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 experienced 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.

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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.

Review: In This World of Wonders

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In This World of WondersNicholas Wolterstorff. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2019.

Summary: A memoir tracing vignettes of the different periods of the author’s life from childhood in rural Minnesota to a career in higher education in which he was instrumental in leading a movement of Christians in philosophy.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, along with Alvin Plantinga, is a leader of a movement of Christians who have thoughtfully engaged the academic discipline of philosophy, including forming the Society of Christian Philosophers. His teaching career included permanent academic positions at Calvin College and Yale University as well as visiting professorships at a number of universities including Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, Notre Dame, the Free University of Amsterdam, and the University of Virginia. His academic works have included publications on aesthetics, Reformed epistemology, justice and political philosophy, metaphysics, and the philosophy of education.

His memoir is composed of “vignettes,” from the different periods of his life. He begins with his roots in rural Minnesota, the loss of his mother, the family dinner table that anticipated philosophical discussions, and the opening vistas provided by his education in a Christian high school. He traces his educational journey through Calvin College, and the influence of Harry Jellema and Henry Stob, his marriage to Claire Kingma, and his graduate education in philosophy at Harvard. He chronicles his early teaching experiences at Yale, including an embarrassing class he offered at a nearby prison. Much of his career was spent at Calvin College, and he recounts his friendship with Alvin Plantinga, and the turbulent times of the sixties and the seventies. He also recounts a fascinating consulting assignment with Herman Miller, manufacturer of the famous Eames chair, and the questions about aesthetics Max DePree and others asked, rooted both in Christian conviction and a concerned for excellent craft.

He recounts his “awakenings,” including his rejection of foundationalism for a Reformed epistemology that contends that there are certain beliefs, for example concerning the existence of God, that are properly basic. In Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, Wolterstorff elaborated these ideas. He traces his exploration of aesthetics, a growing concern for justice in his encounters with South Africans, Palestinians, and Hondurans, and his developing ideas of a philosophy of education, all subjects on which he wrote.

The most poignant part of the book is his narrative of the loss of his eldest son, Eric, in a mountain-climbing accident. He describes the writing of Lament for a Son, and admits both that he cannot make sense of what God was up to in such a loss, and yet that he cannot give up on a God who he believes performs the cosmos. Personally, I found this one of the most compelling discussions of the nature of grief and the profound questions it raises in anything I have read.

His narrative of Amsterdam brings out his love of architecture and well made objects, including chairs. It was clear throughout that Wolterstorff not merely writes about aesthetics–he loves beauty in both the creations of God including flowering gardens and in the creations of good craft on the part of human beings.

The final parts of the book include his later years at Yale, his retirement and visiting appointments, his life in Grand Rapids, and his family. A thread here that comes up throughout is that he is a lifelong churchman of the Christian Reformed denomination. Not only has the legacy of Calvin and Kuyper shaped his philosophy, but also the liturgy of the church shaped and formed his life, another subject on which he later wrote in a book on liturgical theology, in which he explored the understanding of God implicit in our liturgy.

This memoir is a wonderful example someone who has lived the life of a scholar Christian, one whose faith serves to draw together all the threads of his life, including a rich marriage and family life, enabling him to see and rejoice in worlds of wonder, and whose faith shapes his engagement with his chosen discipline of study, philosophy. Anyone who has read the resulting scholarship, and particularly his books, will find this memoir a fascinating journey describing how he came to write these works. Most of all, he captures so much of what is best in scholarly work, endangered by the corporatization of higher education. He writes:

“What do I love about thinking philosophically? I love both the understanding that results from it and the process of achieving the understanding. Sometimes the understanding comes easily, as when I read some philosophical text that I find convincing and illuminating. But often it comes after struggle and frustration. My attention has been drawn to something I do not understand, which makes me baffled and perplexed. Questions come to mind that I cannot answer. I love both the struggle to understand and the understanding itself–if it comes. The love of understanding and the love of achieving that understanding are what motivate and energize my practice of philosophy. For me, practicing philosophy is love in action” (p. 105).

I think this describes what motivates many scholars. This is a great book to read for anyone who aspires to such a life, or for anyone who wants to understand those who engage in scholarly work.

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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.

Review: Educating for Shalom

Educating for ShalomEducating for Shalom, by Nicholas Wolterstorff, Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans, 2004.

Summary: This collection of essays and talks written or given over a 30 year period traces Nicholas Wolterstorff’s journey of thinking about Christian higher education, the integration of faith and learning, and his growing concern that education result in the pursuit of justice and shalom.

Nicholas Wolterstorff is an emeritus professor of philosophical theology at Yale, having previously taught on the faculty at Calvin College, a Christian college in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The collection of essays and presentations that make up this collection were written or given over a 30 year period and chronicle how Wolterstorff’s conception of the task of Christians in higher education to connect faith and learning has changed over this time period.

Several of the essays in this collection chronicle that journey, giving the broad strokes of Wolterstorff’s emerging understanding. In essays like “Rethinking Christian Higher Education”, “Teaching for Shalom: On the Goal of Christian Collegiate Education”, “The Project of a Christian University in a Postmodern Culture”, and “Autobiography: The Story of Two Decades of Thinking About Christian Higher Education” he traces this journey. He began with the conception of his mentor, William Harry Jellema, of a Christian humanism concerned with applying Christian thought to the high culture of Western art, literature, and philosophy. As he went on to pursue graduate studies, this shifted to an academic discipline perspective, that immersed itself first of all in doing good work tackling original problems in the discipline and trying to think Christianly about them. Perhaps the watershed moment in Wolterstorff’s life was when he spent time in South Africa, and later among Palestinian Christians and became aware that education that does not eventuate in a concern for justice and human flourish–shalom is the best word to sum this up–is a sterile and barren enterprise.

Wolterstorff does not stop there. He also considers the question of what social practices contribute to the ethical formation of students who act for justice and shalom. He asks what moral dispositions incline students to act on intellectual convictions and how these moral virtues are developed through the educational process, a project James K.A. Smith has picked up in books like Desiring the Kingdom. Wolterstorff’s essay on “Teaching for Justice: On Shaping How Students Are Disposed to Act” is the clearest exposition of his thinking.

The remainder of the essays in one way or another explore how a Christian world and life view inform academic inquiry. He has a couple essays on Christian engagement with psychology, which seem somewhat dated being concerned more with the Freudian, Jungian, and Skinnerian approaches of the 70’s and 80’s than today’s cognitive and neuroscience based approaches. A couple essays explore the distinctive contribution of Abraham Kuyper to faith and learning. “The Point of Connection between Faith and Learning” explores the very different premises of the Christian who believes in regeneration and the materialist who believes only in empiricism. Yet both encounter the world through sensory data, the point of contact. In the other essay (“Abraham Kuyper on Christian Learning”), he contrasts Lockean rationalism, and its evangelical counterpart of evidentialism with Kuyper’s emphasis on the relationship of subject and object in any science–an anticipation of postmodern criticism by one hundred years.

Several other essays are also worth noting. He explores the contentious issue of academic freedom in religiously based institutions of higher education, noting that academic freedom is very different from freedom of speech. He also notes that those at religious institutions are free to advance views that would not be permitted in the secular context and thus that religiously based institutions may religiously qualify academic freedom, and religious faculty may in fact enjoy greater academic freedom in such contexts. In “Should the Work of our Hands Have Standing in the Christian College” he argues that physical work and creation of things should not be considered inferior to ideas. The collection closes with Wolterstorff’s fundamental agreement with Fides et Ratio and a call for Christian boldness in the world of ideas.

While Wolterstorff writes on Christian higher education, these essays are also of great worth for Christians working in higher education in the secular context. They are closely and well-reasoned works that demand careful attention and in return force one to think more deeply about what is meant by terms like “integration” or even “shalom” or “human flourishing”, all of which are bandied about. Equally, Wolterstorff paints an expansive and rich vision of the academic calling at its best.

Review: Journey toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South

Journey toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South
Journey toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South by Nicholas P. Wolterstorff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a book that sparkles with clear thinking and a personal narrative that helped inform and shape that thinking. Wolterstorff continues in this book to elaborate thinking outlined in Justice: Rights and Wrongs. In short chapters he shares both his own ideas about justice and the personal encounters with victims of injustice in South Africa, Palestine, and the Honduras. And he contends that it was the personal encounters with those whose dignity was impaired and whose inherent rights were denied that informed his theory of justice centering around human dignity and inherent rights.

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Nicholas Wolterstorff

He distinguishes his approach from one of the leaders in the field, John Rawls. I’ve not read Rawls and so I don’t feel I can adequately assess the distinctions between the two. Wolterstorff focuses on the idea of inherent rights as opposed to right order as central in his concept of justice. This arose, as I’ve noted from his experiences, particularly in South Africa, of seeing justice defined as right order and yet denying basic liberties to blacks that he would consider inherent rights. His theory also develops an understanding of justice in terms of ‘primary’ and ‘reactive’ justice (the latter being justice that responds to criminal acts against a person while the former dealing with structural injustices that impair personal liberties). He argues against those who claim that an “inherent rights” approach can be abused by those claiming extravagant rights beyond what he envisions. He contends that abuse does not support doing away with an inherent rights concept but rather calls for its proper use.

Along the way, he engages some of the biblical theology surrounding justice, particularly what he sees as a mistranslation of the New Testament dik stem words in many contexts as righteous or righteousness instead of just or justice. He also argues against the blind submission to authority that many read into Romans 13, arguing that this is to be understood not as rulers who are divinely appointed who must be submitted to no matter what (except where submission involves direct disobedience to God) but rather that rulers are appointed to exercise justice and the power of the sword against perpetrators of injustice, which warrants advocacy when the state fails to live up to its God-appointed role.

Wolterstorff’s philosophical work has included work in the area of aesthetics and here he considers the role of artistic expression in justice movements. In a chapter on “Justice and Beauty” he argues for the intrinsic worth of art and that shalom, the kind of peace in which humans flourish, knits together the disparate elements of pursuing justice, scholarship, and beauty in the world.

My sense is that this book represents both a distillation, and, in some ways, an elaboration of his academic works on justice. It left me wanting more and served as a good introduction to his thinking about this important subject.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Goodreads “First Reads” program.

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Review: The God Who Became Human: A Biblical Theology of Incarnation

The God Who Became Human: A Biblical Theology of Incarnation by Graham ColeCole
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Christmas could be called the Feast of the Incarnation. It is indeed the time of celebrating the incarnation of the Son of God–of God truly with us in human flesh. And so it was appropriate to read this during the Days of Christmas and I was richly rewarded.

What Cole sets out to do is outline a biblical theology of the Incarnation. That is, he seeks to uncover the development of the theme of Incarnation from Genesis to Revelation. Along the way, he explores the idea of the creation as God’s palace-temple where he walks with creatures who are priest-kings with him. He explores the “theophanies” of the Old Testament, categorizing the language used of God as “anthropomorphic” (describing God with human features), “anthropopathic” (describing God with human emotions), and “anthropopraxic” (describing God in terms of human actions like walking). He considers the appearances of the “angel of the Lord” and would associate with those who consider these as possible pre-incarnate appearances of the Son of God.

He also explores the Messianic passages of scripture and would argue that while they support the idea of the incarnation, cannot be conclusively argued to foretell this. He reminds us of Paul at this point and that the appearing of God in human flesh in Christ was indeed “mystery”. He also brings in material on “the theory of theories” by Nicholas Wolterstorff to suggest that all the OT material reflects the reality of the Incarnation that we only fully understand in the New.

He then explores the gospel and epistolic material on Incarnation and how these draw on Old Testament materials. He asks with Anselm of Canterbury the question of “why did God become Man?”, answering this from the biblical materials. He concludes with consideration of Revelation and the closing of the circle–a new creation with the Incarnate Lamb ruling a kingdom of priests renewing the garden city of the New Jerusalem. He also reflects on the significance of the Incarnation with some wonderful concluding reflections on the wonder of the Incarnation.

Along the way, he engages some of the speculative questions that have arisen around the doctrine of the incarnation, including whether the Son would have appeared in human flesh even without the fall (a tentative yes), and whether Christ’s human nature was fallen or unfallen (he joins most theologians in history in arguing unfallen).

This is part of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series and lives up to the vision of this series as providing scholarly monographs that at the same time serve the leadership of churches in providing a readable account, in this case, of the theology of the Incarnation.

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