Restoring the Soul of the University
Those of us working in the world of higher education often hear about the fragmentation of American universities. Many observers, inside and outside the university alike, have lamented that “multiversities” have lost any coherent educational center. Accusations abound of proliferating programs, endless elective options, growing preference for professional and pre-professional programs over the liberal arts and more traditional majors, bloated administrative bureaucracy, and over-emphasis on intercollegiate athletics. Christian colleges and universities have not been immune to these trends, which have often been linked to secularization, the pursuit of higher standing in the academy, or sometimes simply a loss of nerve.
Perry Glanzer and Todd Ream are two scholars of higher education who write widely and helpfully on how these trends, and many others, affect Christian institutions in particular. In their latest book, Restoring the Soul of the University: Unifying Christian Higher Education in a Fragmented Age, they collaborate with Nathan Alleman to make a substantial contribution to the ever-growing body of literature about how best to approach the task of Christian higher education. The title is a nod to George Marsden’s widely discussed declension narrative of American universities, The Soul of the American University.1 However, unlike Marsden’s work, Restoring the Soul of the University is not a historical survey, nor is it a historical jeremiad like James Burtchaell’s provocative The Dying of the Light (though it includes elements of both).2 It is, rather, a manifesto that attempts to diagnose the root cause of higher education’s fragmentation, sketch the historical development of trends related to this fragmentation, emphasize its effects on Christian higher education, and offer a pathway to greater coherence (and, in turn, faithfulness) in Christian universities and colleges.
The authors argue that the soul of the university was originally theology, which they define as “the worship, love, and study of God” (10). Thus the authors have in mind not the technical disciplines of systematic theology, constructive theology, or similar fields of inquiry, but rather a more pre-modern understanding of theology-in-general (the study of God). Theology is unique because “it is the only field of study that can properly worship the subject that it studies—God” (10). The nod to the role of the affective alongside the cognitive echoes James K. A. Smith and helps to keep theology appropriately practical and even pastoral in its application to university life.3 The authors attest that recovering this theological soul, which has been increasingly eclipsed in higher education (even, to varying degrees, in Christian institutions), will lead to the renewal of higher education and the advancement of authentic human flourishing.
Following a brief introduction, the authors divide their book into three large sections. Part One is mostly historical narrative, chronicling the rise and fall of theology in the life of the university, attempts to find alternative souls to animate higher education in the West, and the ascendance of multiversities in the United States. When the original universities were founded in the Middle Ages, pioneers such as Hugh of St. Victor made theology a unifying theme that was intended to sanctify the classical pagan liberal arts that were being recovered in the Christian West. Soon, however, two tendencies emerged that unintentionally undermined this theological soul: the emergence of theology as a specialized discipline and the division of theology and philosophy into distinct, if related, fields of inquiry. In light of the Reformation, emerging denominations and European nationalism led to institutional fragmentation and arguably secularization in higher education. While universities proliferated, theology was further removed from the center, since theological differences drove much of the Reformation and post-Reformation conflict in Western Christendom. Philosophy took the place of theology, since the former was thought to foster civic virtue while the latter was considered divisive and, increasingly, sectarian. Though some educators, notably John Henry Newman, made valiant attempts to recover a theological soul, these efforts proved Quixotic. At its best, theology was one discipline among many, relegated to its own department, replaced by philosophy as the queen of the sciences.
American higher education, which remained closely tethered to Christianity prior to the Civil War, was not immune to these trends. The Christian identity of most institutions declined as secularization increased, the latter fueled in part by growing religious diversity. While denominational colleges continued to be established, even there moral philosophy normally trumped theology. After the Civil War, the rise of secular research universities further contributed to the decline of theology in higher education. The hard sciences replaced philosophy as queen, and other disciplines attempted to situate themselves as sciences in the modern sense of that term. The twentieth century saw the development of full-blown multiversities, with their ever-growing catalogs of electives and lack of any sort of center (soul), resulting in the fracturing of higher education alluded to in the book’s subtitle. Efforts were made to find a new soul, notably the Great Books proposals of the early-to-mid twentieth century. But such approaches never caught on outside of a few institutions, and even those programs were disconnected from a theological soul, leaving the canon of Great Books to be selected according to the preferences of a given advocate.
Following this historical framework, Part Two digs deeper into the fragmentation of American multiversities. The authors discuss the professionalization of the professorate and note the growing importance of research over teaching. They commend the work of Ernest Boyer, which seeks to integrate teaching and scholarship as one aspect of a more holistic approach to the latter; Boyer was informed by his own deep Christian faith.4 The elective system continues to be the norm in higher education. Though a liberal arts core remains an important part of many universities, it has lost its own core in its detachment from theology, which Christian educational pioneers such as Hugh and William Ames believed transformed potentially enslaving arts into liberating arts. Thus, it is difficult to offer a holistic education in such fragmented institutions that lack common moral ideals or a shared sense of human flourishing, though efforts such as Living-Learning Communities attempt to overcome this fragmentation (though again, normally without a theological soul).
The proliferation of administrative positions is evidence of soulless bureaucracy, and intercollegiate athletics has replaced Christianity as the animating religion of American higher education. Even non-religious critics of higher education often voice these two concerns, but the authors add to the discussion by making a good case that only universities with a theological soul can tame athletic excellence, resulting in a rightly ordered approach to competition rather than the athletic idolatry one most commonly finds. I would suggest a similar argument could be made about the pursuit of academic excellence without the influence of a theological soul. The quest for any sort of excellence can quickly devolve into idolatry when it is not rightly ordered. The authors understand forprofit institutions and online academic programs to be some of the worst fruit of a soulless vision for higher education. They also note the need for a consciously theological vision for how to approach the mechanical arts, which at present enjoy the goodwill of politicians and other cultural leaders because these fields ostensibly lead to higher paying jobs and contribute in more obvious ways to technological advancement.
In Part Three, the authors become explicitly prescriptive, offering their vision for how to restore the theological soul of Christian universities. Chapter 12, which leads off this section, is arguably the most important in the book. Theology has been domesticated, relegated to religion departments, and often treated as a social science rather than “a servant that can nourish the soul of the university” (227). But theology is more than just another discipline. Because theological reflection includes God and all his ways and works, it has a bearing on every other discipline. For each discipline is part of God’s created order and intended for good, despite the effects of the Fall. Theologians can help scholars in other disciplines to name their idolatries and recover the importance of worship for all of life, including education. Theology can point to the coherence of all things in Christ (Colossians 1:17) and thereby help various disciplines overcome their own tendencies toward fragmentation.
However, as the authors helpfully point out, this should never be a one-way street. Because theology matters for every discipline, theologians should dialogue with other disciplines and learn from God’s created gifts found in (so-called) secular fields. The authors suggest several practical ideas for recovering theology, including making doctrinal formation part of faculty development, adding doctoral programs that combine theology and other disciplines, and ensuring general education courses are engaging theology rather than relegating ultimate questions to one or two required courses in a religion department. The fact that this chapter is co-authored by three scholars of higher education rather than three professional theologians or Bible scholars adds further credibility to their arguments that theology should be emphasized across the curriculum; they are not elevating the importance of their own discipline.
The remaining chapters speak to the desired fruit that would result from restoring the university’s theological soul. The authors argue that a robustly theological center is necessary to make sure that the current emphasis on virtue formation in so many Christian schools is robustly Christian. They also suggest that a strong theological vision can help achieve a rightly ordered balance, or “coinherence” (253), among faith, learning, and service. They argue for a theologically informed curricular unity as the remedy for hyper-compartmentalization and an overemphasis on electivity, and revisit the idea yet again that the liberal arts become only truly liberating arts when they are framed as part of the Christian story. The chapter on co-curricular concerns helpfully envisions universities as “greenhouse communities” (277) that cultivate Christian virtues in students and reform their identities in light of the gospel, thereby helping them to overcome their own individual tendencies toward fragmentation. The book closes with advice for academic administrators to focus on faithfulness-in-exile rather than cultural conformity: to restore the theological soul for the sake of the common good.
Restoring the Soul of the University is an important book that ought to provoke many conversations among Christian academics. While the authors claim to be writing for two audiences—Christians working in secular multiversities and faculty and other leaders in Christian institutions—the latter group will almost certainly find this work most relevant to their particular contexts. For thoughtful accounts of the role theology can play in secular institutions, the works of Gavin D’Costa, Stanley Hauerwas, and Mike Higton are perhaps more applicable.5 I will direct my remaining comments toward the sorts of explicitly Christian institutions that sponsor Christian Scholar’s Review, maintain close ties with denominational bodies, and/or participate in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities.
First, I want to offer two points of friendly critique from one who deeply resonates with the message of this book. I appreciate the broad definition of theology that does not narrowly equate it with the modern academic disciplines such as systematic theology and related fields. However, the book would have been strengthened had the authors devoted some space to what it looks like actually to engage with the text of Scripture and the best of the Christian intellectual tradition and apply it to various disciplines and professions. They might counter that this was implicit throughout, and at times it certainly was. But for academic leaders who want to frame their work in explicitly theological categories, it would have been helpful to be able to turn to a discussion that provides some advice and examples. Many readers will likely think to themselves, “Yes! But, how?” Perhaps the authors, or others, will flesh this out more in follow-up essays, books, or conferences.6
Another critique is that the authors take too negative a posture toward online education. Admittedly, this is not surprising. Too many devotees of online education, especially those that are led by administrators rather than faculty, discuss online education mostly in market terms (“if we do not capitalize on the market for online education, the folks down the road will beat us to it”) or, perhaps worse, purely economic terms (“online education will open up exciting new revenue possibilities for the university”). While the authors at least imply that recovering the university’s theological soul would undermine online education, it might also be the case that a more substantive theological center could help equip faculty and administrators to think about better ways to approach online education. Two brief examples will suffice. Deep reflection on the missio Dei, especially in light of the role of Christian higher education in increasingly post-Christian contexts, might lead to more theologically informed rationale for offering at least some programs to students who are unable, or at least unlikely, to relocate to a physical campus. Also, sustained discussions of the importance of ecclesiology could lead to creative partnerships between universities and local congregations or Christian non-profit organizations. This sort of reflection has begun to happen in the world of theological education, but could also be applied to Christian higher education in general.7
These criticisms aside, Restoring the Soul of the University is not just an important book, it is a good book. And as a good book, it raises good questions that should help advance discussion on some issues that loom in Christian higher education. Again, a couple of examples will suffice. Discussions about the importance of the Christian worldview and the integration of faith and learning animated evangelical colleges and universities for two generations, but in recent years have begun to fall out of favor in many circles. There are many reasons for these trends—more than can be addressed in this review. However, one common critique of these concepts is that they are treated like automatic remedies to the very sort of fragmentation the authors discuss in this book, even while faculty disagree about what these terms even mean. Whatever the Christian worldview is, it is informed by theological commitments that arise from Scripture and help to frame all of life. And the integration of faith and learning is at least in part deconstructing and reconstructing the educational task according to theological categories for the sake of a more intentionally Christian education. More attention given to the explicitly theological commitments that underlie these concepts—as well as how ecclesial traditions affect how that theology is framed—may lead to renewed ways to conceive of them and apply them across the disciplines and professions.
In many schools where less attention is being given to worldview and faith-learning integration, the focus has turned to forming particular virtues in students. The authors of Restoring the Soul of the University discuss the virtues at various points, and their caution that Christian institutions frame the virtues theologically is worth heeding. In some discussions about virtue formation, even in Christian schools, there is almost an eagerness to treat the virtues as the common stock of multiple faith traditions. But the gospel transforms how we think about virtue and vice—or, put in more theological terms, about holiness and sin. Theology as broadly defined in this book (which in many Christian institutions also includes philosophy) has to be at the center of discussions about what the virtues are, how they are formed in students, and the role that a Christian education plays in such formation. It might even be the case that an explicitly theological framing of the virtues will help to bridge the artificial divide between educators who are still strongly committed to a focus on the Christian worldview and the integration of faith and learning and those who would prefer to talk more about the virtues. Institutions rooted in particular ecclesial traditions should not be afraid to draw upon their theological heritage to help them in engaging these concepts in ways that are meaningful in their context.
Much more could and should be said in response to this book, and likely will be in the coming years. For now, Restoring the Soul of the University should be required reading for administrative leadership teams in Christian universities. It should make its way onto syllabi for faculty development programs and faculty book discussions. Deans and department chairs should help their faculties think through how to engage meaningfully with theology within their respective disciplines, regardless of what sort of language they typically lean on when it comes to matters like worldview, faith-learning integration, and virtue formation. One of my colleagues likes to say that, in a Christian university, every department needs a resident theologian/philosopher—this book can help to cultivate such faculty leaders. Restoring the Soul of the University could also stimulate creative thinking for how faculty in religion departments and schools of theology can serve the wider university community by offering theological resources that are applicable to other disciplines and even co-curricular departments such as student affairs. At the end of the day, there will be no “one-size-fits-all” approach to recovering the theological soul of Christian universities, and there should not be; Christian higher education is as diverse as the institutions that populate that world. But if Christian universities are to thrive in a post-Christian and increasingly antiChristian context, then attempting the recovery is worth the effort.
Cite this article
- See George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Unbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
- James Tunstead Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998).
- See James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), especially chapter 6, which focuses on higher education.
- See Ernest L. Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, updated ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2015). Ream was one of several scholars who contributed new material to this updated edition of Boyer’s classic work.
- Gavin D’Costa,Theology in the Public Square: Church, Academy, and Nation (London: WileyBlackwell, 2005); Stanley Hauerwas, The State of the University: Academic Knowledges and the Knowledge of God (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007); Mike Higton, A Theology of Higher Education (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
- In February 2017, the Transdisciplinary Group sponsored a conference on Radical Christian Scholarship that attempted to dig deeper into this very issue: what does it actually look like to bring Scripture and the Great Tradition to bear on every discipline and profession? The conference had an ecumenical and evangelical feel to it, though one that often leaned in the direction of the Neo-Calvinist tradition.
- See John Cartwright, Gabriel Etzel, Christopher Jackson, and Timothy Paul Jones, Teaching the World: Foundations for Online Theological Education (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2017).