Review: Religion in the University

religion in the university

Religion in the University, Nicholas Wolterstorff. New Haven: Yale University Press, 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, who 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 universities 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.

One thought on “Review: Religion in the University

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: August 2019 | Bob on Books

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