Redefining Religion? Therapeutic Theology and Where the Office of Religious Life Falls Short

At Princeton, we are fortunate enough to have an abundance of structures designed to support students during hard times. Outside of the rigor of papers, problems sets, and precepts, the University offers services such as the Office of Career Services, the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding, the Women’s Center, Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS), and a number of other centers to help students through the toils and trials of undergraduate life. Whenever a disturbing event happens on campus, administrators encourage students to utilize these offerings. Besides a quantity of medical and therapeutic resources, these administrative nudgings also reference the Office of Religious Life (ORL). During difficult times, turning towards religion indicates a genuine human aspiration for understanding and peace through the action of the supernatural. When all other paths have been taken away, there is still the latent yearning for an answer which satisfies the soul.

It is, of course, an incredible gift that spiritual leaders from many traditions make themselves available to help suffering students. The consolation religion can offer people is one of its great contributions to the security and stability of individuals’ lives. The fact that religious leaders are putting themselves forward as a resource to help people through difficult times is sacrificial and generous. It is a further gift that University administrators see the value in the services these spiritual leaders provide and recommend them to students. With all that said, however, it does strike me as strange that the Chaplaincies of the ORL receive mention chiefly in this context. A few major factors could combine to create this unnatural dynamic. Perhaps it is the fact that religion does not get mentioned in many other contexts by the administration. As a result, I fear that the whole concept of religion could be reduced to serving merely as a therapy clinic. Or perhaps I dislike the sound of the word “resource” in conjunction with religious offerings. I prefer instead to believe with Gandhi that “faith is not something to grasp, it is a state to grow into.”

If any of these concerns can be validated, it will certainly be within the larger context of Princeton’s culture and academics. Shortcomings in the portrayal of religion through Princeton’s offerings related to health and therapy are informed by the intellectual backdrop against which they are defined. The marginalization of religion which may be present at the level of healthcare owes its miscategorization to a miscategorization in the intellectual sphere. A deprecation of religion in academia—even an unintentional one—will trace its origins to the activity of the school’s intellectual pursuits. And if all serious study of religion views it only as a distant, perhaps somewhat curious, object of inquiry, then it makes sense that religion would be viewed as such in other areas as well. Here it is necessary to distinguish between religious studies (a discipline present at the University) and its counterpart, theology (absent at the University).

In his essay, Theology and Religious Studies: Their Difference and the Difference It Makes, theology professor Schubert Ogden, attempts to articulate the distinction between these two disciplines. He explains that any formulation of the study of religion that understands “itself in terms of current standards of reflection” must be religious studies. On the other hand, theology appeals to “special criteria for the truth of some if not all of its assertions” and that the theologian “has to be a believer already committed to the truth of the assertions that theological reflection seeks to establish.” Working within the paradigms of contemporary academia, religious studies falls short in understanding the thing that it can observe only externally. In its domain, religion can be seen as a social agitator, a historical force, or even an economic motivator, but nothing more. This perception of religion stands in stark contrast to the way in which the theologian has traditionally understood his discipline: a deeper penetration into the revealed beliefs he holds to be true. Thus, at an academic institution like Princeton, misunderstanding of religion is concretely entrenched in the University’s scholarly pursuits. As a result of the intellectual status quo, it is no surprise that devaluation of belief in the transcendent is taken as a matter of course by many students, religious and nonreligious alike.

Maintaining that religion serves only as a healing mechanism, a social force on the actions of humanity, or, in an even more hackneyed expression, insisting that it exists as “the opiate of the masses,” indicates a predisposition towards reality that is already confirmed in its outlook. In his tome, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor tries to specify what exactly this attitude towards religion consists in, positing the idea of the “immanent frame.” Someone espouses such a viewpoint when one perceives the world and processes what they perceive only within a naturalistic perspective, one in which everything can be understood though “instrumental rationality.” According to Taylor, the immanent frame “constitutes a ‘natural’ order, to be contrasted with a supernatural one, an ‘immanent’ world over against a possible ‘transcendent’ one.” Further, it produces “a single-minded focus on the human good aided by a fuller and fuller use of scientific reason.” The purview of a such an outlook is limited. It can perceive only those things which the sciences can clearly comprehend, while anything they cannot might as well not exist. Within the immanent frame, mystery is a misnomer. Taylor’s immanent frame seems to be the kind of worldview within which religion would be seen merely as a medical resource. Religion could just as well be seen as a safeguard against anarchy, a political ally, a political enemy—the specifics do not matter—so long as its categorization avoids acknowledging anything above nature, anything supernatural. Informed by the conviction that nothing is transcendent, an adherence to the immanent frame affirms the non-transcendence of religion. And once religion has been so reduced, identifying it as an instrument in the toolkit of health services is one way among many to reclassify a worn out tool.

What is the alternative to the immanent frame? In his essay “Two Economies,” Wendell Berry lays out two different systems for understanding the world. He contrasts the “little economy” and the “Great Economy.” The first includes the patterns and methods of organization which humans have dominion over—“a narrow circle within which things are manageable by the use of our wits.” This little economy is much like Taylor’s immanent frame, dealing with the immediate and controllable aspects of human experience. The Great Economy, on the other hand, “comprehends humans and thus cannot be fully comprehended by them.” This economy, in its transcendence of human limitations, “is both known and unknown, visible and invisible, comprehensible and mysterious.” In short, it accounts for the world without the hindrance of having to see it from one imperfect perspective. The relationship between this kind of economy and religion is clear. Berry identifies such a Great Economy with the “Kingdom of God” promised in Christianity, an ordering force beyond our full comprehension. He by no means wants to limit the understanding of such a transcendent pattern in one religion alone, however, explaining that “we can name it whatever we wish, but we cannot define it except by way of a religious tradition.” If it is in light of the Great Economy that sincere religious believers view their religious practice and belief, it is no wonder that presenting the ORL as only a therapeutic counseling office is to transfer the concept of religion from the Great Economy to the little. Instead of acknowledging the actual understanding of religion as understood by members of faith traditions, such a portrayal deflates religion to a mere instrument in the physician’s hands instead of being the Physician itself.

What Princeton lacks in the academic sphere confirms this denial of depth in the question of religion. If all academic attempts to study religion determine at the outset to not take seriously its claims that suggest a reality larger than the little economy, then it makes sense that its claims would not be seen as genuine in other contexts as well. At an academic institution, the first step to mitigate the grand misrepresentation of religion must be to teach genuine theology. Real theology, taught with intellectual honesty and seriousness, would not study religion’s effect on society (sociology), religion’s effect on government (politics), religion’s effect on the distribution of wealth (economics), or even religion’s effect on the course of the past (history). Theology aims to study the nature of God and religious beliefs—on their own terms. Through the promotion of an accurate picture of religion in the academic sphere, the University would not only resolve an intellectual shortcoming, but redefine religion from doctor of the body to healer or the soul.


Will Nolan is a junior from Williamstown, Massachusetts, majoring in the Philosophy Department. He can be reached at

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