In August, the website Inside Higher Ed reported on some new social science research about the relationship between college education and religious affiliation:

“College is often portrayed as a place where students lose the faiths in which they were raised. Books such as God and Man at Yale have argued that professors challenge the beliefs of students of faith. For those born in much of the 20th century, it was true that college graduates of all ages were significantly less likely than others to report any religious affiliation.

“But research just published in the journal Social Forces (abstract available here) finds that, starting for those born in the 1970s, there was a reversal in this historic trend. For that cohort, a college degree increases the chances that someone will report a religious affiliation.”

— Scott Jaschik, “Educated and Religious,” Inside Higher Ed, August 11, 2014

At about the same time, a new, full-time chaplain joined the Wagner College community. The Reverend Martin Malzahn, ordained by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, comes to the College from Columbia University, where he had served as assistant university chaplain. He holds master’s degrees from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and from Union Theological Seminary and has also served as a pastor for churches in Carmel, California, and Naugatuck, Connecticut.

Wagner Magazine Editor Laura Barlament asked Rev. Malzahn about his background and his thoughts about the striking research cited above.

Laura Barlament: Where did you go to college, and how did the college experience affect your faith?

Portrait of Martin Malzahn
Martin Malzahn, Wagner chaplain

Martin Malzahn: I went to Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, which is an ELCA-affiliated college, much like Wagner was historically. I was an English and religion major and an ethnic studies minor. I was really interested in the big questions and how people had answered them — as people of faith, but also as people of reason, and as people of … passion, is I guess the way I’d say it.

My college chaplain, Kurt Keljo, was an incredibly kind and gracious person, and spent a lot of time with me. We would read books together, and he provided leadership opportunities. His kindness and patience with me was one thing that told me I could see myself in the role of a chaplain or a minister in ways that wouldn’t have naturally resonated otherwise.

LB: So when you went to college you were not thinking of going into ministry?

MM: No, I was definitely prelaw. I was thinking I was going to be a lawyer. And a lot of the big questions I was interested in — about justice, and communities — and the ways in which I wanted to be a lawyer, people kept suggesting that the law might not be the best way to achieve what I was hoping to achieve, but that I really sounded more like a seminarian or college professor. And through a series of encouragements and conversations, I shifted my focus from history and political science and sociology to religion and ethnic studies and literature.

LB: Did you grow up in the Lutheran faith?

MM: I did. I like to say that history doesn’t always repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes. My father was a Lutheran pastor, so we grew up in a very historically Lutheran house. So I’m not doing the same thing as my father, in the sense that I’m not in parish ministry, but I am a chaplain, still concerned about community.

LB: Tell us more about why you went into campus ministry.

MM: I left parish ministry very fulfilled, but wanting to move to a college environment, because I wanted to work with the younger generation, especially students. Our social context is a lot different than our parents’ and grandparents’, and the way religious identities have formed people is different now. I wanted to work with folks who were part of that formation process, and do some leadership development as well. And talk about the ways in which I think faith is still really salient and really important.

“I hope that I’m a chaplain who can be a bridge builder between generations, between disciplines, and between traditions.”

LB: What are your observations about the relationship between college education and faith? What do you think about Philip Schwadel’s research about the relationship between college education and religious faith?

MM: There has been this very interesting media narrative that has happened over the past decade or so. It talks about the rise of the “nones,” people with no religious affiliation or no religious tradition whatsoever. I think there’s a lot of truth to it, and certainly I can point to a lot of people who did not have a faith tradition they grew up in.

But I do like some of this newer research that’s beginning to question this narrative. It’s suggesting that the faith that people say they are rejecting is not the faith that most people practice anyway.

For example, people say they are really not into going to religious services. But, it turns out it’s really important for them to be married in a church, to have funerals within a religious tradition, and to have initiation ceremonies, whether it’s a baptism or a bar mitzvah. I think the majority of priests, rabbis and imams would consider them very faithful people. I think that a lot of research is indicating that’s where people are coming from.

What is new is the context. America is a much more pluralistic place. People have much more exposure to people other than themselves than previous generations did. So, for example, Catholics would say, “I never knew so many Evangelicals before,” or “There were never Buddhists in our neighborhood.” That was likely true for grandparents, and it’s likely not true for the grandchildren.

LB: And this pluralistic environment doesn’t necessarily loosen young peoples’ ties to religious services, or make them “lose their faith,” so to speak?

MM: No, I think there’s a really strong sense of identity. “I’m nondenominational” is what a lot of younger people will say, which used to mean “I’m Protestant.” They’re formed by the culture, and the culture is still sending mixed signals of saying that nobody’s religious anymore. Yet at the same time, everybody has these faith-shaping identities with them.

A lot of people who show up on college campuses are in the middle of defining what their identity is, and there’s this really great opportunity to richly explore it. And as the chaplain I hope that I accompany them, to help young people’s spiritual growth, their religious observance, and their civic engagement, which may be very distinct, yet they may also be interwoven with one another.

LB: What do you see as trends in religious faith among the Millennial generation (ages 18–30)?

MM: There’s definitely a curiosity about our neighbors’ faith. I think people really, really want to be in contact with people who are of a different faith and are also religious. Which is interesting. I think a lot of the media portrays young people as not wanting to be associated with religious people, and my experience has been just the opposite. I think that college students want to know people who practice the integrity of their faith traditions. They don’t want to be proselytized, but they do want to learn from their classmates and their roommates what it means to be something other than what they are.

LB: And do you see college students digging deeper into their own faith traditions, if they grew up with one? Or trying to find one for themselves? Or do they just have a broad curiosity, dabbling here and there, and then moving on?

MM: I think students like to be invited to deeper questions. And I don't think they’re always conscious that they want to deepen their own faith and understand their own tradition more, but I think that they are doing it.

I don’t hear them saying, “I want to embrace my faith.” But when I ask deeper questions about values and formation and tradition, people eagerly jump into it. And that’s usually a life-giving thing for the students I've worked with.

LB: What are the big questions on college students’ minds?

MM: I think the questions that appeal to everybody are the more personal questions that young adults are going through. Relationships tend to be really big, and career and vocation. I don’t know any college student who’s not interested in the way they define relationships, whether with their family, their friends, or their romantic partner. Because so much of their lives is defined by relationships, they are spiritually curious about what this means.

Vocation: Everyone’s thinking about it, but I don't know that everyone conceives of it in spiritual terms. But when I introduce it as such, I think everyone resonates with that, because they want their work to have value and meaning, and often not just a way in which they’re paid, but something that actually changes the world or at least means something to themselves.

LB: What are your plans for ministry at Wagner College?

Martin Malzahn stands praying.
Martin Malzahn offers prayers at Wagner's 2014 memorial of the 9/11 attacks.

MM: As your Wagner chaplain, I would like to facilitate spiritual growth, religious practice, and civic engagement. Those may be distinct and separate, but they also may be related to one another. So I’ll be creating programs that are pluralistic and interfaith and put people in conversation in contact with one another, as well as individualistic as you dig deeper into your own tradition.

We start the year with the Jewish high holy days and an important secular observance, the September 11 memorial, and then we move into some Catholic observances, like the Feast of Saint Francis. Are there ways in which each of these traditions can be in conversation with one another? I think so.

I've got a couple different programming ideas. An example would be a colleague in Brooklyn who does a lot of experimental street theater and art, and he has created a whale — as in Jonah and the whale — that is big enough that a human being can enter into the whale to pray. I think this is really interesting, because it is a faith that you can literally touch with your hands even as you try to make transcendence with a God outside of you.

I'd like to talk about the historic story of Jonah and the whale, and the calling, and the way God uses God's creation for God's purposes. But then also make some connections to Sukkoth, and the Jewish tradition of creating booths as places in which to pray, and talk about the Catholic tradition of the blessing of animals. And talk about the secular occasion, where it’s important on September 11 to memorialize those who have passed.

If you can have something like a whale, which is grounded in religious tradition, as well as a popular culture story, I think that students are going to use that as a place of conversation.

LB: Was there anything else you wanted to bring into the conversation?

MM: I would want to say to alumni that faith is just as important to current Wagner students as it was to your own Wagner experience. And as you reflect back on your own Wagner experience and look at contemporary culture, you see that culture has changed immensely. So even though faith is just as important, your Wagner experience is different than it is for today’s students, which means that by necessity we communicate our faith differently than we had before.

I hope that I’m a chaplain who can be a bridge builder between generations, between disciplines, and between traditions. Although I’ve been blessed with what my wife calls youthful exuberance, I received a typewriter for my eighth grade graduation present — and it was a really nice gift! I don’t think there’s a Wagner student today who would think that’s a nice gift, and they would certainly not relate to getting a typewriter. So I can talk to current students by text message, by iPhone, and other current technology, but I remember a time not so long ago that we didn’t do that. Relationships are still important even as we have different ways and modes of communicating.

— September 15, 2014

  • Joan Grimalt

    What an excellent interview! Thanks a lot.
    The issue of how young people stand towards tradition in general, not only religious, is a big one. And how we can interact with their thirsts.
    I like a lot the idea of putting into dialogue different traditions, including the Nones. Those declared atheists or agnostics would attend e.g. a service in honour of 9/11 if it is inclusive enough, open enough. Or explore Jonah’s whale, if one presents it in an inviting, not particularistic way.
    I also found the distinction between being curious and being proselytised very pertinent in a general sense, for our contact with students.
    All best luck and best wishes to the new chaplain and to his brilliant interviewer!

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