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Religion at Chicago is practiced in many ways, often by students who call themselves more "spiritual" than "religious."

As my students and I clean up after the Thursday noon Eucharist that has been a staple of the Episcopal campus ministry longer than anyone can remember, we are careful—careful of the Salvadorian processional cross our Catholic sisters and brothers use for their weekly mass; careful of the hymnals used the day before in a weekly Divinity School service; careful not to disturb the Muslim student who has entered quietly, unrolled a prayer rug, and begun her midday devotion.

Passing Newberger Hillel Center on the way back to my office, the aromas of its kosher lunch program scent the air. The signboards of University Church and First Unitarian Church wear rainbow flag decals signaling a welcome to lesbian, gay, and bisexual members of the community. When campus ministers gather for their monthly meeting, the circle includes as many women as men, more lay ministers than ordained clergy, and representatives from a variety of practices, including Asian American Students for Christ, Baha’i Students, U of C Buddhist Association, and the independent evangelical Christian congregation of University Community Church.

Catholics, Jews, Episcopalians, and the United Protestant Campus Ministry maintain houses and full-time professional staffs offering hospitality, worship, and programs. Lutherans, Baptists, and Unitarians devote part-time clergy and lay leadership to campus ministry based in local congregations. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship staff coordinates student-led programs. This year’s religious preference cards, optional forms returned by 25 percent of all registering students, indicated that 29 percent identify themselves as Catholic; Jews and “mainline” Protestants number 12 percent; Lutherans, Episcopalians, Muslims, and Buddhists each represent 2.5–3 percent; and Hindus have grown to nearly 4 percent.

These are visible expressions of campus religious diversity. Less visible are a significant number who identify themselves as more “spiritual” than “religious.” The present student generation is probably no more or less spiritual than its recent predecessors, though increasingly these seekers come to the quest with no previous religious heritage to shed, except those vestigial remnants of civil religion that survive in the culture at large.

Young adulthood is the point of conscious embarkation upon the journey of our lifetimes: making meaning out of our existence. Colleges and universities are acutely engaged in this launching, equipping us with the intellectual and critical tools to examine everything. Still, the campus is pretty hard ground; seed may fall here, and may even take root for a while, but only the strong survive. And this is as it should be. Religion spawned the universities and each shares a common goal—the pursuit of truth, the search for ultimate meaning.

The search takes many directions. That largely invisible cohort of spiritual-but-not-religious students pursues a path worn smooth, though they may believe themselves the first to walk it. Occasionally one will ask for an hour in my office; a friend has suggested I might be helpful. The student arrives with a defensively apologetic explanation for his or her religionless status; my response attempts to preserve the delicate uniqueness of this vantage while simultaneously assuring that I can live with it. My role, as Anglican pastor Kenneth Leech named it, is that of “soul friend.” It’s more than just listening, offering counsel—though it may include both. It’s being with another as that person encounters any of the many questions, pitfalls, or pains that come of such exploration.

For others, this friendship is forged in long conversations over beer at Jimmy’s or coffee in the Medici. Or in small groups who’ve gathered to learn how to be women or men; lesbian or gay; African-, Hispanic-, or Latino-American; or just how to be healthy, whole. Whether students talk about their spirituality or not, it’s a significant part of their lives. Introduced to ourselves as if for the first time, we are often amazed, delighted, and frightened to discover how complex we are. Set within so much diversity, we are challenged to define ourselves. Given the variety we represent and the challenges we present to one another, the true miracle is the high degree of respect we experience here. With odd and statistically insignificant exceptions, we are broadly tolerant, even appreciative of one another; curiosity prevails over conversion.

Demographics on and off campus suggest that organized religious life is changing drastically and traditional institutions stand to be most radically affected. But the universal quest for meaning is inherently spiritual. And if life at Chicago is indicative of any broader trend, the future is rich with possibility. Those young adults embarking on the search will likely find that, like learning itself, this is a lifelong journey, and they’ll have lots of company along the way, plenty of soul friends.

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