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Provost Argues for Valuing “Tributaries” Beyond the Religious Mainstream

Convocation - Spring semester 2011

Provost Fred Kniss ’79 encouraged an international cross-section of academics hearing his keynote address to the Association for the Sociology of Religion (ASR) to consider the religious “tributaries, eddies and crosscurrents” that inform the so-called “mainstream” faiths.

Kniss’s speech, at the ASR’s 75th annual conference in New York City on Aug. 11, 2013, marked the end of his one-year term as president of the leading professional association for sociologists of religion, which has about 700 members. As president, Kniss chose a “rivers” theme for the conference, and used his speech to make a case for the importance of understanding the ways that “fringe” religious traditions (like the Mennonite Church) influence, and are influenced by, mainstream religion.

“My argument is that, to our detriment, we have focused too much on the mainstream of religion,” said Kniss, professor and chair of sociology at Loyola University Chicago before he became provost of Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in 2009. “Conversely, we have too often failed to notice how the mainstream is a product of multiple dynamics and contestations – the tributaries, eddies and crosscurrents that combine and interact to form the broad course of religious experience and institutions.”

Planning the annual conference was one of Kniss’s major tasks as president of the ASR. After the event, he will become the association’s immediate past president, a position now held by Dr. Roger Finke of Penn State University. Dr. Chris Ellison, from the University of Texas-San Antonio, is the next president.

Kniss, whose doctoral research at the University of Chicago focused on social change and conflict within the Mennonite Church, argued that a monolithic understanding of “the mainstream” leads to unhelpful, black-and-white distinctions such as liberal-conservative or mainline-evangelical that diminish scholars’ ability to “grasp the complexities” of religious life.

Returning to the river metaphor, Kniss pointed out that the main body of the stream is constantly affected and changed by smaller tributaries and currents. One example, drawn from his own religious tradition, is the experience of the Mennonites and other “peace churches” during World War II, who worked with the federal government to carve out civil service exemptions for members opposed to military service on moral grounds.

This accomplishment, starting from the fringes of American religion, had the effect of creating “conscientious objection to war as a respectable ethical and political position to take” more broadly in our society, Kniss said in his speech. “[This] also produced significant change within the religious mainstream, strengthening the voice of pacifists within denominations who officially embraced a ‘just war’ theology.”

In an interview before the speech, Kniss said his call for increased academic attention to the peripheries of American religious life is also an appeal for better awareness of and relating to the growing religious diversity in American society. In his speech, Kniss noted that sociologists increasingly agree that a healthy religious diversity within a community “[produces] religious vitality and [increases] the participation of religion within the public sphere.”

In other words, relating to members of other religious faiths, Kniss said, strengthens one’s personal (or communal or institutional) faith commitments.

Increasing religious diversity is certainly a reality at EMU. In the fall of 2012, 45 percent of traditional undergraduate students came from Mennonite or Mennonite-related backgrounds. In 2003, that number was 55 percent and, in 1993, it was 69 percent. Along the way, the university has made an effort to engage internal and external diversity through programs such as the new Center for Interfaith Engagement, the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, and other areas of its core undergraduate curriculum, like the cross-cultural programs.

While the perception sometimes exists that these kinds of programs might threaten EMU’s institutional faith commitments, Kniss argued in the interview that the effect is precisely the opposite.

“Having something like the Center for Interfaith Engagement isn’t taking us down the road to secularism,” he said. “It’s helping us to better understand ourselves.”

As provost, in charge of EMU’s academic programs, Kniss said he thinks daily about how EMU relates to the growing eddies, tributaries and crosscurrents of religious diversity while maintaining its own “mainstream” Mennonite identity. The key question he bears in mind, from considering broad institutional efforts to individual faculty hiring decisions, is how EMU can accomplish higher education in a way that reflects Mennonite and Anabaptist ideals.

“As long as we keep that question in front of us, the mission and identity of the university will stay strong,” he said.

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