Religion on Campus: The New Reality

Ronald A. Wells

No Longer Invisible, the latest in a series of books this remarkable academic couple has produced over the past decade, serves as an essential field guide for anyone associated with the territory of faith and higher education, a terrain that has shifted significantly in the past generation.

The Jacobsens are professors at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. Together they direct the Religion in the Academy project, funded by the Lilly Endowment. No Longer Invisible Cover Once again we salute toward Indianapolis to acknowledge the many wonderful programs through which the Lilly people are transforming church-related higher education. Included among the Jacobsens’ prior books is the seminal work The American University in a Post-Secular Age (Oxford, 2008).

No Longer Invisible extends and expands on the vital points of the earlier work. Their methodology includes wide reading, as well as quantitative and qualitative research, the latter through many campus visits across America, from Massachusetts to California. The Jacobsens have, along with others, given us new vocabulary to understand recent developments in higher education. By our time, a new pattern for understanding the intellectual and social setting of colleges and universities has emerged, a pattern that can be called both “post-secular” and “post-religious.”

First, no one can any longer honestly argue for a secular education, that is, one in which religion is excluded from curricula and public notice in colleges and universities. I realize that some professors still want to limit their horizons to what their academic disciplines mandate or allow, but such colleagues are a diminishing breed. In truth, religion is too important to be excluded. It has too much staying power, both in society and in the lives of our students. In short, it is no longer intellectually acceptable to do what many quality colleges did in the last half of the twentieth century—that is, to relegate religion to religion departments (and, if religion is included among core requirements, to allow religious studies people to hold sway in teaching it), to the chaplain’s office, and to the realm of private belief—thus releasing all other academics to get about their business in a scientific and “value-free” manner. As a person from the social sciences once told me, “‘We’ get on with our work and leave all that to those colleagues paid to be in ‘the God squad.'”

Second, by “post-religious” the Jacobsens mean that it is no longer intellectually acceptable to construe higher education in terms of the historic denominations (Catholic and Protestant) that created most private colleges in America. The fact is that the ground has shifted in the direction of pluralism. Even without intentional offices on campus to promote “diversity” or “multiculturalism,” those things have come to us. The presence of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs is as important in changing our society religiously as (what one scholar calls) “the browning” of America through increased numbers of Latinos is for changing society ethnically. Those colleges that want to “stand firm” for “Christ-centered” education apparently will find themselves increasingly less able to prepare their students for lives in a global world and in a North American society growing ever more multicultural. This must require self-identified Christian colleges to wrestle anew or again with the extent to which the “truth claims” they insist on are cultural or religious.

Perhaps the most challenging chapter in No Longer Invisible, for both secular and Christian intellectuals, is the one entitled “Framing Knowledge.” In sum, ever since Karl Mannheim, nearly a century ago, there is a rising consensus that all knowledge comes from some place, from somewhere. There is no such thing as an “idea” taken apart from the chronological, spatial, and human location where it originated. So, if all statements about reality are interpretations of reality, then no person or institution can claim the monopoly on truth. If there is anything like what Francis Schaeffer used to infelicitously call “true Truth,” it exists in the mind of God, not in the minds of any of his creatures.

Readers of this journal may know the work of the distinguished philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff on this subject. In his gem of a small book, Reason within the Bounds of Religion (Eerdmans, 1984), he argued that every scholar has a worldview that contains what he called “control beliefs” that deeply inf luence what kinds of facts and interpretations one is willing to admit into discussions. As the Jacobsens write,

Acknowledging such worldviews or control beliefs is thus construed to be not merely an act of self-revelation, but a necessary part of the sharing and disseminating of scholarship, a form of methodological transparency that allows others to take the effects of worldview filters into account when analyzing scholarly work. The inability or unwillingness to identify one’s operative worldview can be considered as a kind of intellectual dishonesty, a corrupted ” framing” of knowledge that impedes the search for truth. (emphasis mine)

The motto of one of our most distinguished universities—Harvard—is “Veritas.” Today we rise and boldly ask, “Whose truth?” To the dismay of secular people, “Reason” will not get us there. Every time someone says or writes that all statements must be subjected “to the light of reason,” we rise and boldly ask, “Whose reason?” To the dismay of people of faith, “Faith” will not get us there either. Every time someone says or writes that all statements must be subjected “to the light of faith,” we rise and boldly ask, “Whose faith?”

Perhaps the late Pope John Paul II was right in his celebrated 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio that both faith and reason must be seen as complementing each other. Too much faith leads to superstition, the pontiff argued; too much reason leads to nihilism. A few years ago I attended a conference at Baylor University, hosted by its Institute on Faith and Learning. On a bulletin board in a main academic building was a poster that I begged them to give me. It now is in my office. It reads: “Do you want your university education to be based on Faith or Reason? The answer here is Yes.”

In the end, what the Jacobsens’ fine book reveals to us is that we are in a dynamic—a newly dynamic—moment in higher education in North America. That’s what makes this book so important. We have little by way of helps to guide us in gaining our footing on a ground that has shifted seismically to be both “post-secular” and “post-religious.” No Longer Invisible can be a good beginning guide. As well as giving an excellent general overview of the scene, the Jacobsens give us wise, practical suggestions (each with a chapter) on, for example, religious literacy, interfaith etiquette, civic engagement, and character development. And, since the book has 157 pages of text, I hope that anyone who cares about higher education—and the students we teach and mentor—will not say they are too busy to read a book that shows the reshaping of our society and the ways in which people of good will in colleges and universities might respond.

Ronald A. Wells is an emeritus professor of history at Calvin College. He is now mostly retired in Tennessee, where he directs the Symposium on Faith and the Liberal Arts at Maryville College. His recent book, coedited with James Bratt, is an anthology, The Best of the Reformed Journal (Eerdmans, 2011).