God on Campus

Visiting scholars Rhonda and Jake Jacobsen take on religion in the academy.

April 16, 2010  | 4 min read

Rhonda and Douglas “Jake” Jacobsen, professors at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, are spending the Spring 2010 semester as distinguished visiting scholars at Pepperdine University. Together, they have co-authored Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation (2004) and The American University in a Postsecular Age (2008).

Their new book, The New Soul of the American University, is part of the Religion in the Academy project, a major research initiative funded by the Lilly Endowment. The project aims to advance higher education’s engagement with religion by developing a new and comprehensive framework for understanding religion and its relationship to college and university learning.

Rhonda and Jake sat down with Michael Williams, assistant professor of information systems at the Graziadio School of Business and Management and interim director of Pepperdine’s Center for Faith and Learning, to discuss their current project and key issues addressed in their work.

You can find the full interview and more info about the Jacobsens at magazine.pepperdine.edu/religion-in-the-academy.

 

RELIGION IN THE ACADEMY PROJECT


JAKE: We’ve been talking to educational leaders in different capacities about what’s happening with regard to religion, spirituality, and questions of meaning and purpose on their campuses; how they’re handling those issues and what types of programs they are developing. We’ve talked to people from community colleges, we’ve spent time at Harvard and MIT and everywhere in between. We are trying to discover what questions the current generation of students is asking—and what kinds of educational resources they need in order to become leaders and intelligent citizens in a world that is increasingly religiously diverse.

RHONDA: About 15 years ago a very well-known scholar named George Marsden wrote The Soul of the American University, in which he observed and described the secularization of the American university. In the 19th century and into the 20th century there had been an assumption of Christian principles undergirding many universities—public, secular, private, and religious—and in the latter part of the 20th century that was lost. What we’re describing is the contemporary university interaction with religion that is broader than Christianity, though Christianity certainly remains a major part of the conversation.

 

GLOBAL CHRISTIANITY


JAKE: Scholar Phillip Jenkins, for example, talks about the “southernization” of Christianity. I tend to think and talk more in terms of an emerging flatness—in the same sense which Thomas Freidman uses that term—of Christianity, where North America, Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia all have very important things to contribute to the global conversation on Christianity.

I think this is connected to higher education in two ways: first, Christian or not, it’s important to understand that Christianity is the largest religion in the world. A third of the world’s population is Christian and if you’re going to understand other parts of the world, you need to understand that there is Christianity in those parts too, especially in Africa and Latin America. Second, knowledge of other religions is also very important, and studying any and all of our religions and cultures in global perspective is crucial. For American Christians especially, understanding the questions and issues that other Christians face around the world, I think, helps put our issues into perspective. Hopefully that will help people to back off from some of the fights that we think are so important. Viewed with a global perspective, they may not be of all that great significance.

 

PUBLIC, PERSONAL, AND HISTORIC RELIGION


RHONDA: What we’re trying to communicate is that simply lumping everything into one “religion” category and not distinguishing between different uses of the term can sometimes get people talking past one another. So when we talk about historic religion, we’re talking about communal religion, communities, churches, and traditions that are longstanding. Public religion relates to civic engagement, national and international loyalties, and the big picture of how we connect publicly together. Personal religion focuses on how a person expresses religious convictions or owns certain religious perspectives as an individual. Sometimes personal religion is equated with spirituality, but I would hope that we could also identify personal religion with deeply communal practices of religion. Our concern is not to separate spirituality and religion, but to look at the interaction between the two.

JAKE: A lot of people in higher education are much more comfortable with “spirituality.” Often spirituality is intensely private and in the moment, which can apply to religion as well, but religion is also something that has been handed down generation to generation and is embodied in communities. That context really enriches, or has the potential to enrich, the kinds of conversation that are religious in the biggest sense of that term.

 

TRADITION-ENHANCED LEARNING


RHONDA: We are hoping to encourage different church traditions to identify their own strengths and the contributions they might make to the national conversation. How they could say: ”This is something we’re nurturing on behalf of our community in order to contribute to the larger academic world and to the common good.” So it isn’t an “us against them,” not “my kind of Christianity vs. the rest of the world,” but instead it would be a way of saying “here’s what my community is especially nurturing and we’re offering it as a gift for the common good.”

JAKE: We think that one of the best ways of learning what you yourself think is to be able to bounce your ideas off some other coherent understanding of the world. One of the great gifts that religious traditions could give to higher education is to allow students to have that insight. This doesn’t mean that church-related schools need to accentuate their own tradition in a way that seemingly demands that students have to adopt it, but it can be a focus that allows students to define themselves in support of, in agreement with, or in disagreement with it. That kind of focus can help them define their own profile of beliefs and values, perhaps more clearly.

We also think it’s generally helpful to have more, different kinds of perspectives rather than fewer. Just as in the natural world we talk about keeping the biological diversity of the planet alive, there’s a sense in which theological diversity is important to maintain as well—not as a means of arguing with each other, but because different theological traditions give us different lenses for looking at the world.