Time to Talk about 'Private' Belief and 'Public' Scholarship

Mark U. Edwards, Harvard Divinity School

Date: November 15, 2005

Event Recap

In November, Mark Edwards, academic dean at Harvard Divinity School, visited the Boisi Center to discuss the relationship between private belief and public scholarship. Edwards presented sections from his forthcoming book, Religion on Our Campuses: A Professor’s Guide to Communities, Conflicts, and Promising Conversations. He argued that although religion is viewed as a taboo subject, especially in academia, the time is right for religious and non-religious academics to discuss belief in the context of the university. In earlier decades, believing scholars faced at best dismissive attitudes toward religion or at worst discrimination. For most of the twentieth century, confidence in the scientific method in both the natural and social sciences relegated belief to the margins. At present, he explained, with the diversity of intellectual approaches, space has opened for serious conversations about religion in the academy. To insure fruitful exchanges among faculty, Edwards outlined some basic principles of conversation. Key factors include: a sense of equality among participants; the importance of real-life experience versus abstraction; the value of emotion as well as reason; and the crucial role of feedback. In order to help frame
these conversations, Edwards provided a historical, sociological, and personal analysis of the academy and its relation to religion.

On the historical level, he encourages faculty members to acknowledge the place of religion in the formation of disciplines, whether the communities identified with or against supernatural belief. Sociologically, the professionalization of disciplines further separated religion from academics as, ironically, devotion to the disciplinary community left little room for religion. Edwards expanded on this idea by comparing the experience of academic training to that of a monk or a nun. Also, at the level of the personal, he emphasized the importance of biographical disclosure as a way of breaking down barriers that obstruct open discussion of religion. In conclusion, Edwards proposed that allowing religion a place at the academic table bodes well for the overall pursuit of knowledge. Specifically, he claims, the cautious use of religious perspectives as a warrant in the realm of morality, metaphysics, and anthropology would enrich each of these topics as they arise in various disciplines.