Every September college students confront a myriad of student activity organizations, each competing for student loyalties. While campus religious groups might be considered realms for quiet reflection and prayer, things change amongst a plurality of competing enticements for student membership. Suddenly, the Catholic Center is just one option alongside a cappella choirs, the Beekeeping Club, the Anime Club, the Cigar Aficionados, the Harry Potter Alliance, and the Wine & Cheese Society. What’s a religion got to do to get American undergrads in the door?
The Catholic Center, with its “Keep Calm and Catholic On” meme poster, joins the rush to make religion cool, and offers a palette of activities–the Holy Water Fight, the Monstah BBQ, Ultimate Frisbee, a gathering of Card Sharks–and oh, at the very bottom there, a bit of Mass. The distinctively “religious” activity of the religious organization seems an afterthought–or maybe a chance to atone for the fun to be had making fun of religion all week.
The effects of modern pluralism–not just religious diversity but the existence of all sorts of cultural options for people to spend their time on–impacts not only the self-presentation but also the behaviors of religious institutions. Sociologist Anthony Giddens writes that pluralistic modern conditions change religious institutional self-reflexivity–the ways these organizations think about and present themselves. It makes sense, since much of identity formation is a process of reacting to one’s surroundings and differentiating oneself from them. The competitive student activities marketplace pushes this changing self-conception into an entirely different organization–now the religious group is not just for religion, but also for BBQs and gambling. The Catholic Center, to contend with other student organizations, has to offer a range of activities that in a previous era might have been seen as sacrilegious, self-mocking, or entirely too secular and temptation-laden. This shows how the cultural marketplace affects its constituents. Does it work? When the Catholic Center presents itself as a cool and attractive activity, does it pull in customers who are there for the Catholic–or just there for the Center?
This Center also demonstrates “disenchantment” rooted within the religious institution, an effect described by sociologist Max Weber as characteristic of the modern era. These days, Mass is just one choice of many social choices. It’s not really that special and it might not even be that different from what the Slam Poetry Troupe is doing. Somehow, as the Catholic Mass is rendered an afterthought to all the stimulating activities of the week, it seems less enchanting. It certainly seems equally important–or even not as important–as the other fabulous options.
Weber also wrote that modernity is marked by a differentiation of realms whereby the state “did” politics, and religion “did” religion. But cultural pluralism and competitive marketplaces actually behoove campus religious organizations to offer a full range of diversions for its constituents. The Catholic Center is now a one-stop social shop. We see this happening in Megachurches that build campuses with grocery stores and medical clinics. Why go anywhere else when you can get all your fun and business done here, at God’s Walmart, surrounded by people who share your worldview? The consequence of–or reaction against–cultural pluralism is to build a bulwark against diversity. Alarmed by the temptations of cultural pluralism, religious institutions become more internally diverse and multidimensional than ever.
Social scientists of religion have long known that religion is a multidimensional affair, and that people participate in religion for many reasons–from business networking, to coffee hour socializing, to public image maintenance, to the occasional need for prayer and spiritual succor. Religion has never been corded off to its worship hours on Saturday or Sunday mornings (or whenever); it has always been offered 24/7. The difference with contemporary campus religious groups is that they deliberately disavow their own religious center, drawing in students with outrageous, cool, popular attractions, brazenly sidelining that which distinguishes them from most other student clubs: the sacred, the spiritual, the liturgical. These groups have to dance nervously around the paradox that if they offer too much religion, they lose social cache and kids won’t come–but if they offer too much social cache, what are the kids coming for that they can’t get elsewhere?
What becomes of the spirituality of a place like this? Is it marginalized so successfully that participants do not value it? Are they coming for the prayer or the hot dogs? Perhaps devout Catholic students would attend the Catholic Center no matter what other campus clubs are doing; perhaps the ambivalent Catholics really require a few frisbee and cards games to get them in the door. But when the Catholic Center runs out of hot dogs, will the students run over to the Organic Gardening Club, or to the Polish and Central European Society? These student activity groups attract members out of their particularity, but the Catholic Center is trying to be everything to everybody, apologizing for what little religion they do still happen to offer.
It’s an Afterschool Special: the quirky, artsy kid tries to get cool so she can join the popular group–and the more she resembles the trendsetters, the coolest and most special things about her fade away. If religious community is adjusted too much to fit the comfort level or popularity standards of churchgoers, what happens to the sacred? What will it take for the Catholic Center to have the confidence to be who they are–a religious group–different than the Barbecue Fellowship–and to be proud of it?
I applaud the attempt to build a multidimensional spiritual community, and I respect that a competitive marketplace makes certain demands on organizational self-presentation and branding efforts. There is something to be said for building investment. If a student attends the holy water fight she might make a friend who convinces her to do a community service project and eventually attend Mass. The barbecue, frisbee, gambling, etc. might serve as segues to the religious part of holistic community involvement.
The irony is that, in the effort to make religion seem cool and funny, the Catholic Center is actually suggesting that religion is pretty lame. In order for it to be valuable, they have to dress it up and sell it. They are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy: if they continue to try so hard to make church hip and exciting, they send an implicit message that church, the way it is normally done, is uncool and boring. It perpetuates the shame of the churchgoer who also happens to be an American college student. The churchgoer is prevented from connecting to the tradition in a way that doesn’t involve hotdogs and holy water fights. In presenting themselves this way, church organizations convey a certain embarrassment about housing the sacred.
When competing within the cynical climate of the American secular urban college campus, the campus religious organization won’t get far highlighting liturgical worship, Catholic aesthetics, or spiritual revival. But it is a little disappointing that the Catholic Center should sell themselves by playing Ultimate Frisbee on Monday before praying to ultimate reality on Sunday. What does it say about the ebbing confidence of modern religious communities when the ultimate isn’t enough for people–unless offered alongside a game of Ultimate? Earnest seekers and spiritually curious students will not be able to develop confidence in their curiosity unless such confidence is modeled by the organization that houses their worship. This particular group has surrendered to the contest for student membership by shirking the very thing that made them distinct. How can college students take pride in their spiritual choices and identity if the community they belong to does not?