Religion in the University by Nicholas Wolterstorff

Religion in the University
| |

As I read Religion in the University, the latest book from one of the CRC’s most significant thinkers, Nicholas Wolterstorff, I recalled my time at grad school. Some of my peers sneeringly referred to one of our professors as “the Sunday School teacher.” The problem wasn’t that this particular prof taught religion: after all, we were all students enrolled in a religious studies program. But this prof was religious, and it was obvious from how he taught that his Christian faith deeply affected his scholarship. Hence “the Sunday School teacher” sneer—as if his personal faith was inappropriate and incompatible with a tenured position at a secular university.

The university harbors an old, deep prejudice against faith. This prejudice is the target of Wolterstorff’s short book. For him, the case for keeping faith commitments out of academia is (still) best expressed by the distinguished German intellectual, Max Weber (d. 1920). Weber was a sympathetic but frank critic of Christianity: surveying a rapidly secularizing Europe in the early 20th century, he insisted that religious belief was acceptable in private homes but no longer in the public university. Academia is a body of scholars who build up knowledge based on facts, not faith, and are guided by reason, not revelation. Of course, a Christian could still be a scholar, and their personal faith might even motivate them to work hard. Yet their (private) faith was wholly irrelevant to their work as scientist, sociologist, or whatever. In the modern age there could be no “prophets” on campus who might want to pursue wisdom, justice, or meaning rather than facts!

Carefully and thoughtfully, Wolterstorff picks apart this still-influential way of thinking, First, he points out that facts don’t stand alone but are always connected to interpretation—and these interpretations are themselves ‘traditioned’ by gender, culture, and a host of other factors. There isn’t just one way of knowing, as Weber and his followers think; there are different ways of knowing, and being located in a particular time and place gives a scholar a unique vantage point to consider the subject. This seems to open a door for religion in the university, except that many in academia are convinced that being religious doesn’t give one a legitimate perspective in the way that being an ethnic or sexual minority does. So second, Wolterstorff challenges academia’s objection to religion as irrational (probably the most typical dismissal today). In a tight, philosophical chapter, he shows how our convictions are often based on the testimony of others or on our experience, and we judge them ‘rational’ only as we sort out how helpful or reliable they are. Is it any different for religious beliefs? In fact, even scholars' notions of what is reasonable typically follows belief.

“But though reason may often appear king in the realm of learning, close scrutiny shows that, in scholarship and teaching, our capacity for reasoning is always functioning in the service of some particular faith or love, or in the service of some intuition or interpretation of how things are,” he writes.

Religion in the University concludes by pleading for a university that welcomes religious voices and takes them seriously, as well as for “prophets,” i.e. believing scholars, to take their place in an open, rigorous, public discussion of matters of real importance by a plurality of perspectives. Wolterstorff calls this ideal “dialogic pluralism.”

As I came to the book’s end, I was left wishing for Wolterstorff to address the contemporary university scene, where ideological “prophets” are often loud, hostile to religion, and exert a huge influence on scholarship (especially in the humanities and social sciences) and campus culture. Their criticism of religion is less that it’s irrational than that it’s oppressive. If Wolterstorff had chosen another distinguished German— Karl Marx—rather than Weber to represent the university, a very different book about religion in academia could have been written!

In any case, “dialogic pluralism” is a compelling model for the secular university; anyone who is connected to such an institution will find Religion in the University helpful, be they grad student, professor, campus pastor, or administrator. I wish members of my secular university would read this excellent book. They probably won’t—but I have, and it will inform my conversations from here on. (Yale University Press)

About the Author

Todd Statham is the Christian Reformed campus minister at the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia.

X