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No Longer Invisible: Religion in Higher Education

imagesIn the last decade, spirituality and higher education have collided together in a plethora of ways.  Post 9/11, hundreds of journal articles, dissertations, newsfeeds, and research institutions have been busily working to understand the new convergence of these two institutions of learning.  The work of the Interfaith Youth Core and Eboo Patel over the past decade has created opportunities for engagement across faith traditions in ways we might have never thought possible.

Now comes a book that may finally be getting to the core of higher education’s challenge and opportunity.  In many ways, this book is the reason I feel compelled to work in higher education.  Rhonda and Douglas Jacobsen have once and for all hit on the head the realities of spirtuality on campus.  And it’s for the better.

For much of the 20th century, religious identity was dismissed at the university level, most especially in the public university, where prayers in schools and the Scopes Monkey trial were present markers of a national movement of “Freedom from Religion.” And while the trends have continued to be for public universities to stray away from religious and spiritual identity, the Jacobsen’s have given us all something to think about.

The book is part history and part assessment of opportunity.  The first part lays out a history of higher education and religious life, the second, six sites of engagement. These six sites are of particular importance and are listed below.

  • Religious Literacy
  • Interfaith Etiquette
  • Framing Knowledge
  • Civic Engagement
  • Convictions
  • Character & Vocation

The Jacobsen’s believe within these six sites of engagement lie both the rational and the missional imperatives religious life communities should occupy on campus.  It is clear that some religious life organizations are more attuned to these sites of engagement than others, as para-church movements tend to emphasize interfaith etiquette and even civic engagement less than others.  Never the less, the outline of what makes religious life on campus unique and valuable can be understood within these different arenas.

Perhaps what remains now is the question of how religious life and higher education might co-mingle in their interests in student development.  The co-curricular realm of student affairs remains largely fearful of taking the step into a broad welcoming of religious and spiritual identities on campus.  Similarly, religious life seems hesitant to directly engage from a national level higher education administrators at the level needed to achieve widespread transformation.  It seems each are waiting on one another to engage the topic.  Will we finally cross into the new world and bridge the chasm between us?


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