We are Witnessing the Revival of Religion in Higher Education

The influence of religion within higher education is expanding. In the midst of it all there is much to celebrate, yet also a great deal to consider.

While some institutions have responded accordingly to the changing dynamics of religion, others are failing to cultivate a suitable learning climate, and in doing so repeatedly animate the destructive conflicts that are too often fueled by religious illiteracy and dogmatic isolation. There is no shortage of concerning examples, from the personal struggles of disillusionment, disorder, and despair, to the public agony of polarizing debate, to frustration surrounding ideological relativism and extremism, not to mention the various and volatile ways in which religious ignorance poisons our public discourse. Furthermore, the current mass diversification of spiritual identity is unprecedented, even at religiously affiliated schools, yet far too many have fallen short in promoting a healthy culture of pluralism. In total, the importance of engaging the escalating impact of religion on higher education has increased considerably, and the implications can no longer be denied or avoided.

The necessity to promote religious literacy and interfaith leadership is increasingly inescapable. In their text, No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education, Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen and Douglas Jacobsen analyze their interactions with hundreds of faculty members, student life educators, administrators of various degrees of leadership, and students from institutions that cover the kaleidoscope of North American colleges and universities. In doing so, the Jacobsens illustrate how religion is powerfully and gainfully entangled with the overall aims of higher education, especially in the twenty-first century global community. As a result, their study persuasively documents how, after decades of religious privatization and marginalization, colleges and universities are now seeing the need to interact more fully with matters of traditional, personal, and public religion. In light of the quickly changing context of North America and beyond, such a rebirth is both positive and necessary.

The revival of religion in higher education should not come as a surprise. From the outburst of religious diversity, to the general embrace of multicultural competency and holistic wellbeing, as well as the prominence of local and global religious conflict, such dynamics – in arrangement with many others – has made the proactive interaction with religious matters an educational requirement for those seeking to best equip global citizens. As the Jacobsens articulate:

...paying attention to religion in higher education today is not at all a matter of imposing faith or morality on anyone; it is a matter of responding intelligently to the questions of life that students find themselves necessarily asking as they try to make sense of themselves and the world in an era of ever-increasing social, intellectual and religious complexity.

In light of such findings, one can argue that not only is religion increasingly observable, but for several convincing reasons, providing intentional opportunities to engage with religion on college campuses can no longer be considered optional.

While religious engagement is now awakening across the country, as is the case with any revival, it appears quite different than what may have been observed before. In striking contrast to the past, religion in contemporary North American life is now incredibly complex, with traditional practices and assemblies in flux, the realities of pluralism on the rise, and the categories of “religious”, “spiritual”, and “secular” often blending together in a dizzying array of hyphenated ideologies and lifestyles. The very terminology of interfaith leadership is relatively novel. While some may see these fluctuations as too costly and seek to disregard it all together, in ways similar to the focus on other forms of diversity, a growing mixture of religious practices provide institutions with a profound opportunity to realign their methods with their longstanding values and mission. In short, to learn about religion, and to genuinely engage with the practice of religion, is critically important to build upon North American higher education’s longstanding commitment to personal, social, and civic learning.

While such a shift surrounding religion and higher education present several challenges, many institutions – regardless of history or affiliation – are well equipped to take on this increasingly important mandate. As shared by Eboo Patel, Katie Bringman Baxter and Noah Silverman in “Leadership Practices for Interfaith Excellence in Higher Education”, the college campuses of North America:

…have long set the educational and civic agenda for the nation on issues such as multiculturalism, volunteerism, and environmentalism. College campuses are social laboratories where a range of interfaith strategies can be tested; faculty can help create the necessary knowledge base to support and guide interfaith engagement, and higher education can make it a priority to nurture interfaith leaders, much as it has done with multicultural leaders.

As the Association of College and University Religious Affairs (ACURA) and National Association of College and University Chaplains (NACUC) would rightly affirm, many have contributed to some version of this important work for decades. Within the pages of College & University Chaplaincy in the 21st Century: A Multifaith Look at the Practice of Ministry on Campuses across America, Lucy Forster Smith gathers prime examples from those who have worked tirelessly and skillfully to support the principles and practices of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans, Humanists, and various others. Furthermore, students from coast to coast have started denominational worship communities as well as interfaith clubs and councils, and faculty members design courses and research that concentrates on various forms of religious identity and interaction. There are countless positive examples. However, a new opportunity has emerged, thus requiring a more all-encompassing commitment to develop in students both their roots (an understanding of their religious identity and knowledge of practice) and reach (an orientation to pluralism and capacity for inclusion), as well as institutional breadth (significant proportions of campus having a minimum degree of exposure) and depth (select assemblies receiving a significant level of guided exploration). With the sustained resources that emerge in response to comprehensive institutional support, the vibrant combination of roots, reach, breadth, and depth can visibly transform college campuses, and in turn, be of tremendous value to a wide range of students.

The revival of religion within higher education is already underway. As shared in March of 2014 for The Atlantic, Marshal Poe wrote “Colleges Should Teach Religion to Their Students”. A former faculty member at a sizable land-grant university, Poe – a self-identified atheist – observed the ways in which many of his students were “disappointed, confused, and lost”, and made the unexpected conclusion that learning to practice religion would not only help them to survive, but to thrive. By making reference to the various ways in which equipping global citizens requires a more robust interface with matters of religion, spirituality, ethics, and morality, he advocated for imams, priests, pastors, rabbis, and other clerics to teach the practice of their faiths, not as a niche program, but for credit, as a wide-ranging and inclusive institutional priority. Through an articulation of his own scholastic and vocational journey, Poe maintains that despite the many achievements of higher education, there is “one glaring deficiency”, in that it does not teach its students how to live. By allowing credentialed and vetted clerics to teach about their religions, and by ensuring such instruction is free from proselytization, students would receive countless benefits for the sake of personal and public wellness.

At a time in which students are increasingly pressured to succeed despite the instability of situations that surround them, one can persuasively argue that teaching religion can provide a much-needed source of support, and higher education has an opportunity to provide such a resource. Furthermore, at a time when our local and global realities are increasingly connected yet isolated, diverse yet distant, and filled with hope and optimism yet also panic and aggression, one can also credibly contend that the future of human life depends upon whether or not people that navigate religion differently can learn the aptitude to cooperate. Higher education can have a significant role in building toward such capacity. In full, regardless of one’s religious or philosophical identity, in order to embrace higher education’s longstanding dedication to personal, social, and civic learning, students should insist upon such commitments from their campuses, and campuses should promise such commitments to their students.

Higher Education in North America has been a gift to the world. A wonderful array of faculty, staff, administrators, and students arrive each year from across the globe to contribute and learn. The variety of offerings made to society – both locally and globally – are both massive and magnificent. For citizens of the United States, our higher education system is something to cherish and should spark a great deal of delight, for countless citizens of various backgrounds have played a part in its birth and growth. Nevertheless, as the context of higher education dramatically changes, so also must its content. With the increased need to engage with traditional, personal, and public religion comes the imperative to incorporate such matters into the core purpose of our institutions. We who are committed to an education of the whole person can meet this critical moment more fully, for across the wide spectrum of religious, spiritual, and secular identities and communities there exists a visible and vibrant yearning to collectively honor, provoke, and encounter such pressing questions. To engage such matters is now an educational necessity, not merely to teach us all how to live, but also, to explore how we all might actually learn to live together.