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Faith and Secularisation in Religious Colleges and Universities

James Arthur
Published by Routledge in 2015

While a plethora of books about religious higher education have hit the market recently, the vast majority of this scholarship focuses on Christian institutions in America. James Arthur’s new book, however, provides a fresh angle not used in previous works. Arthur, who is Professor of Education and Director of the National Institute for Christian Education Research at Canterbury Christ Church University, broadens the current conversation by examining issues facing Christian, Jewish and Islamic colleges and universities throughout the world.

Arthur’s approach gives the book a unique perspective when addressing some of the common themes pertaining to religious colleges and universities. One of these themes, which Arthur believes is central, involves what one might call the faithfulness of religious institutions, or, in other words, “whether or not they are being authentic in regard to their religious tradition” (3). Arthur explores the various ways these institutions attempt to be authentic and the various challenges they face in their quest. In this respect, Arthur’s work provides a fine complement to a book such as Robert Benne’s Quality with Soul (Eerdmans, 2001). In contrast to Benne, who examines how six Christian institutions in America have sought to integrate faith with high academic achievement, Arthur focuses less on specific institutions and more on the broader issues influencing religiously affiliated colleges and universities worldwide.

Arthur sets forth what he means by “religiously affiliated” higher education in the first chapter. He uses “religious” to mean “an association with any recognized entity, group or organisation whose reason for being is primarily spiritual and moral based upon an acknowledged faith in God” (12). For Arthur, a religiously affiliated institution is one in which there is “a direct and continuing influence on the institution by the sponsoring religion that can be clearly observed in some way in the governance, community, institutional identity or strategic operations of the university or college” (13).

The remaining chapters address various themes related to religious higher education such as identity and mission, faith and governance, belief and knowledge, academic freedom, the secularization process (and various types of responses), and the potential for religious renewal. Large portions of the book summarize various aspects of the scholarly conversation. For instance, part of the chapter on belief and knowledge offers an overview of the recent literature on the subject and addresses the work of scholars such as George Marsden, James Turner, and Douglas Sloan. In this respect, Arthur’s book provides a useful primer for scholars who are looking for a concise overview of the current literature.

Arthur’s work also adds to our understanding of religious colleges and universities in three important ways. First, for American audiences the book will widen the lens through which religious higher education is often examined. For example, Arthur’s short review of the early history of Christian institutions in Europe and other parts of the world reminds us that these places have extensive histories of Christian higher education as well as their own secularization stories. For example, early Christian universities in Mexico and Peru preceded Harvard by 85 years in their origins, and they also secularized differently. Americans in Christian higher education should be aware of this story.

This global perspective extends to other regions of the world as well. In his examination of authenticity of mission and secularization at Catholic institutions, Arthur refers to well-known examples such as the University of Notre Dame in the USA; however, he discusses Australian Catholic University, Aquinas University in the Philippines, Catholic University of Nijmegen in Holland, and the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain as well. As a result, Arthur gives us an idea of the various continental differences that occur with regard to how Catholic universities relate to church authority. Similarly, Arthur widens the arena in which we talk about matters such as academic freedom by including cases from Germany, Canada, Israel and the Middle East.

Arthur makes a second unique contribution by providing intentional comparisons between the Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Islamic traditions within higher education. Unfortunately, the Islamic and Jewish material is integrated throughout the book in odd and uneven ways (a point Arthur acknowledges). Nonetheless, Arthur ’s attention to these traditions still provides the reader familiar with this conversation some new ways to think about these issues. For example, when summarizing developments in the Muslim world and how they compare and contrast to Christian developments, Arthur finds that one important difference concerns the autonomy of the disciplines. He claims that Christian scholars, based on medieval precedent, are more accepting of such autonomy compared with Islam, which emphasizes the “Islamisation of knowledge.” Likewise, Jewish scholars, who were only allowed to enter European and American universities in the 19th and early 20th centuries, did so by abandoning any distinctive notion of Jewish scholarship.

In other areas, Arthur’s overview of the Protestant, Catholic, Islamic and Jewish traditions also reveals some interesting similarities and contrasts. Since Islamic authority, as for many Protestants and Jews, resides in a sacred text, their universities are not governed by a centralized authority. As a result, similar to early Protestant universities, typically the state exercises extensive control over religious universities. Many contemporary Protestant universities, of course, have moved beyond such a situation. Interestingly, the rigid control ofMuslim universities by the state actually contrasts sharply with the way the Vatican influences Catholic universities today. The most striking difference between the traditions appears when Arthur considers academic freedom. Islamic academics may be sent to jail for certain theological positions while various Christian scholars have merely lost positions at religious institutions and moved to other institutions.

A third original contribution of Arthur’s work grows from his examination of the secularization of religious institutions. An exploration of the historical phenomena in other parts of the world or other traditions would prove interesting, but Arthur leaves this task for others. Instead, he focuses on the recent debate about secularization theory. He acknowledges the complexity of the arguments about the theory, but he still finds the concept useful. In the institutional context of higher education, he describes secularization as “a process of reducing the influence of religion in higher education which renders the application of all or some religious beliefs and practices within higher education meaningless” (24).

The original contribution pertains less to his summary or definition and more to his listing of various categories and the ways in which secularization can be identified in various parts of university life (for example, removing references to particular traditions such as Baptist and Catholic and replacing them with references to “Judaeo-Christian values” or “Jesuit tradition”; and seeing theology as “divisive and sectarian”) (139). This type of listing, which uses specific examples, provides a useful report card by which one can examine the degree to which a university has taken the road to secularization.

In addition to these three original contributions, Arthur reinforces a number of common arguments. He is adept at making the case that secular institutions are no less neutral than religious institutions. At various points, Arthur also offers recommendations to different types of audiences about how to keep religious institutions vital. To those with influence in the academy, he argues that they need “to ensure a space in the public domain for different kinds of commitments in higher education, including the religious worldview” (146). To religious institutions, he provides suggestions about how to be authentic or faithful to their religious mission in areas such as identity, leadership and governance, curriculum, religious life and ethos, and staff appointments and student selection. These latter suggestions borrow largely from the authors such as Benne, Marsden, Burtchaell and others.

When Arthur’s recommendations become more specific, he follows the Catholic tradition’s line of thinking. For instance, he concludes his overview of the faith and knowledge chapter by claiming that religious institutions must choose between some type of fundamentalism, accommodating secular culture, or a complex synthesis (a common Catholic approach which he favors). Yet, as other recent scholarship by Richard Hughes, Robert Benne and Douglas and Rhonda Jacobsen reveals, other options besides these three exist when it comes to responding to faith and knowledge. In this case, as in some other examples found in the book, more familiarity with various Protestant traditions would reveal that the Lutheran, Calvinist and Anabaptist approaches can provide additional insight into how to move forward.

Overall, however, Arthur has provided a useful book that should serve to enrich the way we discuss religious higher education. Hopefully the price ($145) will not prevent Arthur’s book from getting the wide reading it deserves. Christian scholars who conduct research on religious higher education would benefit from Arthur’s global perspective, his insightful analysis of the secularization process in religious colleges and universities, and his comprehensive approach to the challenges that face faith-related higher education. At the same time, scholars from outside the religious higher education orbit would profit from recognizing the unique contribution that religious institutions have made—and continue to make—to the mosaic of higher education.

Cite this article
Perry L. Glanzer, “Faith and Secularisation in Religious Colleges and University”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 37:3 , 381-384

Perry L. Glanzer

Baylor University
Perry L. Glanzer, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Foundations and a Resident Scholar with Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.