Student Perspectives on Philosophy, Religion, and Our Place in the World

Megan Sweeney
Students in Promise Partner ’99’s Religions of the West class were asked to outline their worldviews and beliefs.
by Promise Partner ’99, English and Religion Faculty

We don’t often pause in the busy-ness and look at the big picture: why are we here? But before we began to study Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in my Religions of the West elective, I asked my students to define their own beliefs and worldviews. As the Chair of the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department, I provide students opportunities to consider what they think about the meaning of the world and their place in it. They learn to articulate their own perspectives as well as understanding those of the major religious traditions. By facilitating their reflection and communication about the big ideas of God, tradition, community, and identity, The White Mountain School empowers students to seek purpose and wholeness throughout their lives.

Qinneng “Kris” Shao ‘13, Ningbo, China:

I was raised in a traditional Chinese family. My grandparents are religious and they believe in Buddhism, but my parents don’t pick any religious sides. They lived by materialism and communism. This typical background impacted me a lot because both seemed to work for me. My grandmother wanted me to be a Buddhist and try my best to help people. My parents just wanted to me to concentrate on academics. It’s so hard to tell whether I am religious or not, because under the influence from both my grandparents and my parents, I want to be a person who tries his best to help others, but on the other hand I don’t believe the existence of a higher power. I do choose to follow the Buddha as a representation of  honesty and humanity.

Two months ago I finally got a chance get to the Potala Palace in Lasa, Tibet. I really wanted to go there because I had heard about the magic power of that place from my friend. It is a place that can make you really settle down and think about the purpose of your life. I was surrounded by the extremely quiet and peaceful atmosphere and it allowed me to think about life deeply. One tinkle of the temple bell, one whiff of incense, or seeing one monk walked by, and I felt connected to the whole.

Jonathan “JJ” Berkun ‘13, East Greenbush, New York:

I don’t believe in a God in the Christian sense. There is not a man sitting behind pearly gates up in the sky deciding what is going to happen in our lives. I do believe there is some sort of higher power or force guiding us through life. There are definitely moments in my life when there is a greater presence surrounding me. Some people choose to personify this force in the form of God or Jesus Christ. I just think of it as a guide, not necessarily someone, but something watching over me.

I feel the most connected to this force when I am in nature. I feel more alive and a part of the earth when I am in the great outdoors. I am not quite sure what it is about the outdoors that gives me this feeling of connectedness. It has something to do with the fresh air and experiencing the world in a more pure form. I get different vibes when I am outside and away from the everyday bustle of society and the ever increasing technologies the world has come to depend on. I enjoy being self reliant. I do not miss technology when I am in nature; in fact I enjoy the time away from it. The presence of the higher power is stronger in nature. I believe this is because that power predates human civilization. It has been around since the beginning of time when the world was first formed and nature was all there was.

Emily Rowe ‘13, Laconia, New Hampshire:

I was born with the gift of a photographic memory. It explained why I could tell the story of a car accident I was in at the age of two, describing details that even the paramedics and my parents missed: the color of the hair of the first responder to the scene, the clothes she was wearing, the clothes my grandparents were wearing, and the exact location of all the tears in my grandmother’s jacket. It always amazed family members how years later I could explain the scene of an event that happened before I could even talk.

At the age of seven, I was given my first camera. From that moment on I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. A National Geographic photographer. A photographic memory is an amazing yet saddening gift. It allows me to literally take a mental snapshot of any life event and store it in the permanent photo album in my mind. What frustrates me is that others don’t have that mental photo album, allowing them to always remember or flip through thousands of pictures and reflect on the life they have lived and the beauty they have seen. Through my photography I can capture some of life’s most precious moments, allowing those that do not have this gift to cherish these memories forever.

I also believe my purpose is not only to use my photography to help people remember but to help inform and make a difference as well. There are so many things going on in this world such as genocide, starvation, and poverty, yet the majority of the population has no idea. I recently travelled to the Dominican Republic on a community service trip with The White Mountain School. While I was there I captured hundreds of pictures of the tragic events, living conditions, and social injustice.

Life, to me, is an unbelievably beautiful thing. It’s something we take for granted and through which we move too quickly, forgetting and overlooking its beauty. How could we be given this amazing gift, go through these amazing changes, accomplish amazing things, just for it all to be forgotten? Therefore, I feel my purpose is to help others see the world the way I do, and remember.

Yang “Thomas” Yue ‘13, Shenzhen, China:

I used to believe in some kind of god, especially the Buddha, because I was living in a Buddhist environment. After I started getting in touch with science, I no longer believed in gods. However, I do believe that human beings have their own unique fate, which science cannot totally explain, and that there is an unchangeable orbit for that fate.

What if I did not choose to come to this school? Would my future really be changed? Would I do something in the future that will lead me back to my orbit? As another example, if I did not come to the United States and I could not meet my friends, is it possible that we would meet in the future at some point and become friends anyway? I believe that if I did not meet my friends now, I will still meet them and become friends. Therefore, fate confuses me, because I kind of believe in it but I cannot support my idea at all. On the other hand, if human fate has been calculated already, there is no purpose for us to live, because we could tell the ending. Therefore, fate is a strange path because we do not know where it is going to take us.

Rewina Bedemariam ‘13, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia:

I was raised in an Eastern Orthodox family. When I was a little girl, my mom would take me to church and she would tell me to pray and thank God for what he had blessed me with. She would tell me stories about the angels and saints that were sent from the heavens and the mystical and supernatural things they had shown the people. Even though it sounded bizarre to me, I believed her. I saw no sense of doubt on her part, but most of all she was my mother so I just had to accept what she had told me.

During my pre-teen years, I went to a lot of churches, not only Orthodox churches but also Protestant churches, mosques, and so on. I wanted to discover what others believed and what their values were. But the more I attended churches and mosques, the more I understood that religions imposed laws and rules which are impossible follow. It almost seemed like their followers were expected to be perfect and not make mistakes. Churches tell people what to do and what not to do in order to be accepted by God or to have eternal salvation in heaven. Churches also are man-made inventions and interpretations of the Holy Bible have changed a lot, from the Constantinople to Martin Luther. There have been divisions among churches, creating even more religions and rituals. Churches ask a lot of money from the common people to build fancy churches but have a hard time feeding the poor.

We don’t need churches or temples. Any person is capable of talking to god wherever and whenever. It doesn’t have to be in a church. The rules and laws that churches impose make people feel like they are slaves to the creator, but we are all god’s children and he is accepting and loving no matter what kind of a person we are.

Rachel King ‘13, Burlington, Vermont:

Throughout my childhood, whenever I had a question, I would turn to my grandmother. I vividly recall asking her what she thought of God. She answered me with the most clear answer I had ever received on the subject: God is love. Finally, this complex concept was making sense to me.

As I became more knowledgeable about the world around me and my purpose as a person, I was able to see how my grandmother practiced her belief in love, which influenced me in such a positive manner. I would see her strike up conversations with people that usually seemed to fade into the background. She picked people to talk to whom others seemed to ignore. She would leave them smiling, laughing, feeling more a part of the world. Some would call it simply being kind, but I know for certainty that it was so much deeper. This was her showing her love for the people around her. This was just one small act, but I can guarantee it made a lasting impact.

There are many forms of love: love of a person, a hobby, or a place. As time continued to pass and I matured, I was able to see all of these forms of love displayed in her. It was how she treated her family, her husband of over 50 years, her interests and passions. It drove her and made her who she was. I realized that this was also how I was and strived to be, devoted to dedicating a portion myself to something beyond me. Love is about finding balance with who you are and how you act as one of the billion people on this earth. Love provides the best path for finding yourself and bringing people together.

Enjoy these excerpts from the students’ essays and use them as an opportunity to consider the questions yourself. What do you believe are the big truths of the universe? What is your purpose in life?

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