Review of Nicholas Wolterstorff, Religion in the University

September 2019

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Religion in the University, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019

In reading Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Religion in the University, which is the outgrowth of a Taylor lecture delivered at Yale in 2001, I am reminded of George Grant’s essay “Faith and the Multiversity,” which can be found in his book Technology and Justice. However, because of their fundamentally different outlooks on the political philosophy of liberalism, Grant and Wolterstorff differ in their descriptions of the challenges facing believers in modern universities.

The main question of Wolterstorff’s book is “whether there is a place” for a voice like that of the poet John Berryman “in the contemporary University” (Wolterstorff 2019, 3). More specifically, “Is it permissible for a scholar who is religious to allow her religion to shape how she engages in the practice of her discipline” (4). Wolterstorff provides the following excerpt from Berryman’s work as an example of a scholar allowing his religion to shape his practice:

Master of beauty, craftsman of the snowflake,
Inimitable contriver,
Endower of Earth so gorgeous & different from the boring Moon,
Thank you for such as it is my gift. (4)

Grant also notes the difficulty “of using the language of beauty and love” in contemporary scholarship (Grant 1986, 41). According to Grant, in “the modern paradigm of knowledge the conception of good has been emptied into uncertainty” (41), and has “transformed the good into mere subjective experience with no attachment whatsoever to reality as such…. The central cause of this great change has been modern natural science” (60). In a similar fashion, Wolterstorff finds in Max Weber’s lecture “Science as Vocation” quintessential expression of a simple positivist outlook that suggests that scholarship is, and should only be, based in “faculties, [which] when working properly and employed properly, generate beliefs by giving us direct cognitive access to reality” (Wolterstorff, 22-23). This descriptivist approach to scholarship leads Weber, according to Wolterstorff, to reject the possibility that values can be judged true or false and thus to the conclusion that “questions of meaning, worth, duty, value, and the like do not fall within the scope of academic disciplines” (9).

The main apparent difference between Grant’s and Wolterstorff’s assessment of the place of religion in the modern university is that Grant did not live long enough to witness the displacement from prominence in the Academy of the kind of naïve positivist outlook with which they both take issue (he died in 1988). Wolterstorff is therefore able to be much more sanguine than Grant about the prospects for religious believers in contemporary universities. Whereas Grant concludes that for religious individuals living within modern institutions of higher education, “this disjunction between beauty and truth can be killing” (Grant, 70), Wolterstorff concludes that “the idea of a genuinely pluralist and representative institution of higher education, committed to the ethos of dialogic pluralism” is an ideal “actualized to a considerable extent, in the university of which I was a faculty member, Yale University, and others as well” (Wolterstorff, 150).

But Grant’s and Wolterstorff’s divergent assessments of the challenges facing believers is not just based on a happenstance of the historical period in which they lived and worked in universities. Instead they are separated by a fundamentally different portrayal of the nature of the predicament of religious believers in the modern age. Although for Grant the central cause of uncertainty about the good arises from the prevailing knowledge paradigm’s origin in positivist thought, this is not for him the only cause. While “Brilliant scientists have laid before us an account of how things are, and in that account nothing can be said about justice” (Grant, 60), there is also a distinct political source for increasing skepticism about the good. According to Grant: “pre-progressive thinkers said virtue was the core of a just political order, while moderns [i.e. liberals] have given freedom that position” (60). Grant does not dismiss liberty, or liberalism entirely, but he is warry of the complete priority that some forms of modern liberal thinking seem grant to the human capacity of freedom. He cautions: “It is well to remember how much all of us want to do what we want to do, and do not want to be interfered with by others, particularly when that interference is in the name of some virtue which seems completely alien to us” (60), but he goes on to suggest: “Nevertheless, what has been lost... is the belief that justice is something in which we participate as we come to understand the nature of things through love and knowledge” (60). Whereas, Wolterstorff takes liberal society as a fundamental ground of his inquiry: “We are talking about the academic sector within a liberal democracy whose citizens embrace a plurality of comprehensive orientations. More specifically, we are talking about the academic sector within our highly pluralistic American liberal democracy” (Wolterstorff, 149).

In other words, the foundation for his optimism is that Wolterstorff believes his society embodies a shared set of beliefs about the good essentially covered by the phrase “American liberal democracy,” which can be relied on as an authority to resolve fundamental disagreements. E pluribus unum. For Grant, there is something of a sham to such a belief, which can perhaps explain his pejorative use of the phrase “multiversity” to describe the modern academy.

This distinction can also be viewed in the main subject matter of Wolterstorff’s book. The central chapters are taken up with synopses of various late 20th century criticisms of positivism. Starting with Kuhn’s and Gadamer’s arguments for the theory dependence of scientific judgements, Wolterstorff then proceeds to discuss the contribution of what has been described as “reformed epistemology” to modern epistemological thought. Fellow Reformed philosopher Alvin Plantinga, for example, has made influential arguments concerning the role that “properly basic” beliefs play in rational judgment, including beliefs about specifically religious phenomena. Wolterstorff does an excellent job explaining these complex epistemological arguments in a way that can be understood by the non-specialist. This is the most significant contribution of the book, and alone makes it well worth reading.

However, it is somewhat unclear what these arguments have in common with the arguments actually presented in support of the necessity of opening the university to an array of what Wolterstorff calls “character identities”. These identities cover a range of outlooks including sex or gender, sexual orientation, political (such as Marxist), religious, and race identities. Wolterstorff notes that in a world in which there is now “a wealth of research and instruction explicitly shaped by the interests, values, convictions, and sensibilities characteristic of particular social, ethnic, racial and gender identities: feminist epistemology, black sociology, liberation theology, gay literary criticism, Muslim hermeneutics,” (48) there can be no grounds for criticizing religious believers for allowing their beliefs to shape their academic practice. But it is unclear what the connection is between actual processes that have opened universities to such research programs and the kinds of epistemological criticisms that have been leveled against naïve positivism. Rather, it seems possible that these changes have resulted more from the political realm. As Wolterstorff himself observes, “The diversity of thought and value permitted, and even stimulated, by our liberal polity has, as a natural consequence, the legitimation of pluralism in our universities” (51). This explanation seems more plausible, but in a certain sense seems to place the cart before the horse. As noted above, Wolterstorff assumes that a certain kind of shared liberal ethos can be relied upon both to motivate openness to different substantive outlooks and to manage the disagreements between them.

Indeed, Wolterstorff goes on to somewhat breezily assert that “a qualification must be added,” which is “the scholar must be entitled to those particularist values and beliefs that shape her scholarship” (51). Who and what institutions can be relied upon to make such judgements is left unclear by Wolterstorff. In particular, there is a fundamental uncertainty that lurks at the heart of his book regarding the ability of “liberal polities” to actually protect cultural diversity. He notes for example, that liberal theorist John Rawls suggests that “in conditions of freedom, fundamental convictions concerning God, the good, and the right tend to diverge; society as a whole becomes pluralized with respect to such convictions” (120). Wolterstoff goes on to state: “This seems to me indubitably correct… unless hegemonic pressures are exerted in favor of certain positions over others” (120-121). But how far can this process go? And why use the highly negatively charged word “hegemonic” to describe efforts at the preservation of “comprehensive orientations” (144)? This concern brings me back to Grant’s concern that when it comes to religious believers’ experiences of the modern university, especially for the young, “it may kill them in the losing of those memories, those intuitions, those loyalties to the eternal good” (70). The metaphor of “killing” here seems likely to refer to some kind of cultural disruption or disassociation that can occur in the life of believers, or the lives pf people brought up in any kind of substantive outlook, which can prevent them from maintaining connections to substantive traditions.

This apparent tension between embracing cultural and religious plurality, while assuming the existence of an overarching liberal cultural unity, emerges in the final chapter of Wolterstoff’s book when he discusses his ideal of what he calls the “pluralist university” (142). Wolterstorff contrasts this kind of institution with the more traditional “religiously committed university” (142) and what he calls the “neutral university,” which because of the various arguments he has presented against positivism, he finds to be epistemologically incoherent, and morally repugnant. However, he then goes on to shift his terms of reference to encompass religiously committed universities, as well as other potentially “committed” universities, such as ones committed to Marxism under a category in which a specific “character-identity enjoys hegemony” (143). He states: “A hegemonic institution is perforce not representative [of the diversity in a pluralistic society]” (143). But “neutrality is not a third option between hegemony and pluralism” (143). Again, this shift to the negatively charged term “hegemonic” seems out of keeping with his prior defense of the importance of “comprehensive orientations” (144). It is unclear what “comprehensive” means here. It seems potentially to point to something wider than the individual, something akin to Wittgenstein’s “forms of life”, from which Wolterstorff draws inspiration, but alternatively to point simply to an individual’s complex internal interweaving of beliefs derived from such ways of living (i.e., rich cultures).

This ambiguity about the importance of culture perhaps comes out most strikingly in Wolterstorff’s brief discussion of Charles Taylor’s work. Wolterstorff mentions Taylor’s “extended critique of the understanding of religion as an add-on,” in which Taylor argues “at length that one cannot just peel of a person’s religious belief from the totality of his beliefs and be left with beliefs that he shares with his secularist fellows” (136). Wolterstorff takes Taylor’s argument as providing further support for the rejection of the idea that there can be some kind of neutral “secular” way of living that can justify an idea of a “neutral university.” However, Wolterstorff does not mention Taylor’s more basic argument which underlies his rejection of the view of religion as an “add on.” For Taylor, the social nature of the process of identity formation is based on the inescapably communal nature of language. We need others in forming our sense of self because this process depends on language and language is not, and cannot be, a product of individuals. As a result, individuals cannot and should not be responsible for the preservation of processes of linguistic development and expression that can undergird truly distinct cultural visions of the good through purely voluntary efforts; rather, Taylor argues for an alternative political vision of accommodating minorities which, like traditional liberalism calls “for the invariant defense of certain rights… but […] distinguish[es] these fundamental rights from the broad range of immunities and presumptions of uniform treatment that have sprung up in modern cultures of judicial review… [and which is] willing to weigh the importance of certain forms of uniform treatment against the importance of cultural survival, and opt sometimes in favor of the latter” (Taylor and Gutmann 1992, 61). But Wolterstorff seems, like most Americans, to simply assume the persistence of “an extraordinary diversity of higher education in the United States” such that religious individuals can simply assume that will always and everywhere be able “to find some religiously committed institution where they will feel at home” (147). As the observations of Canadians like Grant and Taylor make clear, such an assumption might largely be an artifact of Wolterstorff’s American cultural experience and not a necessarily a robust feature of liberal democratic societies.

Therefore, it might be better not to divide universities into two distinct categories of hegemonic institutions and pluralist institutions, but rather to observe that all educational institutions, including religious ones, exist on a spectrum of pluralist orientation, and that societies committed to justice must find ways to determine where to draw the lines of acceptability at both ends of this spectrum.


  • Grant, George P., Technology and Justice, Concord, ON: House of Anansi Press, Ltd, 1986.
  • Taylor, Charles and Amy Gutmann, Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition”, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.