University of Vermont

Nash/It is Time for HESA Professionals to Talk Openly About Religion in the Academy

It Is Time for HESA Professionals To Talk Openly About
Religion in the Academy

Robert J. Nash

My Own Restless Religious Journey

I have been a long-time student of all types of religions and spiritualities, and an unabashed admirer of those who genuinely believe in--and honestly try to live out the implications of -- the goodness, love, and rightness of some transcendent force in their lives. However, and this will come as no surprise to those who have studied with me, I am also ardently agnostic when it comes to religious belief for myself. At this particular stage in my life, after a period of much restless searching, I can only say that, for myself, I am simply unable to believe in the traditional God(s) of the monotheistic or polytheistic religions. Neither do I consider myself a “spiritual” person in any Eastern or New Age sense. Substitutionary, non-theistic notions of “Grounds of Being,” “Oneness,” “Ultimate Meanings,” and “Unifying Presences” in the universe just do not appeal to my overly rational, analytical, pragmatic temperament. For better or worse, I am fairly confident that I have no wish now, at age 60, to become spiritually “enlightened” or to experience the “spark of divinity” within me, all the remarkable wisdom of the East notwithstanding. I continue to think seriously and deeply about these matters every day of my life, however, as do so many of my students in each of the graduate and undergraduate programs I serve.

In my writing and teaching, I use the term, religion, to refer to what happens to people publicly, and spirituality to what happens to them privately. Religion is external, spirituality is internal. Often, I combine both words to form the term religio-spirituality, because, even though spirituality is more in vogue today, particularly among my undergraduates and mainline religious dissidents, I think both terms describe two necessary components of the same phenomenon: the journey to discover and/or create a meaning that transcends the self and the tribe. This is a meaning that motivates us to give our hearts and minds to something greater than ourselves. It is a meaning that fulfills the longing we have for the living presence that lies beyond or within all of creation. It is a meaning that combines seeking, practice, place, and community while, at the same time, it requires discipline, sacrifice, and attention. It is a meaning that nourishes our moral growth, and gives rise to the compassion and love which will allow us to live rightly with others. In fact, I frequently tend to use the words religion and spirituality interchangeably, because it is clear to me that one without the other is like possessing an intellect without a heart to soften and deepen it, or feelings without a cognitive intelligence to give them direction and purpose.

I mention my own fluctuating personal experiences with religion and spirituality, not in a spirit of tawdry self-disclosure, remorse, or cynicism, but with the greatest respect and affection for those students of mine who believe with all their hearts and minds in the religious and spiritual content that I truly admire but, nevertheless, reject for myself. I have had hundreds of HESA (Higher Education and Student Affairs) students, and perhaps thousands of non-HESA students, in my classes over the past 31 years at the University of Vermont who have found something in their religious faiths that is truly wonderful: something intellectually sound, emotionally fulfilling, and morally inspiring, particularly as they confront life’s daily challenges and complexities. However, in the last several years, what I find to be most significant for me as a professor in a higher education and student affairs program (in addition to the other two graduate programs that claim my professional attention) is that, increasingly, the majority of my students are actively imploring me to allow ample time during the semester to help them explore their religious questions, as an integral part of all the philosophically-oriented courses that I teach.

Taking the Plunge

And so, in 1998, I took the plunge and created what I thought would be a one-time, intensive graduate offering called “Religion, Spirituality, and Education.” In spite of many well-intended warnings from some of my colleagues in the University that such a course would be unlikely to draw enough students to justify its existence, or that it would simply prove to be too “hot to handle,” the course has played to full houses in the four consecutive semesters I have offered it. Also, because each semester I always end up with a lengthy waiting list of curious students, I feel compelled to offer the course yet one more time to answer what appears to be a virtually insatiable need for religious exploration in the academy.

In early 1999, I published a book--Faith, Hype, and Clarity: Teaching About Religion in American Schools and Colleges--and, surprisingly, in a period of just a few months, the invitations to speak on this topic at universities throughout the country began to flood my phone-mail and e-mail. Equally as surprising, the book won a 1999 American Educational Studies Association Critics Choice Award, and was also nominated for the prestigious Gravemeyer Award in Education. I intentionally use the word “surprising” to describe all of this, because, while writing the book, I honestly did not think an extended, pedagogical essay that advocated teaching about religion in secular settings would even be marketable, let alone worthy of scholarly acclaim. I am profoundly grateful for all the attention.

Ironically, however, even though I wrote the book mainly for public school teachers, religious specialists, and college professors, the majority of these invitations to offer university lectures and workshops have come from student affairs administrators, who read the book and sensed immediately that I was speaking to them. One student affairs leader at a large mid-western university asked me to help his division develop a “core-values” component on “spiritual growth.” Another was “desperate” for me to help her residential life staff deal with all the religious differences--along with the controversies that often accompany them--that were starting to surface among students in her university’s dozens of residence halls. A well-known, higher education faculty member in one of the most prestigious higher education programs in the nation asked me to speak on how student affairs educators might help students, both in and out of the classroom, to foster powerful “spiritual narratives” in their lives. According to him, huge numbers of students on his campus were beseeching educators to respond to what he called their “cries for existential meaning.” These are entreaties that reveal all too clearly the vapidity of the rat race of career credentialing, the whirligig of self-indulgent partying, and the hell-bent acquisition of meaningless, inflated grades that fill young people’s lives on campuses throughout the nation.

Why in the face of these intensifying “cries for meaning,” I began to wonder, have we in the university, and particularly in higher education administration programs, shied away from--in fact ignored--the growing reality of spiritual and religious need on our campuses? Why is it that we have failed to systematically address the religious pleas for meaning that are becoming more and more widespread among students everywhere? Why have we not incorporated core courses on religion and spirituality into our professional curricula? Why is it we do not enlarge our conception of multiculturalism to include religious pluralism? Why have we HESA professionals, traditionally the “official” advocates of diversity on racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual-orientation issues throughout the country, been so obviously reluctant to deal directly with the ever-increasing expressions of religious pluralism that find their way onto our nation’s campuses? Why have we not paid as much reverent attention to “faith communities” on campus as we do to other communities of difference?

The Reality of Religious Pluralism on College Campuses

I contend that religious pluralism, if left unattended, is a phenomenon that in the future will threaten to divide students in a way that makes all the other campus divisions look tame by comparison. For example, I recently spoke to a strikingly diverse religious group on a secular college campus many miles from my own that included, by my count, 14 different religious orientations, in addition to the Christian and the Jewish traditions. Among the invited students, guests, and staff members who attended my seminar were two Muslims, one Buddhist, one Sikh, one Hindu, one Unitarian-Universalist, one Unificationist, one Baha’i, one Sufi, one Theosophist, two Neo-Pagans and Witches, one practitioner of Native-American spirituality, and three outspoken members of the newly-formed Campus Freethought Alliance. All of these participants were more than eager to tell stories of the discrimination, alarming lack of understanding, and verbal abuse (mostly implicit, but becoming more overt every day, according to their reports) they experienced throughout their university from members of the mainline religious groups.

Sadly, such testimonials reminded me of Harold Bloom’s (1993) grim but ominous prediction that the twenty-first century will feature a full-scale return to deadly religious wars throughout the world. For Bloom, many fervent believers around the globe are so emotionally invested in their religious convictions that whenever their religious beliefs get combined with nationalistic, racial, ethnic, and political interests, then the result is bound to be continuing outbursts of violence and bloodshed. This outcome for him is inevitable because, historically, whenever organized religion aligns with the state, it produces epic bloodbaths. (See, for example, James A. Haught’s [1990] Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness.)

The World Development Forum in 1990 (cited in Eck, 1993, p. 202) published a fascinating study of religious difference throughout the modern world. It asked the following questions: “If our world were a village of 1000 people, who would we be religiously, and in which continent would we live?” The answer is that we would be a village of 329 Christians, 174 Muslims, 131 Hindus, 61 Buddhists, 52 Animists, 3 Jews, members of 34 other religions, and 216 would claim no religious affiliation at all. Moreover, 564 of us would be Asians, 210 would be Europeans, 86 would be Africans, 80 would be South Americans, and 60 would be North Americans. Finally, as if to confirm Harold Bloom’s prediction that religious wars are inevitable in the millennium to come, in this same village of 1000 people, 60 would own one-half the income, 600 would live in a shanty town, 500 would be hungry at all times, and 700 would be totally illiterate. Revealingly, the vast majority of the “have-nots” would be the most religiously zealous as well as the most angry, while the “haves” would be content simply to assume a stance of benign, bourgeois neutrality toward religion. I predict that in the next quarter of a century, even though an ever-burgeoning group of religious “haves” and “have-nots” will achieve, at best, an uneasy truce at many of our nation’s colleges and universities, many will also confront each other in open conflict.

To mention but one recent example of religious conflict between a powerful dominant group and an aggrieved religious minority, in 1997, at Yale University, five Orthodox Jewish students filed a Federal lawsuit (by 1999, the case was still pending) charging religious discrimination against the University for requiring all first- and second-year students to live on campus in integrated residence halls. To these five proponents of Orthodox Judaism, the Yale residential colleges “represent immorality itself, an arena of coed bathrooms, safe-sex manuals and free condoms, a threat to [their] very souls” (Freedman, 1998, p. 32). According to the five plaintiffs, they felt religiously misunderstood and, at times, mistreated by Yale adminstrators. For starters, nobody at Yale seemed to know, or care, that Orthodox Judaism in this country had become increasingly factionalized in recent years between the so-called Modern believers and the haredi (the ultra-Orthodox). Haredi describes those ultra-Orthodox Jews who “tremble” before God, and while they are likely to accept the technical accouterments of modernity--e.g. higher education, and computer technology--they reject the cultural ones--e.g. permissive lifestyles, Godlessness, and sexual promiscuity.

Regarding the Yale Five’s bitter refusal to settle their suit against the University, Betty Trachtenberg, the Dean of Student Affairs and the primary defendant in the suit, could only mutter: “I don’t understand; I just don’t understand” (Freedman, p. 35). In these litigious times, unfortunately, religious misunderstanding and ignorance in the academy can often result in expensive law suits, or worse. For a dean of student affairs (herself a Reformed Jew) at a major Ivy League university not to know that for many Jewish believers there are irreconcilable differences among the world views of Conservative, Reformed, Orthodox, and Ultra-Orthodox Judaism is difficult to fathom. Even more difficult, however, is the lack of sensitivity on the part of a highly placed, student affairs official regarding such paramount religious questions as whether the secular should, in some extenuating circumstances, accommodate the sacred, or whether it should always be the other way around. As one of the plaintiffs, Batsheva Greer, a 19-year-old history major, remarked, "you never think people [Yale officials] will have such low regard for religion. Anyone can see we’re serious about this. (Freedman, p. 32).

Two HESA Fears: Not Knowing How, and Offending Others

I think one of the many reasons why we in HESA are reluctant to explicitly engage students’ cries for religious meaning and understanding on our campuses is that we honestly do not know how. We tend to shy away from such a volatile challenge, because most of us actually know little or nothing about the formal content and practices of the various religions and spiritualities that are finding their way to our residence halls, worship communities, classrooms, health and wellness organizations, and centers for cultural pluralism. Most of my own experience in teaching undergraduate and graduate students from the dominant, mainline Christian denominations confirms the observation that not only are most college students disturbingly deficient in alternative religious or spiritual understandings, but they are barely literate regarding their own belief systems. I can remember vividly one of my doctoral HESA students blurting out in class one day:

How can you expect me to talk intelligently with others about their religious beliefs when I know so little about my own? My undergraduate college didn’t even have a religious studies department. Moreover, I had no idea that religion was something that could, or should, even be studied. I always thought that religion was something to be obeyed and practiced, rather than appreciated intellectually or examined critically.

I think another reason why many of my HESA students fear addressing religious issues directly in a secular university is the very real danger of somehow offending those who might believe differently. Some higher education students who may otherwise be intensely interested in responding to students’ pleas for religious meaning on a college campus do not know how to do this in a way that they think must always be value-neutral. They are wary of imposing their beliefs (usually mainline, New Age, or lapsed Christian) on those who represent a bewildering array of alternative American and non-Western religions. I know in my classes that whenever the occasional Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or neo-Pagan talk about their beliefs publicly, my majoritarian, Christian believers, along with the disenchanted ex-Christians--in the interests of civility and for fear of offending--will either remain silent, or else respond in an overly polite, but banal, manner. Although well-intended in their attempts to show empathy and respect for religious differences, often these students unwittingly send the message to the more articulate (and passionate) adherents of other faiths that they do not take them seriously enough to engage them in probing and extensive conversation about their pivotal religious and spiritual convictions.

I recall a former Catholic graduate student, who had recently converted to Quakerism, remarking to me once after class that he was “dying for dialogue” throughout the semester about the things he used to believe as compared to what he now believed; sadly all he ever got from me and his peers was “polite, head-nodding, religious-correctness” whenever he talked. He practically dared us at times to involve him in “vigorous” engagement instead of responding to him from the stance of a studied religious impartiality. In this regard, I love a distinction that Diana L. Eck (1993) makes between diversity and pluralism. For most of us in HESA, multicultural diversity instinctively signals a respect for otherness, tolerance, non-criticism, and acceptance, indeed celebration, of difference. But Eck believes that religious pluralism calls for something that goes far beyond what is often a mere gratuitous respect for difference.

“Real” Religious Pluralism

Religious pluralism, according to Eck, is a particular response to diversity, and it requires that we become actively engaged with those who are different. Respect and celebration are not enough; direct participation is what is necessary. Moreover, simple tolerance must always give way to the active seeking of understanding. And understanding can happen only when we engage in “building bridges of exchange and dialogue” with others who believe differently. Finally, the language of religious dialogue must include “constant communication--meeting, exchange, traffic, criticism, reflection, reparation, and renewal” (pp. 197-198). This “meeting” involves self-understanding, a willingness to become genuinely open to the truths in others’ religious views, a penchant for robust, “give-and-take” dialogue that attempts to arrive at both mutual understanding and “mutual transformation.”

Eck (1993) asks:

What kind of faith refuses to be tested by real encounter with others? What kind of faith grows by speaking and proclaiming without having to listen, perhaps even be challenged, by the voices of others? (p. 198)

All of the above is what I believe my Quaker student was asking from us during the seminar he was enrolled in my course. Unfortunately, he left at the end of the term intellectually and emotionally unsatisfied; he wondered, when all was said and done, if any of us really cared about what he believed, despite our warm-hearted claims that we truly did.

I fear that we in higher education programs throughout the country have defined diversity and pluralism in such a way as to systematically exclude religious considerations. In speaking to several graduate classes during my off-campus visits to other universities, the same students who willingly and enthusiastically register their every opinion regarding the more well-known types of diversity on college campuses become strangely mute whenever I attempt to involve them in a discussion about religious diversity. After one of my more notably abortive attempts at stimulating a conversation about religion and spirituality, an African-American woman, a doctoral student in higher education administration, approached me somewhat furtively, long after her peers had left the room. She said:

You know, if you were to ask me what was the most significant aspect of my self identity, I would say that my Pentecostal religious affiliation defines me to myself more than the fact that I am an African-American or even a woman. I would never admit this to my peers or to my professors, for fear of being dismissed as some type of religious fanatic who has forgotten her true racial and gender roots. I only wish I could be in a safe, like-minded environment where I could talk as much about my overriding love for Jesus Christ as I feel obliged to do about my political loyalties in other areas of my life.

Bounded Discourse

Stephen Carter (1998) discusses a concept he calls “bounded discourse” that is relevant here. I believe that bounded discourse--“[deliberately constructing] an arena in which some ideas can be debated and others cannot” (p. 134)--systematically excludes religious ideas from higher education administration programs, among others. Our benevolent, liberal understanding that students’ religious and spiritual inclinations are best left to the private sphere of life automatically rules out of bounds any public conversation about these issues that makes us feel uncomfortable. Thus, whether in the classroom, counseling center, campus coffeehouse, advising office, or residence hall, we “take off the table” what truly matters to many students: their heartfelt search for religious and spiritual meaning. The unintended, but no less tragic, result is that in our calculated efforts to “bound discourse” about religion, we severely narrow our mission, along with our effectiveness, as higher education leaders. Worse, we relegate religion to the nether regions of the private realm where it is not allowed to enter the public arena in any full, rich way. Consequently, the religious voices of our students, like the African-American woman’s above, disappear from public view.

A campus minister at another college confided to me recently that she has become an avid proponent of “parallelism” among religious groups (Wolfe, 1999, p. B7). Parallelism for her is an approach to religious diversity that encourages a variety of religious groups on campus to exist on parallel tracks, each self-sufficient, hermetically autonomous, and anti-secularist. In my opinion, this campus minister’s policy of “parallelism” is simply another way to practice Carter’s “bounded discourse,” and with the same, disastrous results I mention above. Parallelism does have the virtue of allowing different religious groups to be a part of American higher education while still being apart from that same system. But the glaring disadvantage of an officially-endorsed, religious apartheid is the further marginalization of diverse religious voices on campus.

Worse, and I echo Diana Eck (1993) here, the existence of a simple religious diversity in the university does not guarantee the full-bodied educational encounters that a vigorous religious pluralism requires. Absent these critical face-to-face, give-and-take encounters between and among the various religious groups on a campus, all sides suffer. Each becomes what Wolfe (1999) calls tragically “another subculture within an alien system of learning [rather] than an integral part of that system” (p. B7). Whenever this happens, everyone loses. I have in mind particularly those devout religious students who find themselves in the classrooms of certain types of professors--postmodern despisers of religion -- who have very large, anti-religious axes to grind. Their religious bigotry has become so obstinately (and fashionably) normative in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences today that their vaunted ideals of intellectual pluralism and academic freedom remain largely a sham.

In this regard, I often recommend that my more orthodox Christian students read George M. Marsden’s (1997) ironically-titled The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. Marsden, an Evangelical Christian scholar, exhaustively demonstrates that instead of a feared “establishment” of religious belief in higher education, what we now have, thanks to the hegemony of secularists and religious nay-sayers, is a “virtual establishment of nonbelief.” Marsden fears that when students are told to leave their religious convictions at the door of their classrooms the “result is not diversity, but rather a dreary [academic] uniformity” (p. 35). For Marsden, religious faith and intellectual scholarship are not mutually contradictory. In fact, religious scholars can do the academy a genuine service by dismantling such prevailing secular dogmatisms as naturalistic reductionism, moral relativism, and the espousal of a rigid line of separation between church and state.

To put a human face on the tragedy of anti-religious bigotry in the classrooms of America, I cannot begin to recount the number of orthodox Christian students--Fundamentalists, Pentecostalists, Evangelicals, and Charismatics--who have come to me over the years complaining of the derision they experience both in the classroom and in the residence hall. For them, there is neither intellectual nor religious freedom at the University; there is only the open disdain aimed at their religiosity that forces them to retreat even further into their sectarian groups. It is mainly there that they are able to seek the consolation and strength they need to sustain them in the battles ahead. Unhappily, I have heard a plethora of such horror stories from at least half a dozen undergraduates, and at least two graduate students, who have left the University in the past few years, due to the searing, religious ridicule they believe has been directed at them. One woman, who did manage to graduate, tearfully recounted to me that in a large science lecture hall during her first year on campus, a professor who “braggingly” identified himself as a “scientific materialist” proceeded throughout the semester to castigate all the believing Christians in the class as “anti-intellectuals,” “zealots,” “creationists,” and “emotional weaklings.” When she confronted him with these cruel epithets, he denied them, and told her to “lighten up.”

From Bounded to Unbounded Religious Discourse: Tips for HESA Educators

So, what is to be done? How should HESA administrators and educators, both here and elsewhere, respond to what I contend is a long-overdue need for us to learn how to talk openly and honestly about religion and spirituality in the academy, about students’ entreaties for a “meaning beyond meaning?” Or is it more desirable for us to abdicate any responsibility by asserting that these “sectarian” matters be contained strictly within the provinces of the human wellness center, the counseling center, campus ministry, the religious studies department, or Christian Inter-Varsity, Hillel, and the Newman Center?

For starters, I assiduously reject the latter suggestion, because I believe it is precisely during those times when students pursue meaning outside of religiously-designated safety-zones that they experience the most compelling learnings, as do others who might initially have been critics or skeptics. We must be willing and able to let students know that whenever and wherever issues of religious and spiritual meaning arise for them, we are ready to respond thoughtfully and knowledgeably, just as we would when racial, gender, and sexual-orientation issues arise. We will never arbitrarily rule these questions out of bounds just because they make us nervous, or because we claim to know little about them, or because we ourselves might be harboring stubborn, anti-religious stereotypes that embarrass us.

Moreover, I strongly suggest that in our graduate programs we include ample opportunity for fledgling HESA administrators to study religious and spiritual topics in depth, if for no other reason than to enlarge the domains of social justice and cultural pluralism. My preference is for us to start taking religion seriously across the entire professional curriculum, and this includes what goes on in classrooms, practica, and assistantships. At this time, at the very least, we ought to require one intensive religion-and-spirituality seminar featuring in-depth study of such pioneering developmental works as James W. Fowler’s (1981) Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, Sharon Parks’s (1991) The Critical Years: Young Adults and the Search for Meaning, Faith, and Commitment, and Fritz K. Oser’s and W. George Scarlett’s (eds.) (1991) Religious Development in Childhood and Adolescence. (Aside from a few isolated articles here and there in the professional journals [e.g. Laurence, 1999], there has actually been a paucity of sustained scholarship in student affairs on faith development theory since Fowler’s and Parks’s work.) I myself offer as an elective the religion and spirituality course I mentioned earlier. And Professor Carney Strange, a member of the Student Personnel Department at Bowling Green State University, has created a course called “Spiritual Dimensions in Student Development.”

To the developmental literature I would add such texts as Wade Clark Roof’s (1993) A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation, and the more recent Richard Cimino’s and Don Lattin’s (1998) Shopping For Faith: American Religion in the New Millennium, and Scotty McLennan’s (1999) Finding Your Religion: When the Faith You Grew Up with Has Lost Its Meaning. I would also strongly recommend Bob Altemeyer’s and Bruce Hunsberger’s (1997) Amazing Conversions: Why Some Turn To Faith and Others Abandon Religion, as well as Tom Beaudoin’s (1998) Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X. And the convenient Teach Yourself World Faiths Series (no general editor, 1994/95) on Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, and Hinduism is an indispensable aid for the non-specialist in comparative religions, as is the invaluable America’s Alternative Religions (1995), edited by Timothy I. Miller.

My own aforementioned Faith, Hype, and Clarity: Teaching About Religion in American Schools and Colleges (1999) features an up-to-date bibliography of more than 200 relevant entries. It also includes an extended discussion of the narrative approach I take in my course to teaching about religious and spiritual differences in four worldviews: Fundamentalism, Prophetic, Alternative Spiritualities, and Post-Theism. Also, a recent University of Vermont doctoral dissertation, Moving Beyond the Shadow of Doubt: One Educator’s Attempt to Reconcile Faith and Knowledge in the Academy, written by a HESA alum, Judy Raper (1999), ought to be essential reading for HESA educators everywhere. And, finally, Warren A. Nord’s (1995) magisterial overview of the major issues, Religion & American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma, is one of the most important books on this topic that I have ever used in a graduate seminar.

Compassionate Listening and Constructive Responding

While an in-breadth and in-depth knowledge of appropriate age, stage, and subject matter if necessary for effective education about religion and spirituality, it is not sufficient. How we talk about religious and spiritual matters with others is equally important. The point is not to dazzle students with our new-found erudition. It is to invite them to be part of an open, ongoing, mutually self-respecting, give-and-take conversation about hitherto unmentionable religio-spiritual topics. These might include discussions about good and evil, meaning, mystery, ritual, community, faith, transcendence, immanence, God(s), spirituality, religiosity, hope, love, compassion, prayer, meditation, contemplation, the mainline faith traditions, alternative spiritualities and religions, theism, atheism, agnosticism, divergent worldviews, revelation, and absolute vs. relative moral principles, among a host of other items.

The major purpose of what I am here calling “compassionate listening” and “constructive responding” (elsewhere I refer to this as the “moral conversation” [Nash, 1996]) regarding religio-spiritual matters is to send the unmistakable message to the entire campus that students (as well as staff and faculty) have a right to be heard on religious matters. More important, all of us have a mutual obligation, in the interests of compassion and active engagement, to listen, and, whenever appropriate, to change or modify, our own, previous positions on these topics, given the force of what we hear. Anything less than this potentially self-transforming response on our part trivializes, and, worse, consigns to the outer regions of collegiate discourse the deepest convictions that indelibly shape the lives of millions of students everywhere.

My Own Pedagogical Efforts At Self-Transformation and Overcoming Fear

It goes without saying that this kind of “unbounded religious discourse” throughout the academy--and I believe we should honor it anywhere and everywhere it crops up because it is, at some level, always educational--will be very difficult to achieve. My own failures in mastering this kind of unbounded religious discourse both in and outside the classroom are legion, but I am learning. I am working hard to locate the religious common ground that we all share in class, without being reluctant also to identify the irreconcilable differences that separate us. I am striving mightily to encourage open, candid, respectful, and critical dialogue among the believers, non-believers, and disbelievers in my classroom. I am struggling to do this in a way that recognizes the irreducible diversity of each of these, at times cacophonous, religious voices. And I am trying to do this without inadvertently imposing an intellectual uniformity (or, worse, a religiously-correct blandness) on my students, along with the mind-numbing, soul-killing repression that usually accompanies such an imposition.

I am guided always by something that Nicholas Wolterstorff (cited by John Wilson, 1999) once said about an “ethics” of religious dialogue:

“Thou must not take cheap shots. Thou must not sit in judgment until thou hast done thy best to understand. Thou must earn thy right to disagree. Thou must conduct thyself as if (Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Mohammed, Pope John Paul II, Bishop John Shelby Spong, or Pat Robertson) were sitting across the table--the point being that it is much more difficult (I don’t say impossible) to dishonor someone to his face.” (p. 3)

The hardest goal for me, however, is to enlarge the conversational space -- to construct an unbounded-discourse region--about religion in the classroom without asking adherents of the various religious and non-religious narratives to bracket their own strong beliefs. The most devastating criticism from students that I sometimes hear is the one that accuses me of enticing them to engage in a “postmodern” dialogue about religion that (wittingly or unwittingly) forces them to voluntarily annihilate a significant piece of themselves in the search for common religious ground--absent all the sectarian particulars. These students resent what they consider to be my “transparent” attempts to smuggle my own postmodern preferences for plurality, tolerance, religious equivalence, and what one HESA student called my “narrative-reductionism” into my teaching. They want me to be more honest and up-front about my biases. They demand that I include a personal “truth-in-packaging” statement in my syllabus at the beginning of my course. They want this in the interests of candor and fairness, so that they are better able to give full, informed consent to taking my course at the very outset.

In spite of my mistakes, however, I am learning, if ever so slowly and self-consciously. Since I have begun talking openly about religion and spirituality in the classroom and elsewhere, I am changing virtually everything I can about my teaching, speaking, writing, and advising. Many former HESA students from the 1970s and 1980s will cringingly remember me as “Hot-Seat Bob” in the classroom, and they will shudder at the nightmare of having to construct, and present publicly, rigorous argumentative essays in the third person as the only acceptable way to defend their controversial ideas. In those days, I admit that I was less the intellectual latitudinarian that I am today, and more the academic fundamentalist. These days I like to think of myself as “Generative Robert” in the way I relate to students (at least one of my past students agrees with this self-designation, as she told me that I am currently a “softer, gentler” Robert than when she took a course with me several years earlier). Moreover, the type of writing I prefer from my students at the present time is the more compassionate, first-person, personal-narrative essay.

I now experience far more joy than frustration in my teaching. Even though I am not sure where I myself will end up spiritually, I do realize that my work as one who professes (I am, after all, a professor) is, in large part, framing how I think and feel about religio-spiritual issues. Teaching, for me, is a calling, a leap of faith without guarantee, a risky response to the summons deep within me to minister to others wisely and compassionately, to the best of my ability. I realize that faith of any kind can often be a terrifying leap into the unknown, a leap without any final assurance that good or truth or right will come of it. Nevertheless, at least for me, now, the leap to a new way of teaching is necessary. I am utterly convinced, after teaching my course four times, and gotten intimately involved with my students’ powerful and probing spiritual questions for four consecutive semesters, that faith’s antonym is not unbelief, it is fear.

All that I have said in this essay can be summed up by the four-letter word, fear. There are actually two ways of thinking about this word. The more common meaning of the term suggests a feeling of anxiety, uneasiness, or apprehension about trying something new--in this case, talking openly about religion in the secular academy when there is very little precedent to do so, and very good reason to avoid it entirely. In a deeper sense, however, the word recalls Rudolf Otto’s (1923) Latin phrase mysterium terrible et fascinans. Otto depicted the phenomenon of transcendence as a “terrible and fascinating mystery” that simultaneously elicits the feeling of fear as terror and dread, but also as awe and reverence.

Otto’s dual notion of fear, I submit, is a challenge for all of us in HESA. While talking about religion in the academy looks on the surface to be terrifying because we are breaking new, controversial ground, upon closer examination, the project is also capable of inspiring great reverence and respect for genuine religious pluralism on a secular college campus. My hope is that all my present and former students who read this “Final Word” in the Twentieth Anniversary issue of The Vermont Connection will make their own leaps of faith to talk openly about religion in the academy. This openness, of course, must candidly confront religion’s potential for both good and evil, whenever students inquire. It is historically irrefutable that many times throughout history organized religion has been a force for much that is noble in the human spirit; but, sadly, it has also been a force for much that is base (see Gregg Easterbrook [1998], Beside Still Waters: Searching for Meaning in an Age of Doubt). This “leap” will take considerable courage, I suggest, because it entails that we move beyond a mere respect for religious diversity to encouraging what I have elsewhere (Nash, 1999) called a “robust pluralism” in the American university.


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Robert J. Nash is a Professor in the Department of Integrated Professional Studies, University of Vermont. He has been teaching HESA students for 31 years. Currently, he is in the process of finishing up a second book on the topics of religion, spirituality, and higher education. He will be on sabbatical during the 2000-2001 academic year.

Last modified May 26 2010 02:41 PM

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