Religion in the University

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Nicholas Wolterstorff
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , April
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Religion continues to shape and inform the very texture of modern life. Yet our public conversation on religion is challenged by its ubiquity in daily life and society. This challenge is all the more acute when we consider religion and the modern university. While the academic study of religion is certainly present in the university, the role of religion in the production and reproduction of critical knowledge and its function as the basis for orienting one’s life and vocation remains deeply contested. Nicholas Wolterstorff confronts this complex issue in Religion in the University. Drawing on four decades of experience at Yale University while engaging a range of thinkers including Gadamer, Kuhn, Locke, and Weber, as well as the critical formations of African American studies and feminist theory, Wolterstorff offers a nuanced and philosophically rich perspective on this important issue.

Religion in the University is a revision of Wolterstorff’s 2001Taylor Lectures delivered at Yale Divinity School. While a divinity school setting occasioned the delivery of the lectures, Wolterstorff’s revised book takes up the broader institutional context of our “present-day so-called secular universities within pluralist democratic societies” (6).  Wolterstorff does not attempt to exhaust our understanding of the role and function of religion in the university. Rather, he focuses on how scholars may reorient our thinking about religion and its contribution to scholarship and intellectual life in the modern university. In doing so, he presents a robust vision of religion as constitutive of intellectual life in extending our conception of knowledge, enhancing the meaning of scholarship, and offering purpose for the vocation of the scholar.

Returning to Max Weber’s famed lecture of 1918, “Wissenschaft als Beruf,” Wolterstorff reminds readers of Weber’s understanding of “academic learning” and the fate to which scholars are assigned by taking up the project of thinking in the modern era (7). Wolterstorff’s return to Weber is not for a singular purpose. Rather, Weber’s thought serves as the ground for Wolterstorff to confront what he terms the “melancholy of modernity,” which Weber’s academic melancholy was but a part. The complex interrelationships between knowledge, modernity, and society offer Wolterstorff a unique space to analyze how and in what ways a capacious expression of knowledge inclusive of belief creates space for the “prophetic voice” of religion whose presence may find institutional resonance in the university. In so doing, we recognize that “Wissenschaft is unavoidably shaped by values that go well beyond that of being faithful to the experienced facts” (43). With this understanding, religion holds out the distinct possibility of renewing the academy by jettisoning narrow and overly technical conceptions of knowledge and facilitating a flourishing of knowledge that offers purpose for intellectual life and life itself.

Wolterstorff recognizes, of course, the deleterious dimensions of religion that mitigate against its presence in the university. Yet, these dimensions should not a priori serve as grounds for its absolute exclusion. What is required is nothing less than a rethinking of criteria of knowledge and scholarship within the frame of reference offered by Wolterstorff’s careful delineation of the cultus of knowledge formation. It is here where the form and character of knowledge formation and a renewed understanding of religion are commensurate and can be justly housed in a renewed vision of the university. Indeed, Wolterstorff reminds us that “we have to think in new ways” (59). New ways of thinking recognize that knowledge can never be securely sequestered from belief. More broadly, values influence our knowledge claims and commitments however much we wish to argue the contrary. If we truly think the implications of this for the formulation of knowledge and the cultivation of communities of inquiry, we may certainly welcome religion in the university in a substantive manner. Accordingly, we create new opportunities to expand the terrain of knowledge, deepen scholarship, and renew the university.

Religion in the University cogently and justly argues for religion in the university in light of a new formulation of the relationship between our intellectual conceptions and commitments, value judgements and beliefs, and understanding of the university and the role of the scholar. This is not an easy task, as Wolterstorff’s argues on a number of fronts including the philosophical conception of knowledge, nature of (non)rational religion, and the role and function of the university and cultures of scholarship. Religion in the university requires a revision of our thinking about the conception of what properly constitutes knowledge and the cultures, habits, and dispositions that shape and inform communities of learning. By recognizing the plural and protean character of knowledge and human understanding, we come to understand that religion, far from transgressing the boundaries of what is permitted in the university, can be and should be hosted fully in the university.

In advocating for religion’s inclusion in the university, Wolterstorff confronts a deep and enduring challenge for the modern university and the project of thought. The challenge is at times frustrating because of impoverished notions of what properly constitutes knowledge suitable for the university. This book underscores how a limited conception of academic knowledge constricts the possibilities of the university. If we fully recognize the fact that “in a liberal democratic society, academic learning especially in the social sciences and the humanities tends in the direction of pluralization,” then the question becomes one of attaining a conception of knowledge and a conception of the university that can host a plurality of knowledges, including religion (120–21).  In this manner, religion unfolds fresh understandings of the gift of the world and human experience in all of its density, complexity, and variety.

Religion in the University is an acute reminder of the possibilities of thinking religion in the university so that we may avoid the Weberian melancholic fate of being “specialists without spirit and sensualists without heart” (154).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Corey D. B. Walker is the Wake Forest Professor of the Humanities at Wake Forest University.

Date of Review: 
October 31, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nicholas Wolterstorff is Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University. He has written several books, including Lament for a Son and Justice: Rights and Wrongs.


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