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Duane Litfin's Conceiving the Christian College
Thomas Albert Howard

Duane Litfin. Conceiving the Christian College. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004.

As the President of Wheaton College, Duane Litfin sits atop evangelical higher education in the United States. His is the institution that once nurtured the thought and convictions of Billy Graham. It has shaped alumnus Dennis Hastert, the current Speaker of the House. It has helped form the mind of President Bush's leading speech writer, Michael Gerson, once a theology student. Arguably America's leading religious historian, Mark Noll, teaches at Wheaton and he has thoughtful colleagues aplenty to keep him company. To take stock of this single Midwestern school, in other words, is to reckon with American evangelicalism itself and its far-flung cultural and political potency. A book by Wheaton's sitting president on "the Christian college" is, then, most welcome, if for no other reason than that it provides a window into the intellectual issues and theological debates that currently shape, inform, and regularly roil evangelical higher education.

As a faculty member at a sister evangelical college, it would serve my vanity well were I able to write off Litfin as an intellectual light-weight. The book's substance, not to mention Litfin's multiple doctoral degrees, does not allow this. While Litfin recognizes that present-day exigencies make it difficult for a president to serve as a college's intellectual leader, the book offers substantive intellectual leadership. It's not a book that dwells on issues arising from what we assume occupies a college president's time these days: fund-raising calls, ceremonial appearances, engagement with alumni groups, and the like. The book is rather about ideas, in particular theological ideas, or what we might call a theology of education.

For those who've closely followed discussions about church-related colleges and Christian scholarship over the past few decades, one will find little wholly original in Litfin's analyses. But originality is not Litfin's point. In fact, he's worried that the desire for novelty, compounded by external pressures for change, has led Christian educators away from the tried-and-true to the dubiously fashionable. His own thoughts "are efforts to state again what must be stated again—and again, and again. They constitute an attempt to think through some age-old responses to our contemporary challenges."

Litfin has done his homework, seriously engaging a wide variety of contemporary thinkers on faith-based learning, especially George Marsden, Mark Schwehn, Richard Hughes, D. G. Hart, Robert Benne, Mark Noll, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Nathan Hatch, and Arthur Holmes. (Litfin is particularly fond of Holmes, an emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Wheaton.) Along with numerous Scriptural refer­ences, Litfin also draws deeply—and ecumenically—from the Christian intellectual tradition, quoting Augustine in one passage, John Henry Newman in another.

Interestingly, many figures that have defined mainstream evangelicalism—the brothers Wesley, Charles Finney, Billy Graham, Francis Schaeffer, Charles Colson, James Dobson, to name a few—make scant or no appearance. This itself is a revealing point, but it is perhaps churlish to belabor this since much of evangelicalism's academic firepower in recent years has been obtained by eliding certain evangelical hallmarks (relentless efforts to render the faith "relevant," revivalist preaching, political activism, dispensationalist theology, and speculative prophecy) and engaging in selective borrowing—'massive pillaging' might be the more appropriate term—from traditions that have historically placed more value on the vita contemplativa. The neo-Calvinism of Abraham Kuyper and the high-church Anglicanism of figures such as T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and Dorothy Sayers remain among evangelicalism's main academic lenders at present, although Catholicism is playing an increasingly influential role, especially modern Catholic social thought, the Thomistic natural law tradition, the "virtue ethics" espoused by philosophers like Alasdair Maclntyre, as well as the inspiration of Catholic authors with broader appeal such as G. K. Chesterton, Walker Percy, and Flannery O'Connor.

But this brings us to the rub. Few, if any of the above figures, were they alive today, could get a job at Wheaton College because of its faith statement, which all faculty sign upon teaching and renew each year when they turn in their contract. The current statement (dating from 1926; revised in 1978 and again in 1994), might be described as broadly Reformation-Protestant with lingering overtures to fundamentalist positions articulated in the "fundamentalist-modernist" controversies of the early-twentieth century. The question of whether such as a statement serves a college with the intellectual aspirations of Wheaton has quietly gained steam in recent decades and presently it ranks among the most complex and consequential issues facing not just Wheaton but other academically serious evangelical colleges as well. Put interrogatively, can a school like Wheaton continue to deepen its intellectual engagement and theological rigor while maintaining substantive ties to its (the word applies) fundamentalist past? Litfin is acutely aware of what's at stake, and thus spends the better part of two chapters painstakingly laying out a rationale for Wheaton's current practices with respect to faith statements and hiring—practices which foster a more-or-less theologically homogenous professoriate. Wheaton shall remain a "systemic" Christian college, to use Litfin's own parlance, not an "umbrella" one like Pepperdine, Valparaiso, or Baylor; the former seeks a particular faith commitment from all faculty while the latter actively encourage Christian thought and the hiring of committed Christian faculty, but stop short of statutory requirements. Litfin values both models, but sees Wheaton squarely in the "systemic" camp.

Litfin's positions on faith statements are worked out in an extended argument with Boston College political scientist Alan Wolfe, who, in a celebrated article in the Atlantic Monthly, "The Opening of the Evangelical Mind" (October 2000), argued that faith requirements like Wheaton's and academic freedom represent mutually antagonistic principles. In rebutting Wolfe, Litfin makes a persuasive case that doing away with faith statements would amount to a net loss for intellectual pluralism in the United States, insofar as groups of thinkers desirous to pool their collective brainpower would be deprived of an institutional locus where such pooling could take place. Freedom of expression should apply not only to individuals, in other words, but to communities and institutions as well. What is more, since signing Wheaton's statement is voluntary, and since many institutions and academic departments throughout academia practice myriad policies of de facto, if not de jure, exclusion, Wheaton's statement is neither illiberal nor dishonest, but respectful, even expressive, of genuine pluralistic principles. One could even argue that such statements are necessary for the rich and diverse voluntary associational environment that Alexis de Tocqueville and his many intellectual disciples have admired about American democracy.

So touché, Professor Wolfe.

But in defending the viability of faith statements in the abstract, Litfin knows that a thornier dilemma awaits him still, one that greets him not from the distant pen of a secular social scientist but from the eyes of some of his most committed and promising faculty. "[T]he question must still be asked, how broadly or narrowly should . . . confessional identity be stated? And more basic still: who decides?"

In light of the dominant Protestant-Catholic split in America's confessional landscape, the question could be rendered more pointedly still: given the tremendous rapprochement in attitude between Protestants and Catholics since the Second Vatican Council and under the Papacy of John Paul II, given the vibrancy of new interconfessional movements (such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together, or ECT), given the ecumenically-inclined, tradition-seeking orthodoxy of younger evangelical scholars, and given the truly shameful, anti-Catholic fear-mongering displayed by many past evangelical leaders, is it time that Wheaton broached the possibility—whether as a matter of principle in broadening its faith statement or (more prudentially) on a case-by-case basis of judicious exception—of allowing sympathetic Catholics to don cap and gown on its campus? Put differently, might Wheaton still solidly and proudly affirm its evangelical posture and history, but simultaneously recognize that the divisions of the sixteenth century and the doctrinal fallout of twentieth-century intra-Protestant debates might not be the adamantine decrees of the Holy Spirit but are matters for constructive theological engagement by people of good will? If I may be forgiven for overplaying my hand as provocateur, has the time for a Catholic Jackie Robinson arrived?

In answering this question negatively in language at once erudite, patronizing, quixotic, trenchant, and hedged, Litfin reveals himself worthy of his high perch, though perhaps constrained by the constituencies that keep it aloft. Litfin's defense of the status quo depends heavily on warnings against a slippery slope: once an institution makes certain concessions to confessional change, it is ipso facto on a course toward the deracination of its animating principles and then, ultimately, to outright secularism. No doubt, for anyone who has pondered George Marsden's The Soul of the American University or James Burtchael’s The Dying of the Light, this "entirely predictable direction" toward secularism, as Litfin sees it, should constitute a genuine concern. Simply pooh-poohing fears of a slippery slope is not the better part of wisdom. Still, the dangers of a slippery slope should be balanced by considering the problems of superattenuated retrenchment. That Litfin shrilly warns against one without sufficiently probing the consequences of the other does not comport well with a mind of Litfin's caliber.

By far the most unsatisfactory aspect of this book comes when Litfin appears to lecture (presumably his own faculty?) on how they should think about the current statement of faith and its policies of enforcement. He is especially irked by those who sign the statement with tepid enthusiasm, or who do so while wishing for future modifications, or who interpret it according to their own hermeneutical principles. Casting a president's task at one point as the interceptor of entropy, he makes clear that "no individual is free to decide for himself or herself what the statement means. To have everyone affirming the statement only after construing it to mean what they prefer it to mean is to negate the unifying function of the statement altogether." A Counter-Reformation Pope could appreciate this sentiment. One wonders then where lies the locus of authority for interpretation? Alas, some of the problems that have dogged Protestantism since the sixteenth century haven't diminished.

Yet alongside Litfin's more heavy-handed pronouncements one finds countervailing sentiments that suggest how probingly he has pondered the confessional issue and what it means for Wheaton's future. One finds intimations, in fact, of outright ambivalence. When considering whether Wheaton should move in the direction of a more inclusive Ecumenically Orthodox Christian University (EOCU), Litfin demurs, but not before dropping a line that he's "not set in concrete on this question." When considering whether certain Catholic faculty should be brought on board, he plainly states that "this vision attracts me," before defending a contrary position. And at one point, he makes allowance that a future consensus contrary to his own opinion may develop. "[U]ntil Wheaton as a whole is ready to amend its definition of itself, this [current identity] is the one I am quite happy to live with and will work to maintain." Finally, to his great credit, Litfin makes clear that "systemic" institutions like Wheaton, at their best, allow for robust discussion of serious disagreements. "The healthiest give and take often occurs in the most cohesive groups, such as large, committed, garrulous families. Where there is an underlying climate of trust we typically find more open disagreement, not less.... Members of such communities are enabled and often encouraged to explore their differences, openly and fully, and when these differences wind up unresolved, to "agree to disagree, agreeably."

Whether its members agree or disagree, colleges, like all human institutions, grow, develop, and change. Litfin recognizes this squarely, noting that "institutions are never static; they are living things and require a constant choosing, even if only a choosing not to change." Wheaton itself has found out as much in recent years as decisions were made to relax behavioral policies against dancing and faculty drinking. The same faculty who have lovingly pored over the texts of C. S. Lewis may now enjoy a quaff of ale that Lewis himself would have relished. That a Catholic colleague might join them at the pub one day appears to remain an eschatological hope under Litfin's presidency, but then again eschatological longing has been the seedbed of many a concrete reform in Christian history.

So cheers, President Litfin. Thanks for a learned book and let's continue this important conversation.

Thomas Albert Howard

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