084 The Dying of the Light


One of today’s more perceptive thinkers, William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, says: “In church history, the central question is not How can the church be involved in the world? but How can the church resist being conformed to the world? The church forever deludes itself into thinking it can get some political or social or ideological handle on the way the world is run and then transform the world.” It’s an understandable delusion, but, “Alas, invariably the world transforms us. We fit the world’s standards into a roughly Christian framework that results in merely residual Christian ethics” (The Service of God, p. 91).

Willimon’s concern for the Church easily extends to Christian colleges and universities which have, inexorably it seems, slowly slipped away from their founding principles to embrace the regnant values of the world they originally opposed. Thus they have failed to avoid the “subtle threat” of that Liberalism which underlies what historian Richard Hofstadter identifies as “the oldest and the longest” story of higher education in America: a sustained “drift toward secularism.” In Hofstadter’s judgment, “The history of American higher education is a sad story of the loss of faith by religious institutions. The presence in so many parts of the country of secularized, non-religious, at times even anti-religious, institutions whose foundations were inspired by religious zeal and apostolic motives seems almost like empirical proof of the contention of the positivists that faith and intelligence are incompatible” (Richard Hofstadter, The Founding of American Colleges and Universities Before the Civil War, p. 30).

This story stands massively documented in James Tunstead Burtchaell’s The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges & Universities from their Christian Churches (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1998). Taking 850 pages, providing 1750 footnotes, largely pointing to primary documents, Burtchaell explores colleges established by the Congregationalists (Dartmouth; Beloit), Presbyterians (Lafayette; Davidson), Methodists (Millsaps; Ohio Wesleyan), Baptists (Wake Forest ; Virginia Union; Linfield), Lutherans (Gettysburg; St. Olaf; Concordia), Catholics (Boston; New Rochelle; Saint Mary’s of California), and Evangelicals (Azusa; Dordt). Generally speaking, these schools have failed to rigorously respond to the central challenge of Enlightenment-nurtured Liberalism: the explicit elevation of religious experience over theological reflection. Christian colleges, despite their concern for the life of the mind, have largely failed (by embracing a Pietistic version of Christianity) to withstand the intellectual assaults of modernity.

As Burtchaell sees it, faculty, administration, trustees, religious life leaders, and students all share responsibility for the “dying of the light.” Faculty, most especially, have failed to fulfill their assignment. Rather than taking seriously their vocation as Christian scholars, upholding and defending the Christian faith (which is forever assailed by secular ideas), they have instead routinely questions the Faith itself and proven adept representatives of the world’s perspectives. Rather than critiquing the world from a Christian perspective, they have routinely critiqued the Church and her doctrines from a secular standpoint. Inevitably, it seems, professors in Christian colleges have forged an allegiance with their scholarly guild rather than their hiring institution. In time, the institution ceases to care whether professors share the sponsoring denomination’s creed, and before long no one seems particularly concerned with any profession of any form of Christian faith.

Administrators and trustees, all too often, have placed financial success, buildings, voguish programs, and accreditation ahead of the interests of sponsoring churches and historic orthodoxy. Burtchaell routinely uses presidential periods to identify the direction a college or university takes. Presidents do make a difference! Their statements, once deciphered and understood as to their targeted constituencies, reveal the direction an institution will take. Academic deans and mission statements, studied over an extended period of time, easily reveal shifting priorities and objectives. By-and-large, it seems, those entrusted with the responsibility to guide Christian universities have taken, for their agenda, the secular world and its standards rather than that of the Church.

Christian colleges should be worshipping communities. Chapels have always distinguished those who are clearly committed to their Christian position. The abolition of required chapel always means the institution has begun to drift from its primary commitment. Before that, when chapel services become assemblies, and when social service projects begin to replace spiritual transformation, subtle shifts have begun which seem almost inexorably to drive the college or university from its theological roots. Theological liberalism’s “Social Gospel” has subtly subverted the “spiritual life” of Christian colleges.

Students too make a difference. When they are allowed to dictate codes of conduct, when they are allowed to demand the cessation of required chapels and religion classes, and when a majority of them no longer come from the sponsoring denomination, there is little hope for the institution’s future as a clearly Christian institution.

Burtchaell begins with the Congregationalists, who early established Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth. To focus his study, he examines Dartmouth, founded in 1769 Eleazar Wheelock. Though quite conservative in theology, its religious identity was rooted in “piety, not religious learning” (p. 17). Slight changes in catalogues, chapel requirements, faculty responsibilities, slowly led the college away from its roots. Successive presidents altered the college’s stance, easing it away from thoroughly conservative, orthodox positions to an enlightened Liberalism, fully evident in President William Jewett Tucker a century ago. Denying the full inspiration of Scripture, the depravity of man, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and the certainty of hell for the unrepentant, Liberals at Dartmouth, equating Christian faith with social reform, quietly and surely changed the essence of the institution.

Thus the Phillips Professor of Theology recently “used his inaugural lecture to argue that human beings are not always to be accepted as persons and protected form injury and death; those in power must first determine whether their own interests and liberties might be jeopardized by such a commitment, before they make the ‘social decision’ about who is to be gifted with the status of person” (p. 52). And the “William Jewett Tucker Foundation, endowed by the college ‘to support and further the moral and spiritual work and influence’ of Dartmouth, has devoted a large part of its energies to gay liberation and abortion rights” (p. 52). Old Eleazar Wheelock could not but be displeased!

The Methodist story focuses on Millsaps College, in Mississippi, and Ohio Wesleyan. Burthchaell’s concern for Methodist institutions earlier appeared in an arresting historical two-part essay which appeared in the journal First Things, entitled “The Decline and Fall of the Christian College” (First Things, XII, April 1991; p. 18), wherein he examines what transpired at Vanderbilt University. Launched in the 1870’s with a $500,000 gift from Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the university initially sought to promote Southern Methodist doctrine and morality. Yet even under its founding President, Bishop Holland McTyeire, a foretaste of things to come indwelt a comment of the school’s chancellor, London Garland, when he declared that though Vanderbilt was, admittedly, an identifiably Methodist institution, “‘in its on goings it knows no denominational distinctions.'” No doctrinal entrance requirements would be mandated for students, no creeds would be required. With the glowing optimism oft-articulated by such academicians, Chancellor Garland effused: “‘Bigotry can never find a lodgment in the truly Christian heart. A narrow and contracted piety in the conduct of this University would dishonor the name of Wesley and disregard the wishes of the founder. We stand for a broad and thorough education–fully abreast with the advancement of literature and science'” (ibid., p. 19).

The chancellor’s views became firmly ensconced in James Kirkland, who succeeded McTyeire as Vanderbilt’s chief executive officer. Though personally devout and active in the local Methodist church, historian Paul Conkin says Kirkland’s “‘allegiance to Methodism never seemed so much doctrinal as a matter of family tradition and soothing familiarity'” (p. 19). Accordingly, he generally emphasized Vanderbilt’s “broad” or “liberal” stance–loosely identified with Protestantism but open to modern intellectual currents such as higher criticism and Darwinism. Under his steady hand for 40 years, Vanderbilt stepped up rapidly into the realm of respectability, lauded for its “academic excellence” and financial stability.

Though a few Methodist churchmen such as Bishop Elijah Hoss decried Vanderbilt’s secularization, Kirkland enjoyed the support of faculty and students and stayed true to his course. By 1914, though the faculty was still predominantly Methodist, the majority of the students were not. Revealingly, “The Biblical Department became a School of Religion” (p. 21), and concern for social ethics replaced personal commitment to Christ as Savior and Lord. Quickly thereafter the faculty became substantially non-Methodist, for scholarly credentials rather than denominational loyalty became the criteria for hiring. Indeed, Kirkland himself was succeeded by a Presbyterian at the Vanderbilt helm. Following WWII, the university “prospered” in terms of physical plant and professorial prowess, but lost much its “Christian” identity, to say nothing of any Methodist distinctives.

As Burtchaell considers Vanderbilt’s story and compares it with other universities which went through similar transitions, he identifies nine aspects of the drift which carries Christian institutions away from their roots. First, during periods of intellectual turbulence, Christians tried to creatively respond, by forging forms of rapprochement to resolve the “apparent hostility between the church and rigorous scholarship” (p. 22). Zealous believers sought to engage the scholarly world and deal rightly with its findings. Second, in most instances a strong president, determined to lead the school to academic excellence, “saw the ecclesiastical establishment as a real or potential adversary to his project and rival to his power” (p. 24). Third, at this critical time, funding from the church failed to adequately cover the oft-inflated aspirations of the president and faculty. Fourth, professors shifted their allegiance from “the church to the ‘academic guild’ ” (p. 25), often becoming the church’s most caustic critics. Fifth, when hiring faculty or admitting students, the college or university ceased to value denominational affiliation and refused to “consider itself a unit of the church” (p. 26). Sixth, “there was a progressive devolution of church-identifiers: first [in Vanderbilt’s case] from Methodist to generically Christian, then to generically religious, then to flatly secular” (p. 27). Sixth, trying to appease all its constituencies, “the academy replaced its religious identity with reductionist equivalents” (p. 28). Thus theological distinctives were blurred into platitudes, chapel requirements abolished, and various forms of moral decency and social action became the marks of what was termed “Christian.” Eighth, theological studies were dislodged, like bowling pins, from the center of the curriculum, finding a largely irrelevant niche on the periphery of the university. Ninth, “it has been active Christians, not hostile secularists, who were most effective in alienating the colleges and universities from their communities of faith” (p. 29).

Burtchaell emphasizes that these changes took place quite gradually, almost imperceptibly. Those presiding over institutions such as Vanderbilt often thought they were making mere minor adjustments to the needs of their students or dealing responsibly with the realities of current academic standards. Over time, however, a series of small steps, resolutely in the direction of secularism, totally re-directed the course of a university–though ever after something of a facade of its earlier Christian commitment would linger on in the institution’s official pronouncements. Consequently we find conditions such as described by one professor, recently reacting to the appointment of a Dean of the Chapel in a historically Protestant university: “‘Today word was received that a Jewish president has replaced an Episcopalian priest with a Congregationalist minister, educated as a Nazarene, ordained in the United Church of Christ, married, this time, to a Unitarian-Universalist minister, and “persuaded that the ultimate religious vision must be characterized by universality,” to preside over Presbyterian worship at'” the school (James Burtchaell, “The Decline and Fall of the Christian College (II), First Things, XIII, May 1993, pp. 31-32).

In truth, Burtchaell says, “Today Methodist-related institutions may have reached the point where, regardless of whether they admit or reject Methodist sponsorship, the education they offer is neither Methodist nor Christian nor religious” (Dying Light, p. 334). Primarily, he thinks, this results from the Methodist disinterest in serious theological study and commitment. A general concern for personal piety and ethical behavior, which easily shifted with the times, simply failed to sustain Methodist schools over time.

Burtchaell extends his analysis of Protestant schools to Roman Catholic colleges and universities, which have been witnessing, during the past 30 years, what transpired earlier in Protestant institutions a century ago. Severing legal ties with the Church, aggressively hiring non-Catholic professors, tolerating the advocacy of virtually any position, such as contraception and abortion, tolerating various forms of once-forbidden activities among students, many allegedly “Catholic” universities have little Catholic remaining about them.

Boston College, established by the Jesuits in 1863, retained much of its distinctive ethos for a century, blending historic orthodoxy and moral instruction with a strongly classical curriculum. Things began to change in the 1950’s. Latin was dropped. The required courses, the general core was halved. The Society of Jesus began to lose its members, and those who remained often preferred social reform to academic work. Faculty were increasingly recruited because of their academic expertise, without concern for their Catholic, or even Christian, convictions. BC quickly became a thoroughly secular institution.

The two “evangelical” schools studied, Azusa Pacific and Dordt, seem to have maintained their Christian commitment better than others, though Azusa (founded as a holiness college) is clearly a different place, in significant ways, than it was forty years ago. The statement of faith has been blurred a bit, becoming more generically “religious” than distinctively Wesleyan; student behavior is decidedly more worldly; presidential statements cultivate a much broader public. Dordt (a Christian Reformed college in Iowa) is still young enough to preserve much of its initial ethos, though its future is unclear.

Given the dire straits faced by Christians concerned authentically Christian higher education, what’s to be done? Burtchaell draws “some apparent morals” from his historical inquiry. First, “The only plausible way for a college or university to be significantly Christian is for it to function as a congregation in active communion within a church” (First Things, XIII, p. 38). Second, “In every one of it component elements–governors, administrators, faculty, and students–the academy must have a predominance of committed and articulate communicants of its mother church” (ibid). Without fail, when the balance shifts to a majority of non-Methodists, nor non-Catholics, a university simply cannot retain its character. “An educational institution that enrolls less than half its students from within its sponsoring church begins to be an external activity of that church” (p. 22). Third, noncommunicant students and faculty must be clearly informed of, and required to cooperate with, the founding church’s doctrines, standards, and mission. Fourth, such institutions will never eliminate the tension between town and gown–the non-intellectual church members and highly intellectual faculty will forever have differences. What must never be done, however, is to embrace the intelligentsia’s agenda at the expense of the sponsoring denomination. Finally, “whatever a university or college is committed to must be able to be professed out loud, and honestly” (ibid).

With hundreds of formerly “Christian” colleges hardly more than haunted houses, intact structures with subtle odors of former spirituality, and with the overwhelming evidence of theological liberalism’s utterly destructive impact, it seems evident that authentically Christian colleges and universities, entering the third millennium, cannot afford to carry on business-as-usual! There may not be any clear recipe for success in the future, but there are graphic blueprints for disaster which should enable church leaders and scholars to make better decisions than did their forebears.

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Aptly illustrating Willimon’s analysis, the historical record reveals that for 200 years theological Liberalism (stemming from F.D.E. Schleiermacher, the “Father of Modern Theology”) has urged precisely this: continually tailor the Christian proclamation and ethic to suit the dictates of contemporary culture, hoping thereby to entice the “cultured despisers” of the Faith to at least nod appreciatively toward if not actually embrace the Way of Jesus.

One of the greatest 19th century thinkers, John Henry Newman, early saw the dangers posed by Schleiermacher. Late in his life, after being named a Cardinal, he said in his biglietto speech: “To one great mischief I have from the first opposed myself. For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of Liberalism in religion. Never did Holy Church need champions against it more sorely than now, when, alas! it is an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth: . . . Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another . . . It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste, and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy” (quoted in Michael Davies, ed., Newman Against the Liberals, Harrison, NY: Roman Catholic Books, c. 1978; pp. 13-14).