No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education

Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen
New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012


Jacobsen and Jacobsen present the thesis of No Longer Invisible in the very first paragraph of the preface, “This book is about religion and undergraduate education at America’s thousands of colleges and universities. Its main argument can be stated simply: Paying attention to religion… has potential to enhance student learning and to improve higher education as a whole.”[1]



After a preface that introduces the book’s thesis, aim, and organization, No Longer Invisible is presented in two parts. “Part One: Religion in the Context of University Education” is divided into four chapters. This first chapter, “No Longer Invisible,” gives context to the overall argument by claiming that even though religion (and spirituality) had been pushed out of much of academia beginning in the late 19th Century, in recent years religion has become visible again and many schools are “grappling with how to proceed.”[2] The second chapter, “The History of Religion in American Higher Education” explores three historical eras in the relationship between religion and higher education in America. These are the Protestant (1636-late 1800’s), Privatized (late 1800’s-late 1900’s), and Pluriform (present) eras. “Trail Markers in a Time of Transition” then offers “guidance about how to respond to religion in the immediate, if and when it happens to appear” by defining four “trail markers” to “direct faculty members… toward safe ways of negotiating the mine-filled maze of religion on campus.”[3] These are Spirituality (vs. Religion), Teaching about Religion (vs. Teaching Religion Itself), Difficult Dialogues, and Big Questions. The concluding chapter of Part One is “A Framework for Better Questions,” and this chapter claims that “asking good questions requires a more nuanced vocabulary” about religion than most Americans presently have.[4] This vocabulary can be bolstered by understanding the difference between historic religion, public (civic) religion, and personal religion (spirituality).

“Part Two: Six Sites of Engagement” is divided into six chapters, each presenting one way that religion can be introduced or engaged in the classroom in order to enhance the development of students’ intellectual, social, and moral lives. “Religious Literacy” provides evidence that, while Americans claim to be quite religious, Americans are at the same time illiterate about religion (even their own). The authors make the case that higher education must include courses in religious literacy in order to foster familiarity and acceptance of others. “Interfaith Etiquette” follows the previous chapter by arguing that it is not enough for students to know about religions, but that they must also be taught how to interact respectfully with those of other faiths. “Framing Knowledge” challenges educators to pay close attention to how knowledge is framed and to be open to frames that are not their own. The following chapter, “Civic Engagement,” calls attention to the often causal relationship between religion/spirituality and activism and/or community service. “Convictions” makes the case that allowing religion/spirituality into the university experience will assist students in developing and determining their own core convictions and will give them the opportunity to learn from, interact with, and appreciate the convictions of others. The final chapter, “Character and Vocation,” asserts that “paying attention to matters like character and vocation (matters that are for many students inherently religious) is not something optional for colleges and universities; it is central to why they exist.”[5] Following the final chapter, “Conclusion: Religion and the Future of University Education” concludes the book with the authors’ hope that “big questions of meaning and purpose, important questions of social norms and values, factual questions about science and society, and existential questions about how people with differing ideas, ideals, and life goals can live and work together for the benefit of everyone will be a part of every undergraduate experience.”[6]



According to the website of Messiah College, Douglas Jacobsen is Distinguished Professor of Church History and Theology at Messiah College, a nondenominational Christian college with Anabaptist roots. On his faculty webpage he writes of himself, “Theologically I would describe myself as a Pietistic Christian with strong Anabaptist and ecumenical sympathies… I am also a thirty-year-plus member of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ (UCC).” Jacobsen has authored several books on the role of religion in academia, books about various expressions of Christianity around the world, one book about the history of Pentecostalism, and he has co-authored Gracious Christianity: Living the Love We Confess. Along with his wife and colleague, Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, he directs the Religion in the Academy Project.

Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen is Professor of Psychology and Director of Faculty Development at Messiah College. In addition to No Longer Invisible, she has authored many journal articles on the connection between religion and higher education. She does not provide any specific details about her own religious affiliations or convictions other than when it is written on page ix, “Both of us are lifelong Protestants.” In the same paragraph both authors also admit that they have “Protestant biases (or perhaps more accurately… Protestant habits of thought and practice).”

The first of three presuppositions that are at work in No Longer Invisible is that the model of higher education that is skeptical and dismissive of religion is unhelpful and on its way out. The second presupposition is that the end of this era offers a great opportunity to create a more holistic approach to higher education. The third presupposition is that religion/spirituality, if invited back into higher education, will be a positive force within the university experience. These presuppositions are not surprising given the fact that both authors self-identify as religious and both work as college professors.



Although both authors are by their own admission Protestant Christians, this book does not assume a Protestant understanding of religion.  Instead, the authors define religion “broadly to include traditional religion, spirituality in its many different forms, and life’s big questions of meaning, purpose, character, hope, and ethics, whether or not they are formulated in religious language.”[7] The authors do not present an argument in this book for any one particular religion or spirituality, but rather make the case that religion, understood in this expansive way, should be invited back into the academic experience and that, if it is allowed back in, it will enhance the educational and developmental experience for all students, whether they identify as religious, spiritual, or neither.   

The authors make the claim that, although religion is “back” in higher education, it has returned in very different forms than it used to take. As globalization has spread, it is not uncommon to find many different kinds of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, atheists, and others all in the same classroom, even at a small private liberal arts college. In addition, there may be several students in that classroom who, while they would not identify as religious, have very strong spiritual inclinations and demeanors. According to the authors, the most notable change in religion/spirituality during its “absence” is that “the boundary line between what is and what is not religion has become thoroughly blurred… no one knows exactly where to draw the line indicating that one person’s convictions count as religion while those of someone else do not… American religion today is a very different animal than it was in the past.”[8]  



No Longer Invisible is written by academics for academics rather than for students or collegiate ministers. It is not necessarily written for people of faith, but rather for those who have both interest in and influence over decisions regarding curriculum or in classroom pedagogy. The authors communicate the aim of this book very clearly when they write, “this book provides a map of how colleges and universities across the country are re-engaging religion and how they can do that more intelligently and effectively. This is not a compendium of answers, but an invitation for educators to look more closely at a facet of life that is too big and important to ignore.”[9]



No Longer Invisible makes the identical argument to that of Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives by Astin, Astin, and Lindholm. It even cites the study on which Cultivating the Spirit is based numerous times. That being said, No Longer Invisible is a much more readable than Cultivating the Spirit because it does not include all of the statistical data and charts, and because the writing is much more engaging. In addition, No Longer Invisible offers more practical ideas for those in higher education, which can be gleaned by collegiate ministers. The most helpful section of the book is Part Two, which, as mentioned above, offers chapters on religious literacy, interfaith etiquette, framing knowledge, civic engagement, convictions, and character and vocation. All of these areas can and should be addressed within the larger faith-building context of college ministry.

No Longer Invisible’s main weakness, when viewed through the lens of a collegiate minister, is that it is not written specifically for collegiate ministers or for students. It is a part of an internal conversation within academia. Unless the collegiate minister is an official chaplain or director of spiritual life employed by the college or university, this internal conversation is one that collegiate ministers must listen in on from the outside. As mentioned above, there is much that can be gleaned by the collegiate minister in No Longer Invisible but this book is certainly not a “how to” manual for college ministry. It is, however, a useful resource that can benefit collegiate ministers by helping them to become deeper, more informed Christian leaders that are not only willing but eager to engage with the wider world, and to equip the students they serve to do the same. 


[Review by Everett L. Miller]

[1] Jacobsen, D. and Jacobsen, R. H., No Longer Invisible, vii.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid., 36.

[4] Ibid., 47.

[5] Ibid., 152.

[6] Ibid., 157.

[7] Ibid., vii.

[8] Ibid., 7.

[9] Ibid., vii.