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Secularism and pluralism present a problem for the notion of progress. The Wisconsin State motto is “Forward,” calling all subjects of the state toward progress, including the university. But how can a society move forward without acknowledging its own history and knowing the core beliefs that produced it. If the core of belief is supplanted by the state itself, it will soon fail to produce the “good” it purports to do. In his book, “The Spiritual Situation in Our Technical Society”, Paul Tillich writes “education without a determining center is impossible. The nation became the ideological center that demanded absolute devotion, though itself was above criticism.” (Tillich 1988:17)
Once the state became the central defining institution, all religious influence was sequestered into the private arena, hidden behind stained glass windows. Os Guinness writes, “Secularization is the process by which religious ideas, institutions, and interpretations have lost their social significance.” How shall Jesus followers in Madison respond? Do they stir up their confidence in Jesus’ victory by redoubling their spiritual exercises, attending to religious duties, and gathering in religious settings? Or should they instead return to the God of their fathers who interpreted the words of the Lord for a public arena?
In that public arena, we no longer find the predominant values of a society informed by Biblical principle. Madison is home to many religious groups with very different values. Pluralism is what exists when there are “a competing number of worldviews available to its members, but no worldview is dominant.”
With no roots or absolutes, people in Madison represent “all religions and no religion;” they are “seeking for a sense of roots, an affirmation that there is something bigger than the existence we know-something of ultimate value.” In his book, “The Soul of The American University,” which traces the history of the secularization of American universities, George Marsden calls for academics of religious faith, including those in Madison, to re-think the connections between their faith and their scholarly endeavors.
Madison is progressive, leaning forward into a vision of the future with little reference to Biblical values. Without that Biblical reference and religious values, what should we expect to be the result of that progressive vision?
Marsden’s challenge is to re-think, and re-interpret a progressive vision of the future by reviewing the vision of those who have gone before us.