Religion, Scholarship and Higher Education: Perspectives, Models and Future Prospects

Religion, Scholarship and Higher Education: Perspectives, Models and Future Prospects

by Andrea Sterk

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Underneath its dry, scholarly title, this collection of essays is a lively read not only for scholars, institutional administrators and foundation officers, but for anyone interested in the evolving role of religion in American intellectual life over the last half century. The product of a three-year Lilly Foundation Seminar on Religion and Higher Education, this well-edited book is comprised of short, thought-provoking pieces from some of the country's leading lights in the humanities and social sciences. Divided into parts, the book addresses foundational issues, the theme of religion and scholarship, and teaching. Philosopher of religion Nicholas Wolterstorff opens the first essay with a question: What has moved the topic of religion and scholarship "from small pockets of inquiry out into the open public arena"? Postmodernism's interest in the "perspectival" has brought new prominence to old questions of religious thinkers and institutions. How do religious colleges retain and renew their identity in face of increasingly diverse student bodies and new opportunities for government funding, particularly in the natural sciences? Authors offer creative, religiously grounded possibilities for their disciplines: for example, a sacramental political theory and a vision of contemporary literary theory as a revival of Augustine's insights on language and finitude. In first-person reflections, this collection offers a vivid and informative account of religion and scholarship over the last few decades and poses constructive questions for its future. (Jan.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The connection between religion and higher education upsets some people and satisfies others, but this volume's 18 essays plus epilog could please both parties. Based on lessons learned at the Lilly Seminar on Religion and Higher Education, which convened semiannually at different venues around the country from 1997 to 1999, plus the experience and expertise of the seminar members, the essays offer an insightful and good-humored perspective on the links between religion and higher education. A strength of the collection is the distinguished and diverse retinue of participants, a rich mixture of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and agnostics from large or research universities, small private liberal arts colleges, religious-affiliated institutions, and divinity schools. In addition to the energetic probing of foundational issues (e.g., "religious response to pluralism"), the contributors reveal elements of their own religious experience and explain how these personal factors shape their approach to higher education, research, or teaching. Highly recommended for academic libraries and for public libraries seeking to offer discussion on the interaction between religion and education. Leroy Hommerding, Fort Myers Beach P.L. Dist., FL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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University of Notre Dame Press
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ND Erasmus Institute Books Series
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

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Chapter One

Scholarship Grounded
in Religion


           Forty years ago, when I was a graduate student at Harvard and beginning my career as a philosopher, the question of the possibility and desirability of religion-based scholarship would have been asked only in certain liberal arts colleges with religious orientations. Now it has become a topic for open conferences sponsored by major foundations at major universities. What has caused the topic, of whether it is possible and desirable for scholarship to be grounded in religion, to emerge from small pockets of inquiry out into the open public arena?

    I will be telling a story—narrating the main developments in a stretch of recent history. But let me announce in advance what will in any case soon become evident: I will not be telling the story as a historian would tell it. I do not bear fresh and startling news from the archives—for the reason that I haven't visited any archives. My story was composed in the proverbial posture of the philosopher: sitting in a chair, thinking, using my memory, such as it is. The narrative will necessarily be sketchy. After offering the narrative, I'll conclude with some brief suggestions as to how we should conduct ourselves in the situation in which we now find ourselves.


I remember well the basic thrust of the philosophy of science course I took from Karl Hempel when I was a graduate student at Harvard, and of the various public lectures on philosophy of science that I attended.Teacher and speakers were all engaged in the project of trying to display the logic of science—or in case the speaker was one of those who thought that the logic of the social sciences was different from that of the natural sciences, engaged in the project of trying to display the logics of science. The thought was that there is some entity called "science" with which we are all acquainted, that this entity has a nature or essence, that one ingredient of that essence is a logic or logics, that we know a priori the essential features of this logic, that for some reason science as it actually is conceals this logic from us, and that it is the noble and challenging task of the philosopher to display that logic—to reveal the hidden. We talked in my day about how terribly difficult it was to accomplish this revealing of the hidden. Philosophy of science, we told ourselves, is extremely hard work; that's why only the brightest and the best go into it. In my day we all furrowed our brows over the infamous "problem of the counterfactual." Though scientists use counterfactuals all the time, how they fit into what we knew to be the logic of science was not at all evident.

    In retrospect it's clear to me that my teachers were assuming a certain understanding of the relation between philosophy and science—a Kantian understanding. Kant was the first to articulate explicitly the angst of the philosopher in the modern world: given the growth of the "special sciences," what's left for philosophy to do? Kant's answer was that whereas it is the business of the special sciences to deal with contingency, it remains the task of the philosopher to explore issues of modality—that is, issues of possibility and necessity. The assumption of my teachers, that it is the province of philosophers to reveal the logic of science, was a descendent of that Kantian view.

    Beyond operating with a certain understanding of the relation between philosophy and the "special sciences," my graduate school teachers were also making certain assumptions about the place of science in modern culture. I doubt that any of them had read Max Weber; I certainly don't remember any of them mentioning him. Nonetheless, it's my judgment that the assumptions they were working with on this score have never been better articulated than they were by Weber, who set them in the context of his theory of modernization.

    Weber was convinced that the essence of modernization is to be located in two related phenomena. Modernization consists, in the first place, in the emergence of differentiated spheres of activity—specifically, in the emergence of the differentiated social spheres of economy, state, and household, and in the emergence of the differentiated cultural spheres of science, art, law, and ethics. The picture which underlay Weber's thought at this point was the neo-Kantian picture according to which individual spheres of activity, each with its own dynamics, reside in the very nature of things, albeit hidden and concealed throughout most of history. What Weber added to the neo-Kantian picture was the claim that it is the dynamic of rationalization which, after de-magicalizing the world and confining the ethic of brotherliness to the realm of the private, brings these spheres to the light of day by differentiating them from each other and securing the relative independence of action within these spheres from outside interference.

    I submit that Weber is here articulating a way of thinking deep in the practice and mentality of modernity. In earlier days and places, what we now call art was inextricably intertwined with other social and cultural phenomena; then, beginning in the West in the eighteenth century, the arts became a distinct sphere within society and culture, and artistic activity was liberated from external demands of church and state. Art "came into its own." So too for Wissenschaft. In earlier days and places, learning was likewise inextricably intertwined with other social and cultural phenomena; then, beginning in the West in the seventeenth century, learning began to "come into its own," led forward into the promised land by the new natural science: it became possible to identify a certain sociocultural sphere as that of Wissenschaft, and activity within this sphere became liberated from external demands. None of my professors would have been able, or if able, willing, to articulate their assumptions with anything like Weber's grand sweep; nonetheless, there can be no doubt that they thought along these lines. And so do most of us; witness how we think of what we call "academic freedom" and "artistic freedom."

    The second main aspect of Weber's theory of modernization was his account of what transpires within these various social and cultural spheres, once they have been differentiated from each other and activity within them freed from external influence. Activity within the spheres becomes autonomous, self-normed; it begins to follow its own internal logic. Weber thought that these internal logics are all manifestations of rationalization. Rationalization thus plays the double modernizing function of accounting for the emergence of these differentiated spheres and of being what happens within these spheres once they have been differentiated and action within them allowed to become independent and autonomous. The fundamental dynamic of action within our modern capitalist economies is rationalization, just as the fundamental dynamic of action within our modern bureaucratic states is rationalization; but so too, Weber argued, the fundamental dynamic of thought within modern science is rationalization, oriented as that thought is toward prediction, grounded as it is in sensory experience, and intertwined as it is with technology. Given these views, the history of science becomes the story we have all heard, namely, the story of the gestation and birth of science as we now know it. The narrative begins with conception among the ancient Babylonians and Greeks, it continues with agonized stirrings among the medievals, it waxes lyrical when finally birth occurs with the publication of Newton's Principia. There are other ways to tell the story; that's the ever-so-familiar Weberian way.

    My judgment, in retrospect, is that my graduate school teachers were not only working with a roughly Kantian picture of how philosophy differs from science, and with a Weberian picture of the place of science within culture; they were also working with this Weberian picture of science as having an interior logic. They were not alone in that. Characteristic of the modern academy in general has been a regnant understanding of the structure or, if you will, "the logic" of well-formed Wissenschaft. The past quarter-century has witnessed the shattering of that regnant self-understanding; that's what makes the academy today very different from what it was forty years ago. We want to understand the causes of this shattering; but for that, we'll have to catch at least a glimpse of what was shattered: the once-regnant understanding by the modern academy of the inner structure of well-formed Wissenschaft.

    Perhaps the deepest component in this understanding was the conviction that well-formed learning is a generically human enterprise. To put the point pictorially: before entering the halls of learning we are to render inoperative, for the time being, all our particularities—of gender, of race, of nationality, of religion, of social class, of age—so as to allow only what belongs to our generic humanity to be operative within those halls. My graduate school professors, if not totally mystified by such projects as Afro-American history, feminist epistemology, Muslim political theory, and liberation theology, would have regarded these as bad history, bad epistemology, bad political theory, bad theology. They would have dismissed them as biased; learning practiced qua some particular kind of human being is malformed learning. The project of the academy is to construct an edifice of objective learning, that is, learning open to the facts by virtue of being generically human. Such learning can be expected eventually to gain the consensus of all normal adult human beings knowledgeable in the discipline. When learning is rightly conducted, pluralism in the academy is an accidental and temporary phenomenon.

    A second component in this self-understanding of the modern academy was a distinctive hierarchy of the academic disciplines. We're all familiar with it. At the top were the physical sciences and mathematics; these were the paradigmatic disciplines. At the bottom were the humanities; the social sciences occupied a position somewhere in between. Theology? If one thought of theology at all, the place one assigned it depended on whether one judged it to have been rationally grounded or not. If it was, it belonged somewhere among the humanities. If not, it was off the ladder.

    What underlay this hierarchy was of course a certain understanding of what constitutes well-formed Wissenschaft—an understanding which, I would say, first came to articulate expression in the writings of John Locke and his cohorts in the Royal Academy. The thought was that mathematics and the natural sciences have already attained the status of well-formed Wissenschaft, whereas the other academic disciplines have yet to do so. When their "Newtons" appear and their revolutions take place, they will join mathematics and natural science at the top. "The logic" of science is not something unique in principle to the natural sciences and mathematics; it is the logic which any academic discipline will exhibit once it attains the status of a well-formed Wissenschaft. Until that new day arrives, we can compose a hierarchy of the disciplines in terms of how far they are from meeting the ideal.

    The two matters already mentioned—well-formed Wissenschaft understood as a generically human enterprise, and the assumed hierarchy of the disciplines—are background and consequence of what was understood to be the method of science. On this there was, I would say, somewhat less consensus than on those other two matters. Nonetheless, there can be little doubt that the dominant view was that the method of well-formed science is foundational—more specifically, classically foundationalist. On this occasion I refrain from explaining what constitutes classical foundationalism; for the purposes at hand, explaining it won't be necessary.

    Before moving on to the next part of my story we should note how, on this once-regnant self-understanding of the academy, a person's religion was seen as related to his or her practice of learning. Obviously it was not regarded as a particularity which appropriately shapes the practice of learning. Within the bounds of that shared conviction, various options were proposed and explored. Some thought of Christianity and other religions as appropriately providing motivation for engaging in learning—which one then practices in generically human, foundationalist, fashion. Others held that religion has nothing at all to do with learning, but belongs to some other sphere of human life, possibly to its own unique sphere—though Weber himself seems to have thought of it as a remnant of the unrationalized rather than as a differentiated action-sphere of its own. But also, from the Enlightenment onwards, there have been those who were convinced that it is possible to construct a rationally grounded theism—even a rationally grounded Christianity. Such a theism, or such a Christianity, would rightly occupy a place in the academy. The conviction that theism in general, and Christian theism in particular, is rationally grounded, was widespread among American academics until the early years of the twentieth century. Then it began to fade. The disturbed relationship between religion and the academy which has characterized so much of our own century is due, as I see it, in great measure to the fading of that conviction. If religion lacks rational grounding—so it has been assumed—it has no place in the academy.


This self-understanding of the modern Western academy, whose major contours I have outlined, has been shattered over the past quarter-century. Let me schematize what happened into what I will call "the first revolution" and "the second revolution."

    First to go was the conviction that the method of well-formed Wissenschaft is classical foundationalism. The emergence of meta-epistemology, among philosophers, played a significant role in this development. The course I took in epistemology as a graduate student was, to my mind, stupefyingly boring; requirement satisfied, I opted for the exhilarations of metaphysics. I did not understand at the time why it was so boring. Now I do: classical foundationalism was simply taken for granted as the structure of justified belief, so much so that it wasn't even identified as such; and we confined ourselves to worrying one and another problem within classical foundationalism. I remember the day when we were all instructed to press one of our eyeballs so as to induce double vision, and then invited to reflect on what was to be made of such vision. I did not succeed in getting any double images. But I silently concluded that there was something wrong either with my eyeball or with my pressing of my eyeball; accordingly, conceding that epistemology was about normal adults, I went along with the supposition that the double vision everybody else was apparently getting posed an important problem—albeit, to my mind, a boring one.

    Then, starting about twenty-five years ago, epistemology became interesting. Rather than just taking for granted that to be an epistemologist is to think along classically foundationalist lines, philosophers stood back to survey the alternatives available for the structuring of epistemological theories. Classical foundationalism came to be identified as just one among others—albeit, the alternative we had all been taking for granted. Having been thus identified, it was then held up for appraisal, whereupon it came to seem to almost everybody thoroughly implausible as an account of justified belief and knowledge.


Excerpted from Religion, Scholarship, & Higher Education by Andrea Sterk. Copyright © 2002 by University of Notre Dame. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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