No Longer Invisible

2 May

Many of you have read the incisive publications of Douglas and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen (Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation, Oxford University Press, 2004; The American University in a Postsecular Age, OUP, 2008).

Their most recent book, No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education (OUP, 2012), succinctly distills in clear, well-researched and compelling language the apparent trajectory of an emerging post-secular era in higher education—an era (now?) that is being shaped by the cultural shifts of multiculturalism and student-centered learning, an era in which religious/spiritual meaning is engaged by throngs of students from all conceivable traditions and worldviews. In the second part of the book, six “sites of engagement” are mapped out, showing practical ways religious life and the educational mission of the academy already interface and, one would hope, will accelerate as we move more confidently into the 21st century.


After reading No Longer Invisible early last fall, I decided to give copies to all of our denominational and para-church leaders so that, upon returning for spring semester, we could discuss it in manageable segments throughout our monthly meetings. Overall, the Jacobsens’ analysis of religious life moving through three distinct phases—the Protestant era (1636 to late 19th century); the Privatized era (late 19th through late 20th centuries); the Pluriform era (late 20th century through today)—struck us as a descriptive trajectory.  Mostly.  The Protestant era, no doubt, left its mark as Ivy League and elite schools were envisioned, built-up and flourished under religious leadership. The Privatized era was also inevitable and undeniable, coming about as the Morrill Land Grant Act (1862), combined with the German research-based university becoming the new educational paradigm, created a more diverse and utterly secular worldview that served to privatize (or marginalize) religious life on campuses. Of course these trends set in and held fast relative to the kind of university or college in question, and even up to the present day there is a vestige of religiously based higher education in which the centrally located chapel still signifies that school’s stated mission. But this is an anomaly, right? Whether we serve a state or private university, or community college, religious life is more often than not viewed as a potential liability that needs to be managed rather than a gift to be cultivated.


While No Longer Invisible points enthusiastically to a more robust form of pluralism that (the Jacobsens insist) is emerging (what they chart out as “Trail Markers in a Time of Transition”), it is clear to more than a few of us that we are still very much in-transition and occupy what anthropologist Victor Turner termed as “liminal space,” a state of disorientation in which we look for vital connections, anticipate new thresholds and hope that old hierarchical orderings will be reversed, or at least debunked of their hegemony.  A case in point: When I came on board as the University Chaplain and Director of Religious Life, our mission statement (in part) read: Because we seek to educate the “whole person,” we view ethical and spiritual formation as integral to the University’s overall educational mission and religious life as an important dimension of the so-called hidden curriculum of the University. This is clearly transitional language. In making this observation I am not being snarky, since I believe that Vanderbilt sincerely values religious life and spiritual formation as an aspect of a more holistic vision of higher education on our near horizon. Nevertheless, when you take into account the prevailing academic and social ethos that sustains us, we still acquiesce to religious life being the “hidden curriculum” that isn’t supposed to be all that visible in the first place.


I am cautiously optimistic about what the Jacobsens see as signs of pluriformity eclipsing the privatization of religion on campus, and I also agree with them that the privatizing of religion over the past century was hardly an exile forced upon us by mean ole secularists (at least not entirely!). Privatizing of religious life on campus was often religiously motivated, allowing for more diversity and the inclusion of religious minorities into the open marketplace of ideas, culture and practice. Privatization, in fact, became the means by which the Protestant ethic of “individualization” gave way to an active and affirming expression of hospitality. So, as we segue from the private to the pluriform, it is my belief that a kind and humble attitude regarding hospitality will be critical in how we gracefully transition through this disorienting liminal space of the present to a re-orienting new era of religion and higher education. This ethic of hospitality will allow academy and all the world faiths to work collaboratively as deeper dimensions of purpose and meaning in the lives of students emerges.


In the gospel of Luke (14:7-14), Jesus gives timeless guidance in building community through humility and hospitality: When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down in the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by the host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (NRSV)


This teaching became especially poignant as I considered the fact that many, if not

most, of us are welcomed as guests at the great banquet of higher education by hosts

who are not at all obliged to send us invitations. Because some of us come as

representatives of denominations and traditions that once, in a different era, owned

and operated countless banquet halls, it is easy to assume an attitude of

entitlement. We are quick to desire locations and recognition that would

re-establish us in “places of honor.” This is more of a confession than an accusation,

since the historic Methodist roots of my university, long since severed, remind me of

a time, long before I was born, in which religious life and the aims of higher education were synonymous—not as a “hidden curriculum” of the academy, but as central to its identity. And so the question remains: What must we do during this time of transition as we wait, along with the Jacobsens, to be No Longer Invisible? First, whether we play the role of guest or host we are each honoring the covenant of hospitality. Whether we are located on the margins or centralized in more visible and viable places, we need to repeat and internalize this wise refrain, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  Secondly, if it seems that we remain invisible within the larger academic and social scheme, recall how it was that Jesus used metaphors of smallness—yeast, salt, mustard seeds—to suggest the redemptive and transformative work of the Spirit inconspicuously thriving within, among and through us.  Lastly, what validates ministry is not our visibility (or our invisibility, if we are prone toward a posture of “prophetic marginality”), but the visible outcomes of faithful striving, seen and unseen, that are invariably and beautifully incarnated in the lives of students, faculty, staff and other colleagues. Are we no longer invisible?

Maybe, maybe not. This time of transition is unfolding differently for each of us. One thing remains certain: we are not extraneous to the educational and religious institutions that still call, commission and contract with us to make a real difference in the public and private worlds of those we serve.


Reverend Mark Forrester, University Chaplain and Director of Religious Life at Vanderbilt, Nashville, Tennessee

Mark Forrester


One Response to “No Longer Invisible”

  1. Linda Carter May 2, 2013 at 10:58 am #

    Great insight, Mark. Thank you. This book is on my summer reading list.

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