Learning to be Distinct—Protestantism on the Secular Campus

In her marvelous post on this blog, my colleague Professor Shona Tucker pointedly describes our campus context as one where “talk about religiosity is a no-no.” Her rich portrait of college life includes an account of a young woman who provokes some creative tension in Tucker’s drama classroom: For an autobiography assignment, her student dares to tell the story of how central Christianity is in her life.

Professor Tucker is speaking of Vassar College, where I serve in the erstwhile chaplain’s office. One frequent explanation of the tension Tucker describes is the professed “secularism” of higher education.  The “secularization thesis” is the notion—confidently put forward by Max Weber and others at the turn of the 20th Century—that as societies become more modern, they become less religious.  The trouble with this account, of course, is that it’s not what happened in our world or on our campuses.  Religions didn’t somehow go away.

With the help of the Teagle Foundation, I have spent a good deal of my ministry over the last decade on a multi-campus project called “Secularity and the Liberal Arts.” Our project brought together chaplains, faculty, and students from four different historically Protestant campuses. Our Working Group included theists, atheists, and seekers; Jews and Christians; Protestants and Catholics, and more. We organized a range of campus forums and research projects to ask what we really mean when we call ourselves “secular.” Instead of thinking of religion in higher education through the lens of “decline,” my colleagues and I learned to be clear that what has been changing at our institutions is that our Protestantism can no longer serve as the tacit frame of reference. Rather than see this significant shift as a cultural turn to lament, we have learned to see it as an opening, an accomplishment, and, honestly, a relief.  We have learned to see campus religious life as shifting, complex, contested, and all the more vibrant for being so.

I used to wonder how much the dilemmas and trends I am describing here were peculiar to my campus context. I have come to see that the unraveling of Protestant predominance I experience at Vassar is part of a hopeful transition for the Church in North America. Students like the courageous woman in Professor Tucker’s class are learning to describe their Christian faith not as an assumed cultural norm, but as a distinct way of being in the world. In this new moment, as Douglas John Hall reminds us, our calling is precisely what Jesus said in his powerfully modest metaphors: what does it mean to be a people who are “salt, yeast, and light” to the world? [1]  Part of what makes me hopeful is my ongoing experience of what Tucker reveals—that a new generation is helping lead the way.

[1]. See Douglas John Hall’s essay, “On Being Salt, Yeast, and Light: The Christian Movement in a Post-Christian Era,” in The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997).

Rev. Samuel Speers is Director, Office of Religious & Spiritual Life and Assistant Dean for Campus Life and Diversity at Vassar College.

 

 

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One Response to Learning to be Distinct—Protestantism on the Secular Campus

  1. revgeary says:

    Thanks Sam. I have found Rob Handy’s and Doug Hall’s notion of progressive waves of disestablishment very helpful myself. I recently read George Marsden’s recent book “The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief” and found it a perceptive description of why it took so long for protestants in particular to notice the disestablishments that had taken place.

    Like

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