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A Rally Cry for the Humanities (But Only If You Are Christian)?

I recently read Christopher Noble’s article “Sanctuary for the Humanities,” in the Chronicle Review on the place of the humanities in religious colleges and universities.  Noble’s argument is that the humanities, in the face of the portents of their impending doom will survive, but most likely in religious colleges that no one has ever heard of.  Noble weighs in on the ongoing discussion of the role of the humanities, if it should have one at all in higher education, and collapses it with the discussion religious colleges’ place and accreditation (see Peter Conn’s article).

Noble is mostly addressing William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life and his questions:

Will religious colleges play an important role in revitalizing the humanities? Is it plausible that Dante’s Inferno could be taught by religious faculty in the middle of the Sierra Nevada woods with anything approaching the effectiveness of scholars in a Harvard lecture hall?

Noble works at the High Sierra Program of Azusa Pacific University, a private Christian institution.  He is definitely one defending his position in the world and provides a wonderful account of how the humanities are not in decline in his institution and others like it, but flourishing.  He even goes so far as to say his students can give those in the Ivy League a run for their money (with some qualifying statements about test scores).  He has a good point. The small religiously affiliated schools often have a theological framework up which to hang their humanities and general education core.   Mark Bauerlein supports Noble’s position at the First Things blog, that humanities professors at secular university have only themselves to blame for the declining interest in the humanities.  According to Bauerlein:

If there is a connection between religious observance and humanities curriculum, then humanities professors who bemoan their lot have to face an irony in their plight. For, they are aggressively secular, hostile to any expression of faith outside church and home.

And in the climate where we are actually concerned about student debt, Noble asserts that

My analysis may appear crass and cynical, but it is nothing of the kind. As a Christian intellectual, I believe that the humanities training I give my students is worth $30,000 of debt—as long as my students also hail from (and are hailed by) a religious tradition of some kind. For Christian students, such debt is merely a temporal down payment on an eternal project of soul-craft.

Noble is correct – Christian students do find a humanities sanctuary in Christian schools.  However, there are students who find a humanities-enriched education in religiously affiliated schools who are not Christian (the students not the schools).  Or they may be nominally something.  They are a part of the growing number of “nones” in America.  And here is where I start to pull away from Noble’s perspective about Christian schools and the humanities.  On the spectrum of higher education – from 100% secular to 100% committed persons of faith – what about the middle ground where one might have a population of faithful Christians, Jews, and Muslims, as well as students of no particular faith?  There are lots of schools that are affiliated with a particular religious faith, but have a diverse and largely not faithful population.  Beth McMurtrie talks about this in her recent Chronicle article “Catholic Colleges Greet an Unchurched Generation.”  Noble is correct that intentionally Christian schools do inspire young people who are searching for a way to merge their intellectual and faith lives together to attend their institutions.  Some church-related colleges also attract students who are simply searching.  Or students who don’t know they need to search but quickly find out they might.  Or they got good scholarship money.  Or it was close to (or far from) home.

What is it that students want when they choose a private, faith-based institution even if the mission statement and Christian affiliation is buried on a subpage and prospective students are wooed by flashing images of athletic buildings, attractive residential housing, and smiling faces of currently enrolled students with nary a book at hand?    Somewhere between Noble’s intentionally Christian school and the secular college or university, I find McMurtrie’s account of Catholic colleges appealing and hopeful.  (This might be what gives me the most pause with these two polar opposites – the lack of hope for the humanities.)  McMurtrie highlights a handful of mostly Jesuit Catholic schools who have found a way to “[connect] their religious mission to topics of broad interest, like developing a meaningful philosophy of life or pursuing social justice.”  While McMurtrie is not discussing the fate the humanities specifically, she does describe places where students are encountering a liberal arts education which include the humanities and that inclusion results in positive experiences for students.  McMurtrie largely looks at Marquette University’s efforts to “try to meet the needs of the unchurched generation while still fulfilling their historic mission.”  Faculty and students who cover the spectrum of faith (or no faith) have found a space to explore what I can only describe as “the big questions” about meaning and purpose all within the context of specific disciplines.  The seemingly diverse theological background of those who occupy this in-between space of exploration stands out in contrast to those at either ends of the spectrum of religious affiliation (the all-or-nothing spaces).

Returning to Noble who asks: “Will religious colleges play an important role in revitalizing the humanities?”  I must agree that this may prove to be the case.  Yet, and here I start to sound naive at worst, nostalgic at best, I hope this is not the case. I hope that the humanities continue to do more than survive in sanctuaries.

Post by Mary Beth Fraser Connolly

Hearing Augustine’s Question: A Report (of sorts) on “Teaching the Intellectual Tradition: Augustine Across the Curriculum”

Today’s guest post is from Ian Clausen, a Lilly Postdoctoral Fellow in Theology at Valparaiso University.   Ian’s current book project is The Weight of Love in St. Augustine, which explores themes of moral theology and psychology in the thought of the Bishop of Hippo, giving particular attention to Augustine’s Christian philosophy of education.

Clausen, Ian - smI recently attended a conference at Samford University, Birmingham AL, devoted to the subject of teaching St. Augustine. The conference was part of a series called “Teaching the Christian Intellectual Tradition,” accompanied with the delightfully vague subtitle, “Augustine Across the Curriculum.” By all accounts the conference was a wild success. I had the privilege of presenting a paper, one among several delivered over the weekend (Oct. 2-4), and came away confirmed in my decision to study Augustine as a figure of importance in Western intellectual history. Yet the conference was neither aimed at the Augustinian guild nor intended—at least not consciously—to indulge in hagiography. Scholars from diverse backgrounds, embracing the ethos of that much-hackneyed phrase “interdisciplinarity,” came together to explore, present, and exchange ideas on how to teach Augustine: thus assuming that Augustine has a place in the curriculum. Since I cannot speak to every paper and presentation that was given, let me confine myself to the two plenary addresses and the spirits they invoked, before offering my own reflections on what it means to “teach Augustine.”

Professor Peter Iver Kaufman (University of Richmond) delivered the first plenary paper, “Deposito Diademate: Augustine’s Emperors,” and its content certainly entertained a lively if brief discussion on the Augustinian “posture” (my word) towards worldly institutions. Against the tide of current fashions in Augustinian scholarship, though not without a sense (a welcomed sense?) of his minority interpretation, Professor Kaufman unveiled an Augustine intensely critical of prevailing power structures, and not the least bit expectant of their achieving real justice. His skepticism does not encourage a listless quietism in the face of injustice, but invites us to look for alternatives to the prevailing institutional arrangements—including, I gather, the modern university—that often perpetuate the moral poverty of the societies they inhabit. Curiously, Professor Kaufman gave “tenure” a ringing endorsement: not because it gives faculty the recognition they need or want, but because it ensures that faculty, and not bureaucrats, control the classroom! Professor Kaufman similarly argued that the Augustinian virtue of humility not only serves to call worldly systems of power into question, but also elevates alternative conceptions of the way things really change in a way that profitably expands the teacher’s moral imagination.

Similarly Professor Kristine Deede Johnson (Western Theological Seminary), delivering the second plenary address the next day, “The Justice Game: Augustine, Disordered Loves and the Temptation to Change the World,” questioned the extent to which contemporary concerns for “social justice,” another much-hackneyed phrase, can benefit from deeper exposure to Augustine’s conception of justice. If the impulse to “change the world” has its source in human effort, what to make of Augustine’s critique of human effort before grace? Surely efforts to promote justice in this world are commendable, but practical deliberation does not happen in a theoretical vacuum. It is always already inscribed within thickly layered descriptions, many of which we inherit without thinking much about them. So how do we describe/give an account of what we are doing when we do it? Such is where Augustine, with his rich and varied notion of justice, can help students to contemplate and clarify their beliefsSt. Augustine. Professor Johnson’s upcoming book on the subject of justice, The Justice Calling (co-authored by Bethany Hanke Hoang, Brazos Press: 2015), promises both to shed light on the biblical and theological grounds of justice, and to equip teachers and students to think carefully about their activism.

For both plenary presenters and the conference more generally, Augustine’s legacy still haunts the landscape of contemporary Western thought. To teach Augustine in the university is a potentially subversive act, not only because Augustine punctures the university’s sanctimonious rhetoric—he certainly does that! But also because he underwrites a different set of expectations, a different “ethic of pedagogy,” through a posture not of control but of humility and attentiveness—in a word, through love.

But as for how we teach love or embody love in the classroom, Augustine can do more than just offer us a few pointers. For love is a way of thinking as much as a way of doing, and only love can truly receive the world and teach us how to live through it. But love in response to what or who is precisely the question. Teaching Augustine exposes students a world of competing voices, all of which invite, entice, and call humanity into question. To recognize and name these voices is the work of attention, and learning how to respond to them is the charge of humility. Love, then, is inscribed within the very act of teaching: the “thing” that renders intelligible our professorial vocations. To teach love is to teach; and teaching implies an invitation. So to what are we inviting our students to perceive, acknowledge, and embrace? Augustine’s answers to that question may not be our answers, ultimately. But Augustine certainly helps us to hear the question afresh.

Friendship and Remembering

We just had our annual national conference and much could and should be said about how wonderful it was.  We were at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans.  I cannot say enough about how welcome we all were there and what a delightful and stimulating time.  Hopefully we will return soon to write a post about the conference.  For now, I want to say a few words about friendship and remembering.

Clyde Duder’s conference badges, preserved at our national office.

In May, we lost a friend of the LFP – Clyburn “Clyde” Duder.  I did not know him long, nor well.  He had been the faculty representative from his institution, Concordia University Texas and attended all of our national conferences, starting with the first in 1991. I first met Clyde in 2010 at the national conference in October.  This was my first conference as I had started working with the LFP a month earlier.  Clyde presented us with an envelope stuffed full of his various conference badges – not just the national conferences, but also regional and research conferences.  It was an envelope that revealed his dedication to the LFP and the gift further showed his fondness for the friendships he had developed over the years throughout the Network of schools.  As a historian, I immediately was charmed by his desire to save the history of the LFP through this material culture.

When word spread through the network of Clyde’s death and when it was mentioned at the national conference, we observed how much he was loved and how he would be missed.  It also brought to mind that while we are a network of institutions, the friendships that have developed over time through this truly ecumenical conversation about church-related higher education is something to be honored and remembered. It is something that continues to inspire.

Post by Mary Beth Fraser Connolly

From the Colloquium, Graduate Fellows Edition

Since 2006, the Lilly Fellows Program Director has published a “From the Colloquium” column about four times per year.  The idea behind this column is to share some of the common readings from the colloquia of the Lilly Postdoctoral Fellows Program and the Lilly Graduate Fellows Program. These works can be of great value for mentoring programs or faculty development projects at different campuses (or to add to your own reading lists).

Common readings and group discussion have been integral to the Lilly Fellows Program’s (LFP) fellowship programs from their start over twenty years ago.  First with the Lilly Postdoctoral Teaching Fellowship program at Valparaiso University starting in 1992 and then with the Lilly Graduate Fellows Program in 2008, Fellows have encountered readings intended to engage Christian thought and practice as they intersect the tasks of teaching and scholarship that make up the work we do in the academy. The readings address these issues on both the personal and institutional level, examining our individual practices as scholars as well as those of our academic institutions (with, of course, a special emphasis on those institutions of higher learning that connect to a church-related mission).

Once a year, we focus on the readings that the three active cohorts of Lilly Graduate Fellows discuss.  These Fellows are in their first three years of Graduate school.  Each semester, the Lilly Graduate Fellow cohorts select readings that cluster around a particular theme.

So, without further ado, here are some of those readings.

The members of the fourth cohort of Lilly Graduate Fellows, who began graduate school and the program in fall 2011 and who just completed their three year program, read and discussed materials focused on the theme “Striving to Become a Worthy Soul.”  The goal of the fall 2013 semester readings was to open conversation about the way our desires—especially in graduate school—can require reordering.  The primary or “trunk” text of the semester was Dante’s Purgatorio which was accompanied by the theoretical text, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies, by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoungPurgatorio has been a standard reading among the Lilly Graduate Fellows, and several cohorts have read Glittering Vices, a contemporary reflection on the Seven Deadly Sins.  The group also read sections of Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, which the Postdoctoral Fellows also read.  The cohort supplemented these primary texts with excerpts from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Dorothy Sayers’ “The Great Images,” and what is now a classic on the tensions between teaching content and moral formation in the classroom, Mark W. Roche’s “Should Faculty Members Teach Virtues and Values?”  In the spring, 2014, the members of the cohort rather than the mentors selected the texts under the theme, “Texts That Shape Our Vocations.”  The Fellows selected the following texts:  Augustine, selections from On Christian Doctrine, Mark Edmundson, selections from Why Read?; Margret Edson, “Wit”; Bernard Knox, selection from Introduction to the Iliad; C.S. Lewis, “The Inner Ring”; Albert J. Raboteau, “African Americans, Exodus, and the American Israel”; Stanley Cavell, “Knowing and Acknowledging”; selections from bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress; Victoria Lawson, “Geographies of Care and Responsibility; selections from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling; Paul Rorem, “Empathy and Evaluation in Medieval Church History and Pastoral ministry: A Lutheran Reading of Pseudo-Dionysius”; Robert Wood, “The Catholic Philosopher: Dancing at Arms’ Length with One’s Theological Mistress”; A. G. Sertillanges, selections from On the Intellectual Life, and Hans Urs von Balthasar, selection from Theo-Drama, Vol. 1.  The semester ended with readings from Mark Schwehn’s Exiles from Eden.

The members of the Fifth Cohort of Lilly Graduate Fellows, who completed the second year of their fellowship and who began their graduate studies in the fall of 2012, spent the year reflecting on the topic, “Virtuous Learning and Virtuous Teaching.”  The “spine” texts for the colloquium were Dante’s Purgatorio and Paradiso and George Eliot’s Middlemarch.  The Cohort mentors supplemented these texts with readings from the Bible, Peter Hawkin’s terrific Dante: A Brief History; selections from Practicing Theology by Dorothy Bass and Miroslav Volf; Brian E. Daley, “To Be More Like Christ: the Background and Implications of Three Kinds of Humility”; selections from Dorothy Bass, Practicing Our Faith; Schwehn, Exiles from Eden; Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Chapter 14; Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, “Contemplation in the Midst of Chaos,” The Scope of our Art: The Vocation of the Theological Teacher, edited by L. Gregory Jones and Stephanie Paulsell; James Smith, excerpts from Desiring the Kingdom, and Imagining the Kingdom; Phyllis Tickle’s Divine Hours for Autumn and Wintertime; Philip Jackson, “Real Teaching” from Schwehn, Everyone a Teacher; Augustine, “On the Teacher,” from Everyone a Teacher; Mark Roche, “Should Faculty Members Teach Virtues and Values?”; Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God  (Chapter 7); Flannery O’Connor, “Parker’s Back”; John Calvin, from Institutes 2.2.12-16; Tobias Wolff, “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs”; Robert Inchausti, “Maxims, Aphorism, Insights” from Everyone a Teacher, and Rowen Williams’ Ponder These Things, which most of the cohorts have read.

The members of Cohort 6 entered their first year of the fellowship colloquium in fall, 2013, and in the fall they examined readings that focused on the theme of “Hospitality”—a theme a number of the cohorts have examined.  Their readings included Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition; Julia Kasdorf, poems from Sleeping Preacher; Raymond Carver’s, “Cathedral” and “A Small Good Thing”; Augustine’s Confessions; selections from Simone Weil’s Waiting for God, selections from Jones and Paulsell, The Scope of Our Art: The Formation of the Theological Teacher; selections from Benedicta Ward, The Desert Fathers: Saying of the Early Christian Monks; selections from Mary Forman, Praying with the Desert Mothers, and Phyllis Tickle, The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime. In the spring, the cohort members focused on the theme, “Habits of the Heart: Recognizing the Vices, Cultivating the Virtues.” Like Cohort 4, they read Dante’s, Purgatorio and Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung’s, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies.  They also read Abraham Joshua Heschel’s, The Sabbath (which many cohorts have read); Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Rowan Williams, Ponder These Things.

Posted by Joe Creech

“The Problem of Religion: Faith and Agency in History”: A Report from a Conference at Boston College

Today’s post is from Pete Cajka.  Pete is a doctoral candidate in the Boston College History Department. He studies religion in American History. He is also a Graduate Fellow with the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy.  Earlier this spring, Pete attended the Biennial Conference on the History of Religion at Boston College, one institutions in the Lilly Fellows Program National Network of colleges and universities.  Pete, in summarizing this conference for our blog, showcases the good work going on at Boston College where institutions and scholars of diverse backgrounds can come together for the pursuit of higher learning.  


Pete Cajka

In late March 2014, members of the Boston College History Department held the fifth edition of their Biennial Conference on the History of Religion.  Doctoral students who work on the history of religion in America and Clough Millennium Chair in History James O’Toole have planned and conducted this conference every two years since the inaugural gathering in 2006. The conference has grown in tandem with historians’ interest in religion and it offers the Boston College History Department a chance to display its strengths in religious history.  The collegial atmosphere, focus on the core questions, and, we are told, plentiful supply of B.C.’s award-winning New England clam chowder, has helped the conference acquire a cohort of regular attendees and attract new participants, from a widening geographical area, to each meeting.

The planning committee, in sifting through the paper proposals and setting up the panels, ensures that each Biennial Conference on the History of Religion has a new and unique set of contents. But, aside from a few minor modifications over the past 8 years, the committee has kept the form of the conference consistent. The first decision has always been choice of theme. The committee decided on “The Problem of Religion: Faith and Agency in History” as a theme for the 2014 conference. Here is how we explained our theme in the call for papers:

In recent years, scholars have increasingly considered how religious institutions, beliefs, or practices challenge our conceptions of the past while also recognizing that religion is but one of a number of forces that interact, collide, and impel human history. As we try to determine when religion has been important in human history and when it has not, we grapple with understanding how internal matters of faith provoke and direct acts of human agency, manifest in the exercise of devotional practice, institutional power, and other arenas. Finally, scholars of religion are considering the most appropriate ways to contemplate, research, and write about faith, belief, and agency during what some intellectuals argue is a secular age.

The theme is meant to offer presenters common threads that they can use to weave their respective projects together, but seeks to avoid being so cumbersome as to overpower the motifs that crop up organically as panel discussions inevitably flow into hallway and dinner conversation. Previous conferences have had themes of “Religion and the Transnational,” “Religion as a Fourth Lens” (accompanying gender, class, and race), and “Religious Identities.”

We invite a keynote speaker to give an address on the questions that are driving the field of religious history. David Hempton, Dean of the Faculty of Divinity at Harvard University, gave the keynote address at the 2014 conference, following in the footsteps of previous keynote speakers Jonathan Sarna, Bob Orsi, Lia Matthew Brockey, and Jon Butler.  Hempton’s address showcased research for a project that compares secularization in Europe and America after 1750. Hempton’s address invited presenters to deal with questions of secularization in various national settings and theoretical frameworks. As in the past, the keynote was presented at the beginning of the conference, giving presenters and panel chairs a common intellectual ground for the questions that follow.

The conference hosts approximately 30 presenters who give papers on topics from a wide variety of historical periods and geographical settings. The committee usually receives over 100 applications. We accept papers from graduate students and professors at any stage of their careers. Applications can take the form of individual papers or panel proposals – we welcome both. The 2014 Conference had panels on “Medieval Objects and Agency,” “Religion and Activism in 1960s America,” and “Religious Identity in Early Modern Europe.” The 2014 conference featured a panel on mainline Protestants in twentieth century American life – a hot topic right now – with papers by Margaret Bendroth on “Congregationalists and Liberal Piety,” Patricia Applebaum on “Following Jesus in Mainline Protestantism,” and David Mislin on “‘Evil’ in the Late Social Gospel.”  Christopher Evans of Boston University chaired the panel. Other topics, examples of the conference’s global reach, included fraudulent clergy (i.e., “strolling priests”) in the nineteenth century American West, Jehovah’s Witnesses in twentieth century Ukraine, Christian Brothers’ schools in Ontario, Canada, and “regenerating” New England Puritans.

We ask faculty members of the Boston College history department and advanced graduate students to chair the panels. In the past, we have invited faculty members from the Boston area to chair panels. These chair/commentators offer analyses of the individual papers as well as a synthesis of the papers in light of the panel’s theme. Boston College History Department faculty members who chaired panels at the 2014 conference – many of whom engage the question of religion in history, whether in full length monographs or in other corners of their oeuvres – included Virginia Reinburg (French Book of Hours: Making an Archive of Prayer, c. 1400-1600), Devin Pendas (editor, Human Rights and Religion), Robin Fleming (Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, c. 400 to 1070), James O’Toole (The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America), and Charles Gallagher, S.J. (Vatican Secret Diplomacy: Joseph P. Hurley and Pope Pius XII). Two postdoctoral fellows, Gráinne McEvoy and Ian Delahanty, and two recent alumni, Jared Hardesty and Laura Baines-Walsh, all of whom have earned a Ph.D. from the Boston College History Department, also served as chairs.

Since 2010, the conference has included a teaching panel as a complement to the research aspect of scholarship on religious history. Previous conferences featured a panel of several historians from the greater Boston area who spoke to conference attendees about their experiences teaching the history of religion. The panel addresses those questions that are perennial in the teaching of religious history: what is the best way, for example, to explain the differences between Antinomians and Arminians? This year we invited Andrew Finstuen and John Bieter, both of whom coincidentally work at Boise State University and are Boston College History Department Alumni, to talk about a senior seminar course they teach on “the big questions” that confront soon-to-graduate students as they leave one phase of life for another.  Andrew and John titled their panel, “What We Should Do and Who We Should Be: A Senior Seminar Dedicated to Undergraduate Exploration of Vocation.” They discuss how they assign their students complex academic texts and then ask them to ponder their own ethics, vocation, and journey of life in relation to the text, all within the context of a large state school. As such, the teaching panel led presenters and audience into a discussion about the role that religion and theological texts might play in helping students (and teachers) to answer those big questions about vocation. Important conversations about religion and vocation, Andrew and John stressed, can take place in many corners of higher education. The Boston College Biennial Conference on the History of Religion is committed to helping scholars – graduate students and faculty – to reach a deeper understanding of religion in history so that it can be taught more effectively and in order that religion can continue to assist us in asking and attempting to answer those perennial questions about agency, ethics, faith, vocation, and mentorship. Those who are interested in presenting at our next meeting can expect to see our Call for Papers in the early summer of 2015. We’re looking forward to welcoming new and returning attendees to Boston in 2016!


The Planning Committee for the 2014 Boston College Biennial Conference on the History of Religion included Peter Cajka, Jared Hardesty, Joanna Kelly, Gráinne McEvoy, Chris Staysniak, and Allison Vanderbilt Broek.  And, for the fifth consecutive time, Clough Millennium Professor of History James O’Toole.


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