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Religion in the University

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From one of the world’s leading philosophers, this is a powerful defense of religion’s role within the modern university

What is religion’s place within the academy today? Are the perspectives of religious believers acceptable in an academic setting? In this lucid and penetrating essay, Nicholas Wolterstorff ranges from Max Weber and John Locke to Ludwig Wittgenstein and Charles Taylor to argue that religious orientations and voices do have a home in the modern university, and he offers a sketch of what that home should be like. 
He documents the remarkable changes have occurred within the academy over the past five decades with regard to how knowledge is understood. During the same period, profound philosophical advancements have also been made in our understanding of religious belief. These shifting ideals, taken together, have created an environment that is more pluralistic than secular. Tapping into larger debates on freedom of expression and intellectual diversity, Wolterstorff believes a scholarly ethic should guard us against becoming, in Weber’s words, “specialists without spirit and sensualists without heart.”

192 pages, Hardcover

Published April 2, 2019

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About the author

Nicholas Wolterstorff

80 books75 followers
Wolterstorff is the Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, and Fellow of Berkeley College at Yale University. A prolific writer with wide-ranging philosophical and theological interests, he has written books on metaphysics, aesthetics, political philosophy, epistemology and theology and philosophy of religion.

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Displaying 1 - 14 of 14 reviews
Profile Image for Bob.
1,852 reviews621 followers
August 22, 2019
Summary: Defends the idea of the place of religious ideas in scholarly discussion.

In many quarters of the world of higher education, religious ideas or religiously informed perspectives are deemed inappropriate for the classroom, and for scholarly research and discourse, confining these discussions to the co-curricular part of the university. Emeritus Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff lays out in compact but carefully reasoned format, an argument for the proper place of religious ideas in academic discourse.

He begins with a classic work by Max Weber, "Science as Vocation," that argued that religious ideas, not being immediately accessible facts, should not be part of academic discourse but be relegated to the private and personal sphere of life. Wolterstorff would contend that this reigning assumption still holds, although developments over the last fifty years significantly undermine this argument.

First of all, in science, the work of Thomas Kuhn demonstrated that evidence often under-determines theory, and thus other factors influence choices of theory. Likewise, Hans Georg Gadamer demonstrated in textual interpretation that questions of significance shape the conclusions made about texts and reflect the situation of the interpreter: gender, ethnicity, social class, underlying philosophical commitments. Hence, in the humanities, there arose a number of critical schools: Marxist, feminist, queer, African, and so forth. All scholars bring judgments of significance, theoretical preferences, and prejudgments to their work.

So, why then are religious commitments ruled out? One of the reasons is a criterion of rationality, and the notion that religious beliefs are non-rational. Some of this comes from the work of Locke, that proposed that a warranted belief should be based on an argument. Yet this dismisses the reality that human beings believe many things on the basis of testimony and experience without resort to argument. Many accept findings on scientific matters on testimony and come to other beliefs on the basis of immediate experience. Wolterstorff proposes that, while we should be open to the possibility of our or others' beliefs being mistaken, "beliefs, in general, are innocent until proven guilty, not guilty until proven innocent" (p. 102). He allows that while there are specific cases of deficient religious beliefs, this does not warrant relegating all religious beliefs to the category of non-rational and thus excluded from academic discourse.

In his concluding chapter, he argues that the reality of universities is that they are pluralist institutions and that religious as well as other perspectives ought to be welcome to contribute their distinctive voices to academic discussions. He believes that to exclude these contributions is to impoverish the university.

I do not feel qualified to evaluate Wolterstorff's discussion of different philosophers and so find myself trusting his testimony(!). I would propose that in American universities, Wolterstorff offers a special challenge to Christians, who for a period enjoyed a kind of hegemony, and then experience a displacement amounting to being exiled from academic discourse. It entails laying aside past memories either of privilege or persecution and learning the practice of participation as Christians in contributing their insights into academic discourse, along with others. In place of a posture of either entitlement or embattlement, this calls for a posture of engagement. It means the careful, respectful hearing of others, weighing the merit of ideas, and forthrightly contributing one's own for rigorous analysis, for critique, and refinement. That is how universities work at their best. That is the opportunity for religion in the university in the early twenty-first century.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
Profile Image for Andrew D.
44 reviews1 follower
August 21, 2021
The book consists in four chapters, originally lectures, which argue against Weber's view of science as excluding religious view points on account of them being nonrational.

Firstly, Weber's account is described, along with Weber's melancholic view of modernity. Next, NW shows why Weber's account of science is no longer held to be true, by way of Kuhn and Gadamer's descriptions of how theories are made, and relate to facts. Interpretation of reality has its place in science, and theories are under determined by established facts. Further, the perspectivism supported here is a positive feature, as one's perspective may give a person a privileged cognitive insight into a certain aspect of reality, this enhancing our knowledge.

Third, in the longest section of the book, Wolterstorff reviews recent epistemology of religion to show both that comprehensive religious views have received rational defences, and that the the sorts of evidence supporting religious belief have been expanded and defended in recent work as well.

Lastly, the final chapter combines all of these to present a picture of universities, or at least the large kinds found in liberal democracies, as being pluralist institutions, whose members are committed to a large, multifaceted pluralist dialogue. Just as feminist, Marxist, or other kinds of orientation have their place in such a dialogue, so too do religious voices.

This is a brief synopsis of the argument. The detail is accessible and readable. And as an example of the kind of dialogue it argues for, it's well worth reading.
880 reviews18 followers
June 22, 2019
Get an introduction into a few different theories - like from Max Weber and explained in ways faith's role within university. It is not a guide to bring it in or take it out. It it more (for me) the theoretical and philosophy. As well it may not be faith specific but the main Abrahamic religions are placed as a point at times.
Profile Image for Peter.
Author 1 book4 followers
January 3, 2020
I have waited long for this book, and it has been many years in the making, coming from lectures Wolterstorff presented at Yale in 2001. It is a testimony of an accomplished philosopher’s vocation across decades, and it reads as an apologetic for religion in the public university that is not apologetic about the matter. Really, the issue is not about whether religious orientations exist in the university. Religions are there on campus, acknowledged or not—both as the presence of “world religions” and as secular worldviews that act as comprehensive orientation for life and thought. But this book makes the case for explicit recognition of the value of religious scholarship and teaching in the so-called “secular” university. Thus I would add: it will be of use for campus ministers, religious study centres, and religious student groups as well.

I have reviewed this book at length on my blog and in The Christian Courier. Here I'll say the book is short and succinct, and it comes neatly in four chapters that establish four points, basically. 1. The traditional modern view of research excludes religion from the academy in a false "facts vs values" split. 2. Recent upheavals in understanding the nature of scholarship make this increasingly implausible--think of feminist, Marxist, and race research that shows every research project carries unarticulated values and standpoints. 3. We need to rethink the rationality of religion--as it can be understood as a form of warranted belief. Religious scholars are not "rationally deficient" and there is much current philosophy to show this. 4. Religion has always been in the university (acknowledged or not!). Everyone has practises and traditions that guide and shape their research. That's a blunt summary you can see in more detail in my blog at www.peterschuurman.ca.

Wolterstorff’s goal: to establish the place of religion in the public university in a liberal democracy. Not its legal or moral place, but its place within the role-ethic of a scholar in such a context. His suggestion: we shoot for "dialogical pluralism"--a robust conversation about our ultimate orientations to life and ethics, and do so respectfully. This is the rich intellectual life that could be the heart of a truly open and vibrant university.

I would want to add two issues that would nuance some of what Wolterstorff says here. For one, I would indeed recognize the function of “character identities” is crucial to the religious turn for public academic life. But when the Self overwhelms the Social, and tribal identities become sacrosanct, the comprehensive orientations of character-identities can morph into identity politics, and this often operates in such a way to shut down dialogue and debate. So I would want to emphasize our “common human nature” and the need for reconciliation alongside the valourization of group belonging. Wolterstorff does that, but not with the sense of urgency necessary as identity politics fragments our universities today. Furthermore, he neglects the commercialized culture that frames an academy turned inward to the Self and identity (see my blog here for more on that). University, Inc., is built on consumer dispositions centred in the Self.

Related to this politics is the dominant culture of exclusivist liberalism in Canada. Dialogical pluralism would mean for some liberals, the current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau being one of note, that everyone is welcome to the table except the people who disagree with our group, and usually that means social conservatives (including conservative Muslims, Hindus, atheists, and First Nations, etc). This uses the rhetoric of pluralism to enshrine a ideological enclave as the norm. This is why I chose to call this blog an invitation to a diverse diversity. “Diversity” must include those whose ideas we abhor, or it is just a club for the like-minded.

Speaking explicitly as a Christian, which Wolterstorff only does parenthetically, we must continue to insist that the image of God rests in each human being, and we are called to love the strangers in our backyard, which means listening for that divine image within them. In fact, we are each other’s survival kit; I cannot thrive without you; and you cannot thrive without me. We sharpen each other, humble each other, and so equip each other for wise teaching, researching, and writing in service of God’s world. The generosity of spirit commended by Wolterstorff would go a long way to healing wounds and restoring a vibrant community of learning and service to our universities, and I believe campus ministries can certainly contribute to that ethic. It intersects with an ethic of hospitality and holds much promise for both reconciliation of rival communities and creative, dynamic, meaning-full scholarship. Commend the book to every academic dean you know.
Profile Image for J Earl.
1,929 reviews76 followers
June 5, 2019
Religion in the University by Nicholas Wolterstorff is an engaging and thoughtful argument for the (continued) inclusion of religion in the university. Contrary to some propaganda, religion never left the university, but it has been shoved aside at the same time that open debate and nuanced thought was shoved aside for profit and political gain. I read this book in tandem with Standing for Reason by John Sexton and taken together they make a strong and positive case for not just our universities but our currently polarized society.

Wolterstorff presents a fair assessment of Weber's views and using that as a starting point to argue against he makes his case. I have seen a couple of people who read this as "religion should have a say in the university" but that isn't quite what I took from it. I understood something closer to religious people, faculty and students alike, should have their religious ideas included in the university. I think the difference is that, for instance, Physics does not so much have a say in the university as it is an integral part of it. Same should be true of religion.

The argument is largely directed at secular universities since faith-based universities, especially cult-based "universities" such as Liberty, have religion (or cult dogma) at their core. If universities return to being fertile ground for open and honest debate and argument (in the best sense of the word) then religion must be included since the vast majority of people have part of their identity informed by religion, whether by following one or by rejecting them. Either way, the topic and ideas are part of society and open for discussion and debate.

Two of my favorite professors at a state university where I got a couple of my BAs were not just religious people but clergy. One was an ordained Lutheran minister and the other a Jewish rabbi. Their beliefs were not hidden but at the same time they were concerned with teaching us how to think, not what to think. That distinction is the one that most worries those who question religion in education, especially at pseudo-religious schools like Liberty.

I would recommend this to anyone interested in the role, or potential role, of religion and religious people in higher education.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
Profile Image for Ionia.
1,430 reviews65 followers
June 22, 2019
This is a thoughtfully written book, but one that does not really draw a strong conclusion one way or the other on the appropriateness of Religion in a university. There has been a lot of discussion lately about the place of religious education in secular schools and I was hoping this book would weigh in on that, it didn't at least not in the sense I was expecting.

Still, there is a lot to be said for this book. it is educational and intelligent and the author went to a lot of research to write it. It is clear and easy to understand and interesting to consider how the ideals about the place of religion in education systems have changed over the years, including even in recent decades.

This book is informative rather than argumentative and leaves the reader to decide what they think, which after finishing it, I appreciate. Overall, it was worth taking the time to read.

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher, provided through Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Profile Image for Sofia Lemons.
5 reviews
June 20, 2019
Good overview of thought related to both how knowledge is approached in modern academia and how religious belief is viewed by philosophers. It may require some background reading for those without experience in some of the foundations of philosophy, but it was certainly accessible to me as a non-expert. The author does a good job of introducing people to newer ideas that are often absent from the common discourse about religion and its role in society. Many of the common conversations about religious belief and academic learning are stuck in the last century (or two!) and this book offers a look into how to move it forward. I especially enjoyed the author's explanations of the way many different identities, beliefs, and backgrounds play a role in modern academic work. Even if readers aren't interested in religion in particular, the portions about identity in academic discourse alone are worth checking out.
Profile Image for Peter Rapp.
30 reviews1 follower
January 22, 2020
Not bad, but then again it doesn't seem ground breaking. Basically it's an argument for hospitable academic pluralism. Do we really need a book like this to convince us that religion has value in the university? Are we really so far gone down the secular road that people no longer think this is true? Perhaps I am wrong, but I think many in the academy already accept this as true. In the final chapter he punts on the subject of "fringe views", some of which, apparently the dialogic pluralist university IS allowed to exclude. But why should this be the case, given that those with fringe views may have a unique access to reality that no other orientation has? This is one of the arguments used to make room for religion in the first place. Who gets to decide what counts as fringe?
Profile Image for Paul Lewis.
53 reviews9 followers
April 25, 2022
very good book that helps and provokes the thought of an allowance for Religious voices within the University. The book can be a bit dense in some areas but keep reading and the meaning unfolds, you get a feel of his argument and it is indeed a "sinuous argument" but that curve comes right back around and brings it all together quite well.

It is a helpful body of work for anyone who wants to articulate the place for Religious voices within Academic spaces that are not specifically or Distinctly theological spaces. Or as the writer would express it, spaces that enjoy or posses a kind of hegemony.

Definitely a book to read
Profile Image for Cristie Underwood.
2,275 reviews56 followers
April 7, 2019
The author's painstaking research and attention to detail is obvious in the writing of this book. The author laid out the information in a manner that allowed the reader to form their own opinion.
Profile Image for Matthew.
Author 1 book37 followers
July 30, 2020
Incredibly thought provoking, much was underlined for further exploration later.
46 reviews
October 1, 2019
This book is very dense and the writing is sometimes vague or opaque. It was not written for a lay audience and spends a lot of time getting through ideas of postmodernism. I'm a scientist but read it with a group of professionals from the humanities who had to explain to me what he was trying to get at sometimes. Overall a good book but seems to be written more for philosophers or theologians than for a lay audience.
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