, but I have since learned to value. I am referring to the process by which we make decisions. The system with which I was familiar might best be described as semi-autocratic/semi-democratic. On those occasions when issues were brought before the entire department, they were simply put to a vote. The majority ruled and we proceeded from there. In contrast, what I found at CSB/SJU was a desire to reach a consensus on each and every issue. While this approach is time-consuming, I came to realize that the end result is more satisfying. Decisions arrived at in this manner are made with fuller understanding and a greater commitment of the parties involved.
In my view, both of these features flow directly from Benedictine values. Nurturing and developing community life, respecting all persons, seeking the common good, and listening are characteristics explicitly stated in the Rules of St. Benedict. All this seems so reasonable, yet it is all too rare in the outside world.
Students also made an immediate and significant impression on me. The contrast to those of my earlier experiences lay primarily in attitude rather than aptitude. Many science students are pre-professional and intend to seek admission to a post-graduate program like medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, etc. In general, these programs are quite selective and the application process is competitive. It is not unusual for undergraduates pursuing this professional track to view one another as competitors for the limited number of positions available to them upon graduation. They conduct themselves in ways that serve to enhance their performance relative to that of others. As such, cooperation and assistance among classmates can be rare. This is not the case at CSB/SJU. The spirit of cooperation and general camaraderie among our science students is striking. Again, I suspect that this approach to their academic and professional lives stems from the personality of the college, which has been shaped by the Benedictine influence. I once overheard a student trying to explain to some visitors what it is that makes our colleges special. In giving an example, he said that as you enter or leave a building, if someone does not hold the door for you, that person is most likely not from CSB/SJU. This explanation, I think, describes the respect individuals here have for each other and conveys the general social atmosphere. It is little wonder that one feels so satisfied teaching and learning in this environment.
A great deal of what biologists do is based upon attempts to understand how it is that an organism is well adapted to its mode of life. They examine, over evolutionary time, the various forms through which a given biological lineage transcends. This evolutionary insight helps to understand an organism's place in the ecological community, how it meets its needs, and why its unique set of characters enable it to adapt to the conditions in which it finds itself. Of importance in enabling us to achieve this understanding is knowing the rules of the evolutionary process. The HOW of biological evolution derives from a synthesis of the work of those two luminaries of 19th century biology, Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel. The point I wish to make is that while organisms have changed (evolved) significantly over the millennia, the rules of the process have not. The rules of hereditary transmission and natural selection have served the biological world well, and they work as well today as they did in the distant past. The result is that, except when human activity interferes, biological communities function harmoniously.
The rules that guide our college community were articulated long ago. The key, I believe, to the success of St. Benedict's Rules is that they express tolerance and respect. They enable a Benedictine philosophy to be, in effect, timeless. These values are so basic to what it means to be human that they are as pertinent today as when they were first expressed more than 1500 years ago. Over this time the world has changed from agrarian to industrial to technological, population numbers have increased by orders of magnitude, and personal awareness of the world has greatly expanded. In other words, life as we experience it is profoundly changed from Saint Benedict's day. Yet, his views on how a community should conduct itself are, if anything, more pertinent than ever. They seem to apply well to a college campus.
Biologists also make comparisons among contemporary species. From these they learn the importance of biological diversity and how each species is dependent upon others in order to thrive. They learn that each has a role, and while these differ, each has value to the community as a whole. In an analogous manner, I have consistently found that diversity of opinion and differences in thought are more than tolerated on our campuses. They are welcomed. Granted this atmosphere is what we should expect at an academic institution and, as such, intellectual freedom should go with the territory. However, I am well aware that not all colleges with religious affiliations allow their faculties and students the range of expression we find here. Of course, this is the way it is supposed to be. It is also the way it is.
It is my experience that the Benedictine presence is enhancing rather than confining to the academic spirit. All the criteria that any academic would hold dear are promoted and addressed in these values. Yes, CSB/SJU is a good fit for me. These Rules of St. Benedict provide a sensible blueprint for human behavior and social interaction. They are an articulation of what it is to embrace human values. They promote positive relationships, they allow for individuality yet value the community as a whole, they welcome new ideas yet they respect tradition. As such, I find that they are compatible with both the theist and the atheist.
24 July 2003