Christianity and Academic Soul-searching

by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy Bass

Mark R. Schwehn is dean of Christ College at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana. Dorothy C. Bass is directof of the university’s Project on Education and Formation of People in Faith.

This article appeared in The Christian Century Magazine, March 15, 1995, pp. 292 – 295. For information about The Christian Century see This article was prepared for Religion Online by John Bushell.


Whom does the intellectual work of today’s academics serve?

With the boom times in higher education over, colleges and universities have been working to renew and sometimes redefine their identities and missions. Within the past few years almost all Christian colleges and universities have sought fresh ways to articulate their religious identity. Simultaneously, large and vocal elements within the secular academy have begun to lose confidence in the Enlightenment conceptions of rationality, objectivity and science that have given intellectual inquiry coherence and vitality. From any number of vantage points, people are wondering whether the American academy is losing its soul.

Such a climate is ripe for the production of jeremiads, and authors such as Page Smith (Killing the Spirit) and the late Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind) have obliged. In comparison to such works, George Marsden's book is a model of judiciousness. Though it has its own prescriptive agenda and point of view, the book is primarily an intellectual history of the development of the modem American university. Its ambitions scope, its thorough research, and its carefully balanced and highly nuanced narrative will make it one of the primary sources of reflection about the shape of higher learning long after many contemporary diatribes have faded from the scene. The book nevertheless is controversial both because of its major historical thesis and because of its prescriptions for what ails the modem university.

Marsden begins with one of the most remarkable events in American history: the founding of a reputable English college (Harvard) on the rim of the North American continent in 1636. Coming only six years into the colonists' massive work of civilization-building, this act expressed the zeal for higher learning that characterized their Protestant faith and social vision. Marsden concludes by reporting on sociologists David Riesman and Christopher Jencks's study of American higher education in the 1960s, which found that Protestant churches were "hardly consequential for the system as a whole." And, as Marsden notes, what they described, others celebrated, including a young theologian soon to join Harvard's faculty. "The whole idea of a 'Christian' college or university after the breaking apart of the medieval synthesis has little meaning," declared Harvey Cox in The Secular City. Thus, Cox argued, the process by which the contemporary university had won its liberation from religious influence could not and should not be resisted.

The Soul of the American University is an account of how an institutional world of overwhelmingly Protestant lineage could become so estranged from the substantive intellectual presence of religion. What changed "the relationship of dominant American academia to American religion" between the founding of a Christian colony's college and the emergence of the secular city's multiversity?

The crucial years were those between 1870 and 1914, when the modern research university emerged. The leading institutions -- Johns Hopkins, Yale, California (Berkeley), Michigan, Harvard, Princeton and Chicago -- set the pace, initiating an academic culture that is with us still. These schools broke from the model of the Christian college that had held sway before the Civil War: they avoided denominational restrictions, abolished the senior course in moral philosophy that had aimed to integrate collegiate studies with a Christian world view, and validated specialized empirical research as the prototype of higher learning.

But why did the fledgling universities take this form?. Why were they "designed in a way that would, virtually guarantee that they would become subversive of the distinctive aspects of their Christian heritage of learning"? Enlightenment philosophy, industrialization, professionalism and the advance of the sciences set the stage, but Marsden's plot does not focus on such impersonal forces.. Instead, the leading characters axe the educators who built and governed these universities -- virtually all of whom were earnest liberal Protestants. These Christians, Marsden argues, gained the world for the American university but lost its soul in the process. What had begun as "Protestant establishment" ended as "established nonbelief."

Initially, the modern university was "part of a single Protestant hope to uplift humanity and usher in an age of redemption." For progressive northern elites, high moral ideals and unfettered intellectual advance went hand in hand. Michigan's President James Angell declared at his 1871 inaugural that "the Christian spirit; which pervades the law, the customs, and the life of the State, shall shape and color the life of the University, that a lofty, earnest, but catholic and unsectarian Christian tone shall characterize the culture which is here imparted." At Johns Hopkins,. President Daniel Coit Gilman authorized the autonomy of science with the declaration that "science simply is an expression of Christianity." At Harvard, Charles W Eliot proclaimed adherence to Christianity but altered its meaning by subordinating "the letter of traditional Christianity to its moral spirit." For Eliot, all creative expressions of the human imagination and all inquiry were manifestations of Christianity.

Princeton's James McCosh objected to such latitude and kept his college closer to the Presbyterianism that had spawned it, but even at Princeton the unsettling effect of scientific reason on religious tradition began to appear.

The impetus to move fully into the liberal Protestant camp came under Woodrow Wilson, who wanted to place Princeton firmly "in the nation's service." Though the roots of this impulse toward service were Protestant, its fruits were more broadly moral and less distinctively Christian.

Time and again liberal Protestants' commitment to serving the public as well as the church provided the theological rationale for decision-making. University leaders resisted denominationally specific theological constraints, devising along the way a civil, understated religious language. As the specificity of their Christianity became diluted, liberal Protestants' identity in the universities rested increasingly on ethnic and class alliances, or on the alliance with secularists against fundamentalism and other perceived bigotries. By the time the 1960s arrived, liberal Protestantism lacked credibility: it was tied historically to a discredited establishment; its claim to be "nonsectarian" was untenable amid the wider pluralism of the late 20th century; and consensus in any form had become suspect. What might in hindsight seem like a subversive design was rather the ironic outcome of an establishment's confidence. Like Gibbon's Roman Empire, the Protestant establishment fell as a result of its own immoderate greatness. That an exclusivist and elitist establishment fell was, Marsden believes, a good thing. That it took theology down with it was not.

Marsden describes himself as a "fairly traditional Protestant of the Reformed theological heritage." He asserts the importance of linking faith to scholarship "not only in theology, but also in considering other dimensions of human thought and relationships." This, he contends, the modern university does not allow. He does not. want a return to the Protestant establishment's hegemony over universities as a whole. .Moreover, to refute historical methodology of his books bears witness to his own embrace of one of the keftenets of modern academic life: "procedural rationality." And yet Marsden writes as one aggrieved at the religious outcome of the development of the university.

For instance, although Marsdens narrative absolves liberal Protestant educators of deliberately causing secularization, his portrayal of their active complicity in the process suggests that the outcome might have been different had developments rested in more theologically astute hands. But was a Christian university under the auspices of "traditional Protestantism" ever possible in the post-Civil War United States? And is one possible now? Marsden's answer to these questions is not entirely clear. He works hard to develop a feeling of contingency, a sense that the process of secularization or the disestablishment of religion was not inevitable. This effort is undermined by his elaborately defended decision to exclude from his discussion any sustained attention to either Catholic or Protestant church-related colleges. Though his focus on the "flagship" universities is otherwise sensible, these omissions make it nearly impossible for the reader to imagine any plausible historical alternative to the scenario he presents.

When Marsden does turn to alternative institutions, the results of the survey are not encouraging. He looks briefly at Abraham Kuyper and the Free University of Amsterdam as an "alternative to the American

model," but his examination is so hurried as to tacitly concede its irrelevance to the American context. Roman Catholicism did manage to maintain a distinctive identity during the period of liberal Protestant capitulation to secularism, but according to Marsden it did so "at the price of accepting Roman authoritarianism and severe restraints on its intellectual life." The difficulties with "strongly religious" colleges even today, much less between 1870 and 1920, are sometimes buried in Marsden's notes, as when he admits that academic due process is often absent from such schools and "dictatorial rule is particularly common."

Are there churches willing to contribute their members, riches and practices to an essentially public venture of the human mind which they judge to be good but which they do not seek to control? Those concerned about contact between higher learning and Christianity need to examine not only the condition of religion in dominant intellectual centers but also the condition of intellect in dominant religious centers. It takes two to make a marriage, even a strained one. Marsden believes that "the free exercise of religion does not extend to the dominant intellectual centers of our culture." To which one must respond: the free exercise of intellect often does not extend to the dominant religious centers of our culture.

Stating the converse is more complicated than it might seem, however, because of hidden in the little word "free." In current discourse it carries Enlightenment connotations of autonomous rationality that many religious groups would not include in their understandings of the intellectual life. Confessional and hierarchical traditions, including Catholic and some Reformed and Lutheran traditions, contain ways of construing "freedom" that do not equate it with autonomous rationality. At their best, such traditions have maintained a rationality that is inseparable from religious starting points (a rationality such as that discussed in Nicholas Wolterstorff's Reason Within the Bounds of Religion Alone), and have also sponsored intellectual work that can bring a critical intelligence to bear on nature, human society and the arts. They are not only confessions; they are also traditions of discernment and critical self-reflection. When they operate authentically, they genuinely seek knowledge, in full awareness of the distorting effects of interest on inquiry. We agree with Maxsden that within the pluralism of the modern academy, scholarship and teaching that draw upon these intellectual traditions are likely to add to the common store of knowledge and should be allowed.

But whoever advocates a greater play for religion within the academy must also see that these intellectual perspectives can and often do manifest themselves in "dominant religious centers" -- actual ecclesiastical entities - that can unacceptably constrain the inquiry to which intellectuals, including Christian intellectuals, are committed. Ask the scholars who, despite their deep loyalty to the long-term heritage of their tradition, have fallen victim to fundamentalist opponents.

The estrangement between academy and church recounted in The Soul of the American University has implications not only for the position of religion within the university, but also for the position of intellectual life within the church. This estrangement takes different forms and causes different problems in diverse segments of American Christianity. For liberal and other oldline Protestants, one highly significant result has been theology's professionalization, specialization and detachment from the churches. The greatest theologians in this tradition, up to and including Reinhold Niebuhr, were parish pastors without Ph.D.s; their educators once envisioned an alliance between university and church for the sake of lay education in biblical studies. Now most first-rate theology is written for academic readers, while pastoral theology often tips toward unsophisticated humanistic psychology, and there is a huge gap between lay and clerical views of the Bible. In more conservative circles, the estrangement between the church and the academy can take the form of various intellectual tribalisms. Whether on the left or on the right, laypeople who do not understand that the Christian life requires hard thinking are easy prey to the enthusiasms and idolatries of class, ethnicity and mass culture.

Though Marsden may think that the secularization of the American university was inevitable, he definitely does not think that the "virtual exclusion of religious perspectives from the most influential centers of American intellectual life" was either inevitable or justifiable. In his conclusion he advocates two strategies of modest opposition to the dominant orientation of academe. Leveraging the pluralistic stance of the contemporary academy to the advantage of faith-informed scholarship, he argues that academic freedom must be granted as fully to Christian scholars as it is to feminists and other committed researchers. And he encourages institutional pluralism -- the development of a variety of colleges and universities that permit religion to shape their central activities.

Marsden claims that academics who openly demonstrate and defend the connections between their religious convictions and their scholarly work have been excluded or persecuted in the academy. He has eloquently presented this claim in various forums, but thus far his evidence has been anecdotal and somewhat impressionistic. Some Christian scholars believe that Marsden has exaggerated the extent of such persecution, while others argue that the main problem is not persecution but Christian self-censor-ship. On the other hand, Marsden offers convincing evidence of discrimination against excellent Christian colleges and universities, especially Catholic ones, by honor societies like Phi Beta Kappa, by various accrediting agencies and by the American Association of University Professors.

Marsden's pleas for genuine pluralism within and among institutions of higher learning are attractive: Yet they ought to lead him to a greater measure of sympathy for the liberal Protestant figures he has studied. After he has argued convincingly for authentically pluralistic communities of inquiry that include forceful and articulate religious perspectives, he grants that, without the Enlightenment consensus that for so long supplied the common ground upon which academics fought out and sometimes settled their intellectual conflicts, his prescribed academy might legitimate outright nonsense or deteriorate into warring tribes. He therefore insists that "what may be called procedural rationality is still crucial and that "religious viewpoints" must be "willing to operate within the procedural rules of universities." This is well and good, but Maxsden should acknowledge that the shift from substantive to procedural rationality -- one of the crucial features of modernity -- was one of the key steps taken under liberal Protestantism's stewardship of academic life.

We could add to Marsden's proposals a third constructive approach to engaging Christianity and academic institutions-one that addresses the relationship between the intellectual life of the churches and the religious life of the university. This might be done by highlighting the ways in which university-based intellectual work can serve the intellectual integrity of religious communities. In Marsden's account, as in that of other historians, the most transformative force in higher education has been the political economy. "The bottom line was that the new universities were designed to serve an emerging industrial technological society. The professionalization of the universities was part of the much larger process of differentiation and specialization necessary for industrial and commercial advance." The university's liberal Protestant leaders supported this national economic purpose not only by virtue of their class location but also as an extension of their religious hopes. Not realizing that they were sowing the seeds of their own displacement, they contributed the theme of "service" to describe the role of the university in fulfilling this need of a privileged constituency

Whom does the intellectual work of today's academics serve? In many fields, business and industry are still high on the list. In all fields a great deal of research merely fuels the engines of tenure and promotion. Excellent research can, however, influence public policy or increase public understanding of important issues. Some research serves in yet another way -- to deepen, stimulate, challenge or correct the memory, the imagination and the analytical skills of specific groups. Feminist scholarship provides the most obvious example of this today. Marsden and several other fine historians have served in just this way through their scholarly studies of American evangelicalism. They demonstrate that university-based research can indirectly serve religious movements and institutions without being subservient to them, and without losing its character as scholarship worthy of the university.

Many other academics, including some whose work appears in the CENTURY, devote their skills and insights to serving the movements to which they axe committed. Such efforts themselves smack of liberal Protestantism: they seek to put the university, or at least some scholars within it, in the service of the public good. American intellectuals have a stake in the intellectual integrity and thoughtfulness of American churches and synagogues, and of a wide range of other cultural groups as well. These groups need accurate, critical research on the society and culture within which they operate, and on the intellectual and institutional resources they have inherited and will carry into the future. And the society as a whole needs to be reminded that investigation, deliberation and disciplined conversation axe vital to its well-being.

A fourth constructive step we could take would be to look back beyond the birth of the modern research university to reclaim some of the aims of earlier Christian colleges in forms appropriate to our time. The hegemony of the secular research university has proved more durable and imposing than even Riesman, Jencks and Cox could have imagined in the 1960s. But our culture longs for models of human excellence that extend far beyond mere technical competence and that temper the pride of intellect with wisdom and charity. We also long for discerning people who are trained to see life steadily and to see it whole. Some Christian colleges and universities seek to nurture such excellence in their students and in themselves. In order for such aspirations to be credible, however, these schools must construe their existence as an interminable struggle between faith and reason rather than as the articulation of settled, clear positions. They should be identified more by the questions they keep alive than by the answers they give. And they must attend as much to the formation of character as to the cultivation of intelligence. To paraphrase Whitehead: Christian colleges must seek Enlightenment and then distrust it.

Marsden might well agree with much of this, even though the stance we advocate bears the unmistakable marks of liberalism. In any case, his book should be a major stimulus for thinking through the relationship between religion and higher education. The attention Marsden's book will receive in the secular academy will challenge his claim that universities largely ignore or denigrate scholarship explicitly informed by religious perspectives. As academics articulate their yearnings and wage their conflicts, he may find that he is not as embattled as he thinks.