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The American University in a Postsecular Age

Douglas G. Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, eds
Published by Oxford University Press in 2008

Two Messiah College faculty members, Douglas Jacobsen (Distinguished Professor of Church History and Theology) and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen (Professor of Psychology and Director of Faculty Development, and yes, they are married), have provided us with another provocative book addressing the relationship of religion and American higher education. Their previous book on Christian higher education, Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation (Oxford University Press, 2004), previews several of the themes explored in The American University in a Postsecular Age. The Jacobsens provide an introductory chapter, a chapter that focuses on church-related higher education, and a concluding chapter. Eleven other chapters by thirteen distinguished scholars give attention to various changes and challenges on the horizon for higher education in a postsecular climate.

In the opening chapter, the Jacobsens provide an historical context for understanding American higher education. This story is revisited by several of the other authors throughout the book, but it is dispatched here deftly, with particular attention to both the myth and the realities of academic secularization. The shadow of George Marsden (particularly The Soul of the American University and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship) falls across this essay and others in the book. In this opening chapter an approach to the topic at hand, an academic paradigm of sorts, is revealed and this guiding paradigm frames several of the other chapters in this volume as well. In this paradigm the first world is the academy, with its unassailable ideology of rationality and humanistic regard for the welfare of all. The second world is religion, with its dubious pedigree, its persistent resilience, and its sometimes salubrious contributions. Throughout much of this volume, the second world is judged by the standards of the first, and when the second world plays nice, it is welcome to visit the campus of the first. I understand this approach – it is the time-tested approach of the elite and liberal academy. And I agree that the issues under investigation should be scrutinized in this way – critically, rationally. But I think that another path of analysis is needed as well, one that turns this paradigm around by critiquing and evaluating the world of American higher education from the perspective of religious worlds. In fact, this approach might trouble the status quo system by providing a prophetic critique that runs deep – giving attention to matters of fundamental epistemology, the sociology of knowledge, and the pros and cons of educational globalization. Such matters are mentioned, but most of the attention in this volume is devoted to more pragmatic concerns such as discussing religion in the classroom or the religious attitudes and practices of students. The more radical approach to postsecularity has been taken up by those working under the banner of radical orthodoxy, it has been explored in matters of epistemology by Nicholas Wolterstorff, Douglas Sloan and others, and it would seem to be the response that is called for in a world of incommensurate traditions that each frame learning and knowledge and institutions in different ways.

In Chapter Two, Neil Gross and Solon Simmons discuss their survey research entitled, “Politics of the American Professoriate.” Their work is related to several other significant research projects on American professors, and it provides a number of insights regarding the religious orientation of the professoriate. Even though college and university professors are not as religious as the general population, findings reveal that there are fewer agnostics and atheists than imagined (less than 25%). Atheists and agnostics are more common in some fields than others – psychology and biology have been secularized the most thoroughly (61% atheist or agnostic). There are also interesting differences of religiosity by institutional type. Belief in God is maintained more commonly by professors at community colleges, baccalaureate institutions, and non-elite doctoral institutions than at elite research universities (where many professors receive their academic training). While this may come as no big surprise, perhaps it does help explain the chasm that exists between personal belief and the academically significant beliefs of most religious professors. Even most religious professors are functional secularists in terms of political philosophy, the relationship between religion and science, and in all likelihood (the research does not address this directly), the relationship between religion and their own discipline.

In Chapter Three, Robert Wuthnow provides a personal reflection on the academy, and this chapter illustrates the basic paradigm of this book very well. The academy, warts and all, is a legitimate and honorable institution. At the heart of it is and should be a commitment to value-free, rational inquiry. Religion or faith is an outside force. It may trouble the academy, and it can offer what it has to offer, but in the end it must be tested by the academic paradigm. The spirit of Max Weber and of the modern project is strong in this essay.

John J. Dilulio Jr. is our guide through the history and hallways of the University of Pennsylvania. We get some glimpses of other elite institutions along the way, namely Yale and Harvard. Since religion is viewed now as inescapable in our postsecular climate, even elite institutions are paying attention to religious issues, developing a spirit of religious toleration and engaging in multi-perspective dialogue. At one point, DiIulio mentions that modernist epistemologies “have fallen from intellectual grace” (58-59), but the only counter-example provided is that of Princeton’s Robert George, a natural law theorist, whose approach can be demonstrated “with or without any reference to religious precepts or first principles” (59). This is one passing point in a thick, institutional story, but once again this is made clear – religion is OK, as long as it meets the real measure of truth – the academy’s measure.

Most of the readers of this journal are intimately aware of the trials and contributions of church-related higher education. That is not the case for so many scholars, even those who work in the field of higher education. For that reason, the chapter “The Ideals and Diversity of Church-Related Higher Education” written by the Jacobsens is an important addition to this volume. The last section of this chapter on Tradition-Enhanced Learning is especially interesting, providing insights on how traditions shape campus culture and academic curricula among other things.

The chapter by Mark U. Edwards Jr. is drawn largely from his book Religion on Our Campuses: A Professor’s Guide to Communities, Conflicts, and Promising Conversations (New York:Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). Edwards explores why it is so difficult for faculty to talk about religion. The main reason becomes clear in the second paragraph of the chapter: on most academic issues, “beliefs are simply not relevant to the disciplinary matter at hand” (81). Apparently Edwards views religion as relevant regarding the motivation or perceived calling of the professor, and ideally good character traits for the scholar-teacher are formed in religious communities. Otherwise, it appears, religious concerns are not relevant. Is religion not relevant in the critique of theories in every discipline, in the contextual assessment of most topics, in discerning the telos that is worth pursuing in every field? Edwards provides useful commentary on disciplinary specialization, noting that academic disciplines divide into sub-units of specialization, each the domain of specially trained experts who are isolated from colleagues and from the broader purposes (and meaning frameworks) of the academy.

To talk about religion, then, would be to transgress the boundaries and standards of specialized excellence that undergird our professional lives. It would run the risk of undermining the most basic support structures that sustain our status as scholars (86).

Well, then I say risk it! Edwards is much more cautious, recommending “prudence and restraint.” It sounds like Edwards is encouraging faculty to invite religion into the classroom to make a brief guest appearance. I admit that in most courses, this would be a step in the right direction.

The fundamental role of religion as a source of perspective is considered constructively in the essay by R. Eugene Rice. Three opportunities for faculty in the postsecular context are in view: 1) meaning frameworks can be explored, and these often draw upon faith traditions; 2) the vocation of faculty may be anchored to deeper realities if faith is taken into account; and 3) pedagogy may actually be transformed if it is infused with the insights of faith. Rice encourages faculty to think beyond academic rationality, and to provide more than boundary-crashing criticism. Faculty and students do not simply need big questions to ponder; they need big dreams to pursue. For Rice, the postsecular climate of higher education appears to be warming, providing the right conditions for meaning and purpose to grow. In another chapter, Elizabeth J. Tisdell also explores the opportunities that the postsecular climate opens up for pedagogy. She relays stories from her experiences to convey the value of understanding notions like culture, spirituality, narrative and paradox for improving teaching.

Larry A. Braskamp provides a penetrating look at student life on campus through the lenses of recent literature and research on the topic. After reading Tom Wolfe’s novel, I am Charlotte Simmons, and so many other critics of contemporary campus culture, one might expect to encounter a vast wasteland of student apathy and contempt toward religion on campus. While Braskamp recognizes that students are abandoning formal religious traditions and direct involvement in churches, he indicates that students continue to seek meaning, and to find it in religion and various forms of spirituality. This is, of course, no great consolation to those who believe that particular traditions are needed to ensure a depth of theological reflection and a direction for discipleship.

Robert J. Nash and DeMethra LaSha Bradley have learned a great deal about the faith of students through a seminar on religious pluralism that they conduct. One fruit of these efforts is a typology of student spirituality. Nash and Bradley identify five student types: Orthodox Believers, Mainline Believers, Spiritual Seekers (including these sub-types –wounded seekers, mystical seekers, social justice seekers), Spiritual Humanists, and Spiritual Skeptics. Sage advice is provided for enhancing religious dialogue, but one interesting issue calls for more attention. A belief perspective is employed quite consciously by the seminar leaders who are deeply committed to postmodern ideals – dialogue, discovery, and tolerance. Only the Orthodox Believers really take it on the chin in their analysis. Some of these OBs, the “disturbing exceptions,” apparently believe in some absolute, or doctrinal certainty, or they “pride themselves” regarding their religious in-group status. Evidently such beliefs and attitudes violate the seminar ’s ideals more than ignorance or apathy or self-serving spirituality, for only these OBs earn the authors’ scorn. This chapter should be read in tandem with the chapter by Amanda Porterfield, who provides an alternative reading and critique of religious pluralism. Her essay troubles the contention that the American academy is postsecular. She suggests instead that a “neutral” academic perspective still reigns, and that we are experiencing re-secularizing strategies rather than efforts to take religion seriously.

Warren A. Nord is also far less sanguine regarding the role of religion in public universities than are several of the other authors in this volume. He estimates that only one in ten undergraduates in public universities will ever take a course that takes religion seriously, and this is the case because universities have not and are not taking religion seriously. Nord offers four secular arguments for taking religion seriously: 1) the liberal education argument– religion has been massively important throughout history, and is so in virtually every culture; 2) the moral argument – good education cannot fail to address the fundamental values that shape cultures (the good, justice, community, love) and religious institutions are designed to give attention to these fundamental values; 3) the constitutional argument – that the avoidance of religion is not in view in the constitution, but rather that the state must remain neutral among religions and between religion and non religion; and finally 4) the civic argument – attention to religion is necessary in a country that is both deeply religious and conflicted by religion. Nord ends the essay with several recommendations for taking religion seriously in the public university.

Only the chapter by Lee S. Shulman honors a religious tradition genuinely and deeply by taking it seriously as a context out of which learning and knowledge arise. The Jewish tradition of learning develops within a community and responds to its beliefs and values. This is a good reminder that knowledge is always contextual, even as that context is stretched by critique and reform. There are no doubt limitations to a rabbinic educational tradition that interrogates text and tradition, as there are blind spots in every tradition. There is also vitality and insight, as there is in the modern secular paradigm.

In the concluding chapter of this volume, the Jacobsens appeal to academics and administrators to keep conversation about religion simmering. That is a very reasonable conclusion that captures the spirit of many of the essays in this volume. If, however, religion is merely a topic of debate and conversation, it is not taken seriously (Nord), it has to meet the supposedly “neutral” criteria of the academy (Porterfield), and it is not tapped to give vitality to the pedagogies, values, and goals of learning (Rice, Shulman), then the term “post secular” is not so much a description as it is an illusive ideal.

Cite this article
Donald D. Opitz, “The American University in a Postsecular Age”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 38:2 , 309-313

Donald D. Opitz

Geneva College
Donald D. Opitz, Associate Professor of Higher Education and Sociology, Geneva College