Religion and Reality in the University: Thinking with Robert N. Bellah

A quote from Bellah’s recently published book Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. I’ve just started this massive tome, but thus far I think I’m going to really like it.

“One could say that if we can no longer glimpse that sacred foundation, the actual university would collapse. For the real university is neither a wholesale knowledge outlet for the consumer society nor an instrument in the class struggle, though the actual university is a bit of both. But if the university does not have a fundamental symbolic reference point that transcends the pragmatic considerations, then it has lost its raison d’être.

Without the capacity for symbolic transcendence, for seeing the realm of daily life in terms of a realm beyond it, without the capacity for “beyonding,” as Kenneth Burke put it, one would be trapped in a world of what has been called dreadful immanence. For the world of daily life seen solely as a world of rational response to anxiety and need is a world of mechanical necessity, not radical autonomy. It is through pointing to other realities, through beyonding, that religion and poetry, and science too in its own way, break the dreadful fatalities of this world of appearances.”-p. 9


    1. I pulled this out of a context within which he was contrasting the universe of ordinary “daily life” with that of non-ordinary realities revealed by art, science, religion, etc. His point is that these realities tens to mix, and that if they didn’t, the ordinary reality of daily life, with its death anxiety and seemingly endless toil, would collapse immediately. There are various forms of symbols of transcendence all around us holding up the otherwise unstable chamber of immanence.

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