RELIGIOUS PLURALISM in the ACADEMY, Opening the Dialogue, by Robert J. Nash. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2001. 224 pages, index, bibliography. Paperback; no price shown. ISBN 0-8204-5592-X.
For many years, the topics of religion, particularly those which touch on religious pluralism, have been avoided by much of American higher education, and so religious faith has become marginalized, ignored or, at best, sugar-coated as students move through their educational years. The author, Professor of Education and Social Services at the University of Vermont, author of several books and over 100 scholarly articles, wants this to change. Using six very different student-inspired spiritual narratives, Nash brings the expertise of a gifted educator, the understanding of a philosopher and his perception of the importance of religious stories to argue, primarily to his fellow educators, a way for religious conversations (and confrontations) to take place within the university in a meaningful, civil and constructive way.
Nash addresses the key questions about setting up such dialogues, for he has been an educator for 33 years and has been conducting conversations of this kind, in a course titled “Religion, Spirituality and Education,” since 1998. Although warned in advance that the course would be one students would shy away from, it has been filled to overflowing in each of the five semesters since its beginning. This book is primarily about the lessons he learned in these first five semesters, and how the ideas in his course might be extended and reused by others. The cry for religious and moral meaning from his students has become, in recent years, almost deafening, he says, and this book is his way of addressing these questions.
Nash sets out three goals:
(1) To convince his fellow educators that the need to address religious and spiritual meaning is of high importance to young college students,
(2) To critically examine the nature of religious differences as they exist on college campuses today, and
(3) To present a model for “moral conversation.” It is not possible me to evaluate his first goal, of course, but he has succeeded excellently in his second and third.
After discussing goals and definitions in chapter 1, Nash treats, in chapter 2, the paradoxes of religious pluralism. He contends (page 30) that “…religious pluralism, if left unattended, is a phenomenon that in the future will threaten to divide students, faculty, and administrators in a way that makes all the other campus divisions look tame by comparison. “ The perplexing dilemma for educators, of course, is how to deal with fundamentalists, both religious and secular, in a pluralistic university environment. Drawing on Stephen Carter’s three books, THE CULTURE OF DISBELIEF (1993), CIVILITY (1998) and IN GOD’S NAME (2000), he discusses his own successes (and failures) in addressing this problem. In the ensuing chapters, as he develops his six scenarios, he returns, again and again, to this vexing problem, concluding that it can be solved, at least in most cases, but that with some dogmatists, who may be fundamentalists of either the right or the left, dialogue may simply not be possible.
Toward the end of the book, Nash discusses what he calls “the Six Principles of Moral Conversation.” Based on the poem by Edwin Markham, “The Man with the Hoe”(1899), which concludes, “We drew a circle that took him in,” these are:
1. Belief declarations are not the same as conversations about beliefs. A speaker should always strive to state the grounds for his or her beliefs, and be ready to acknowledge when they may be less than overwhelmingly persuasive.
2. All views deserve initial respect. An attitude of humility must always be assumed. Oliver Cromwell’s observation, “I beseech you, brothers, by the bowels of Christ, consider that you may be mistaken,” and similar quotations from past thinkers are appropriate for consideration.
3. Find the truth in what you oppose, always focusing on achieving agreements on word meanings.
4. “All or nothing” thinking is destructive. It separates the world into “us” and “others.” Look for similarities first, before differences. Empathize before judging.
5. Reality exists. But all we know are stories about it. It is in these stories that we explain ourselves to others. Listen to them.
6. Moral conversation in itself “leans to the left, therefore allow for this. Do not squelch the overconfident speaker, but listen to the story being told.
This book is highly recommended.
Reviewed by John W. Burgeson, Denver, Colorado
Submitted to PERSPECTIVES 11/11/2002.
Published in Vol 55, #1, March 2003