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Moving Beyond Secularization
The State of Christian Higher Education
Joanne E. Myers

For a time, it seemed that books that explored the relation of Christianity and higher education were tinged with a sort of wistfulness. Though not necessarily nostalgic, titles such as George M. Marsden’s The Soul of the American University (1994), Mark Schwehn’s Exiles from Eden (1993), and James Burtchaell’s The Dying of the Light (1998) were interested in measuring the distance between a past integrity of faith and learning and their more recent fracture under the stresses of specialization, corporatization, and, of course, secularization.

While backward glances at “the dying of the light” punctuate several of the books reviewed here, in general these authors are optimistic about church-related higher education. Even when registering significant caveats about the scope of the work still to be done, these titles emphasize constructive engagement. Several signal a turn in the conversation about how the life of the mind and the life of the practicing Christian can best be linked, and how institutions can best be structured to nurture that conjunction. And while remaining skeptical about the very notion of  “the Christian University,” Stanley Hauerwas also “assume[s] we are in an in-between time” that can refine Christian universities’ self-understanding and enable them “to produce knowledges that embody the patience that is an alternative to the world’s impatience” (7–9). Jacobsen and Hustedt Jacobsen capture the spirit of much contained in these books when they identify an important distinction and its consequences: “The university is indeed ‘resolutely secular’—it studies the world as it really exists,” they note. “But it is not a place dedicated to secularism.… And we now live in a postsecular world, or, perhaps more accurately, a postsecularist world” (15). In various ways, the titles gathered for review here test the boundaries and play with the possibilities of that premise.


The five main books under discussion here were all nominees for the 2009 Lilly Fellows Program book prize, which recognizes work that links the Christian intellectual tradition, whether historical or contemporary, with the practice of teaching or the context of higher education more broadly. Two are edited collections of essays: Christianity and the Soul of the University (2006), edited by Douglas V. Henry and Michael D. Beaty, grew out of a 2004 conference at Baylor University that examined how faith can nourish “the church-related university’s aspiration for intellectual community” (9). Half of the essays examine issues central to such community, from its biblical roots to its necessarily global character, while the other half elaborate on the specific practices that can animate that community, ranging from delight to hospitality to the moral imagination. The American University in a Postsecular Age (2008), the winner of this year’s Lilly Fellow Program’s Book Prize, includes contributors from a wide range of institutions and institutional roles. This book similarly organizes itself along two axes, treating first religion’s place at the institutional level and in the lives of the faculty and next religion’s role in students’ experience and in the curriculum.

Two books feature work previously circulated, partly or wholly, in other forms: The Future of Christian Learning (2008), by Mark A. Noll and James Turner and edited by Thomas Albert Howard, prints talks given by Noll and Turner at Gordon College in 2006 on the potential for productive dialogue between Catholic and evangelical Christians. While Noll sketches a history of “Christendom” so as to explore the value of Catholic-evangelical alliances, Turner strikes a more skeptical note, situating an account of differences between Catholic and evangelical scholarship and pedagogy in the context of remarks about practical obstacles to an alliance. The State of the University (2007), by Stanley Hauerwas, gathers occasional pieces by Hauerwas that share a desire to investigate how a distinctively Christian form of knowledge can disrupt what he casts as the complicity of the university with modes of inquiry that serve powers antithetical to the Gospel.

Catholic Higher Education (2006), by Melanie M. Morey and John J. Piderit, S. J., aims at nothing less than a comprehensive analysis of how Catholic colleges and universities understand, inadvertently undermine, and can ultimately uphold their mission: using analyses of interviews with the leaders and administrators of thirty-three institutions, the authors offer “policy packages” intended to allow schools to revivify their distinctive Catholic emphasis on an intellectual tradition and reposition themselves in a competitive “academic marketplace.”

Despite their diversity, these books share a number of themes that pertain to how Christian institutions of higher education understand themselves and how they can embody that self-understanding in their organizational and pedagogical practices. They share a sense that a “postmodern” and “postsecular” moment has arrived that makes space at the table for religious accounts of truth that can serve as a potent resource for colleges and universities to use in defining their mission to form people in the pursuit of knowledge. The “sovereign[ty]” of unassisted reason, Mark U. Edwards Jr. writes, “has given way to newer, more provisional claims and greater awareness of the limits to human knowledge. In the present context, it is hard to see how the kind of objectivity that once seemed to set scholarship apart from the subjectivity of religion can be reconstructed” (American University 89).

However gratifying it may be for the faithful to reclaim this space at the table, Robert Wuthnow cautions that doing so should not entail the reduction of religion to a form of identity politics. If approached uncritically, avenues for religious commitment on campuses today can offer a “devil’s bargain” in which faith is an aspect “of personal biography… rather than anything resembling truth” (39). Wuthnow instead proposes a strategy of “intentional reframing” that “recognizes that the pursuit of knowledge is always flawed by self-interest, academic politics, and other human limitations,” but nevertheless entails a faithful commitment to serve the larger goods the university values (41). John J. DiIulio Jr. builds on Wuthnow’s account of a potentially productive tension between secular and religious constituencies in his defense of “nonsectarian principles” that can structure genuine dialogue: “the right to dissent or debate on matters of religion,” DiIulio writes, “entails the responsibility to converse in ways that translate private religious convictions into publicly accessible reasons” (61). A measured acceptance of the postmodern moment, then, involves not so much the insistence on religious truth as a source of subjective meaning as the cultivation of an audience who will be open to and a vocabulary that will articulate the distinctive truth of religious belief.

One aspect of that distinctive truth to which authors in these books return many times is the Christian vision of all knowledge as a unified whole—a vision that can anchor both scholarship and institutional integrity. Henry and Beaty highlight “the properly communitarian character of the well-formed Christian college or university” (Soul of a Christian University 11), and the extent to which that communitarianism derives from a conviction that all academic work aims at the unfolding of a truth more than the sum of its disciplinary parts. This conviction, several authors propose, may counter the fragmentation of institutional identity—what Hauerwas describes as “the incoherence of the university” (State of the University 15)—that can develop out of disciplinary pressures to specialize. To make all academic work a common project, John C. Polkinghorne proposes “a temperate recognition that different forms of rational discussion are needed for different forms of encounter with reality, but the nature of these forms is controlled by the nature of the reality encountered” (Soul of a Christian University 51–2). Polkinghorne proposes theology (as distinct, he notes, from “religious studies”) as a discipline in its own right but also a meta-­discipline whose assumption of God’s unity and goodness can integrate disciplinary insights and reveal their underlying moral claims (61–4). While Hauerwas agrees that “the university… has abandoned the theological task of studying that which is inimitably real” (23), he uses John Henry Newman’s work to argue that philosophy, rather than theology, is, in Newman’s own words “a science of sciences” (25). For Hauerwas, theology’s job is to prod philosophy to offer a framework in which particular disciplinary self-understandings can be knit into a comprehensive framework for understanding how knowledge arises (29).

For Hauerwas and others, insisting on the unity of knowledge matters because the disciplinary reintegration it enables can in turn help colleges and universities to resist a commercializing spirit that would appropriate and instrumentalize the pursuit of knowledge. Hauerwas is perhaps the most stridently prophetic voice here, though a number of authors pick up on what might be called an incarnational emphasis that aims to check the dissociation of intellectual work from its properly moral context. “The incoherence of university curriculums,” he argues, “reflects the university’s commitment to legitimate the abstraction effected by money” (98). Shaped by the conviction that rapprochement between the church and institutions of the state is its own “devil’s bargain,” Hauerwas’s argument against corporatization involves a call to counter the language of abstraction that mystifies the operations of power with a modest and vulnerable mode of “witness” that, in a formulation he borrows from Wendell Berry, involves standing by one’s words. Such accountability “requires that ‘a system’ exist that secures the conviction that the truth can be known, but never all truth” (101). This then is a further argument for knowledge’s integration, and for an epistemic humility inconsistent with the sweeping claims for knowledge fostered by those whose instrumentalizing fantasies go so far, as Hauerwas notes, to propose that knowledge will help us cheat death (101).


What about the practical side of things? Richard B. Hays grounds the claim for community in a reading of 1 John that emphasizes truth’s home in koinonia, in fellowship. The modern university needs “an epistemology of love,” Hays suggests, if it is to resist serving or even promoting a culture of competition and profit for its own sake (Soul of a Christian University 30). Practical strategies for restoring community emerge in Noll’s account of areas of potential rapprochement between Catholics and evangelicals: evangelicals too ready to detach themselves from the culture can learn from the sacramental perspective of Catholics, he suggests, while Catholics too ready to let others lead can learn from the evangelical emphasis on personal commitment and individual action (69). Joel A. Carpenter gives a bracing overview of the necessarily global context in which Christians must think about their educational mission, arguing that “Christian scholars must reorient their course” according to the redistribution of vital Christian communities in the global south and developing world—a reorientation that is not just theoretical but might dictate the development of scholarship in new directions and the funding of projects that take into account the world church (Soul of a Christian University 66).

Several of these works, then, call in different ways for a rethinking of the relation between Christian colleges and universities and the broader culture in the name of goods that are central to the life of the mind. The emphasis on productive engagement is a useful counter to the intermittent tendency in discussions of Christian higher education to set up a straw man argument that discredits amorphous “‘forces of secularization” at work in college and university culture.

These authors, though, face a further challenge, which is that the goods they uphold are not, of course, necessarily the exclusive property of Christian institutions. In Universities in the Marketplace (2003), for example, Derek Bok has lamented the extent of commercial influence in higher education and described steps that colleges and universities can take to resist that influence. While some of Bok’s objections to commercialization are practical—he wonders if a reliance on external funding might produce disputes over intellectual property between advisors and their students (113)—others touch on the same moral concerns as the books reviewed here. Bok worries about the role that athletic, distance learning, and executive education programs play in diffusing and diluting the aims of education. While Bok’s analysis is both detailed and comprehensive, it is also marked by a curious reticence about the values on which commercialism impinges. “However hard it is to explain these fears,” Bok writes, “they persist as a mute reminder that something of irreplaceable value may get lost in the relentless growth of commercialization” (17).

Many authors under consideration here, by contrast, are specific about the moral grounds of practices that are central to intellectual work and thus the values at stake in pursuing those practices. Such specificity does not mean that these practices are distinctively Christian but implies that Christianity offers a useful vocabulary for their articulation. Susan Felch, for example, argues that a Christian perspective permits scholars and students alike to take the familiar tool of scholarly skepticism and link it firmly to subsequent action. By keeping in our mind’s eye “the plenitude” of the creation, Felch suggests, we can preserve skepticism from stasis (109). Aurelie Hagstrom offers hospitality as a Christian virtue that can keep pluralism from shading into polite silence: if mere tolerance is, Hagstrom notes, “a false sort of engagement,” hospitality requires genuine openness to other perspectives but foregoes any assimilationist impulse, allowing for epistemologically productive engagement not stalled by false desires for consensus (121). Morey and Piderit, though they are frank about needing to make a church-related education “attractive and affordable,” make a strenuous case that the Christian intellectual tradition enunciates the values that can ground a liberal education (53). The closing essay of The American University in a Postsecular Age, though, seems usefully calculated to disrupt the conclusion that dwelling on the connections between such practices and their moral dimension is a distinctively Christian practice: there, Lee S. Shulman uses midrashic interpretation, with its emphasis on “nuances and complexities” (209) to illuminate the ethical dispositions that good scholarly work requires, especially the kind of “commitment” that favors one perspective while acknowledging that further dialogue may revise that commitment (211). Turner, for his part, denies that anything more than the background preparation of a Christian renders his or her scholarship distinctive: “in matters of human reason,” he writes, “we all stand on the same ground” (105).


If the question of distinctiveness lingers—as it tends to do in discussions like these—so too does the related issue of formation, which serves as a backdrop for much of the moral energy these books marshal. If the current educational context, with its predilection for “values” and its attention to cocurricular engagement, seems to favor formation, dissenting voices have pointed out that engaging in shaping people’s characters is only attractive so long as the shaping is in one’s own image. Stanley Fish’s gadfly-style essays on this topic, recently collected in Save the World on Your Own Time (2008), make the point starkly: “Only bad teaching,” he notes, “is a political act” (70). The emphasis on practice and on community in the books reviewed here, and their attention to the moral dimension of academic life for faculty and students alike, might seem from a perspective like Fish’s to be only a more insidious form of politics. Though Hauerwas would likely reject the notion that his work is political, he is the most explicit about the need for the Christian church or churches to organize a response to state power, and his assumption “that the most important lesson undergraduates should be taught is that they are not well enough formed to know what they should and should not want” indicates the power he sees vested in colleges and universities, power that Fish would eschew (127).

It is in the several data-driven chapters of Jacobsen and Hustedt Jacobsen’s collection, though, where these books might find the start of an answer to Fish. In “The Religious Convictions of College and University Professors,” Neil Gross and Solon Simmons provide data to support the fairly wide distribution of believers in the faculty; Jacobsen and Hustedt Jacobsen analyze the demographics of Christian higher education to argue that the broad emphasis on “tradition” at religiously-affiliated schools remains compelling; and in an essay on “The Religious and Spiritual Journeys of College Students,” Larry A. Braskamp quantifies the importance to students of conjoining the development of their intellect and their faith. Pragmatically, then, the response to objections like Fish’s might be that faith remains a topic of interest to faculty and students alike, and the related notion of formation remains built into the expectations, stated or unstated, that faculty and students bring to the classroom. If it seems odd to end on such a pragmatic note, these books, as a group, insist on the conjunction of theory and practice. Collectively, they reject the premise that the development of one’s intellect can be segregated from the development of one’s ethos, and they propose that from a Christian perspective, to attempt such segregation is to vitiate the very pursuit of truth that animates all intellectual endeavor. If knowing the truth is bound up with knowing and loving others, then education, engagement, and formation will not be distinct processes.


Joanne E. Myers is Assistant Professor of English at Gettysburg College.

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