Religious Diversity and the Making
of Meaning: Implications for the Classroom
By R. Eugene Rice, senior scholar, Association
of American Colleges and Universities
For over a decade, AAC&U has emphasized the critical
link between diversity in our institutions of higher
education and civic learning in a diverse democracy.
That this second issue of the newly redesigned Diversity
& Democracy should focus on religious diversity
signifies religion’s increasingly prominent place
among the shifting conversations about diversity and
democracy in a global context. Diversity & Democracy’s
editors might have chosen to focus on another critical
topic such as race, class, gender, or ethnicity. A decade
ago—even five years ago—that probably would
have been the case. In the 1990s, many within higher
education, particularly faculty, would have agreed with
Richard Rorty that religion was “a conversation
stopper” and preferred to avoid the topic, especially
when different religious perspectives in the classroom
or the place of religion in the public square were at
But the context in which we teach and learn has changed
dramatically. The events of September 11, 2001, and
their aftermath have reinforced our need to develop
a richer understanding of religious diversity. Responding
to the growing influence of evangelical Christianity
on our politics and campuses is challenging. And within
the greater context of globalization, religious literacy
as a core responsibility of our colleges and universities
has become even more essential. If faculty members are
to prepare students to build viable democratic communities
in the United States and abroad, attention to religious
diversity is imperative.
The Making of Meaning and the Changing Faculty
Recently, several major studies have challenged the
reluctance of faculty to address the larger questions
of meaning, purpose, and faith. Among these is the National
Study of Spirituality in Higher Education: A Study of
College Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose,
conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute
(HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles
(2005). The HERI study found that students have a “strong
interest and involvement in spirituality and religion,”
but that faculty and institutions do little to foster
student interest in questions of meaning and purpose.
In a follow-up study, when asked explicitly whether
“colleges should be concerned with facilitating
student ‘spiritual development’, ”
less than one-third of faculty agreed (2005).
I am convinced that for most faculty, teaching and
learning now take place in a markedly different intellectual
and social environment. Postmodern debates, expanding
global awareness, and dramatic pedagogical changes have
made open discussions about the construction of meaning
and purpose not only possible, but necessary. I believe
that when pressed to their deepest levels, questions
of meaning and purpose take on religious and spiritual
implications. These are the issues on which students
are now saying they want faculty to be approachable
Modernization and Secularization
A probing understanding of the place of religion in
teaching and learning requires that we briefly review
the assumptions—implicit and explicit—that
have dominated faculty views of the processes of modernization
and secularization in recent years. The period between
roughly 1957 and 1974 represented a time of transformation
in American higher education. Pressed by the post-World
War II baby boom and the GI Bill, the demands on colleges
and universities escalated rapidly. The launch of Sputnik
in 1957 contributed dramatically to a “Cold War”
that fueled funding for science and technology. As priorities
shifted toward scientific inquiry and the products of
technical, quantitative approaches, broader definitions
of scholarship narrowed into more positivistic pursuits.
The scientific accomplishments of the period were remarkable,
but connections to any concrete sense of identity, meaning,
or purpose were diminished. Moral considerations, spiritual
interests, and religion—the normative dimensions
of life—were either disregarded or explained away
as the result of more important or more “real”
factors. By the end of the 1960s, the environment that
had inspired confidence in rational analysis, scientific
inquiry, and technological productivity was beginning
The Impact of the Postmodern Era
Postmodernism hit campuses at a time of serious cultural,
social, and political turmoil. The Vietnam War was escalating,
with protests spreading across colleges and universities.
Students were challenging authority vested in institutions—family, church, corporations, government, and universities,
including the faculty. Within this context, the civil
rights movement, through which revered religious leaders
made a moral call for social justice, probed how social
identity shapes one’s understanding of the world.
Similarly, feminist leaders promoted “women’s
ways of knowing” as a counterpoint to knowledge
that flourished in the then-male-dominated academy.
These demands for inclusion of diverse identities and
ways of thinking eventually coalesced in the call for
multiculturalism in the classroom.
At its radical edge, postmodernism joined with Nietzsche
and ended in nihilism, dismantling both the values that
sustain religious belief and those that define modernity
itself: reason, freedom, and the rights of the autonomous
self. But nihilism was not the only response to the
limitations of modernity. Postmodernism also invited
a new appreciation for a wide range of cultural traditions,
including religious traditions. A diversity of approaches
to inquiry and new ways of knowing offered faculty opportunities
for rethinking the place of faith in the academy.
As a student in Robert Bellah’s classes, I remember
his quoting the poet Wallace Stevens with some frequency:
“The final belief is to believe in a fiction,
which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing
else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction
and that you believe in it willingly” (1970).
As a student with an evangelical Christian background,
I found his use of the word “fiction” both
provocative and disturbing. But Bellah was not a relativist,
and his use of the term reflects not disrespect for
the power of religious and spiritual symbols, but the
seriousness with which he took our human limitations.
Bellah agreed with Stevens that the patterns of meaning
by which we choose to order our lives are social and
cultural constructions. He went on, however, to contend
that symbols created by communities and individuals
as ways of grasping human existence can have a reality
of their own. These transcendent meanings are powerful
enough to serve as anchors for human life and to provide
a sense of moral order.
Bellah referred to this view as “symbolic realism.”
It is an approach that avoids both the literalism of
fundamentalist faith and the smug dismissal of religion
as nothing more than a human creation. As an antireductionist,
Bellah observed that “the radical split between
knowledge and commitment that exists in our culture
and in our universities is not ultimately tenable. Differentiation
has gone about as far as it can go. It is time for a
new integration.” His insight remains helpful
today. Both positivist reductionism and postmodern nihilism
have proved untenable. Emerging in their place, as the
HERI study illustrates, is a deep spiritual hunger and
quest for meaning among college and university students
across the nation. Higher education needs to respond.
A Pedagogical Revolution
In Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, Sharon Daloz
Parks proposes an epistemology that, like Bellah, recognizes
that every perspective is rooted in personal, social,
and cultural conditions (2000). This epistemology “invites
faculty and students to bring the competence of contemporary
scholarship to the search for critically composed and
worthy forms of faith within a relativized world.”
Located at the intersections between personal meaning-making
and academic scholarship, Parks’s alternative
approach gives voice not just to racial, ethnic, gendered,
and class perspectives that have been marginalized by
the dominant approach to knowing. It also recognizes
the legitimacy of spiritual and religious dimensions—the
power of community and commitment in the lives of all
Faculty have an obligation to respond to students’
demands that religion and spirituality find a new place
in the classroom. In this context, raising critical
questions is not enough. Faculty must explore the larger
questions of meaning in ways that respect the personhood
of their students—including their fundamental
right and responsibility to construct their own meaning
without external coercion.
As Clifford Geertz once noted, human beings are animals
“suspended in webs of significance” that
they themselves have spun (1973). Students are now calling
for faculty to be more open to probing conversations
about those webs of meaning that give our lives significance.
It is an invitation that colleges, universities, and
their faculties can hardly refuse.
Astin, A. W., H. S. Astin, and J. A. Lindholm. 2005.
Spirituality and the Professoriate: A National Study
of Faculty Beliefs, Attitudes, and Behaviors. Los
Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute.
Astin, A. W., H. S. Astin, J. A. Lindholm, A. N. Bryant,
S. Calderon, and K. Szelényi. 2005. The Spiritual
Life of College Students: A National Study of College
Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose.
Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute.
Geertz, C. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures.
New York: Basic Books.
Parks, S. D. 2000. Big Questions, Worthy Dreams:
Mentoring Young Adults in the Search for Meaning, Purpose,
and Faith. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Rorty, R. 1999. Philosophy and Social Hope. London:
Stevens, W. Quoted in R. Bellah, Beyond Belief:
Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World
(New York: Harper and Row, 1970).