‘Religion in the University’

Scott McLemee reviews Nicholas Wolterstorff's Religion in the University.

April 19, 2019

The title of Nicholas Wolterstorff's Religion in the University (Yale University Press) seems disproportionate for a small volume of lectures. It sounds more like the name of a book series instead -- a string of monographs, probably, spanning the larger part of nine centuries. The university's originally umbilical connection with religious authority is reflected in the ambiguity of the word "clerisy," which refers to either the clergy or to the class of learned people more generally. The secular research university is a relative latecomer to the cultural landscape, but one vigorous about formulating and establishing its norms. Any notion of the higher learning as answerable to a higher power has long since ceased to hold sway within academe at large -- the exception being at the denominationally affiliated institutions making up, in the United States, about a fifth of higher education.

Wolterstorff's book is a plea for religious belief as capable of bringing something to the scholarly table -- even now, and even within secular institutions. Its brevity is that of a manifesto, but a densely argued one. The author is professor emeritus of philosophical theology at Yale University, and he assures us that exciting and challenging developments have been taking place in his field in recent years. (The four lectures making up the book were delivered in 2001, which may explain why some of the recent publications in question date from the 1990s.) I should make clear that Religion in the University is not a work of apologetics and says nothing likely to inspire proselytizing, and that it endorses no specific creeds. The faiths mentioned in passing are all monotheistic, but the argument would make room for Hindu and Buddhist professors, among others.

Religion in the University takes as its starting point Max Weber's lecture "Science as a Vocation," with its blunt formulation of what, among scholars, is not to be done. Wolterstorff rightly emphasizes that the word Weber's translators have rendered as "science" refers to academic learning in general, not just to the natural sciences. The historian and the philologist, like the astronomer and the chemist, are engaged in producing and transmitting knowledge "organized in special disciplines," Weber says, "in the service of self-clarification and knowledge of interrelated facts." This is a full-time job and an existential commitment. It precludes "dispensing sacred values and revelations" or giving advice on "how one should act in the cultural community and in political associations."

Once the scholar "introduces his personal value judgment," Weber declares, "a full understanding of the facts ceases." He becomes a prophet or a demagogue instead. (And late-imperial Germany already had plenty waiting in the wings to rush the stage.) None of this implies that the scholar must forgo adhering to any values or revelations and hold no opinions about cultural or political life. But Weber draws a bright line between, on the one hand, holding and expressing such values in one's capacity as a private individual and, on the other, performing one's proper functions of a scholar "in the service of self-clarification and knowledge of interrelated facts," as responsible as such to others engaged in the same pursuit.

The fact-value dichotomy has undergone much critique in the intervening century. But Wolterstorff finds Weber's formulation of it still very much in effect in the scholarly ethos that treats faith belief and intellectual inquiry as divided by an unbridgeable gulf. Religious belief is regarded as a private matter, and as such fundamentally nonrational (not to say irrational). Faith has been called the evidence of things not seen, which, however resonant, is exactly the problem: it is not something tethered to information or arguments that can be verified by the nonbeliever.

"The most fundamental component" of the scholarly ethos delineated by Weber was, Wolterstorff writes,

that practitioners are to discipline themselves to employ, in their evaluation of theories, only the deliverances of perception, introspection and rational intuition, plus that bit of testimony whose reliability has been confirmed on the evidence of those deliverances. They are to become objective in that way, eliminating all particularist bias as they direct their inquiries in accord with the internal dynamics of the discipline and use only the value of fidelity to experienced and rationally intuited facts in the acceptance and rejection of theories and interpretations. Those who conform to that ethic can reasonably expect that disagreement on some matter will eventually be dispelled. Disagreement is a sign that someone is not properly employing their faculties of perception, introspection or rational intuition -- or a sign that they have allowed values other than the value of facts and their interrelationships to intrude.

Not to shortchange the fine points of the author's challenge to this perspective, but to be quick and obvious: the kind of evidence gathering, theory testing and disagreement resolution so described is a far from a norm across disciplines. Wolterstorff recognizes as much and makes clear that, in many fields, convergence upon perfect agreement is seldom a test of the effectiveness of scholarly effort. "When differences arise on significant matters," he writes, the norm is "the offering to each other of reasons, reasons against the position of the other person, reasons for one's own position … One starts from dissensus and aims at consensus -- living with the reality that often one does not achieve the agreement one aims at and hopes for because the segment of reality under consideration is complex and baffling …"

It is this discursive generosity -- the author calls it "dialogical pluralism" -- that Wolterstorff sees as requiring a degree of openness to religious faith as one aspect of what a scholar may bring to discussion. He claims that there are new and compelling arguments for the existence of God and in the field of natural theology that might persuade even unbelievers of the fundamental rationality of religious belief. (I will follow up on his footnotes and report on this somewhere down the line.) It's an interesting book, but it depicts an ideal of the religious interlocutor as someone who, upon entering scholarly dialogue, "doesn't just talk, she listens, thereby exposing herself to critique, and to the real possibility that she may be led to change some of her beliefs." Amen to that, but it is not the only possibility that comes to mind -- just the happiest.


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