The Struggle for Soul in Christian Higher Education: Burtchaell Was Right, and I Was Wrong, Part I

The Struggle for Soul in Christian Higher Education: Burtchaell Was Right, and I Was Wrong, Part I

After some positive comments about the St. Olaf of the 90s, he mysteriously pronounced that: “Other indicia suggest the Midwest college is entering a divestiture of its Lutheran identity that, though much longer in coming, could be swifter in its eventual accomplishment.” Other schools—Azuza Pacific and Calvin—were assessed quite positively, but Burtchaell had little confidence in their futures as Christian schools.

During my sabbatical year of 1985–86 at St. Edmunds College of Cambridge University, I had the good fortune of having many conversations about Christian higher education with James Burtchaell, who also had a year-long sabbatical there. He had recently moved from the provost’s office of Notre Dame to its theology department.

I had moved in 1982 from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago to Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, recruited by President Norman Fintel in order to build a strong religion department and to help strengthen the connection of the college to its Lutheran heritage, including the founding and shaping of a Center for Religion and Society.

Burtchaell was fearful that Notre Dame was loosening its connection with the Catholic tradition, as so many other Catholic schools had done. He was very interested in criticizing and preventing such a move.

I was still in mild shock about the Roanoke College that I found when I arrived there in 1982. Half the department chairs were hostile to the college’s connection with any sort of religious tradition. The other half were apathetic about that connection, not seeing any relevant connection between the college’s Lutheran heritage and liberal arts education. Only two of us department chairs thought it important to hire Lutheran Christians if the college was to have any continuing relation to its original founding. The Dean and the President both farmed out the hiring of new faculty to the departments.

The shock came from the contrast to what  I experienced when attending a Lutheran college in the Midwest in the late 50s that was unabashedly Lutheran in its identity and mission. Though I had lectured at many Lutheran colleges while I was a seminary professor for nearly twenty years, I had not looked closely at their overall religious substance. After my jolt in arriving at Roanoke, I now had to take a closer look. What had happened in those twenty years?

A great aid in taking that closer look came from my friend Burtchaell, who had followed up his interest in the secularization of Christian schools. In the April and May 1991 issues of First Things Burtchaell wrote two connected articles entitled “The Decline and Fall of a Christian College.” The articles presented a very long and highly erudite historical account of how Vanderbilt moved from being what Methodists hoped would be their flagship Christian university to a thoroughly secular institution in which Christianity offered no public relevance. In the articles he points to nine fateful moves that were crucial in that secularization.

Though there were some earlier studies of secularization in higher education, this one was a game-changer because of its clarity and passion. In hopes of understanding the process of secularization, I had already organized a faculty/administration discussion group on the subject of Christian higher education. When Burtchaell’s articles came out, we were given tools to understand what had happened. We could almost put our college’s name in every reference to Vanderbilt that Burtchaell made. His work was enormously helpful to understand what had happened and gave us clues about how we might take measures to mitigate the secularization process and perhaps rebuild a viable Christian college.

However, those articles were but a foreshadowing of what was to come in his The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches, a tome of 868 pages, published by Eerdmans in 1998.1

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