The Best Thinking is Dialogue

Review of "Religion in the University" by Nicolas Wolterstorff

This book has been many years in the making, stemming from lectures Nicholas Wolterstorff presented at Yale in 2001. It is an apologetic for religion in the public university that is not apologetic about the matter. In fact, he challenges those who who think religiosity carries some chronic “rationality deficit” to which other orientations are immune, and calls the academy to be truly pluralistic, if it is indeed part of a liberal democracy. The book is short and succinct, and it comes neatly in four chapters that establish four basic points.

A fact/value split is a fading dream
Wolterstorff forgoes pre-modern history of scholarly vocations and makes the modern view his starting point. He takes 19th century sociologist Max Weber as his exemplar here, who spoke strongly against anyone who brings their “values” to bear on the “facts” of their research. Religion belongs to the world of values, with its prophets and private rituals, which belong in a lockbox, outside the classroom and laboratory. The academy is about unbiased, objective research and universally valid ideas.

This fact/value split is now actually quite old and has become extremely suspect. It’s a truism now that all facts are value-laden, and all theory is underdetermined by facts. Wolterstorff adds that no one can personally conduct all research for themselves anyway: they rely on the testimony of trusted others for their “facts.” Finally, he notes that Weber himself was rather fatalistic about a culture fixated on so-called rational “facts”: he called it an iron cage, and a “polar night of icy darkness.”

All thinking is human thinking
Wolterstorff takes two thinkers as key debunkers of the “facts of science” myth. First he considers the work of Thomas Kuhn, who noted that all scientific research happens within paradigms that are underdetermined by the evidence. Scientists make their research decisions based on such things as simplicity, elegance, or conservatism. And paradigms are always changing.

Secondly, Hans-Georg Gadamer points out that historians are always making judgments about what is significant in history, and there is little consensus around causal links. We approach our scholarship with a bias cultivated through a cultural tradition, which gives us an interpretive filter for our work. All scholarship is human interpretation – all the way down through our research program choices, our observations, and our critiques.

The idea that all research comes from a standpoint has spawned a multitude of new disciplines: feminisms, African studies, and LGBTQ perspectives. There is now a wealth of research explicitly shaped by “character-identities” – pluralizing the scholarship of the academy and its interpretive lenses on the world.

I would add here that Wolterstorff recognizes that this acknowledgement of a “subjective” dimension comes with its own liabilities, and he doesn’t accept the radical subjectivist position: that reality is nothing but what one perceives it to be. There is a structured reality beyond the subjective. But it can only be accessed through the subject: persons from particular places and histories.

Rationality under-read and over-rated
As for the charge that religious people suffer a “rationality deficit” – Wolterstorff basically says the cultured despisers haven’t done their homework. Rationality is understood as beliefs that are supported by arguments – propositional evidence derived from outside the system of belief. On this point Wolterstorff gives loud, repeated warning: such evidence for faith is readily available, it’s just not often read. See for example Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne‘s publications for such reasoned arguments that give warrant for faith in God.

Furthermore, rationality never goes all the way down for anyone. Some faith or trust resides at the foundational level in every professor’s grand scheme of thought and research – even, says Wolterstorff, with respect to the belief in an external world beyond our minds (apparently this belief is hard to prove philosophically!).

University as a dialogue about the meaning of life
This is Wolterstorff’s position, at heart: to be human is to reason, but such reason is always in the service of some faith, love, intuition, interpretation. Acknowledging this has led to the pluralizing of university life.

What Wolterstorff puts in a positive light, some might see more negatively as the fragmentation of the university. But Wolterstorff maintains: “there is a structured reality, independent of human minds” that we commonly inhabit. The university is the place where structured selves encounter, receive, and construct theories of that structured reality, using loaded concepts and categories which are themselves already part of an interpretive enterprise.

When various character-identities with their diverse orientations for life share and compare their views about important matters, Wolterstorff calls it dialogical pluralism. The goal is consensus; and when disagreements arise, they are negotiated by comparing reasons and listening in such a way that honours the voice of the other and seeks a fair hearing for everyone.

Wolterstorff ends by summarizing this book as an argument from justice and consistency. If reason is the heart of the university, it is reasonable to consider that the heart has reasons that reason can never know (Pascal) and these reasons are what gives meaning, passion, and colour to the academy. If only secular perspectives are permitted on campus, the university is reduced to a place for technical training in marketable careers in order to solve practical problems, rather than also being a place that debates and dialogues “from our diverse orientations the meaning of the mystery, magnificence and horror of our existence.”

One comment about the current emphasis on “character-identities” as legitimate comprehensive orientations: they do certainly suggest religious ideas belong in academic conversations. But when a character identity becomes totalizing and sacrosanct, it can morph into what is commonly called identity politics, and this often operates in such a way to shut down dialogue and debate. We still share a common world, and the university needs to be a place where we can freely discuss difficult issues, even if we have what seems like opposing identities.

This is not just a free speech appeal. If the image of God rests in every student and scholar, we are each other’s best survival kit; I cannot thrive without you; and you cannot thrive without me. We sharpen each other, humble each other, and so equip each other for wise teaching, researching, and writing in service of God’s world. The generosity of spirit commended by Wolterstorff’s dialogical pluralism would go a long way to healing wounds and restoring a vibrant community of learning and service to our universities, and I believe Christian professors and our campus ministries can certainly contribute to that ethic. It intersects with an ethic of hospitality and holds much promise for both reconciliation of rival communities and creative, dynamic, meaning-full scholarship. Commend this book to every academic dean at a public university near you.

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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