Diverse Diversity in the Public University: A Book Review of Wolterstorff’s “Religion in the University”

A manifesto for the place of religion in the university today.

Nicholas Wolterstorff. Religion in the University. Yale University Press, 2019.

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’m going to examine the book in depth because I think its an important book—not only for Global Scholars Canada but for the university world in general. I hope the book is taken seriously. I hope it nudges people and institutions towards its ideal of the university as a place of dialogical pluralism.

The book is short and succinct, and it comes neatly in four chapters that establish four points, basically. So I follow that structure here. 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.

  1. The Traditional Modern View: Excluding Religion from the Academy

Wolterstorff forgoes pre-modern history of scholarly vocations and makes the modern view his base starting point. This is efficient but misses the larger picture of the classical tradition. Perhaps this is strategic. It at least keeps the story shorter.

He takes 19th century sociologist Max Weber as his exemplar here, who in his famous “Science as a Vocation” paper spoke strongly against anyone who brings their values to bear on the facts of their research. Prophets belong to an old world, where a religious orientation gave coherence to all of culture. But now in a modern differentiated society, each discipline has developed its own internal values (eg. in business its the profit motive). Religion takes its own sphere alongside others, rather than hegemonic among them, and this sphere is inherently a private one. You might say, when running in academic circles, the religiously motivated professor must put his faith in a lockbox.

So what is this leftover world of pure “facts”? Its limited to perceptual, introspective, and rationally-derived beliefs only (I’ll call it the PIR). PIR grants cognitive access to reality, and if there is disagreement, someone must be in error. The role-ethic of the academic is to refute the unreliable theories and champion the best explanations.

Wolterstorff adds two pieces to this tradition. The first is to point out that it is not a repudiation of tradition—it is a dismissal of unconfirmed traditions, like those of the non-conforming inner-worldly ascetics who claim to follow God’s calling (i.e. people with spiritual disciplines that structure their daily work and life, whatever their vocation may be). Secondly, its not really only PIR beliefs, because no one can personally conduct all research for themselves: they rely on the testimony of trusted others. So testimony is really part of this paradigm, too.

This “traditional” view is the modern, secular view, and it seeks “objective” scholarship, universal understandings, and unbiased research. Weber described it in fatalistic, melancholic ways, as it was part of the rationalizing forces of modernity, that disenchanted the world, dividing it up, subtracting value and meaning, in search of the cold, hard facts. Weber calls it a world of the “iron cage,” where life become as efficient as a machine. Rationalization, carried over into social life, becomes a giant bureaucratic system, what Weber characterized as “a polar night of icy darkness.” Wolterstorff omits that last quote, but by choosing Weber as his exemplar he doesn’t offer the bright picture of this traditional view as some other Enlightenment figures might have offered.

Its all part of a broader secularization theory that Wolterstorff omits—the belief coming from many in the academy, especially from sociology departments—that modernization, development, and science, all proceed in lockstep with secularization. This theory has come under severe chastisement in the last few decades (see Rodney Stark, Charles Taylor, or Jose Casanova), but it remains for many the basis of the claim that the university is for “science” and not religion.

Nicholas Wolterstorff; photo from Divinity School at U Chicago (Flickr)

2. Recent Upheavals in Understanding Scholarship

This traditional modern view has been battered and beaten in the last few decades, and Wolterstorff gives a brief summary of the critique, focusing at first on two figures in philosophy of the last half-century.

First he considers the work of Thomas Kuhn, who noted that all scientific research happens within paradigms that are underdetermined by the evidence. Put differently, “facts” are always theory-laden, and theory choice proceeds not just by PIR but by decisions based on such things as simplicity, elegance, or conservatism. Values inherently shape theory choice, and the fact that paradigms change shows the so called “objective” nature of scholarship is mistaken.

Secondly, Hans-Georg Gadamer points out that historians are always making judgments about what is significant in history, and there is little consensus around causal links. We approach our scholarship with a bias cultivated through a cultural tradition, which gives us an interpretive filter for our work. All scholarship is interpretation—all the way down through our research program choices, our observations, and our critiques.

Looking more broadly at the academy in the last couple of decades, Wolterstorff notes various liberation movements have spawned their own disciplines—such as the various feminisms, African studies, and LGBT perspectives. There is now a wealth of research explicitly shaped by “character-identities”—pluralizing the scholarship of the academy and its interpretive lenses on the world.

Wolterstorff adds a note here: PIR is permeated by our innate “incredulity disposition”—our capacity to believe in testimony of others in our tradition. Having a shared “human nature” with others on the planet isn’t enough for life and its interpretive requirements. We need a set of prejudgments that provide us “privileged cognitive access” to certain angles and dimensions of reality. We all have different ways of knowing, different “cognitive natures” formed by habits of trust. This doesn’t mean others can never understand us: we can share our perspective and they can potentially “get it” too.

Wolterstorff concludes here:

We can no longer think in the old Weberian way about what transpires in the university. We have to think in new ways. Scholarship does not consist, and cannot consist, of just taking in the facts. Always we ourselves have to bring something to the table: values of various sorts, judgments of significance, theoretical preferences, prejudgments. (59)

I would add here that Wolterstorff recognizes that this acknowledgement of a “subjective”dimension comes with its own liabilities, and he doesn’t accept the radical subjectivist position: that reality is only what one perceives it to be. There is a reality beyond the subjective. But it can only be accessed through the subject: persons from particular places and histories. Wolterstorff mistakenly includes the late Peter Berger as a proponent of such radical subjectivist views (39). Berger wrote (with Thomas Luckmann) The Social Construction of Reality in the sixties, and while he always said that reality is socially constructed, he never meant there was no reality beyond the social construction. He was a theologian, too, and believed our social constructions reflect the external world in varying degrees of accuracy. So Wolterstorff, with Berger, rejects an extreme postmodernism.

3. Rethinking the Rationality of Religion

From the traditional modern view, it is often charged that religious people suffer a “rationality deficit”—some malfunction or misuse of their ability to reason. Especially when testifying to alleged revelations from a deity which are inaccessible to others, immunized from critique—this certainly suggests an epistemology unfit for the academy. Another critique is that the reality of evil functions as irrefutable evidence against the existence of God, so such superstition must stay private, if it must continue at all.

Rationality is understood as beliefs that are supported by arguments—propositional evidence derived from outside the system of belief. On this point Wolterstorff gives loud, repeated warning: such evidence for faith is readily available, its just not well read.

So he first of all meets the charge of the rationality deficit for religious voices by pointing to sophisticated arguments for the existence of God from history and of late, from such great minds as Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne. These are reasoned arguments not dependent on internal religious authorities—what is called “natural theology” (or some would say “apologetics”). If you want to find reasoned arguments for religion, they are certainly out there.

But secondly, the charge can also be challenged. That is to say, everyone has beliefs that are not backed up by propositional arguments, beliefs that are immediate or “properly basic” to their perspective. Even beliefs of “maximal concernment”—like the existence of an external world are not backed up by impregnable logic. So instead of defending the rationality of religion here, its possible to go on the offensive: rationality never goes all the way down for anyone. Some faith or trust resides at the foundational level in every professor’s grand scheme of thought and research.

Besides: who is to say that only propositional evidence is valid evidence? Again, Wolterstorff brings up the basic lived reality of testimony as valid evidence for beliefs. Religion, like any worldview, is not just an explanation for problems, but a perception and experience of reality. And people give testimony of these perceptions and experience, and that should count as one form of evidence or reason.

Does this mean “anything goes” in terms of scholarship and the academy? By no means. All human beings suffer from specific cases of a deficit in rationality. We all say stupid things sometimes. But religious people are not unique in this way, and do not suffer some generalized rationality deficit. To suggest that religious people are somehow especially irrational, to use the word of atheist philosopher Richard Rorty, is pure “hokum.” So not all atheists today hold the traditional modern view anymore. If the door was shut to religious voices in the modern secular academy, it may be that in postmodern climate–perhaps a post-secular academy, a window is opening.

4. Religion as Always in the University (Acknowledged or Not!)

This is Wolterstorff’s position, at heart: to be human is to reason, but such reason is always in the service of some faith, love, intuition, interpretation. Acknowledging this has led to the pluralizing of the university.

What Wolterstorff puts in a positive light, some might see more negatively as the fragmentation of the university. But Wolterstorff maintains: “there is a structured reality, independent of human minds” that we commonly inhabit (121-122). The university is the place where structured selves encounter, receive, (and Berger would add, socially construct) theories of that structured reality, using loaded concepts and categories which are themselves already part of an interpretive enterprise.

This happens within dynamic, shifting traditions of social practise, handed down from trusted others that help us interpret our universe. I would add that they are not just interpretive, but expressive and formative as well. The university isn’t just an interpretive centre: it is also shaping students and staff towards certain ends. It has its own liturgies of practise that develop minds and hearts for some sort of vocation in the world. This is more James K. A. Smith’s focus (see his cultural liturgies trilogy), which could be read alongside Wolterstorff.

To contrast: the role-ethic of the scholar in the traditional modern view is that of objective reason with a lockbox on one’s values. Wolterstorff calls the alternative view that sees the social practises of various character-identities dedicated to different comprehensive orientations for life sharing in the common space of the university dialogical pluralism. Different orientations dialogue with the common goal of consensus around “truth suffused with significance”; when disagreements arise, they are negotiated by comparing reasons and listening in such a way that honours the voice of the other and seeks a fair hearing for everyone.

Some still contend religion is different from feminism, Marxism, and African studies because it deals with an extra belief—a belief based in an invisible being. But religion, insists Wolterstorff, is not an add-on to other beliefs but a comprehensive way of life that offers an interpretation for life, the universe, and everything. Even secularist perspectives “resemble religion” as comprehensive interpretations.

This means theologians belong on campus, too, even annoying non-conformist types with “fringe ideas.” They can be addressed case by case in the way described above, and the process will hopefully winnow the legitimate from the rest. This matter of “who gets a voice” is not addressed in detail by Wolterstorff, but he seems optimistic about the prospects for keeping a certain high quality of research and teaching.

The ideal is not separate enclaves on campus of incommensurate narratives, all serving their own camps. Sure they need time to talk as insiders to each other, but the alternative role-ethic of the scholar insists on dialogue with diverse others. If they are not interested in dialogue, the public university has “no place” for them. The supreme ethic here is one of sharing your wares, a generosity of spirit that tests your teaching in the marketplace of ideas while listening closely to the teachings of others.

Wolterstorff ends by summarizing this book as an argument from justice and consistency. If reason is the heart of the university, it is reasonable to consider that the heart has reasons that reason can never know (Pascal) and these reasons are what gives meaning, passion, and colour to the academy. Consider what would be lost if just one voice, the Judea-Christian voice for example, were lost from the halls of learning: our common life would lose a passionate voice that insists on the personal nature of what is seen as “creation”; a voice that alerts us to the tragedy and evil of oppression and abuse; and one that trusts in the possibility of some redemption in time. This tradition is not only the university’s legacy in the West: it’s also part of its best future to have this voice at the table. Without such orientations, the university is reduced to a place for technical training in marketable careers in order to solve practical problems, rather than also being a place that debates and dialogues “from our diverse orientations the meaning of the mystery, magnificence and horror of our existence” (154). I would go so far to say, if the university no longer contends issues of justice, truth, and beauty, it is no longer a university, but merely an appendage of economic and political interests.

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.

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