Chance scheduling on Thursday night brought back-to-back events showing the diversity of religious perspectives at Knox.
First to take place was the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship’s Question and Answer forum. People crowded into Ferris Lounge to the point that some were even leaning against the back wall as the four IVCF panelists (senior Kyle Cruz, juniors Paige Anderson and Demoz Desta and senior Qijao Fan) took questions either submitted before the panel or from members of the audience. The forum was followed by the first meeting of the Secular Student Alliance, a new group announced earlier this week in a campus-wide email.
Those on the IVCF panel represented a variety of backgrounds, coming from three different continents and distinct paths to Christianity. Three of them were converted or born again quite recently, including Fan, who described her faith journey by saying, “I got to know God more. … I feel my life totally changed.”
The forum aimed to, in the words of Cruz, “give personal answers to other students who are or are not Christian.” Questions featured included such weighty topics as “Who is God?” and “How do I know when God is talking to me?”
The panelists went through the questions one by one, usually with all four chiming in, mixing Bible verses and theology with personal experiences.
They spoke of the daily struggle to live their faith.
“When you first come to Christ it is a honeymoon,” Cruz said, but eventually “the rubber hits the road.”
IVCF did not shy away from tackling controversial topics. One student anonymously wrote in the question, “I’m gay but raised Christian, so I was thinking that I’m destined to go to Hell. Is there anything in the Bible that can make me feel better about this?’
The panelists responded by saying that Christianity’s emphasis on love should be emphasized.
“It’s through love that you show the other person God,” Desta said. “God is love.”
He noted that the two most important features of Christianity in his eyes are to love God and love his neighbor, whatever his or her sexual orientation.
Cruz also expressed his frustration that homosexuality is the focus of so many Christians and said that widespread sins such as pride or greed should be of much greater concern.
With many topics they admitted they could only speculate on the answers.
“You cannot define God,” Desta said. They all spoke mostly of their own relationships to God and acknowledged that everyone has to find their own path.
A message that was somewhat similar, yet vastly different in obvious ways, was in the offing at the first meeting of the Secular Student Alliance, which took place in an out-of-the way room in George Davis Hall. Attendance was only a fraction of that at the question and answer forum, but the founder of the SSA, sophomore Brian Tanaka, had all of the enthusiasm of Intervarsity’s panelists.
The crowd was also a diverse bunch, united only by their rejection of organized religion. Ranging from a self-described “flaming atheist” to a few students who described themselves as still spiritual, their backgrounds included Catholicism, Methodism, Buddhism and even a few New Age religions.
Tanaka had a conversion story of his own. The son of an ordained minister and a former church musician who played before a crowd of a thousand, he lost his faith and became a self-declared atheist less than a year ago.
“I’m fairly new to the atheist community” he said.
The SSA is a national group whose website lists their objective “to organize, unite, educate, and serve students and student communities that promote the ideals of scientific and critical inquiry, democracy, secularism, and human-based ethics.”
Knox’s group will pursue similar goals. Listing Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson as models, it will encourage free-thinking and science-based reasoning on campus through speakers, service and events.
One planned endeavor is “Ask an Atheist” day, which would involve club members sitting at a table in Seymour Gallery with a sign encouraging passing students to ask questions. This is in line with the club’s goal of dispelling misconceptions about the secularist community, or “spreading the word” as Tanaka put it somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
Despite the irreverent tone of much of the meeting, the club plans to be careful to avoid appearing as hostile to religion or any religious group on campus. Co-sponsoring events with the various religious groups on campus was discussed during the meeting.
“The most powerful thing is being open-minded” was a statement made by Tanaka, a statement that could easily have been uttered by any IVCF member on the panel.
Paige Anderson is a co-mosaic editor and Kyle Cruz is a copy editor for The Knox Student.