Risking understatement, George M. Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief sparked intense reactions in academe when released by Oxford University Press in 1994.1 Administrators of church-related colleges and universities who failed to see secularization as a threat adjusted their vision and, in turn, their priorities. Faculty serving those institutions became increasingly conscious of the possibilities their faith commitments held for the practice of scholarship. Some faculty serving secular institutions became emboldened by those same possibilities while others found Christian scholarship an affront to the epistemological logic they cherished.
Today, Oxford University Press released Marsden’s The Soul of the American University Revisited: From Protestant to Postsecular. Since 1994, change may be academe’s lone constant. Present realities are understandably deemed challenging. Christian scholars today, however, are also the beneficiaries of numerous sacrifices made by many of their predecessors. To fully appreciate those challenges, opportunities, and sacrifices, I talked with Marsden on the occasion of the release of The Soul of the American University Revisited.
TCR: What factors led you to consider working on the first edition of The Soul of the American University? What component of that edition proved the most challenging to research? If different, what component of that edition proved the most challenging to write?
GMM: After having taught at Calvin College [now University] for twenty years, I spent the spring semester of 1986 as a visiting professor in the History Department at University of California, Berkeley. It also turned out to be a time of transition for me to university teaching, as I accepted a position at Duke University Divinity School beginning that fall.
One thing that struck me about Berkeley was that it had begun as a little Presbyterian college, the College of California, which ceded itself to the state in the 1860s. But by the 1980s it was an archetypical secular multiversity where concerns to relate Christian faith to education, such as was standard fare at Calvin, were almost completely unknown. So it seemed to me that such transitions would make a fascinating historical study.
The research took some years of preparation. Robert Lynn of the Lilly Endowment took an interest in the project and he referred me to the Pew Charitable Trusts who provided me with generous funding. We had funds for a preliminary conference and edited a book, The Secularization of the Academy (1992). These helped me map out the lay of the land. I also had funding for a number of graduate assistants and post-doc students so I could farm out much of the research.
I think the most difficult part of the writing was in keeping the narrative from becoming too long. In the second edition, I think I did better in that regard by omitting some of the case studies in describing the transitions from old-time colleges to universities in the late 19th century.
TCR: What impact did you hope the first edition would have on its readers? What response, if any, did you find the most predictable? What response, if any, did you find the most surprising?
GMM: I wanted the first edition to challenge some of the prevailing assumptions in the mainstream academy. Particularly, during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century the idea had arisen that intellectual life should be based largely on scientific models that excluded traditional religious perspectives. After the 1960s, some post-modern views had challenged scientism, but the newer outlooks were still overwhelmingly secularist. So I ended with a “Concluding Unscientific Postscript” that threw down the gauntlet on the point that Christian perspective could be just as sound academically as were various exclusively secularist perspectives.
I had recently moved to Notre Dame when the book came out in 1994, but I knew from my experience with some colleagues at Duke that among certain sets of academics my plea for making room for Christian perspectives could cause minor firestorm of resistance. I was pleased that the book received some major attention, particularly a cover story in The Chronicle of Higher Education, complete with me in front of the “Touchdown Jesus” mural on Notre Dame’s library. That Chronicle article reported some of the strongest statements of pushback, most notably from a distinguished intellectual historian who said that Christian scholarship was a “loony” idea. Such reactions led me to write The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, where I responded to that and a good many similar critiques.
TCR: What factors led you to consider working on the second edition? In what way(s), if any, is the anticipated audience for the second edition different from the first edition? If different, what impact do you hope the second edition has on those audience members?
GMM: A lot has changed in the quarter century since I completed the first edition. Mainstream academia seems in much more disarray. That is especially so in the humanities that were once thought to be the principal loci for higher education to help young people form meaningful outlooks for their lives. Also the old ideal of the scientific model as the gold standard for intellectual inquiry has nearly disappeared. Subjectivist outlooks grounded in personal or group identities contend with each other with no common court of appeal.
It is at least plausible to argue, as a number of observers have, that we are in a “postsecular” era. That is the argument, for instance, in The American University in a Postsecular Age, Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press), 2008. More recently John Schmalzbauer and Kathleen A. Mahoney, The Resilience of Religion in American Higher Education (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2018) challenge the idea that there is a steady growth of secularization. There remains plenty of prejudice against traditional Christianity in mainstream academia, but that is largely because of political issues and issues regarding sexuality.
Even with that prejudice there still may be more room for recognizing that traditional religion can be a legitimate basis for identity and that religiously-based academic perspectives are not necessarily inferior to exclusively naturalistic perspectives. In fact, as I myself have found, quite a few traditionally Christian scholars have been well accepted in the academic mainstream, even their numbers are not a large percentage of the whole. That is related to the other main development of the past that I write about. There has been a remarkable “renaissance” of traditionally Christian scholars and scholarship. During the past quarter century the numbers of accomplished and openly Christian scholars, as in the CCCU [Council for Christian Colleges and Universities] schools and a fair number of counterparts in mainstream universities, has increased dramatically—far more than we had anticipated in the early 1990s.
TCR: When working on the second edition, what component, if any, were you most eager to revisit? Least eager to revisit?
GMM: I was most eager to revisit the question of whether there was room in contemporary university education for traditionalist Christian scholarship. As I said in the previous answer, I think that things have improved on that front, in part because of the flourishing of high quality scholarship from traditionalist Christian perspective.
I cannot recall any component that was difficult to revisit, other than that it took a good bit of work to streamline the historical narrative a bit.
TCR: Of all of the figures you consider in both editions, which one, if any, do you connect with the most on an intellectual level? On a theological level? Of all of the figures you consider in both editions, which one, if any, do you connect with the least on an intellectual level? On a theological level?
GMM: I don’t think of any of these figures as exactly my intellectual heroes or heroines. I admire aspects of the outlooks of many of them, but also see them as limited by some of their assumptions and social-cultural circumstances. That is one reason why I think history is an important discipline. We need to be constantly adjusting our attitudes and the applications of our beliefs to our social-cultural circumstances.
For instance, I have some sympathy for Noah Porter, the president of Yale in the 1870s and 1880s whose struggles with the agnostic William Graham Sumner are a centerpiece in the book. While I do not agree with all of Porter’s philosophy, I think he understood the basic issues concerning faith and learning that were at stake. Yet, given the circumstances that Yale was not simply a Christian school but also a national institution, it was impossible to preserve the privileges of the old Protestant establishment. So Porter can also be seen as unrealistically trying to hold on to ideals whose time had passed.
Or, I have learned a lot from Reinhold Niebuhr’s ethics, but I think that his views on higher education were not worth much. Theologically, I resonate most with Jonathan Edwards. But that has to do with the inspiring quality of much of his theological writings and very little to do with has role in higher education.
I resonate least with some of the scientific positivists who would a priori exclude all religious perspectives. Also some of the extreme fundamentalists, such as the creation scientists, have hurt the cause of Christian higher education. But, at the same time, I can appreciate some of the concerns of each.
TCR: In what way(s), if any, do you believe perceptions of secularization in higher education changed since the publication of the first edition? How, if at all, do you believe the threat of secularization in higher education remains unchanged since the publication of the first edition? How, if at all, do you believe the threat of secularization in higher education changed since the publication of the first edition?
GMM: This is an important question. At the time I was writing in the early 1990s, memories of at least the vestiges of the old Protestant establishment, even at many northern major universities, were still around. So one major theme in the history was that of ongoing secularization, or the seeming inexorable diminishment of religious concerns in mainstream higher education.
As, I said above and even put in my new sub-title, I think we are in what can plausibly be called a “postsecular” era. There is still lots of secularization and erosion of religious life. But I think there is also room for various sorts of religious renewal, especially given the incoherence of most current secularist views.
TCR: What advice would you offer scholars (regardless of discipline) seeking to implement lessons drawn from your work? What advice would you offer administrators (regardless of position) seeking to implement lessons drawn from your work?
GMM: This is a challenging time, but also a time of opportunity for self-consciously Christian scholars. One of their first concerns should be to do well at their disciplines. Good work will gain appreciation. At the same time, they must display Christian virtues—like those, for instance, that are “the fruit of the spirit” in Galatians 5 —-in their teaching and in attitudes toward their colleagues.
I think it is important to avoid culture wars mentalities and in getting caught up in divisive non-negotiable partisan political stances of either the right or the left. These have been counterproductive. One should speak out for justice and other moral concerns, but also be sensitive to the concern of those who differ from us. Be ready also to learn from secular colleagues and their scholarship, looking for what is profitable in it, even while perhaps offering constructive critiques. Look for points of intellectual or ethical contact and reconciliation.
As to administrators in Christian higher education, I realize that this is an extremely difficult time. For many, their most pressing task is simply to keep their institutions afloat. So I have no easy answers. Still, in addition to cultivating the principles and attitudes mentioned above, I think Christian administrators should keep it a priority to offer resistance against the pull of some very strong cultural and economic forces that have reshaped much of American higher education in recent decades. A central theme, much lamented in twenty-first century university education, is the demise of the humanities. In the twentieth century, the humanities had been the principal locus for university education opportunities for young people to develop meaningful and constructive philosophies of life.
Today the pressure is to make American higher education overwhelmingly a practical economic enterprise. The current trend is to see university education as essentially a means for people to gain the skills necessary for economically profitable careers. And at private universities and colleges there is increased pressure to get a good return on the extra costs involved.
So, even as administrators have to respond to such concerns, they also have to resist the pressure simply to compete with the economic benefits offered by vocational training at secular schools. What makes the investment in Christian higher education worthwhile, in addition to the wonderful features of spending four years in an intentional Christian community, is the Christian perspectives on life that it provides.
The integration of faith and learning can and should be applied to every discipline and practical skill. Yet it would be shortsighted to think that such approaches can flourish if they are effectively divorced from the humanistic disciplines. These, in addition to theology, have been essential in helping Christian young people develop philosophical principles and cultural perspectives on how they should live as Christians in a very complex world.
The disciplines that cultivate such perspectives have been essential parts of what has made Christian higher education so admirable in recent generations. So, while attending to many other more practical concerns, administrators also need to make sure that they are resisting the secularizing trends that would lead to diminishment of such Christian humanistic disciplines as integral parts of the enterprise.
George M. Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame, Distinguished Scholar in the History of Christianity at Calvin Theological Seminary, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016. In addition to The Soul of the American University and now The Soul of the American University Revisited, he is the author and editor of numerous books including Jonathan Edwards: A Life (winner of the 2004 Bancroft Prize).