Keeping the Faith in the Christian College, Past and Present

These two recent studies by veteran faculty members take dramatically different approaches to the question of how colleges that are serious about maintaining their Christian identity can resist the temptations of secularization. One seeks an answer far back in the history of Christianity, distilling common elements in the early church fathers that remain relevant for today’s first-year students. The other looks instead to the recent past and the present complexion of six representative institutions and suggests models to guide them in the future. Each deserves a wide readership, and each corrects some of the oversights of the other.

Highly regarded in Christian higher education for his decades of leadership as a faculty member and philosophy department chair at Wheaton College, Arthur Holmes has written about Christian higher education in previous books such as Contours of a Worldview and All Truth Is God’s Truth. The historical essay reviewed here was presented first at Calvin College in a series of lectures honoring Henry Stob, one of the founding fathers of Calvin’s philosophy department. In order to understand the essential character of Christian higher education, Holmes argues, we must look back beyond the origins of evangelicalism or even of Protestantism. In the writings of the early church fathers, particularly Origen and Clement, Holmes discerns a common thread that can be traced through the writings of Augustine, the medieval monasteries and cathedral schools, the Scholastic philosophy of the later medievals, the Reformation, Baconian science, and John Henry Newman’s vision of the liberal arts in the modern era.

What are the strands in this common thread? In the introduction to the book Holmes identifies “four recurring emphases,” which he characterizes as constituting “the heart and soul of the Christian academy,” namely:

  1. The usefulness of liberal arts as preparation for service to both church and society
  2. The unity of truth
  3. Contemplative (or doxological) learning
  4. The care of the soul (what we call moral and spiritual formation)(p. 2).

Stretching this schema to the limit, Holmes even finds traces of these emphases in Moses, Solomon, Daniel, and Paul. Holmes is not at his most persuasive here, and he sounds a bit like a philosopher turned management guru when he writes of the “tremendous organization skills and administrative know-how” of Moses.

Even if Holmes oversimplifies Scriptural narratives, his broad historical perspective helps to counter the illusion of novelty in the problems facing Christian colleges today. The early church fathers worried about borrowing too much from secular sources–“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” they asked. Our reliance on study of the “liberal arts” as a means of intellectual training and preparation for every sort of later employment reflects ideals first articulated by Greek and Roman writers, from Plato and Aristotle to Seneca and the Stoics, Holmes reminds us. Our curriculum comes from Athens, in other words, not from Jerusalem.

Holmes notes also that many of the church’s earliest theologians, like their Jewish counterparts, were educated in pagan academies, for it was not until the second century that the church offered more than elementary catechetical instruction. Origen was candid about the church’s willingness to imitate the pagans: “Just as the Israelites, upon their liberation from slavery, took from the Egyptians the riches they would need for the worship of God, so at our liberation from idolatry we as Christians can bring the riches of Hellenistic learning to the word and service of God” (p. 19). It is an uncomfortable but arresting thought: Christian scholars today who build upon the best work of unbelieving colleagues, whether in philosophy or neuroscience or education, are engaged in acts of divinely sanctioned plunder.

From the school of Alexandria, Holmes carries the story of Christian intellectual life forward to Augustine, who held that proper education requires not merely right ordering of the subjects of study but also right ordering of the inquirer’s soul. Wisdom will never come from mere curiosity, he insists, but only from piety and love of God, for in the end “we are not ruled by what we know but by what we love” (p. 31). After Augustine, Christian education adopted one of two models, to which Holmes devotes the next two chapters: in the monastery and cathedral schools the emphasis was reflection and meditation as means to the contemplation of the divine nature, while the Scholastic universities followed the pattern set by Abelard and Aquinas and sought to develop skill in argument and disputation in their students. The latter, more than the former, embraced the classical ideal of training in all of the liberal arts–the verbal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic (the “trivium”), as well as the mathematical disciplines of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music (the “quadrivium”). The distribution requirements of many colleges today, Holmes observes, are directly descended from this medieval model and its Roman precursors.

The Reformation’s challenge to established structures of the church was in part a reaction against Scholastic education, directed less against its content than against its sterile and insular spirit. Universities should not merely prepare students to win an argument, insisted Luther and Calvin; rather, they should equip them to understand the Scriptures, proclaim Christian doctrines, and lead lives of service to Christ’s kingdom. Erasmus echoed the same themes from within the Catholic fold, while ceding greater authority to church tradition. “Calvin’s vision for learning seems more positive than Luther’s,” Holmes notes, “because he roots it in the creation mandate as affected by sin and grace” (p. 68).

The centuries that separate the Reformation from the present day are painted here in a few quick strokes. Francis Bacon is recognized as the pioneer of a new spirit seeking to discover new knowledge rather than merely preserve the old, while Cardinal Newman serves as the harbinger of student-directed and student-centered inquiry. Newman’s vision of “universal knowledge” placed the traditional liberal arts alongside the sciences and gave a central place to theology as well. Here Holmes finds a holistic vision of “active engagement that expands the mind, organizing and interpreting material, digesting it and making it subjectively one’s own, and interrelating the old and the new as the work of God,” or “what we call ‘worldview thinking'” (p. 89).

What is most needed in the present day, Holmes urges in closing, is a more unified and coherent presentation of a Christian worldview, integrated into all the subjects of the traditional liberal arts and into co-curricular programs to cultivate Christian character. Among the most important defenders of such an approach was the nineteenth-century Dutch politician and theologian Abraham Kuyper. Holmes argues that a Reformed vision of the unity between faith and understanding offers a firmer grounding for education than does the separation of the two realms that is characteristic, for different reasons, of many evangelicals and most Lutherans. He does not build an extended case for this vision here, choosing instead to cite a quick succession of writers on American higher education, including James Burtchaell, Douglas Sloan, Mark Schwehn, Pope John Paul II, and Steve Garber.

When Holmes returns to the four key elements of Christian higher education that he has identified earlier, introduced at the beginning of the book, he does not offer strategies for attaining them but instead cites an assortment of benefits of liberal learning: “Breadth of learning gives access to the wealth of human learning and to the diversity of human experience; transferable skills (verbal, analytic, quantitative, communication, and social skills) are applicable to any kind of work; they facilitate lifetime learning and job mobility,” and so on (p. 109). It is hard to argue with any of these claims, but they seem only loosely related to his earlier schema, and few of these benefits bear any distinctive marks of a Christian worldview. A reader might well have expected more under the chapter title “The Christian Academy in the Twentieth Century,” than a laundry list of benefits of liberal learning that would fit as comfortably in the academic catalog of Williams or Colby as in that of Wheaton or Calvin.

If we are looking for specifics, the second book under review provides them in rich abundance. Where Holmes puts forward a sweeping historical argument, Robert Benne’s method is empirical, and his primary focus is on the present. What is it that enables some colleges to hold to a clearly defined religious identity, he asks, and to defy the social and intellectual forces that have pushed so many colleges and universities from their denominational moorings? Seeking answers, he packed his suitcase and visited six of them. (In the interest of full disclosure I note that one of them was Calvin College, and I was one of the administrators and faculty members he interviewed, although my name is not mentioned. Benne’s practice is to cite selected figures from an institution’s history by name but to leave present-day informants unnamed.)

Benne is a veteran member of the religion faculty at Roanoke College, a Virginia institution whose Lutheran heritage has been gradually eclipsed. He has sensed a renewed interest in that history, however–contrary to the common wisdom that sees secularization as an irreversible process and a necessary byproduct of enhanced academic distinction. Are there colleges to which Roanoke might look for models, he wondered, that combine academic excellence with a clearly articulated religious mission? Can a college scramble back up the slippery slope of secularization described by writers such as George Marsden, James Burtchaell, and Philip Gleason? Such questions motivated Benne’s study, and a grant from the Lilly Endowment made it possible.

The heart of the book is Benne’s account of “Six Ventures in Christian Humanism” as he encountered it at three colleges and three universities: Calvin, Wheaton, Baylor, Notre Dame, St. Olaf, and Valparaiso. They differ greatly in size, in the breadth of their academic programs, and in their relative prestige in the eyes of the academy. But each–so he concludes from study of college documents and meetings with faculty and administration–represents a viable model of what a church-related institution can be in the contemporary academic world. Each of the six has retained what Benne cites as the three essential elements of a living tradition: a guiding vision, affirming the truth or at least the importance of Christian teachings; a unifying ethos, a network of practices that embody the common life of the community; and a community of persons committed to the vision and to the ethos who make the institution’s identity real for colleagues and students.

The six institutions do not achieve this in the same way, however. In attempting to describe their distinctive character, Benne suggests some models that highlight their similarities and differences.

There are, I will argue, a number of places on the continuum between a fully Christian college and a fully secularized one. More colleges find themselves in the gray areas between the brightness of the fully Christian college and the darkness of full secularization than find themselves on either pole (p. 5).

The Manichean language that Benne slips into here drops away in a later chapter when Benne describes four distinct types of church-related colleges, three of which he puts forward as legitimate models for Christian higher education. First is the orthodox college, whose Christian vision is pervasive, whose public rhetoric is directed solely toward believers, and which requires religious affirmation of all or nearly all faculty and administrators. Characteristically, he writes, orthodox colleges have a heavy requirement in the study of religion, with special emphasis on Christian theology; they require chapel attendance; and their ethos is one of “overt piety of the sponsoring tradition.” Such colleges receive both generous financial support and a majority of their students from the sponsoring denomination or tradition, and they are owned and governed by the church or its representatives (p. 49 et passim).

A second type–the next point along the continuum–is the critical-mass college. The Christian vision at such an institution is a “privileged voice in an ongoing conversation,” and the school presents itself to the public as a Christian college or university that welcomes both Christians and others. Course requirements in religion are substantial and theology is emphasized, as at the orthodox schools. Faculty hiring and retention, however, aims to achieve not religious conformity but a “critical mass in all aspects.” Chapel, typically, is voluntary, but it is held in a large central location at a time when classes do not meet. The sponsoring tradition exercises a pervasive effect on the rituals and customs that make up the campus ethos. At least half the students come from the sponsoring tradition, and both board representation and financial support are drawn in significant measure from the sponsoring church or churches as well.

The first two categories, writes Benne, share a commitment to “the Christian vision as the organizing paradigm.” The third and fourth, in contrast, are predominantly secular in their identity, and yet the third, the intentionally pluralist college or university, retains a significant Christian element. At such a campus, Christianity becomes an “assured voice in an ongoing conversation,” and adherents of the sponsoring church or of other Christian churches are actively recruited, even though they form only a minority on campus. The institution emphasizes in its public statements that it is an institution with a Christian heritage, and chapel services remain part of the life of the campus. But relatively few attend, and there is no protected time for chapel. Religion requirements typically involve one course in the comparative or cultural study of religion, not theology. Financial support and board representation from the sponsoring tradition may continue in an informal and low-key way. The minority of students from the sponsoring tradition form an “open minority” who occupy a “private niche” in the life of the campus.

Now we come to the other end of the continuum: the once Christian but now thoroughly secular college or university, which Benne labels accidentally pluralist. A Christian vision is not evident in the college’s self-presentation or in its daily life, and the religion curriculum offers a wide variety of electives. Chapel may be held from time to time on special occasions, but the students and faculty from the denominational tradition form a “reclusive and unorganized minority.” There may be some continuing token support from churches, but the numbers of students from the once-dominant tradition are not even recorded. The governing board, too, may still include a few representatives of the church, but they represent no more than a nod of the head toward a forgotten history.

Having provided this framework, Benne is able to categorize the six institutions he studies as resembling one or another of these models. Indeed, he needs only two of the four categories. Calvin and Wheaton, he observes, fit most closely with the “orthodox” category. Baylor stands in between that category and the “critical mass” model, while making a sustained–and controversial–effort to reaffirm a Christian vision and encourage the integration of faith and learning. St. Olaf, Valparaiso, and Notre Dame all fall into the “critical mass” category. The lack of interest of most Notre Dame faculty members in relating Christianity to their subjects might make one question whether it belongs instead on the secular side of the divide, but Benne argues that worship, co-curricular programs, and public rhetoric help to maintain a distinctively Catholic and Christian identity.

This schema of four institutional types is one of the major contributions of Benne’s study, and it will prove useful in many contexts. Yet in his descriptions of each campus Benne takes pains to acknowledge that different elements of institutional identity have more or less weight on particular campuses. The role of worship in the life of a Catholic university, for example, is different from its role in a Lutheran context, which differs in turn from evangelical patterns. Denominational involvement in governance takes many different forms, and when an institution seeks to create more distance–as Baylor did in the 1990’s–this may not reflect secularization but simply a desire to escape from recurring and debilitating conflicts in the church.

When we examine Benne’s descriptions more closely, however, we find that none of his ideal types quite fit any of the six institutions. Calvin is placed in the “orthodox” category, for example, even though its chapel services have long been voluntary. At the other “orthodox” college, Wheaton, chapel is compulsory, but the governing board is self-perpetuating, not church-appointed. Notre Dame’s high proportion of Catholic students and board members seem to put it in the “orthodox” category, but the lack of explicit reference to Christianity in many of its graduate programs might warrant its placement in Benne’s third or fourth category, and the same could be said of Baylor. In the case of St. Olaf and Valparaiso, insiders may wonder whether Benne has been too quick to credit the clear and forthright religious affirmation that is offered by some administrators and faculty members and insufficiently attentive to whether students, or rank and file faculty, take these matters seriously. Wishing, one wants to caution him, will not make it so.

Benne’s study concludes with several specific suggestions of how a college or university can reaffirm and strengthen its religious identity. They make for interesting reading, but it is not clear that they are either necessary or sufficient to achieve that goal. A “critical-mass” college, Benne asserts, must ensure that at least one-third of its faculty falls into the inner circle of confessional adherents, another one-third into the second circle of supporters of the college’s religious mission. But the Quaker colleges seem to uphold a distinctive religious and ethical stance with a far smaller inner circle, while many Catholic colleges where more than half the faculty are Catholic retain hardly any sense of their Catholic identity.

Benne also suggests that the critical starting point in bringing an institution back to its religious roots is the establishment of several centers for study of the relationship between faith and learning. This observation too is provocative but unpersuasive. Granted, such a strategy seems to be having a significant impact at one of the schools he studied, Baylor. But there is a danger that such institutions will function wholly apart from the life of the campus, even while they provide symbols that satisfy board members and supporters that the religious mission is being upheld. A great deal depends on whether such initiatives are also reflected in changes in the curriculum and the daily life of students and faculty.

A coherent and effective guiding religious vision, Benne argues, must have three features, which he labels comprehensiveness, unsurpassability, and centrality. This description remains on a relatively abstract plane, however, and Benne’s book is less helpful when it comes to describing the distinctive theological traits of different Christian traditions. His characterizations of evangelicalism, Catholicism, Protestant liberalism, and even his own tradition of Lutheranism rely too much on formulas, where one might have expected a deeper engagement with the distinctive emphases of each. Benne seems to underestimate the importance of institutional and theological distinctiveness and the fact that different institutions are likely to achieve excellence in quite different ways. The historical approach that Holmes adopts helps fill in the details that are missing from Benne’s account by articulating the ways in which one particular tradition, the Reformed, has adopted and adapted historic theological themes in the context of higher education.

Benne and his publisher have encumbered the book with an ungainly subtitle and a strangely inappropriate title: “Quality with Soul” suggests a cookbook featuring catfish and collard greens. Readers seeking a recipe for the re-establishment of religious identity in a college that has left its moorings will not find it here. But they will find a lively exploration of how Christian higher education is sustaining itself in a variety of institutional settings. Benne’s focus on the present is a useful supplement to Holmes’s account of the historical roots of Christian education, and both are worth the attention of interested readers.

David A. Hoekema is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.