More on “What is a University?”: A reply to Eboo Patel

I ran across a post this morning that may assist me as I continue to ask further questions about the university, its social context, its mission, and how the persons who constitute this institution might contribute to its reproduction and transformation.

In a post by Eboo Patel in Inside Higher Education, the question gets posed, “Are universities living up to their historic mission in how they engage diversity issues?” The question is a very good one, for many reasons and persons, and I hope to explore it below. I want to insert here something that some readers will be aware of already, viz., that I have some allergies toward binary questions, not unlike the question of Patel. Let me preview his answer: he’s not sure. Indeed, even at the end of his post when encountering “two-dimensional forms” of viewpoints, e.g., abortion or immigration, he raises another question: “Is this a violation of the mission/purpose/identity of the university?”

It would be a gross flattening of many topics to any binary of right-wrong, yes-no, good-bad viewpoints. I sense that is not Patel’s critique of the university, so much as it needs new approaches to diversity that exceed a choice from within paired opposites. For those who know of Patel’s work on campus and beyond, his good efforts at expanding religious pluralism deserve some sustained response and engagement; I know of a few people who have taken him up in this regard. Everything I’ve read of Patel suggests he lives out of a religiously plural experience and is about as gracious a guy as you’ll find on the planet. I’ll put out here a couple of responses here, one to the post, and the other a historical incident with his materials.

In the post, Patel quotes Alasdair MacIntyre, from his Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry:

“universities are places where conceptions of and standards of rational justification are elaborated, put to work in the detailed practices of enquiry, and themselves rationally evaluated, so that only from the university can the wider society learn how to conduct its own debates, practical or theoretical, in a rationally defensible way.”

Now, there’s a “trigger word” inside that quote, and, thankfully, if you read the post, one commenter picked up on it as well: “only.” I have this hazy recollection of reading MacIntyre before, thinking: “Really?” What about religious institutions and other social groups who also attempt to form rational judgments, detailed enquiry, and practice evaluation? In other words, while we often change our gaze toward the university when attempting to address some of the challenges and problems of the world we inhabit, that institution is hardly the only one in our societies that we turn to for consultation. For Patel, following MacIntyre, the university represents that social space uniquely empowered and constituted for a variety of viewpoints, ideologies, and theologies to be engaged, questioned, and evaluated. Fair enough, but it’s not the last stop for adjudicating religious claims and beliefs.

My historical incident: About 10 years ago, I was serving graduate and international students at Rice University. I was contacted by the Wellness Office via Student Services about a new resource from Patel that would administratively gather all of the campus religious groups, using a model of religious pluralism to be embraced on campus by all of the religious groups. I found that description fascinating, especially since the proposal explicitly promoted religious pluralism. As I read the promotional materials, sure enough, there it was: religious pluralism. So, I touched base with the contact person, and we had a great conversation, and he clarified something for me: this really would be a model of religious pluralism, not religious plurality.

So, one of my colleagues on campus hosted a get-together of campus ministers about this move to gather all of the religious groups under one administrative canopy of religious pluralism. Even a rabbi came; no one from the Muslim Student Association attended, nor from the Campus Buddhists. My colleague was quite excited about this intention of the university to gather us. I have to admit: we had both wondered if the university cared about the religious and spiritual life of the students and faculty, so this move had some good prospects.

As the discussion moved around the table, I had to come clean: I did not want to participate in the gathering. While I still remained in favor of the intent of improving relations and moving closer to the administration, I had learned enough about the model to resist my participation. You need to know: up to this point, I had already served as the campus director for two Veritas Forums, and I had lots of trust to lose and break in this meeting. With the exception of the rabbi, I had collaborated with everyone in the room, from Catholics to RUF to the Progressive Christians.

So, I had everyone’s attention when I made my announcement. I said it then, I’ll write it now: I am totally in favor of religious plurality. I am not in favor of Christians endorsing religious pluralism as a belief or a practice. There is a flattening out of truth claims that takes place within religious pluralism. I am not in favor of any kind of triumphalism: that was a claim made against me in the meeting. That claim is an example of what can happen inside institutions, like the university: If you’re not in favor of religious pluralism, then you must be in favor of a colonizing version of your religious faith. To which, I assume, Patel would join me in saying: No, those are not the only options.

Indeed, if anything is not contested in the NT (!), it is that the contemporary colony of Palestine was a religiously plural society. Jesus understood this in all of his encounters with the Jews, Gentiles, and especially those from the occupying force of Rome. That a variety of religious communities existed, and associated practices and beliefs followed from such groups, never was denied or even elevated to some supreme social ideal. As one reads both the NT and different historical texts of the first 100+ years of the Christian movement, one finds this community as a distinct, religious minority in Palestine and the Mediterranean: any notion of a “Christian nation” would prove laughable and patently false. The preaching of the Gospel routinely occurred in religiously diverse contexts and often lead to persecution. At no time could one hear the preaching (or much later read the NT) and conclude, “Oh, this is just like [some other religious tradition].” Plurality, not pluralism, prevailed.

My colleague caught up with me a few days later, and said he was shocked by my reply in the meeting: but, that after a few days, he understood my concern. He hadn’t considered the difference between “pluralism” and “plurality.” He also mentioned, and I later received a similar message, that the rabbi appreciated my comments and decision: he hadn’t perceived any difference either until I spoke up. Remarkably, many of my more-conservative Christian colleagues remained disturbed by my resistance to join the gathering. I tried with a couple of them to hear them out, as well as receive their questions: but, they could not fathom the difference I proposed.

Like Patel, I share many of the same expectations and ideals that MacIntyre proposed: but, I don’t expect that the university is the only social institution that can achieve those aims. I doubt Patel does either. But, we still have this question of how well the university is living into its mission when engaging diversity issues, especially religious issues.

I’d want to propose that affirming plurality over pluralism will affirm the identities and traditions of those religious communities: and those will— let’s be honest— collide with each other, especially with regard to truth claims. I make this proposal now, provisionally, knowing that I could be flat-out wrong.

Yet, I anticipate that by consenting to plurality, we not only affirm the various traditions, we also have a unique setting with which to develop communication across traditions, collaborate in service and justice, and esteem the dignity of the human persons who live within such traditions. The university could become a unique social context for the development of this proposal: a proposal that can hardly be considered as original.

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