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What Are Important Challenges to Connecting Faith & Learning in College? Critical Conversations #13

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice
April 24, 2018

Two of our JCC's Focus Authors for this quarter (May 2018) are Douglas Jacobsen, distinguished professor of church history and theology, Messiah College, and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, professor of psychology and director of faculty development, Messiah College.

In their JCC article “Faith and Learning in a Post-Truth World” (May 2018, Vol. 19, No. 2), Jake and Rhonda propose a model that can aid colleges and universities to respond to the influences of a “post-truth era,” which requires a more far-reaching engagement with religion and its complex perception of truth. 

The model for engagement focuses on five educational functions of religion: proclamation, rationality, compassion, transformation, and wonder/mystery. They argue that using this model can improve learning for students across the range of religious worldviews and involvement, including those who are spiritual and non-religious in addition to those traditionally religious, while maintaining the norms of academic and religious freedom. 

Below are their responses to questions posed by Jon Dalton, JCC co-editor:

1. You use the term pluriform to describe the various forms of religious expression today.  How does this term differ from religious pluralism?

The idea of religious pluralism refers to a situation in which multiple, competing religious traditions exist side by side in a culture or society. America as a nation has become more religiously pluralistic in recent years and so have most college and university campuses. More than ever before, members of different religious traditions now live side by side.

But America’s religious ecology is not simply more pluralistic; boundaries around and between religious groups have also become much more porous and fuzzy. The differences that used to define American religiosity are less clear, and many individuals now embrace insights from multiple religious traditions, and from other spiritual and secular sources of inspiration, in their efforts to make meaning and find purpose in their lives. For example, some people describe themselves as Christian and Buddhist at the same time.  Other people blur the line between being secular and religious and label themselves spiritual atheists.

America’s religious profile has always been pluralistic, a religious mosaic made up of many different groups. But in the last couple of decades the individual pieces that make up that mosaic have become both more varied and also more fluid and smudgy. It is this combination of religious diversity mixed with America’s new religious fuzziness that we call pluriform religion or religious pluriformity.   

2. Why do you think the number of college students who identify as having “no religious affiliation” is on the increase today?

During the last thirty years, the number of people in America who identify as “non-religious” has skyrocketed. This is true of the general population, where religious “nones” have grown from less than 10% in 1990 to about 20% today. The rise for traditional-age college students has been much steeper with more than 30% of students now describing themselves as non-religious (Downey, 2017).  One recent survey found that contemporary American college students can be divided into three groups that are roughly the same size: secular (non-religious), spiritual, and traditionally religious (Kosmain, 2013).  How are we to understand this dramatic change in numbers, especially for 18-24 year olds? One thing is clear: college itself is not the cause.  Students are less religious when they arrive at college; professors do not lead them away from religion (Cox, 2017).

Three factors seem to explain much of what is happening. First, the parents of this generation of college students have generally not wanted to force their own faith on their kids. They have wanted their children to choose their own beliefs and values, and many of their kids have chosen not to be traditionally religious. Second, the current generation of college students tends to associate the word “religion” with externally imposed beliefs and practices, while they use the term “spiritual” to refer to their own self-chosen, authentic values and commitments. Finally, the right-wing politicization of religion in the American culture war has made many young people suspicious of anything that smells of “religion.”

While the presence of non-religious students on campuses has burgeoned, two caveats are in order.  First, it is important to remember that in pluriform America the lines separating religious groups are almost always fuzzy, and this includes the line between being religious and non-religious. Many “non-religious” college students still consider themselves to be spiritual in some sense, even if they describe themselves as atheistic or agnostic. It is also true that, despite the growing percentage of non-religious students, there are many college students who remain traditionally religious, participating in worship at their churches, mosques or temples, following the moral guidelines of their communities, and interpreting the world through the doctrinal norms of their traditions. “Faith” is or can be a factor in the lives of all students whether they are traditionally religious or spiritual or non-religious.  What we mean by “faith” in this context is the human search for grounding, meaning, and purpose in life, a search that leads some students to find answers in traditional religion, while others do not.


Downey, A. (May 25, 2017). College freshmen are less religious than ever. Scientific American. Retrieved from: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/college-freshmen-are-less-religious-than-ever/.

Cox, D. (October 10, 2017). College professors aren’t killing religion. FiveThirtyEight. Retrieved from: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/college-professors-arent-killing-religion/.

Kosmain, B. A. and Keysar, A. (September 2013). Religious, spiritual and secular: The emergence of three distinct worldviews among American college students. American Religious Identity Survey, Trinity College. Retrieved from: http://www.trincoll.edu/Academics/centers/isssc/Documents/ARIS_2013_College%20Students_Sept_25_final_draft.pdf.

3. Is it really necessary for colleges and universities to address issues related to faith?  Isn’t this a private matter that students should deal with on their own?

For much of the twentieth century, colleges and universities did indeed treat religion as if it was a purely personal matter for students to address on their own. This attitude was based on the sociological theory of secularization which assumes that public and private domains are radically different and also that religion is slowly but inevitably disappearing from the public sphere. Global cultural and political developments have undermined secularization theory during the last forty years, and most scholars now acknowledge that religion continues to exert massive influence in societies around the world. This is so much the case that former Secretary of State John Kerry said if he was going back to college today, he would “major in comparative religions” because it is so central to everything he did (Kerry, 2015). 

The demise of secularization theory made religion’s exclusion from higher education less tenable, but this is only a partial explanation for why and how religion has returned to campuses. At the most pragmatic level, religion is being taken more seriously by colleges and universities because their student bodies have become so much more visibly religiously diverse. Educational practices had to be adjusted in order to accommodate those students’ religious needs. Simultaneously, new academic theories like feminism and multiculturalism stressed the significance of personal perspectives and values, and the turn toward student-centered learning dramatically changed expectations about effective teaching. If learning at its best involves bringing the entirety of a student’s thinking, living, and affectivity into dialogue with new knowledge and insights, and if learning is seen as a holistic process of both personal and intellectual maturation, then how can an individual’s faith possibly be bracketed out of that process? Bringing a student’s faith or “religion”—that person’s  most deeply held convictions, values, worldviews, and frameworks of meaning—into the learning process is now seen as unavoidable and in some sense necessary. Our JCC article provides guidance for understanding how faith can be a healthy component of the learning process.    


Kerry, J. (September 2, 2015). We ignore the global impact of religion at our peril. America: The Jesuit Review. Retrieved from: https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/religion-and-diplomacy.

4. What are some of the ways in which student life professionals can help college students to connect learning and faith?

In a student-centered learning environment, students need help and support as they engage in the hard work of making their education their own. Of course, professors have a foundational role in the instructional process, but the processes of student reflection and development often transcend the focus of any particular course or program of study, and this is where student life professionals may have powerful and central roles. They often function as midwives of a sort, helping students to re-birth themselves into new senses of self, new understandings of their responsibilities to others, and new visions of how they might pursue meaning and purpose in life.

Faith is an essential part of this process. Student life professionals cannot be expected to have exhaustive knowledge of all the world’s religions; what is required is openness and respect. Faith exists at the core of a person’s sense of self. For learning to be genuinely holistic, it must engage students at that deepest level. In many cases, this engagement will involve student reflections and struggles with the teachings and practices of the traditional religions in which they were raised. For others, the issues will be less traditionally religious, but no less spiritual. Our essay in JCC describes five ways in which faith and learning intersect:

  • when students are talking with others about their core beliefs and values (proclamation);
  • when they are trying fairly and reasonably to assess their own faith and the faiths or lifestances of others (rationality);
  • when they are seeking to understand their human and moral connections with others (compassion);
  • when they sense a need to become a better person (transformation); and
  • when they encounter the limits of human knowing and realize how much humans do not know and may never know (mystery).    

Professionals in student life function in very particular roles across a huge variety of campuses, and their interactions with students will differ accordingly. What they share in common is a calling to help students obtain the experiences they need to mature as persons intellectually, socially, morally, and spiritually in ways that will allow students to flourish both as individuals and as productive, caring members of society. On campuses where there is a chaplain or director of religious life, that person will undoubtedly have a special role to play in the faith-related dimensions of learning, but many of the interactions of faith and learning that occur on campuses take place outside the range of activities typically sponsored by an office of religious life. For example, programs of service learning and community engagement almost inevitably raise questions related to compassion and transformation; study abroad frequently causes students to rethink some of their most deeply held convictions; the mix of students in residence halls has the potential to raise issues of faith in untold numbers of ways; and all of this takes place on top of the personal struggles many students are going through and the tensions some students feel as they try to reconcile what they are learning in class with what they have been taught by their religious traditions. Our hope is that an awareness of how proclamation, rationality, compassion, transformation, and mystery can pop up in many different settings will help student life professionals to see when and how the dynamics of faith might, sometimes surprisingly, be present in their work.