Diversity and Democracy

Religious Diversity and the Making of Meaning: Implications for the Classroom

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 issue (1999).

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 Role

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 and open.

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 to erode.

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.

Symbolic Realism

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 of us.

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: Penguin.

Stevens, W. Quoted in R. Bellah, Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World (New York: Harper and Row, 1970). 

R. Eugene Rice is a senior scholar at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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