What Exactly is the Role of Religion?
A Review of
Religion in the University
Hardback: Yale University Press, 2019.
Buy Now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
Reviewed by Rob O’Lynn
In May 2006, I returned home to the Huntington, West Virginia-area to accept a position as the senior minister for a local congregation, finish my Master of Divinity, start teaching part-time at a Christian college in Parkersburg, and consider where I would pursue my doctoral work. I had been Austin, Texas, for the previous four years, completing my first graduate degree at a small seminary located within the boundaries of the University of Texas at Austin campus.
Having grown up in Nashville around Vanderbilt University, a private institution, and Lipscomb University, a Christian college, and then attending Harding University, another Christian college, in Arkansas, I had no real experience with public education. I attended a private, Christian school for 10 years, following a call to ministry that was fueled just as much by that school as it was by my home congregation.
Going to school on the Texas campus was an eye-opening experience. Remember that Austin’s advertising slogan is “Keep Austin Weird.” That is nowhere more true than on the quad. However my experience with public education was significantly limited in that chapter of my life. That changed somewhat when I moved back home.
In addition to all that I mentioned above, I also took an office job at Marshall University to help pay the bills. Not only did this put me in the education marketplace, where I have remained ever since, it put me squarely in the public education marketplace. My job was to establish a student-staffed customer service center for the university’s business office, meaning that I would be supervising students attending that university. It also provided me with the opportunity to pursue additional education as a graduate student.
Not long into my time at Marshall, there were two moments that helped shift my understanding about public education. First, I was working on a paper for my Master of Divinity and I needed to do some research. At one time, Marshall had a robust Religious Studies department. Many of the books from that period were still available in the library. The old library, I discovered, where the ceilings were only six feet high, due to remodeling. I stand 6’2”. Religious Studies, formerly a full degree program, had been reduced to a minor program in the Humanities division, and their resources were now lacking. Not a big help for a graduate student struggling to find appropriate resources for a paper in Contemporary Theology.
Second, one of the students working for me, who came from an evangelical background, had a startling experience in her introductory religious studies course. She took the course to fulfill a humanities elective, thinking the course would be a breeze since she came from a church background. The professor it seems had other ideas. She stated that he walked into class on the first day and announced that none of the “Christian students” in the course should expect to pass if they chose to cling to their faith. He was an atheist and saw it as his job to enlighten religious adherents to the stupidity of religious belief, opting instead for a more sociological take on religion. It benefits society morally, yet that it is only true value. I spent much of that semester counseling the student in how to maintain her faith in spite of such opposition.
These experiences practically connect to the philosophical argument that is at the heart of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s newest book Religion in the University. A noted philosophical theologian at Yale University, Wolterstorff is a prolific author in the areas of epistemology, metaphysics, liturgical theology and theological aesthetics. Honored as the recipient of a number of prestigious scholarships and fellowships, Wolterstorff has spoken across the United States and in Europe on the topics of justice, political theology and soteriology. Some of his more notable works include Lament for a Son (1987), Religion in the Public Square (1997), Educating for Life (2002), Educating for Shalom (2004) and Acting Liturgically (2018). In short, he is well-qualified to author a book on the subject of the place of religion in university life.
Wolterstorff begins is something of a defensive position: “Contrary to the expectations of some, religion has not disappeared from the modern world, especially not from the United States. In response to the dynamics of modernization, religion has taken distinctly new forms, but it has not disappeared” (vii). This brings one of the enduring questions of modernism, specifically of post-modern and post-Christian thought, straight to the forefront of Wolterstorff’s argument: What is the role of religion in the modern world, specifically in higher education?
By “religion,” Wolterstorff is operating out of a primarily Judeo-Christian worldview, although there is an allowance for religion is a more global scope, as allowed by the positive argument of pluralism. Wolterstoff notes in his concluding remarks that “the only opinion that is fair and consistent…in a pluralistic society such as ours, is that it include religious orientations and voices within the dialogic pluralism it promotes” (p. 149). In short, religion—as understood by the broadest of pluralistic understanding—is not only good but necessary for the positive development of human society.
Sandwiched between these two paradigmatic statements, stand four essays in which Wolterstorff explores the palce of religion in the university. In the opening chapter, Wolterstorff takes issue with Max Weber’s traditional secular understanding of religion, an understanding that Wolterstorff argues has become more disruptively prominent than we might think. In chapter two, Wolterstorff focuses on the role of religion in scholarship, arguing that scholarship is the discussion and debate of beliefs and would shrivel if religion were excluded from the discussion. In chapter three, Wolterstorff explores the role of testimony in scholarship, noting that the ideation and articulation of research—discussing what we have experienced—is hollow if not for the deep-seeded belief structure of the religious testimonial. Wolterstorff then concludes by asserting the necessity of religion in the university. As my student experienced, the conversation may be unsettling. Yet, for honest philosophical dialogue and intellectual growth to continue, religion must maintain a place in the university.
Rob O’Lynn is Assistant Professor of Preaching and Ministry and Director of Graduate Bible Programs at Kentucky Christian University.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com