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Keeping Faith at Princeton: A Brief History of Religious Pluralism at Princeton and Other Universities

Frederick Houk Borsch
Published by Princeton University Press in 2012

Six and a half years have passed, but I can still recall the look in his eyes. I met the Rev. Msgr. Gerard H. McCarren through a circle of scholars focused on the work of John Henry Newman. Father Gerry as his friends know him served (and still does) on the faculty at the seminary at Seton Hall University. In particular, he was (and still is) charged with oversee-ing the spiritual formation of candidates for the priesthood.

On this occasion we were at Villanova University for the annual meeting of the Venerable John Henry Newman Association. Most individuals attending this meeting were Catholic but a couple evangelicals like me were also graciously welcomed. Toward the end of the first day, Father Gerry made an announcement that Mass would be said at 5:00 p.m. in a small chapel in the conference center. Seated next to him at the time, I leaned over and asked if I could attend. His answer was a full-throated “Yes.” When I inquired about taking Eucharist, the look in his face and his eyes, in particular, changed. He paused but then quietly said “No.”

Over the course of my time in academe and the Church I have sought to read any number of works concerning the ecumenical challenges and opportunities facing evangelicals and Catholics. Despite the considerable influence of those works, nothing proved more influential upon me than the look in Father Gerry’s eyes that day – a look that simultaneously embodied the best that the moral virtue of charity and an appreciation for theological particularity can offer.

In Keeping Faith and Princeton: A Brief History of Religious Pluralism at Princeton and Other Universities, Frederick Houk Borsch came to terms with the even larger form of religious pluralism present in American higher education. With his focus most squarely on efforts which took place on the Princeton University campus where he served as the Dean of the Chapel from 1981-1988, Borsch also includes one chapter with brief overviews of comparable efforts led at a number of research universities. Although his work proves engaging, it left me with two reservations. On a more stylistic level, Borsch’s work reads like part memoir and part history which results in a certain lack of focus. On a more substantive level, while I found Borsch to represent the same level of charity embodied by a figure such as Father Gerry, I also found his discussion lacking a comparable measure of appreciation for theo-logical particularity.

Driving Borsch’s exploration of the nature of religious life at Princeton are at least two interrelated convictions. First, while Princeton began as an institution closely aligned with Presbyterianism, it became “first and foremost an institution dedicated to education and scholarship and so in service to the wider society and nation” (60). When it comes to the role of religion, a university with Princeton’s heritage could no longer remain aligned with Presbyterianism or even Christianity in general. As the wider society became more pluralistic, the leadership at Princeton felt compelled to follow. Echoing the findings of a Trustee’s Committee, Borsch offers that the changes subsequently made at Princeton “should be seen, not as any lessening of the religious spirit that guided Princeton’s founding, but as an expansion of it” (76).

In general, Borsch’s discussion of these changes follows the historical timeline of Princ-eton University. In chapter 1, he initially begins by going back to his days as a student but then the bulk of the chapter then moves through a discussion of the role of religion from the university’s earliest years up to about 1978. Chapter 2 more slowly walks through a discus-sion of various changes proposed in relation to the chapel and its leadership. Chapter 3 then provides some of the most memoir-like of details as it generally covers the years Borsch served as the Dean of the Chapel. The penultimate chapter, chapter 4, is the discussion of the changes that took place in the chapel programming at several other universities–particularly Columbia, Penn, Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Stanford, and USC. The book then concludes with a chapter that explores the role religion plays on the Princeton campus today.

While all of these sections possess their own interesting and worthwhile qualities, the greatest strengths (and I fear one of the greatest weaknesses) of Borsch’s book are not surprisingly in chapter 3—the chapter that roughly follows the years he served as the Dean of the Chapel. The following chapter concerning the role of religion at other universities is engaging, in part, because Borsch received a good measure of that information first-hand from individuals who led those efforts. However, in chapter 3, Borsch provides his audience with a first-hand look into how he provided spiritual leadership to a community that faced a host of great challenges. As a result, we witness the heart of a pastor pour forth in places where he describes the efforts he made to reach out to students who were the victims of travesties including sexual assault and discrimination. As Dean of the Chapel, Borsch also saw himself as playing a pastoral role to the members of the faculty and staff. In an effort he referred to as “Faculty Forums,” Borsch details the interaction he shared with faculty across the university as well as guests he brought to campus such as Stanley Hauerwas, Ernest Boyer, and Parker Palmer.

In order to offer these details, Borsch draws on a number of sources. First, Borsch’s own recollections prove to be the most prominent of sources intellectually funding this work. Conversations with individuals such as the previously mentioned Stanley Hauerwas, Ernest Boyer, and Parker Palmer prove to be just the beginning. Borsch has known or known of almost all of the presidents who have served Princeton since his days as a student in the 1950s. In addition to a vast array of political and intellectual elites, one could argue Borsch genuinely sought to know a good portion of the Princeton faculty during his time serving the university. Second, Borsch also includes a number of references to several significant titles related to the role of religion in higher education such as George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University. Finally, Borsch includes references to key reports and documents in the university’s archives (such as the previously mentioned Trustee’s Report).

For reasons I found Borsch’s work promising, I would find it far more compelling if he would have employed a singular writing strategy. In places, his book reads like a standard academic text. However, I would argue he should have written this book with a singular focus upon being a memoir. The narrative details Borsch includes prove important but often beg further unpacking. For example, the details he mentions concerning his efforts to work with homosexual students are only present in three paragraphs. Given the manner in which he structured those paragraphs, I am optimistic those experiences afforded Borsch with the kind of wisdom that could fill at least a chapter in a memoir. Evident in what is present in this volume, a more formal memoir would allow the pastoral heart present in this book to find a more pronounced voice. His audience would then understand in more embodied detail the moments of hope, satisfaction, outrage, and even despair that often define the calling of a clergyperson serving a university community.

Given the rather mixed format for the book, I am left wondering at what level Borsch’s work reflects a desire to leave a blueprint for individuals seeking to incorporate the pluralistic nature of their universities into their religious programming. At one point, Borsch mentions he and his colleagues “had no blueprint for interfaith programs and activities” (103). As a result, they were left to navigate this uncharted territory on their own. Struggling with what to do with the particular nature of a host of religious images, they seized upon an image that represented in some way the three Abrahamic faiths—the burning bush out of which God spoke to Moses. They eventually developed a large banner bearing this image—a banner that hangs above the altar in the chapel to this day. While a powerful image and one that does play a role within three of the world’s faith traditions, I am left to ask if it (and other comparable efforts) fully capture the ideals of any one of those traditions. Extending that line of thinking, I wonder whether Borsch’s commitment to the belief that one can deepen a community’s faith tradition by broadening is plausible.

While I am not sure what to call it, I am persuaded the inextricable relationship shared by theological particularity and the virtue of charity I witnessed in the eyes of Father Gerry on that day six and a half years ago reflects the best of a way forward for ecumenical rela-tions. I could tell the universal nature of the Body of Christ was something Father Gerry understood and eagerly sought. In the same moment, he also bore witness to the fact that such a nature would only come when we fully appreciated the theological particularity separating us. In contrast, Frederick Borsch Borsch passionately argues that broadening the religious identity of a community is a way to deepen it. Charity is obviously a start. However, without an abiding appreciation for our theological particularity, charity can only carry those efforts so far.

Cite this article
Todd C. Ream, “Keeping Faith and Princeton: A Brief History of Religious Pluralism at Princeton and Other Universities.”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:4 , 447-449

Todd C. Ream

Taylor University
Todd C. Ream serves on the higher education and honors faculties at Taylor University, as a fellow with the Lumen Research Institute, and as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.  He is the author or editor of numerous books including, most recently, Hesburgh of Notre Dame: The Church’s Public Intellectual.