Keeping the Light Burning

January 2003By Philip Blosser

Philip Blosser is Professor of Philosophy at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, North Carolina.

Quality With Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith With Their Religious Traditions.  By Robert Benne. Eerdmans. 217 pages. $19.

Higher Learning and Catholic Traditions.  Edited by Robert E. Sullivan. University of Notre Dame. 157 pages. $28.



Few things are more pitiful to observe than the bizarre contortions of a church-related college or university in the throes of disengagement from its supporting religious tradition. Robert Benne tells the story of two middle-aged Lutheran matrons who staffed the student health center at Roanoke College when it was at the nadir of its relationship to its sponsoring denomination. The two ladies, says Benne, “thought the public health of the college would best be served by their handing out condoms in the student dining room a few days prior to spring break. The students found it a bit embarrassing to take such contraband from women who could well be their mothers; furthermore, the women themselves would never condone in their own behavior the kind of separation between sex and love that they were encouraging in students by their actions.”

Such stories have perhaps now become so commonplace as to furnish material for the quaint yarns spun by Garrison Keillor. Yet they also reflect the reality of what has been happening in many of America’s church-related colleges and universities. It is not merely that student culture has changed to reflect the secular “liberalization” of society generally; church-related schools have been undergoing, in many cases, a crisis in institutional identity at the level of their raison d’être, a condition reflected frequently not only in administrators’ laissez-faire attitude toward student behavior, but in students’ abysmal ignorance about their faith and pervasive indifference toward religious authority, faculty members’ dwindling sense of religious commitment, the frequent ambivalence of administrations toward their own supporting church bodies, and the bizarre phenomenon of trustees of such schools who no longer even understand the institutional purposes they hold in trust.

The secularization of American church-related colleges and universities has been the subject of several milestone studies over the last decade. These studies remind us of what many have long forgotten. It is hardly remembered anymore that America’s Ivy League universities were founded explicitly as Christian institutions, for the purpose not only of training future Protestant pastors, but of overtly inculcating faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. Many would be surprised today to learn that most public colleges and land-grant universities originally required mandatory chapel attendance. George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (1994) tells the story of how such institutions of the mainline Protestant establishment gradually lost their Christian identities, first, by making education “nonsectarian,” then by appealing to a set of vaguely religious moral ideas; and finally by excluding specifically Christian values and practices altogether. Philip Gleason’s Contending With Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century (1996) traces the impact of this mainline Protestant trajectory of secularization on Catholic institutions after Vatican II. The prevailing idolatry of value-free, secular knowledge tempted many Catholic schools to follow this Protestant trajectory by adopting the view of religion as a parochial “add-on,” or something to be relegated to the sphere of private opinion. Further, in order to receive federal funds and garner the recognition of the secular academic elite, many Catholic colleges and universities rewrote their charters, laicized their boards, and marginalized their religious commitments, to the point that many seemed embarrassed by their Catholic identity, regarding it as a sign of mediocrity or worse. James Turnstead Burtchaell’s The Dying of the Light (1998), a massive study by the former provost of Notre Dame, chronicles in grim detail the wholesale loss of religious identity in America’s Christian colleges and universities in actual case studies, carefully documenting 16 representative schools from seven traditions, Catholic and Protestant, in which he believes the light has gone out. These works constitute a wake-up call to all those interested in the future of Christian higher education.

In light of these developments, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, issued at the beginning of the previous decade (1990) and aimed at reigning in Catholic institutions by requiring mandates for Catholic theologians and insisting that a majority of faculty members at Catholic institutions be Catholic, could not have been more prescient or timely. Yet the Church moves slowly. A full decade later, America’s Catholic bishops have finally responded to the Pope by approving procedures for certifying that theologians teaching Catholic theology in Catholic institutions in fact do so. The crisis in religious commitment is not restricted to religion or theology departments, but involves entire faculties and administrations — and this may be a weakness in the bishops’ response. It would be of little use to have a completely orthodox theological faculty if that orthodoxy were constantly being undermined by religiously skeptical members of the psychology, sociology, and political science departments, for example, who happened to have rival perspectives completely antipathetic to that of the supporting religious tradition.

What is needed at this point is the example of academically respectable Christian schools that have succeeded in keeping faith with their religious traditions without squelching genuine academic freedom, as well as the example of largely secularized institutions that have successfully managed to reconnect with their Christian traditions again (such as the Franciscan University of Steubenville) or schools that continue to struggle down the long road back from secularization (such as Roanoke College). Also needed is the example of scholars who critically integrate their Christian faith with genuine scholarship in a total vision of life and learning that offers liberation from the preconceptions of the established culture rather than uncritical acceptance of regnant ideological fashions. The two volumes under review here may offer some help.

“I have always held the conviction,” writes Robert Benne, “that the Christian faith provides an account of all of life, not just of ‘private’ or ‘spiritual’ life.” That’s how Benne begins his book, Quality With Soul, a study of how six premier colleges and universities (Calvin, Wheaton, Valparaiso, Notre Dame, Baylor, and St. Olaf) have resisted the widespread secularizing drift of American higher education and “kept faith with their religious traditions.” Such schools survive and even flourish, he says, because a sufficient number of individuals in their sponsoring churches, boards, administrations, and faculties have not lost faith in the comprehensiveness, unsurpassableness, and centrality of the Christian account of reality. The inroads of secularization occur when the comprehensiveness of this vision is compromised by the compartmentalization of religious faith. This may initially take the form of a seemingly benign “two-sphere” view of education in which religion is seen as an “add-on” to an otherwise value-free, secular curriculum. Or it may take the form of a marginalizing “privatization” of religion that undermines its relevance for the public life of the institution altogether. Or it may take the form of a disintegrating “pluralism” that fractures learning into unrelated specializations and perspectives. But the key to keeping faith with one’s religious tradition is a vision that successfully integrates faith and learning, an ethos that reflects this vision, and a sufficient number of students, faculty, administrations, and trustees who understand this vision and believe in its public relevance.

Alasdair MacIntyre, in Robert Sullivan’s collection of essays, Higher Learning and Catholic Traditions, singles out the compartmentalization of education, and the loss of an integrated vision that results from it, as perhaps the major threat facing Catholic universities today: “What the Catholic faith confronts today in American higher education,” he writes, “is not primarily some range of alternative beliefs about the order of things, but rather a belief that there is no such thing as the order of things of which there could be a unified, if complex, understanding.” Sullivan’s volume represents the inaugural volume in a book series of the Erasmus Institute, which was founded in 1997 to build bridges between Catholic and secular scholarship and encourage the application of Catholic intellectual traditions to research in the humanities, social sciences, arts, and professional disciplines such as law.

These are two quite different books, even if they are ultimately animated by a similar concern about the relation of faith to learning. Benne’s work represents a response to the secularization of church-related colleges and universities. He offers numerous useful observations about how schools can recover and maintain their religious identities. Sullivan’s anthology represents an experiment in relating faith and learning in a variety of fields, and specifically the application of the Catholic intellectual traditions to research outside of academic theology. Distinguished academics from a variety of intellectual and religious backgrounds are represented.

Benne’s volume is divided into three parts. Part One describes the “darkening trends” of secularization, examines their underlying causes, and offers a typology of church-related colleges. His classification ranges from schools that are pervasively and intentionally “orthodox” by dint of a thoroughly integrated and articulated vision of faith and learning, to those that seek to preserve their Christian identity and ethos by maintaining a “critical mass” of church adherents, to those that are either intentionally or accidentally “pluralist” and have secular sources rather than a Christian vision of reality as their organizing paradigm. Part Two discusses the six specific schools Benne singles out for analysis, together with their diverse sponsoring religious traditions, focusing on factors related to institutional vision (such as mission statements, the role of theology and philosophy departments, administrators, and supporting churches) and ethos (such as student life, chapel, role of staff, etc.).

Some interesting facts emerge at this point. Wheaton College, a nondenominational evangelical liberal arts college with a student enrollment of 2,400 and mandatory chapel three times a week, has over 100 philosophy majors and 180 theology majors! (Benne could have also mentioned that the theologically conservative Franciscan University in the sooty Ohio town of Steubenville, with an enrollment of 2,200, has over 300 theology majors!) And Notre Dame, whose 27 single-sex dorms are monitored by an extensive system of adult rectors who function in loco parentis by enforcing university rules regarding alcohol and visiting hours, and planning worship services in each dorm, has a staggering retention rate of 95 percent from the first to second year!

Part Three of Benne’s book describes strategies for maintenance and renewal. These strategies include cultivating relations with churches of the sponsoring tradition, both in terms of religious accountability and in terms of tapping a ready constituency for the recruitment of students, faculty, administrators, and staff to sustain or build such schools. A “critical mass” of church adherents is pivotal for success. It’s time to get over the embarrassment, says Benne, of seeking out students, faculty, and administrators from a school’s supporting religious tradition. At this point, talk about “diversity” can become counterproductive. Only a critical mass of individuals can provide the cohesion and integration of vision to produce “quality with soul.”

In a final chapter entitled “The Long Road Back,” Benne describes the inevitably painful process any school must undergo after it has drifted sufficiently far from its religious moorings if it is to recover its religious identity. If it no longer has a critical mass of individuals from its religious tradition, it may have to work toward an “intentional pluralism” in which that religious tradition is granted at least an “assured voice.” The road to recovery will be impossible unless the president is “on board.” Faculty members can play a crucial role in organizing “faith and learning” organizations to cultivate necessary discourse to get things moving. Endowed chairs, institutes, and centers can be established to foster the religious vision of the supporting tradition. Each academic department must have at least one member who can articulate the vision of the religious tradition and speak for it, and not merely about it. Furthermore, serious efforts must be made to recruit faculty, even in “non-religious” departments, from the supporting tradition, in order to build the critical mass needed to fashion a cohesively integrated vision of faith and life.

There is hope that church-related colleges and universities can strengthen, maintain, or recover their religious identity. If the will is there, ways will be found.



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