October 24, 2006

PLAYING CATCH UP (via Tom Morin):

One University Under God? (Stanley Fish, 1/07/05, The Chronicle Review)

In every sector of American life, religion is transgressing the boundary between private and public and demanding to be heard in precincts that only a short while ago would have politely shown it the door.

And the academy is finally catching up. Not that religion has been absent from the university as an object of study. Courses like "The Bible as Literature" and "The American Puritan Experience" have been staples in the curriculum for a long time, as have related courses on the civil wars in 17th-century England and the religious poetry (formerly called "metaphysical") of the same period.

The history of religion has always been a growth industry in academe and has brought along with it the anthropology of religion, the sociology of religion, the economics of religion, the politics of religion, religious art, religious music, religious mysticism, religion and capitalism, religion and law, religion and medicine, and so forth.

But it is one thing to take religion as an object of study and another to take religion seriously. To take religion seriously would be to regard it not as a phenomenon to be analyzed at arm's length, but as a candidate for the truth. In liberal theory, however, the category of truth has been reserved for hypotheses that take their chances in the "marketplace of ideas."

Religious establishments will typically resist the demand that basic tenets of doctrine be submitted to the test of deliberative reason. (The assertion that Christ is risen is not one for which evidence pro and con is adduced in a juridical setting.) That is why in 1915 the American Association of University Professors denied to church-affiliated institutions of higher learning the name of "university"; such institutions, it was stated, "do not, at least as regards one particular subject, accept the principles of freedom and inquiry." That is, in such institutions the truths of a particular religion are presupposed and are not subjected to the rigorous and skeptical operations of rational deliberation.

What that meant, in effect, was that in the name of the tolerant inclusion of all views in the academic mix, it was necessary to exclude views that did not honor tolerance as a first and guiding principle.

Walter Lippmann laid down the rule: "Reason and free inquiry can be neutral and tolerant only of those opinions which submit to the test of reason and inquiry." And what do you do with "opinions" (a word that tells its own story) that do not submit? Well, you treat them as data and not as candidates for the truth. You teach the Bible as literature -- that is, as a body of work whose value resides in its responsiveness to the techniques of (secular) literary analysis.

Or you teach American Puritanism as a fascinating instance of a way of thinking we have moved beyond: There used to be these zealots and they wanted to run things, but we've gotten over that and now we can study them without being drawn into the disputes about which they were so passionate.

Of course, there's still a lot of that, but alongside of it is a growing awareness of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of keeping the old boundaries in place and of quarantining the religious impulse in the safe houses of the church, the synagogue, and the mosque.

Again the causes of this shift are many and would require volumes to explain, but some things seem obvious. The enormous effort of John Rawls to maintain the boundaries by elevating for public purposes one's identity as a citizen above one's identity as a believer ("For the purposes of public life, Saul of Tarsus and Paul the Apostle are the same person") has produced a vast counter-literature of its own, much of it opening up questions that the liberal academic establishment had thought long settled.

The debate was joined from another perspective in l984 when Richard John Neuhaus published his enormously influential The Naked Public Square, a passionate argument against the exclusion from the political process of religious discourse. Not long afterward, Neuhaus established the journal First Things, a subsidiary of the Institute on Religion and Public Life "whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society."

Many of the contributors to First Things are high-profile academics situated in our most distinguished private and public universities, and it is clear from their commentaries that they see no bright line dividing their religious lives from the lives they pursue as teachers and scholars.

Following in the wake of Rawls and Neuhaus, any number of theologians, philosophers, historians, and political theorists -- led by major figures like Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, and Stanley Hauerwas -- have re-examined, debated, challenged, and at times rejected the premises of liberalism, whether in the name of religion, or communitarianism, or multiculturalism.

To the extent that liberalism's structures have been undermined or at least shaken by these analyses, the perspicuousness and usefulness of distinctions long assumed -- reason as opposed to faith, evidence as opposed to revelation, inquiry as opposed to obedience, truth as opposed to belief -- have been called into question. And finally (and to return to where we began), the geopolitical events of the past decade and of the past three years especially have re-alerted us to the fact (we always knew it, but as academics we were able to cabin it) that hundreds of millions of people in the world do not observe the distinction between the private and the public or between belief and knowledge, and that it is no longer possible for us to regard such persons as quaintly pre-modern or as the needy recipients of our saving (an ironic word) wisdom.

Some of these are our sworn enemies. Some of them are our colleagues. Many of them are our students. (There are 27 religious organizations for students on my campus.) Announce a course with "religion" in the title, and you will have an overflow population. Announce a lecture or panel on "religion in our time" and you will have to hire a larger hall.

And those who come will not only be seeking knowledge; they will be seeking guidance and inspiration, and many of them will believe that religion -- one religion, many religions, religion in general -- will provide them.

Are we ready?

We had better be, because that is now where the action is. When Jacques Derrida died I was called by a reporter who wanted know what would succeed high theory and the triumvirate of race, gender, and class as the center of intellectual energy in the academy. I answered like a shot: religion.

Reason and Faith at Harvard (John I. Jenkins and Thomas Burish, October 23, 2006, Washington Post)
What should a properly educated college graduate of the early 21st century know?

A Harvard curriculum committee proposed an answer to that question this month, stating that, among other things, such a graduate should know "the role of religion in contemporary, historical, or future events -- personal, cultural, national, or international."

To that end, the committee recommended that every Harvard student be required, as part of his or her general education, to take one course in an area that the committee styled "Reason and Faith."

Whether that becomes policy remains to be seen, but the significance of the recommendation should not be understated. Harvard is the drum major of American higher education: Where it leads, others follow. And if Harvard says taking a course in religion is necessary to be an educated person, it's a good bet that many other colleges and universities will soon make the same discovery. We hope they will.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 24, 2006 9:38 AM

We should all be appalled, if not surprised to, see how obstantly ignorant so-called, self-proclaimed "intellectuals" appear when they attempt to deal with the subject of religion.

Time and time again, they mistate the basic concepts. I don't mean just mixing up the Immaculate Conception with the virgin birth--almost everybody gets that one wrong. I mean the basics, revelation, free will, the Incarnation, natural law, everything.

We should welcome the renewed interest in the subject described in the articles. Let the secular academy examine the role of religion objectively, from the standpoint of disinterested inquiry, and not from the partisan position of militant atheism.

Posted by: Lou Gots at October 24, 2006 10:41 AM

Living in Vermont as I do, I know a lot of secularists and ersatz pagans. Something I always hear from them is that Christianity is an invalid religion because "it was founded on violence" and that the Christian God is worthless because "he let his own son get murdered."
I'm no theologian by a long shot, but even I can poke holes in that line of thought.
Here's another one I just remembered: Apparently, all monotheistic religions are wrong because they're so narrow minded as to say that there's only one god. The polytheistic religions are better because they're open to the existence of more than one god. Of course, that fact that the polytheistic religions were just as capable of being brutally intolerant of other polytheistic religions who worshiped a different set of gods is not acknowledged.

Posted by: Bryan at October 24, 2006 11:29 AM

If there is one thing Stanley Fish knows, it's which way the academic winds are blowing.

He doesn't know anything else, of course, but he does know that.

They used to call Duke's Humanities Dept. the Fish Tank.


Posted by: Pepys at October 24, 2006 2:10 PM

"Religious establishments will typically resist the demand that basic tenets of doctrine be submitted to the test of deliberative reason."

Hah. I'd love to see Fish debate a Jesuit.

Posted by: Ralph Phelan at October 25, 2006 3:30 PM