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Balancing faith and studies

ASU senior Shane Garst speaks up at a Secular Free Thinker's Society meeting. Garst, who is majoring in German and Russian studies, is the leader of the club. (Photo by Dominic Valente)
ASU senior Shane Garst speaks up at a Secular Free Thinker's Society meeting. Garst, who is majoring in German and Russian studies, is the leader of the club. (Photo by Dominic Valente)

Junior Chloe Presti in front of the bookshelves at the ASU Student Chabad in Tempe, which houses a small library of sacred Jewish texts.  She has been involved with Judaism her entire life. (Photo by Dominic Valente) Junior Chloe Presti in front of the bookshelves at the ASU Student Chabad in Tempe, which houses a small library of sacred Jewish texts. She has been involved with Judaism her entire life. (Photo by Dominic Valente)

ASU students who are active in their religious communities have found benefits in time management, support and perspective.

The Rev. Sang-hoon Yoo, leader of the Faithful City Christian fellowship and president of ASU’s Council of Religious Advisors, said campus participation in religion keeps students anchored in ASU’s huge population, while enhancing their personal connection to their faith.

“We are helping the students to find their root, or their inheritance, for their faith journey,” Yoo said.

Connecting Religions

CORA, which is officially affiliated with the University, provides 35 religious organizations across the four campuses the opportunity to promote service and interfaith dialogue. On the Tempe campus, it serves 6,000 students.

Yoo said the Council teaches students how to integrate their social, academic and religious lives and evaluate their own faith traditions in the context of others.

He stressed that CORA represents a positive experience for students on campus. He said people who preach on campus about religious condemnation do not represent what religion is about at ASU.

“We are sad, and we are sorry that those (condemnation preachers) really misrepresent what the faith journey is about," Yoo said.

Focus and Discipline

Sophomore Lala Khan with her Q'uran at Tempe Masjid, where she normally worships. Khan emigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan when she was 12 years old with her family. (Photo by Dominic Valente) Sophomore Lala Khan with her Q'uran at Tempe Masjid, where she normally worships. Khan emigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan when she was 12 years old with her family. (Photo by Dominic Valente)

The Islamic Community Center at South Forest Avenue and East Sixth Street offers a place for worship and socializing for Muslim students while welcoming all to learn about the religion of Islam.

Imam Ahmad Shqeirat, who leads the congregation at the ICC, said the center views education and participation as part of its duty.

An imam is a leadership position similar to a Christian pastor or Jewish rabbi.

Islam, which is one of the monotheistic, Abrahamic religions, directs its entire focus to Allah, Shqeirat said. “Allah” is the Arabic word Muslims use for the Abrahamic God, because it is genderless and cannot be made plural.

The imam said Muslim students are able to find peace of mind and discipline in the religion. He said at least 50 Muslim students come to the ICC on a regular basis, which gives them the opportunity to meet other students who share their values.

“It’s open for (students),” Shqeirat said. “We try to accommodate them.”

The ICC seeks to engage the non-Muslim community as well. It distributes 1,200 sandwiches monthly to Phoenix’s homeless, offers tours of the center to educate people about Islam and allows anyone to come to daily services, Shqeirat said.

The imam stressed the importance of interfaith communities.

“I believe all faiths have a positive contribution to the society of humanity,” he said.

Psychology junior Samer Naseredden, the president of ASU’s Muslim Students’ Association, said Islam influences every part of his life but especially drives him to excel in his education.

“There’s a big concept in Islam that you should always strive for excellence and always strive for your best,” he said.

Achieving excellence brings both personal and spiritual fulfillment for him.

“Achieving excellence is something that makes God happy,” Naseredden added.

Brittney Phelps, who graduated in 2012, sits in the waiting room at her local Mormon Ward. Her particular Ward focuses on upholding the 10 commandments as well as building strong families. (Photo by Dominic Valente) Brittney Phelps, who graduated in 2012, sits in the waiting room at her local Mormon Ward. Her particular Ward focuses on upholding the 10 commandments as well as building strong families. (Photo by Dominic Valente)

Driven by Faith

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maintains an active presence on the Tempe campus with an institute of religion and two full-time missionaries.

The institute is located on land the LDS church has owned since the 1960s. The Tempe campus has grown around it, and it sits between the Schwada building and the Biodesign Institute.

More than 1,000 students attend classes at the institute. The courses are mostly scripture-based, and students can receive three different levels of recognition depending on how many courses they complete.

Bishop Leo Beus leads one of the three congregations of young adult Latter-day Saints that meet at the Tempe Institute of Religion.

His congregation has 300 members, and approximately 220 to 250 attend the weekly services, Beus said.

The Mormon church believes that there was a general falling away from the truth in Christianity after the death of Jesus and the Apostles.

They believe full truth was restored to Joseph Smith in the 1800s through divine revelation and that Smith received a new testament, the Book of Mormon, which gives a history of God’s work in the Americas in the time leading up to and just after Jesus’s death.

Students who come are there because of their personal experiences, Beus said. The services give them a sense of fellowship and some time to refocus.

“I think virtually what drives all these kids is their faith,” he said.

Brittney Phelps, an ASU alumna who graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in communications, attests to the power of the Mormon faith in her life.

“It’s something that I have felt bless my life in many different aspects,” she said.

She said her faith in God helps her effectively manage her time, something that came in handy while she was a student at the University.

“Heavenly Father knew what I needed to do, and He helped me,” Phelps said.

Senior Craig Koenig at his local Catholic Church on College and University. While the church itself is still undergoing some renovations, weekly mass still goes on as frequently as possible. (Photo by Dominic Valente) Senior Craig Koenig at his local Catholic Church on College and University. While the church itself is still undergoing some renovations, weekly mass still goes on as frequently as possible. (Photo by Dominic Valente)

Striving For Excellence

From the center of campus it is just a short walk to the All Saints Catholic Newman Center, where about 1,000 Catholic students attend classes, activities and mass.

Father Rob Clements, director at the Newman Center, said the center seeks to provide a place for people to make friends and have fun, in addition to participating in religious services.

“What we are trying to do is speak to students, especially the University community, but also their intellectual, their spiritual, their social needs, as well as, what we call, apostolic needs,” he said. “You kind of have to put your faith into action, and you do that through service to others.”

The University of Mary, a Catholic university in North Dakota, offers classes at the Newman Center. The University of Mary partnered with ASU in March 2012 to offer classes for students interested in gaining a degree in Catholic or theological studies.

The Fellowship of Catholic University Students, which is affiliated with the center, seeks to evangelize college students by holding Bible studies and mentoring other students.

FOCUS strives to promote three key virtues: chastity, sobriety and excellence.

James Timberlake, a FOCUS missionary, said the organization stresses these values because university life is not always conducive to supporting them.

Timberlake said excellence applies to a student’s schoolwork and other commitments, because it encourages students to use their talents.

“If you aren't really doing your best, then you aren't really justifying the talents and abilities God has given you,” Timberlake said. “We definitely push students to pursue excellence in everything they do.”

Business senior Craig Koenig, the president of FOCUS, said his belief in the Catholic religion prompts him to make the most of his talents, including his ability to learn.

“I think that we are given certain talents, and it's our job to make use of them,” Koenig said. “If I don't make my grades or if I don't offer up that study well, then that's kind of disregarding what my God-given talents were.”

Empowered Through Education

Across the street from the Newman Center is the Tempe First United Methodist Church, where the Valley Wesley student group meets for dinner and services on Wednesday nights .

The group of 15 students meets to discuss beliefs, which vary from person to person, because members of any religion can participate.

During services, students will have selected a topic they would like to know more about. The reverend will then present related scriptures that will allow the students to decide what they believe.

The Rev. Jeri Wilkerson, the pastor at Valley Wesley, said she avoids giving her opinions to ensure that students are really deciding for themselves.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist faith, originally began reaching out to poorer people by focusing on education, as he taught them to read the Bible for themselves.

Education was Wesley’s way of “empowering” those who followed him, Wilkerson said. His legacy of promoting higher education can be seen in Methodist universities across the country.

Design studies sophomore Noah Brown, a member of the leadership committee at Valley Wesley, said while his religion has never played a large role in his studies, it has provided support that makes it possible for him to continue with his course in life.

"For me, it's really just having that trust and really knowing that it's part of a bigger plan to me and realizing that things work out in the end," Brown said.

Senior Gabriel Wood-Isenberg stands in front of his Chabad's bookshelves, which house a small library of sacred Jewish texts. Gabriel attends the students' Chabad house on Tempe, just off campus. (Photo by Dominic Valente) Senior Gabriel Wood-Isenberg stands in front of his Chabad's bookshelves, which house a small library of sacred Jewish texts. Gabriel attends the students' Chabad house on Tempe, just off campus. (Photo by Dominic Valente)

Religion as Perspective

The Rohr Chabad House at ASU works to create a community for Jewish students by holding weekly classes, services and activities.

Rabbi Shmuel Tiechtel, the director of the Chabad House, said the organization tries to provide a home for its 150 students.

“Judaism is more than just a religion,” Tiechtel said. “It is a way of life. It is an identity. It's a people, and it's a shared history of thousands of years.”

The Chabad house offers a lunch-and-learn class for women each Tuesday and a Sinai Scholars program, which allows 25 students to take an eight-week course on the Ten Commandments and how they relate to their lives.

Tiechtel said by seeking knowledge, both religious and secular, students are better able to assist others and themselves.

“When you know, you are able to grow, you are able to study, you are able to teach, you are able to help,” Tiechtel said.

Gabe Wood-Isenberg, a psychology senior, is the president of ASU Chabad. Learning about psychology and the way people think has given him insight into Judaism, he said.

“It really helps me to put my Jewish understanding into perspective,” he said.

Wood-Isenberg said his religious life and his academic life supplement each other.

“Judaism really pushes you to be the best that you can be,” he said. “School really offers you an opportunity to do that.”

ASU senior Shane Garst speaks up at a Secular Free Thinker's Society meeting. Garst, who is majoring in German and Russian studies, is the leader of the club. (Photo by Dominic Valente) ASU senior Shane Garst speaks up at a Secular Free Thinker's Society meeting. Garst, who is majoring in German and Russian studies, is the leader of the club. (Photo by Dominic Valente)

Scientific Support and Understanding

The student-run Secular Freethought Society of ASU promotes ideas and concepts that are supported by evidence and open to discussion, organization president Shane Garst said.

Garst said the organization’s weekly meetings create an opportunity for discussion that students might not get elsewhere.

“It is an opportunity to discuss science, philosophy and morality in a secular environment," he said.

The society’s meetings typically consist of a presentation by a member of the club and free discussion, Garst said.

“A lot of us are scientifically-minded,” Garst said. “A lot of us try and understand the universe as it can be interpreted.”

Garst said by searching for answers to questions including the origins of the universe, evolution, morality and consciousness, students are able to find truth or accept certain concepts based on evidence.

“These are things that science has answers to, and if we are going to be convincing with our ideas then we have to understand them and be capable of explaining them,” Garst said.

Garst said through his life experiences and search for evidence he has come to see trends that do not point to a god.

“I found that history doesn't really match up with religion, and religion doesn't really match up with my own views of what is moral and what is ethical,” he said.

Religious Texts Taught in the Classroom

ASU has several classes that teach religious texts in a secular setting.

Professor Robert Sturges teaches the Bible as Literature course at ASU and has taught similar courses at other universities.

He pairs books from the Bible with a literary work of a similar theme, style or motif that can be connected to the area of study.

By pairing the Bible with such texts, Sturges said students are better able to see and understand the large influence the Bible has on literature.

“Virtually, there is no important literary text that doesn't read better, that doesn't become more meaningful, if you have some knowledge of the Bible under your belt,” Sturges said.

Striving to understand the Bible as a work of literature in a secular setting provides a critical understanding of the culture in which many live, he said.

“The Bible provides one of the great underpinnings,” he said. “It provides a lens through which we can see all subsequent culture or at least Judeo-Christian culture in western Europe and the New World in particular.”

In Barrett, the Honors College, students are required to take two semesters of a course called The Human Event, which requires them to look at society and culture in a new light with critical eyes.

Human Event professor Mina Suk has taught selections from the Hebrew Bible, Christian New Testament and Quran.

Suk said she encourages students to read the texts as a piece of literature with a historical context and a message it seeks to convey.

She said reading religious texts can provide useful insight into other cultures and religions.

“For me, it is a way of teaching a certain kind of cultural literacy about the textual foundations of the great world religions,” Suk said.

A benefit of teaching a religious text in the classroom is being able to create an atmosphere of discussion, which allows students to share their ideas and understanding of what the text means, Suk said.

“(The students) also see the way in which a religious text is a kind of cultural property that does not necessarily belong to a particular group, that a religious text can become the opportunity for an open cultural forum to which anyone can respond and praise or critique,” she said.

Understanding Reasons for Religion

Professor Anne Feldhaus, interim head of religious studies in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, said it is important to understand religion in order to understand human beings.

“Religion is a major way people have created meaning for their lives,” she said. “Speaking in a secular vein, it’s a major study of the human imagination.”

Feldhaus said religious studies are more about understanding people than basic truths of the universe, which religions try to do.

Instead, religious studies approaches faith traditions from a secular standpoint to understand why adherents act, speak and think the way they do, she said.

An understanding of religion is relevant at any university, whether it is affiliated with a religion or not, because of the influence religion has had on human history and thought, Feldhaus said.

She said ASU is a good place to engage in religious studies, because the University is a neutral place to explore the topic.

At the same time, the diversity of religions in ASU’s student body exposes students to a great variety of worldviews at a time when their own outlook is growing.

“The bigger your world is, the bigger you become,” she said.

 

Reach the reporters at ammedeir@asu.edu and sgslade@asu.edu or follow them on Twitter @amy_medeiros or @shelbygslade

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Rabbi Shmuel Tiechtel's last name. It has been updated to reflect the correct spelling.


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