As a religion blog sponsored by the prestigious Social Science Research Council, The Immanent Frame symbolizes a sea-change in American higher education. When I was in graduate school in the early 1990s, I don’t recall the SSRC taking a special interest in the academic study of religion. Today a visitor to the SSRC webpage is confronted with an entire program area on “Religion and the Public Sphere,” with links to such topics as “Religion and International Affairs” and “The Religious Engagements of American Undergraduates.” Far from a marginal area at the SSRC, such initiatives have attracted the involvement of such world-class scholars as Talal Asad and Robert Bellah.
The SSRC is not alone in its renewed attention to the sacred. At the 2007 Modern Language Association, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age generated “the most discussion and sales by far,” according to officials at the Harvard University Press booth. Taking up the first two pages of Harvard’s Fall 2007 catalogue, Taylor’s book is part a succession of high profile religion books, including Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God and Michael Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power. Earlier in 2007, a stack of Lindsay’s books occupied the most prominent spot in the Oxford University Press exhibit at the American Sociological Association meeting.
I have watched these developments with more than a little curiosity, for together with historian Kathleen Mahoney, I am completing a book on the return of religion in American higher education. This book originated as an evaluation of Lilly Endowment’s $15.6 million religion and higher education initiative. In our 2000 report, we concluded that Lilly’s efforts were part of a much larger movement to revitalize religion in the academy, noting that “increased interest in religion, spirituality, and religious activity throughout the academy, coupled with substantive efforts by Protestant and Catholic colleges to strengthen their religious identities, comprise one of the most striking trends in the recent history of American higher education.”
Since the year 2000 the evidence for our thesis has steadily mounted, as high-profile scholars have joined the movement for a post-secular academy. In 2004 UCLA’s Alexander Astin wrote that “spirituality deserves a central place in liberal education.” The following year Stanley Fish predicted that religion “would succeed high theory and the triumvirate of race, gender, and class as the center of intellectual energy in the academy.”
The book we are finishing focuses on three areas where religion has enjoyed renewed vitality: scholarship (faith and knowledge), sponsorship (church-related colleges), and student life (spirituality and campus life). A section of the chapter on spirituality and student life is available as part of the SSRC’s web forum on “The Religious Engagements of American Undergraduates.” The SSRC has also released our working paper on “Religion and Knowledge in the Post-Secular Academy,” a longer version of which will be a chapter in the book. A condensed version of this chapter will appear in the Winter 2008 issue of the American Sociological Association journal Contexts, and is currently available online. The theme of the issue (which also includes a contribution from sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund) is “Religion Returns to Campus.” As Kathleen Mahoney and I complete our book manuscript, we welcome your thoughts on the place of religion in the American academy.