More Seats at the Table: Nicholas Wolterstorff's Religion in the University
Aaron Morrison

For much of the twentieth century, many academics accepted that the gradual secularization of higher education would marginalize religious perspectives so much that these perspectives would be limited to the private sphere. While secularization continues to impact colleges and universities in 2020, it has not resulted in the disappearance of religious perspectives from academia—on the contrary, more seats have been added to the table. Whereas only Christian perspectives existed before, now other perspectives from Buddhism and Islam have greater visibility. The debate today is about the nature and extent of the role of religious perspectives in higher education. Nicholas Wolterstorff, professor emeritus of philosophy at Yale University, has brought clarity to this debate with his new book, Religion in the University. This volume introduces Wolterstorff’s landmark scholarship and invites readers to explore his work on the philosophy of religion and education more deeply while providing a philosophical foundation from which to grapple with the role of religion in higher education on an increasingly pluralistic horizon. 


In this book, Wolterstorff intends to “contribute to rethinking … the traditional understanding of the place of religion in the university” (vii). He narrates how and why the philosophy of religion and academic learning has changed over the past generation, and he recommends ways universities can welcome these changes. In a sense, this book announces an age that most university faculty and administrators already inhabit, whether they know it or not. 

The material in Religion in the University originated from the Taylor Lectures, which Wolterstorff first delivered at Yale Divinity School in October 2001 and revised for 2019 in this book. The Taylor Lectures, which were established in 1902 and have been given every other year since then, addresses some theme in theology for a general audience. As such, while his topic might be best appreciated by readers already interested in the role of religion in higher education, this volume is accessible for readers who may be less familiar with this topic.

The role of religion in higher education is an immense subject, one that Wolterstorff describes as “a near-fathomless ocean” of discourse (11). Instead of addressing the topic in its totality, he sketches out the history, summarizes recent academic developments in the philosophy of religion, and shares his personal stories as a faculty member at Yale. Choosing this particular type of institution—“so-called secular universities within pluralist democratic societies” (6)—is crucial to building his case. He is not addressing places with a strong denominational affiliation or faith tradition (places like Calvin University, for instance, where Wolterstorff studied as an undergraduate student and where he taught for three decades). In choosing Yale, an influential Ivy League school, Wolterstorff argues for a prominent positive role for religion at all colleges and universities.

Religion in the University is divided into four essays. The first provides a history that Wolterstorff identifies as the dominant traditional understanding of the role of religion within the modern Western university. The second chapter identifies current developments in academic learning that complicate that history. The third chapter summarizes the work Wolterstorff and his contemporaries, especially Alvin Plantinga, undertook on the subject of epistemology of religious belief. In the eponymous fourth chapter, the author proposes the proper role of religion in the contemporary university, cites several examples of how he has experienced religion at Yale.

Wolterstorff’s main interlocutor in this book is the great social theorist Max Weber—because, he writes, no one has made the case for what modernity means for religion in higher education “more profoundly—and more poignantly” than Weber did in his 1916 lecture “Science as a Vocation” (7–8) Wolterstorff disagrees with Weber that modernity has fully privatized religion. He responds to Weber in various ways throughout chapters two and three, and suggests that the contemporary rise of “character identities” in the academy has also reasserted the relevance of religious perspectives. The hegemony of white, male perspectives in the academy during Wolterstorff’s grad school days stifled imaginative discourse on what positive role religion could play in public. However, Wolterstorff writes that as concepts such as feminist epistemology and black sociology have become accepted as ways of knowing over the past forty years, these theories have paved the way for religious ways of knowing to return to scholastic attention (50). Here, he acknowledges a potential worry over objectivity. Wolterstorff qualifies that the scholar “must be entitled to those particularist values and beliefs that shape their scholarship” (50). Scholars must be diligent “to read and listen…broadly” to justify their position (50–51). Scholars cannot be wholly objective, Wolterstorff writes, but they can be truthful about their inability to achieve objectivity. 

These responses to Weber terminate in the final essay, in which Wolterstorff lays out his design for the proper role of religion in the university. Such institutions embrace academic learning as “norm-laden and purposeful social practices” with three characteristics. First, their faculty aim toward a certain good (for example, justice) with “criteria for competent engagement.” Second, they are open to change across time. Third, they are part of a tradition, meaning these practices are learned by watching “one’s forebears” (124–126). In addition to supporting academic learning as social practice, Wolterstorff argues that universities should champion “dialogic pluralism” as the ethic of its faculty (126). Faculty will hold a wide variety of commitments and values, some religious, some not. Those who engage in these practices “don’t just offer reasons to each other but listen to reasons, listen to them with an open mind” with the aim of agreement (127). If agreement can’t be achieved, Wolterstorff writes, “mutual understanding is of worth” (129). To further illustrate, Wolterstorff describes with admiration how Yale “has a chaplain,” “classes on the relationship between law and the book of Job,” and “an English class on Jewish hermeneutics” (141). Yale is a secular university, but its secularity is pluralist, not neutral. This is what Wolterstorff hopes for all universities—that they water the distinctive flowers of their faculty so that they may bear good fruit.

Wolterstorff’s audience will appreciate the erudite analysis he offers in Religion in the University. He explains the work of significant and complex figures such as Weber, Locke, and Hume in a straightforward manner that’s accessible to readers who may be unfamiliar with their arguments. Because he is addressing Weber specifically, Wolterstorff devotes a whole chapter of Religion in the University to the charge that prejudice against religion in the academy is due to irrationality. While this may be true in part, Wolterstorff loses an opportunity to examine how prejudice against the injustice of religion also contributes. A litany of scandals and policies that negatively affect the vulnerable in society, such as clergy sex abuse and its subsequent handling, continue to harm the reception of religion in the university. While it remains unclear whether irrationality or injustice has a greater impact on creating prejudice towards religion, Wolterstorff’s commentary on justice and academic learning in his earlier work, Educating for Shalom, is missed here.  

Religion in the University evokes comparison to several other works on the subject. Because Exiles from Eden also examines the vocation of the religious scholar in the university, Mark Schwehn represents one such appropriate dialogue partner for Wolterstorff. Whereas Wolterstorff aims for “dialogic pluralism” as the role ethic of professor (126), Schwehn propounds for “spirited inquiry.” Wolterstorff emphasizes “the interchange of reasonsto arrive at agreement” (127), while Schwehn accentuates the “exercise of virtues,” namely “humility, faith, self-sacrifice, and charity” (Schwehn, 53). Another pertinent comparison is Wolterstorff’s own earlier work on Christian higher education in Education for Shalom. There, Wolterstorff refers to Abraham Kuyper’s account of disagreement in the pursuit of truth due to sin and Christian belief as a gift by the Holy Spirit of “privileged cognitive access” (Shalom, 235). By contrast, Wolterstorff makes no mention of Kuyper in this new book. While this later Wolterstorff would agree on Reformed hegemony at Calvin and democratic pluralism at Yale as distinct differences, he does not make explicit if these differences change how a Christian scholar would operate.

The future landscape of religion in Western democracies remains pluralistic, and Wolterstorff presents a compelling argument for religion to have a positive and significant role in keeping those political systems oriented toward human flourishing. Higher education is a testing ground for this schema; Wolterstorff challenges colleges and universities to facilitate dialogue among members of its community about how they uniquely envision the good life. Full objectivity is a false idol, and a university that values the relationship between knowledge and wisdom will steer clear of it. Wolterstorff has provided an effective argument in Religion in the University to help ease relations between secularity and religion when tensions between the two worldviews still flare.


Aaron Morrison is the assistant director of the Institute for Leadership and Service at Valparaiso University.


Works Cited

Schwehn, Mark R. Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas, Clarence W. Joldersma, and Gloria Goris Stronks. Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans Press, 2004.

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