Columns Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

Is higher education purely secular, or is there room for the religious?

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Setting our sights for another year of Sightings poses our colleagues, counselors, staff, and many presumed readers-to-be at the juncture of realities code-named “religious” and “secular.” We have learned and will continue to learn how difficult it is to disentangle what realities those names signify. We live in a culture conveniently and half-helpfully described as “pluralist,” a term not designed to be satisfying. Can it do justice to either the religious or the secular? Freedom-from-religion advocates have it easy, because they can reduce most signs of transcendence to superstition and folly. The hyper-religious also have it easy, because they can inflate everything to realms they describe as “sacred.” But many kinds of serious people see these two poles as superficial and unsatisfying. They find help from many sources, among them the arts, including poetry, and in academic ventures.

Where should we seek and expect to find the purely secular “secular”? To hear critics, we would find it clearly and supremely in the higher academy, which certainly bears many marks of non- or anti-religion in its many manifestations. Yet the writers favored by Sightings find different marks. For example, doesn’t Phi Beta Kappa symbolize the purely academic, which resides at a distance from the sacred and the religious? If so, wouldn’t you expect that its quarterly journal The American Scholar would be rather stringently distanced from religious concerns? Yet the two most recent issues on my desk, read and pondered over “the holidays” (as we are inclined to call them from the sidelines in culture wars and academic skirmishes), are anything but distanced.

Authors of three samples—two of them devoted to “Joy,” and a third to “Conscience”—openly confront and ponder religious themes. One is by openly Christian writer Christian Wiman, who teaches at Yale University and its Institute of Sacred Music; another by as important a mainstream-culture novelist as we can think of, Marilynne Robinson, who recently retired from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; and a third by National Book Award winner Phil Klay, a lecturer in creative writing at Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts. Is it time to ask the Editorial Board to clean house and purge such writers from its ranks? Is their appearance a fluke, an accident, a signal of lowering standards? None of the above. While it would be weird to argue that twenty percent or two percent or 0.002% of writers proves that “religion” is winning a new place in the higher academy, the presence of such might occasion some quieting of complaints that the academy is 100% anti-religious on one hand, or, implausibly, cheering along the pious on the other.

What we seek to represent as we read and listen and do our sighting for Sightings are the often-overlooked voices of those who do try to provide a penetrating alternative to ideological approaches on one side or the other of culture. Robinson, unfashionably friendly to Calvinism, thinking of Hawthorne and the Puritans, reminds us that a “scarlet letter, however regrettable in itself, is certainly to be preferred to slashed nostrils and cropped ears,” the regular effects of pre- and para-Puritan punishments. Klay, a Marine veteran who was at the side of a chaplain who held wounded and dying children, and kissed the foreheads of recently deceased tots in Iraq, let his own recent experience of fatherhood open him to pondering the meaning of suffering. Wiman quotes St. Augustine, speaking of and to God: “You are in me deeper than I am in me.”

Such writers are not propagandists, triumphalists, or “positive thinkers,” and their ways are not the only ways, but they are representative of the searchers for what is deep—deeper than what usually confronts us in our religio-secular society.

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.

23 Comments

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  • “Freedom-from-religion advocates have it easy, because they can reduce most signs of transcendence to superstition and folly.”

    Scientific method of higher education trumps religious “revelation” every time. Sorry, but religious higher education (if there is such a thing) is higher superstition.

  • I don’t think the issue has anything to do with religious vs secultar as it has to do with seeking control over others vs sharing society as equals. Who thought that Martin Luther King Jr was imposing his religious values on people? And yet, his message contained a lot of religious themes.

    Abusive situations often lead to abusive reactions that are designed to ensure that the abusive situation does not continue. And in neither case are many who are secular and many who are religious looking forward to working with each other for the common good.

  • All the education you need about religion:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • “Who thought that Martin Luther King Jr was imposing his religious values on people?”

    White supremacists. People who wanted to impose their religious values on everyone. Whiners with no sense of perspective. 🙂

  • The interesting thing is that despite the absence of “factual” back-up for these foundational stories (myths), nevertheless religions came and come into being and have captured the devotion of millions of adherents for millienia. Faith is the response to a need in many if not most human beings, and the strivings of people to build a supernatural story around that need results in religions. You can denigrate and dismiss the stories, but the need remains. The ultimate question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” remains as something humans cannot let go of. Why should they? As long as people ask that question, human imagination – the closest thing to divine power that people possess – will create answers. To focus on the stories is shortsighted. To focus on the need – ah, there’s the real quest.

  • Higher education doesn’t and shouldn’t allow much latitude for religious studies. Stick with your major-business, finance, medicine, agriculture-don’t waste non-major courses on religion. Better to hit the languages, programming- major in business, minor in bookkeeping, major in art, minor in teaching … if you want to pursue religious studies- go to a seminary. And join higher education extra curricular activities not education with a little religion on the side. God will talk yourself right out of higher education everytime and into poverty, wishing and hoping, prayer, racism, bigotry, and self-fulfilling nothingness.

  • Exactly, so no matter how outrageous a religion appears to be it meets that human need to believe in a supernatural being or group. I have my own supernatural being, but for some reason all the other humans “needing” want to kill me or join their “need”…

  • As per James Somerville, Philosophy
    professor emeritus from Xavier University, Cincinnati,

    From Exclusivism to Convergence Part 1

    By James M. Somerville

    “John Hick, a noted British philosopher of religion, estimates that 95 percent of the people of the world owe their religious affiliation to an accident of birth. The faith of the vast majority of believers depends upon where they were born and when. Those born in Saudi Arabia will almost certainly be Moslems, and those born and raised in India will for the most part be Hindus. Nevertheless, the religion of millions of people can sometimes change abruptly in the face of major political and social upheavals. In the middle of the sixth century ce, virtually all the people of the Near East and Northern Africa, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt were Christian. By the end of the following century, the people in these lands were largely Moslem, as a result of the militant spread of Islam.

    The Situation Today

    Barring military conquest, conversion to a faith other than that of one’s birth is rare. Some Jews, Moslems, and Hindus do convert to Christianity, but not often. Similarly, it is not common for Christians to become Moslems or Jews. Most people are satisfied that their own faith is the true one or at least good enough to satisfy their religious and emotional needs. Had St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas been born in Mecca at the start of the present century, the chances are that they would not have been Christians but loyal followers of the prophet Mohammed.”

    For a complete review, go to:

    https://www.theosophical.org/42-publications/quest-magazine/1488-from-exclusivism-to-convergence-part-1

    https://www.theosophical.org/42-publications/quest-magazine/1354-from-exclusivism-to-convergence-part-2

    My take:

    What most hominids suffer from is the Three B Syndrome i.e being Bred, Born and Brainwashed in religions that are based on hallucinations, myths,
    embellishments and lies. And what is almost hilarious about this is how we have
    bought into this fiction for so long.

    Old-time theologians were not privy to the history of their religions as they also suffered from the Three B syndrome. Now every theologian, “pew sitter, and “bower” know the flaws, errors, muck and stench in “all them religions” thanks to
    the Internet. “Frebrezing” is in play and the sweet smell of Reality
    is only ten years away.

    It is disturbing religious violence and hatred continues unabated due to radomness of birth. Maybe just maybe if this fact would be published on the first page of every newspaper every day, that we would finally realize the significant stupidity of it all.

    .

  • What most hominids suffer from is the Three B Syndrome i.e. being Bred, Born and Brainwashed in religions that are based on hallucinations, myths, embellishments and lies. And what is almost hilarious about this is how we have bought into this fiction for so long.

    Old-time theologians were not privy to the history of their religions as they also suffered from the Three B syndrome. Now every theologian, “pew sitter, and “bower” know the flaws, errors, muck and stench in “all them religions” thanks to the Internet. “Frebrezing” is in play and the sweet smell of Reality
    is only ten years away.

    It is disturbing religious violence and hatred continues unabated due to radomness of birth. Maybe just maybe if this fact would be published on the first page of every newspaper every day, that we would finally realize the significant stupidity of it all.

    .

  • I question the statement that “Joy” and “Conscience” are religious themes. It seems to me that religion has long tried to claim as their sole territory issues of morality (which Conscience is connected with) and happiness (which Joy is connected with). To the conclusion that IF these are religious issues/themes secularists have no business commenting on them.

    I think secularists are reclaiming issues that are rightfully theirs (issues of part of being human) thus their appearance in a Phi Beta Kappa publication!

  • I wouldn’t hold out much hope that a daily newspaper reminder would help. Such sources serve the intellect only, and the need I refer to is far beyond rational. While I agree that if many people examined how well their inherited, professed “beliefs” actually serve the need they experience, there would be a significantly smaller number of people calling themselves the faithful of any number of religions, not many people are willing to take the risk of giving up what they have been taught to believe is a “sure thing” for the doubt, frustration, loneliness, emptiness, etc, that comes with abandoning a tradition and setting out on their own sincerely undertaken journey, willing to accept whatever comes or does not.

  • Reversing the kibosh on traditions in less than ten seconds: Priceless!

    The only religions are Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

    The entities conventionally known as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism are not religions, but deserve their own category (or heading), namely, traditions.

    The traditions are that branch of psychology whose axiom (or doctrine or truth claim) is that there are two kinds of happiness.

    Reincarnation / karma have the status of a heuristic, not the status of an axiom.

    Most followers of tradition have been conquered in a military sense, so their own social sciences (at present) are just imports of Western social sciences

    It is in connection with tradition, that the following is apparent: Western social sciences build on the foundation of the Vatican’s concepts, using intellectuals who are not beholden to the Vatican.

  • Marketing is largely about creating a need and then offering the one true solution to the previously non-existent must-have hole.

    Religions that survive are (by definition?) better at marketing than those that don’t.

    There is, AFAIK, no evidence that babies are born seeking a divinity – yet alone any particular version(s) of a supernatural entity. Why would religious institutions spend massive amounts of money “educating” children in their beliefs if the need to follow their believe was inherent?

  • Buddhism

    “a religion, originated in India by Buddha (Gautama) and later spreading to China, Burma, Japan, Tibet, and parts of southeast Asia, holding that life is full of suffering caused by desire and that the way to end this suffering is through enlightenment that enables one to halt the endless sequence of births and deaths …

    http://www.dictionary.com/browse/buddhism

    Hin·du·ism

    a major religious and cultural tradition of South Asia, developed from Vedic religion.

    Sikh·ism

    a monotheistic religion founded in Punjab in the 15th century by Guru Nanak.”

  • These are dated references. Don’t reflect the difficulties that judges and op-ed article writers have experienced.

  • I suggest that dictionary definitions themselves are contested.

    Let’s say a new dictionary is being prepared. The editor of the new dictionary gives you a list of 100 words and requests you to generate meanings for those 100 words.

    The editor requests that you should not copy meanings from an existing dictionary.

    You read journal papers, op-ed articles, court judgments and movie scripts. Furthermore, you read not only in English, but also in Sanskrit, Chinese and so on. That’s what helps you compile a dictionary.

    In this way a dictionary only reflects the state of intellectual discourse that was available to the dictionary’s compilers.

    In the case of the Indian traditions, this intellectual discourse is changing. Depending on the depth at which you read, you may realize that this is where some Western pre-theoretical assumptions become vivid:

    (a) Every culture has a religion.

    (c) Every culture’s religion is interested in the same topics as the Vatican is: namely, law, the court system, history and the like.

    (d) Every culture’s religion has the notion of Satan, and therefore thinks the other religions are false, or rivals, or idolatrous.

    (b) Every culture’s religion can be described in terms of
    doctrines, but not in terms of heuristics.

    For these reasons I suggest that dictionary definitions are themselves contested.

  • In Tamil, there is the writer Jeyamohan who says, “A language is not words, but intellectual discourse.”

    In English, I have come across a blog that spoke of a link between philosophy and philology.

    Take any language, say, English. Why does English’s vocabulary grow? Because intellectuals have to coin new words or new phrases, as they build up their theories. That is to say, the creation of theories and the creation of new words/phrases are simultaneous processes. Some of these new words/phrases remain specialized technical terms. But a few do make it into general English. This is how the (general) English vocabulary grows.

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