Bill Clark on an Academic’s Spiritual Journey
Date: June 2nd, 2013

In a personal interview that has a different flavor than many of our other episodes, we follow the spiritual journey of Prof. William Clark, a professor of political science at the Univeristy of Michigan, from his childhood years up until the present.  While we have featured the personal stories of other guests on our show — such as cowboy preacher Dan Stiles and street preacher Jeff Rose — this discussion takes on a unique twist in that we ask Bill to use his own familiarity with the sociology of religion to reflect upon how his life informs us about the changing religious landscape more generally.  Bill specializes in the study of international and comparative political economy, writing on such things as financial institutions, yet he nonetheless retains a close familiarity with what scholars who focus on religion are writing about.

We begin the journey with Bill growing up in New Jersey in a Catholic household.  His close interaction with the Church has him considering the priesthood for a short time, though this is never realized.  Instead, his interests in architecture and music take him along a different path in college.  It is early in his college career, though, when he experiences a falling out with religion following the death of his father.  This incident issues in a spiritual dry spell in his life and we follow the academic and professional trajectory of Bill through this period, which extends through his graduate training at Rutgers and first job down in Georgia.  Despite his turn to a more secular life, he does marry a woman who remains more-or-less connected to her non-denominational religious roots and they begin a family together.  The birth of their children draws Bill’s wife into weekly services with a desire to raise them with a moral foundation, while Bill admits to staying at home reading the New York Times on Sunday.  Nonetheless, Bill does attend services on occasion and he admits to being rather argumentative with the pastors and their messages being that as an academic he was trained to disagree with somebody after a 40 minute sermon, irrespective what was being said.  This academic personality trait becomes important later in his life as we see with his next move, which is northward to Princeton for a post-doc fellowship.

It is at Princeton where Bill’s spiritual journey takes an important turn.  They connect to a Christian Missionary Alliance church and Bill, through a series of seemingly small but important events, begins engaging a small Bible study group and, after getting a job at NYU and making the long train commute, has a regular dinner discussion with the pastor of his church.  These small group discussions and personal contact with the pastor play a much more important role in bringing Bill back to the faith than the large Sunday service experience, an interesting sociological observation that reveals a great deal about how people interact with faith and helps us to understand where Bill is today.  He then discusses his conversion experience, which has both its small steps and its “brick wall” moment.  Bill, at this point, makes a very intersting observation — it is the sociological factors that matter for the direction of one’s conversion, but there is still more to the process than just that.

We then move up to New York City.  An exhaustive commute and the opportunity to get into NYU housing allows the Clark family to move to the Big Apple.  It is here we discuss his involvement with the creation of a start-up church associated with the McManus bothers’ Mosaic Church in California.  We delve into the experience of creating this church and what was unique about what he was doing.  This portion of our conversation also recalls some of the insights provided in an earlier podcast with Tony Carnes about New York religion, namely that spirituality in New York is not always the typical Sunday service experience, but rather finds ways to work itself into some unusual cracks and corners of the city.  This discussion leads us to reflect upon what the nature of our religious landscape looks like — not necessarily declining religiosity, but rather changing forms of religiosity that appears to many (incorrectly) to be a loss of faith.

The podcast closes with Bill’s most recent academic move to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  Tony is given some academic advice on how to be more attractive to other schools (namely rely upon divine providence) and then we discuss how Bill’s spiritual life is again reshaped.  Bill once again gets connected with what might be considered a more traditional-style of church, plugs into a small group format, and then eventually takes an interesting missional step outside of the church building, which is where he finds himself today.  We conclude with Bill’s thoughts on the recent hubbub about the rise of “religious nones” in America and what he has learned on his academic and spiritual journey.  Recorded: May 21, 2013.


Bill Clark’s bio at the University of Michigan.

The Political Economy of Monetary Institutions, edited by William Bernhard, Lawrence Broz, and William Clark.

Capitalism, Not Globalism: Capital Mobility, Central Bank Independence, and the Political Control of the Economy, by William Clark.

Principles of Comparative Politics, by William Clark, Matt Golder, and Sona Golder.


Tony Carnes on a Journey Through NYC Religions

Tony Carnes onJesus’s Auto Body Shop and New York City Religions, Part II

Margarita Mooney on Her Monastic Vacation

Kimberly Conger on Being Christian in Secular Academia

W. Bradford Wilcox on Marriage

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