A Modern Divinity School?

By April 5, 2010

Part III in the JI’s ongoing series on secularism and religious education

In sifting through the thoughts that might be relevant to bring to this conversation, it quickly became clear that I wouldn?t be able to form any kind of comprehensive, useful model, or to get the satisfaction that comes with being able to see something as a whole. The differences that Matt articulated in the last post of the series run deep, and seem to impose considerable gulfs between all kinds of people that might try to talk about religion: we occupy largely different worlds. I also came to realize that the blog post is not terribly well suited to interdisciplinary analysis! All I can do here, I think, is try to illuminate a point of contact between the three broad categories we have been discussing ? secularism, religion, and education.

Taylor and Matt have explored the three broad topics of this series in a sort of cognitive dimension. Respectively, they have introduced discussion about underappreciated or misunderstood aims and merits of religious education and about the disparate conceptions of religion that often make dialogue about it challenging. I?d like to take a more spatial and atmospheric approach to the topic(s). Most of what I understand about religious education and the secular conceptions prevalent in the Academy is closely tied to the environments where much of the action takes place. Discourse along these lines can (and should, I think) take place generally between groups and people, but often the University seems to be the most visible and determinative arena.

Perhaps the most conflicted places in the academic realm are the Schools of Divinity that exist at many long-established Universities in the United States and elsewhere. Often Divinity Schools (and other religious spaces) are located at the heart of academic campuses; sometimes, though (as at Harvard), these schools have been exiled to the periphery. Unlike many of the chapels that are now more memorial and ceremonial than sacred space, some divinity schools are still struggling forward, trying to reorder and reconstruct themselves in the face of radical reconceptualizations of religion. Although some continue to maintain a traditional theological orientation (and slowly diminish), most have forsaken their theological anchors and embraced the academic study of religion. These now offer degrees that are grounded in a more secular, academic paradigm which conceives religion as a dimension of culture. While some schools continue to offer degrees in ministry, they now are in the wings.

In many ways, the Divinity School here at the University of Chicago epitomizes the evolution of the Divinity School. [1] In others it is relatively unique. Religion has had a special emphasis here from the beginning, when the first University president, William Rainey Harper proclaimed: ?We will do religion? ? a vague but forceful promise. Despite the fact that the Divinity School was among those that absorbed rigorous, independent academic inquiry from early on, it has stayed relatively close to its initial commission, unlike some other, older schools (in the US) whose original commitment to religion was even more emphatic. Much of this probably has to do with the prominence of scholars of religion that have worked at Chicago, including the likes of William Warren Sweet, Sidney Mead, Mircea Eliade, Martin Marty, Jonathan Z. Smith, David Tracy, and Martha Nussbaum. These scholars have preserved something of the sense of dignity that once widely attended the study of religion. Moreover, even as the School has extended its scope to include all the religions of the world, it has somehow not totally lost track of the beauty and vitality and promise of each.

Interestingly, my experience has also borne out the claim made by the Dean of the School when I arrived: he contended that students in the School enjoyed an ?extraordinarily rich? relationship to the broader University. ?To be enrolled in this School,? he averred, is to  ?be enrolled in this University.? In general, I?ve found that he was right about scholars of religion being able to engage in genuine dialogue with students and faculty across other disciplines. Although religion finds more respect in some domains than others, it generally retains a certain measure of regard. To me this seriousness is the enabling condition that allows for genuine and continuing exploration of religion?an exploration that must respect the viability and humanity of belief. It prompts the question of whether it is possible to take religion seriously without giving quarter to those who believe in it, and if so, how long this seriousness can endure.

Steven Pinker?s comments about religion are understandable but silly. His objection to the presence of religion at Harvard is that religion is fundamentally unrelated to intellectual inquiry, and that the University as a category is not in the business of fostering belief. He may be correct about this, but his conclusions don?t follow. The mode of operation of Universities may now always be intellectual inquiry, but the subjects of that inquiry certainly are not, and yet they remain consummately human. To cut out religion because it strikes one as unviable would be to commit an act of terrific arrogance and to lop off a pulsing (if arational) part of the human experience. Scholars like Pinker embody the attitude that would potentially undermine the study of religion as a practicable enterprise, both for believers seeking a better understanding of how they are embedded in the world, or for scholars who attempt to study religion as a rich and unique dimension of culture. Secularism in the sense of trivialization of religion is hostile to religion in all its forms.

Maybe some of the modern Divinity Schools, far from being the embarrassments they can seem, help demonstrate what religious study should be like. By their heritage and the solemnity that lingers in their architecture and permeates their goings on, perhaps they support the study of religion in ways that are unavailable to modern Departments of Religion. Clearly, though, these environments are happy accidents of history. The key issue that lies before scholars of religion is how to build and preserve such a space and atmosphere with materials at hand today.

[1] Mormonism and the University of Chicago Divinity School have a storied past. For a peek into it, see Kevin Barney?s comments at By Common Consent a few years ago. His post also links to Russell Swenson?s reflective article in Dialogue about his experience in Chicago.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thank you for your contribution, Ryan. I like your environmental approach to this topic, which is something I had hoped to see.

    I am interested in your assessment that divinity schools are unique spaces that need to be preserved intentionally. Acknowledging the full humanity of students by making place for the religious aspects of their experience is no doubt an important endeavor. Yet, divinity schools that attempt to do this cannot remain true to the diversity of religious experiences among their student body.

    YDS is a case in point. YDS has managed to maintain a vibrant worship life and theological basis, but it is not one that includes conservative Christians or Mormons and others. The problem (noted by the Catholic Harvard student in the Newsweek article) persists even at an institution where many students are wary of secularism. I do not feel as though my beliefs are acknowledged, integrated into the curriculum, or fostered. Intellectual exploration and faith-formation cannot possibly occur with the same degree of effectiveness for everyone even at a religiously oriented academic institution (BYU).

    So, do you have any thoughts on the role of faith formation in academic religious education and how that might best be accomplished?

    Comment by Elizabeth — April 5, 2010 @ 3:17 pm

  2. You hit on a good point, Elizabeth. “Believing” will likely privilege a particular faith and outside of BYU, that won’t be Mormon. Would “secular” be more neutral, keeping in mind that secular doesn’t necessarily mean atheistic?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 5, 2010 @ 6:58 pm

  3. I think Steve’s exactly right, Liz.

    In his talk at Harvard Law recently, Elder Oaks bemoaned but also conceded the fact that given the changes in modern society, we cannot expect to see the University reclaim its role in instilling or furthering a moral code. I think I concede this point as well. I would give Pinker and those like him that the University is not (now) fundamentally a place for religious practice. Hence, as welcome as it would be for believers, I don’t know that the secular University can be expected to acknowledge or foster faith.

    What I will say is that I think a seriousness about religion (which to me seems dependent upon a the presence and influence of believers) entails a secular (not atheistic) climate where believers can practice and foster their own faith. Perhaps the University cannot do anything to support religion, but I think it ought not to inhibit religion either.

    Your concerns about acceptance and accommodation of religious beliefs are certainly legitimate. I guess I see these issues, though, not necessarily as things to be arbitrated by the University but worked on and out by involved parties.

    Comment by Ryan T. — April 5, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

  4. Well put, Ryan. I can really appreciate the points you are trying to make here.

    I’d go into how this relates to my own experience here at Edinburgh’s Divinity School, which is much closer to the old model you outline here than many of the modern US institutions, but then I’d be giving away some of my post for Thursday 🙂

    Comment by Ben — April 6, 2010 @ 5:43 am

  5. Sure, Steve. Part of the point of this series is to interrogate the term “secular,” so I am glad you brought it up; and in some ways, it seems adequate to the distinction between a modern university education and a religious education that may or may not take place in a university.

    Ryan, you and I differ on whether academic institutions that engage in religious education should be involved in faith formation. YDS bills itself as a place where both academic and praxis-based religious learning take place. It seems to me, then, that the role of integrating those two modes is necessarily thrust upon the institution. Surely students should not be left to work those things out for themselves.

    And, I wouldn’t necessarily equate faith formation with with instilling a moral code in students. I am a bit on the fence about whether a university should instill morals in the first place. But I think you’re going in the right direction when you say there needs to be a “climate where believers can practice and foster their own faith.”

    Comment by Elizabeth — April 6, 2010 @ 11:02 am

  6. I hear you on academic institutions and faith formation, Liz, and personally I’d like to agree. Oaks also suggested, though, that other institutions (he specified homes and churches) must take on added significance in this respect if Universities cannot assist, and this seems reasonable. If a school were to try to promote faith it seems that it could not accommodate everyone, as you’ve found. Perhaps that means that religious education can be institutionally supported only at places with certain faith commitments (like BYU), or (perhaps superficially) at places where there is enough emphasis on diversity that all faith traditions are equally supported. Institutions can do things, I think, to support faith as a way of knowing.

    Comment by Ryan T. — April 6, 2010 @ 3:21 pm

  7. […] as Ryan put it in his secularism post, the University of Chicago?s Divinity School ?epitomizes the evolution of the Divinity […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Reflections from a Historian Lost in a Divinity School: Or, What Rudolf Otto and Thomas Paine Taught me about the Study of Religion — April 8, 2010 @ 5:36 am


Recent Comments

Daniel Stone on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Thanks much for posting this, Joey!”

Mel Johnson on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “This JWHA will be outstanding, maybe the best ever. I encourage all Restoration historians and cultural studies people to attend along with their friends. The setting at…”

Gary Bergera on George F. Richards' journals: “I remember reading through the microfilms of the Richards's journals in the mid- to late-1970s. Nothing was redacted. They were amazing.”

Jeff T on George F. Richards' journals: “Thanks, Stapley!”

Hannah Jung on George F. Richards' journals: “That is exciting! I had no idea this was in the works! Any idea when the plan is to release the next twenty years of…”

Ben S on CFP at BYU Studies:: “Some clarifying comments here. https://benspackman.com/2019/10/23/byu-studies-evolution-and-faith-some-clarification/”