The Soul of the American University Revisited
Philip Ryken is the President of Wheaton College, where he has served since 2010. The author or editor of more than fifty Bible commentaries and other books, Dr. Ryken provides leadership on the boards of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) and the National Assocation of Evangelicals (NAE). He was recently appointed as a Senior Fellow of Newton House, Oxford.
If it hadn’t been for George Marsden, I might well have finished my doctoral work one day earlier.
Shortly after Oxford University Press’s 1994 publication of Marsden’s magisterial history The Soul of the American University, I tracked down one of the first copies at Oxford’s Rhodes House Library. What began as a brief distraction from my studies in historical theology quickly became an immersive journey through nearly four centuries of American higher education. I read until the library closed and then came back the next morning to finish.
My first of several trips through The Soul of the American University was hardly a day wasted. Marsden’s central question was existential for me: How can a Christian college or university avoid the road to secularization and instead maintain its missional integrity and spiritual orthodoxy from one generation to the next?
Having spent my childhood within earshot of Blanchard Tower on the campus of Wheaton College, I was raised to care deeply about Christian higher education. Through listening to dinnertime conversations with scholars such as Beatrice Batson, Roger Lundin, and Frank Gaebelein, I had heard some cautionary tales of outstanding universities that had drifted from their distinctively Christian origins. Then, as an incoming Wheaton freshman, I picked up Paul Bechtel’s history of the College: A Heritage Remembered. Bechtel helped me understand my evangelical identity and deepened my commitment to the enduring mission of Christ-centered higher education to educate whole persons to build the church and benefit society worldwide.
Encountering Marsden’s history later, at Oxford, was an eye-opener. Certainly, I was predisposed to agree with his central thesis about the secularization of American higher education and to read it as a long, sad story of spiritual and theological declension. Before reading The Soul of the American University, however, I had little idea how pervasive Christianity had been across the educational landscape—at least culturally—and only a passing awareness of the institutional decisions—both large and small—that led so many colleges and universities away from rather than towards the mission that Wheaton was (and is!) striving to maintain.
As it turns out, though, events of the last 25 years have led Marsden to conclude that his secularization thesis needed some revision, which he has helpfully provided in The Soul of the American University Revisited. (Fortunately, the new edition is also somewhat streamlined, for which Professor Marsden should be thanked and emulated.) Recognizing the stubborn persistence of religion in academia and American life, he has come to share the viewpoint of the sober philosopher who wrote: “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions” (Ecclesiastes 7:10 niv). Now Marsden argues that we are not in a completely post-Christian culture after all. Rather, secularism is in conflict with itself, struggling to find meaning beyond the marketplace. Meanwhile, there are many signs that Christian scholarship can and will continue to flourish on Christ-centered campuses and through networks of Christian scholars at secular colleges and universities.
Two Recent Success Stories
Before looking to the future and imagining what the next 25 years might bring, I wish to underscore two themes from Marsden’s epilogue, which he titled, “An Unexpected Sequel: A Renaissance of Christian Academia.”1 Marsden is heartened by the resilience and resurgence of Christian intellectual life, which the epilogue amply documents. Scholars across a wide spectrum of academic disciplines have been hard at work over the last quarter century to remove the stumbling block of anti-intellectualism that Mark Noll wrote about in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, also published in 1994.
Marsden’s account of this resurgence highlights important thinkers at Wheaton College, from Clyde Kilby and Carl Henry to Mark Noll and Arthur Holmes. He also notes—importantly—alumnus Billy Graham’s strong advocacy for a more thoughtful evangelicalism, visibly symbolized by the 1980 opening of Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center, and also by the evangelist’s leading role in founding Christianity Today.
In accounting for the evangelical recovery of a Christian intellectual heritage over the last half century, I wish to note the importance of Wheaton’s seminars on faith and learning. As a newly minted English professor, my father (Leland Ryken) started his teaching career in the summer of 1968 by participating in the very first annual seminar, led by philosophy professor Arthur Holmes. For more than half a century now, new faculty members have invested time and thought in understanding the best traditions of liberal arts education, deepening their grasp of central doctrines of evangelical theology, and developing their own thoughtful approaches to integrating learning with faith in their academic disciplines. These seminars have made a dramatic difference at Wheaton, where integrating faith with learning is not an afterthought, but foundational to the work of our faculty members as teachers and scholars. These seminars have also had a wider influence: as Marsden notes, many other Christian colleges and universities have adopted similar programs on their campuses.
Sustaining a strong faith and learning program requires substantial investments, made by generous donors who continue to believe in Christian higher education. I mention this in part because when I compare notes with colleagues at other schools who want to develop their faculty members theologically and intellectually, adequate funding often turns out to be a significant obstacle. Today, second-year faculty members at Wheaton receive a course release to attend a year-long “Faith and Learning Seminar.” They meet with theologian Timothy Larsen for nearly two hours every week to discuss core readings in theology, higher education, and the liberal arts. In following years, they produce a first-rate paper on the implications of the Christian faith for their scholarly discipline. Two colleagues serve as readers and conversation partners throughout the writing process, one from inside and one from outside their academic department. These papers must be formally approved before a faculty member can receive tenure. Some papers later appear in the pages of Christian Scholar’s Review and other journals; all of them are archived on the “Integrating Faith and Learning” webpage sponsored by Wheaton’s Buswell Library. The benefits of this faith and learning program are wide-ranging and long-lasting, as participation typically sets intellectual and spiritual trajectories that arc across a scholar’s career.
Wheaton also sponsors an annual “Advanced Faith and Learning Seminar.” Scholars from departments across campus receive a course release to attend weekly discussions led by a senior scholar, or sometimes by a pair of scholars. Topics such as “Neuroscience and Personhood,” “Nationalism,” and “Virtues, Vices, and Spiritual Disciplines” generate multidisciplinary interest, foster deeper reflection on theology and culture, and nurture intellectual curiosity in ways that influence subsequent scholarly pursuits. I look back on the seminar that English professor Alan Jacobs led for us a decade ago on “Christianity and the Book” as one of my best learning experiences in higher education. In recent years, Dr. Larsen has added “Supplemental Seminars” to the faculty program—typically to increase biblical and theological literacy. All of this requires a substantial expenditure of both time and money, but there are ample returns on these investments in the classroom, in the lives of alumni who serve the kingdom, and in the wider academy.
In his epilogue, Marsden also highlights the gathering strength of Christ-centered colleges and universities across the United States, and beyond. When The Soul of the American University was first published in 1994, it seemed the most that evangelical educators could hope for was a small place at the academic table, as a form of religious diversity, based on an appeal to principled pluralism. But despite its “outsider status”—or maybe because of it—Christian higher education has become increasingly influential over the last quarter century. Marsden points to deeper candidate pools for open positions, more impressive academic pedigrees, and wider engagement in scholarly networks as signs that faculty members at evangelical schools are stronger than ever. Other signs of institutional strength could be added to his list, including stronger enrollments, better facilities, more opportunities for study abroad, greater expertise in developing students outside the classroom, more capable governing boards, and perhaps more effective administrators, too. Christian colleges are bigger and better than ever.
The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) has been an important catalyst for the Christian higher education movement. As Marsden mentions, the Council has grown much larger over the last 25 years, and now includes more than 150 schools across North America. The CCCU’s reach matters, but so do its practices. Each year networks of presidents, provosts, chaplains, and chief officers in finance, advancement, diversity, and student development meet to share best practices and to nurture a common sense of calling. As importantly, the CCCU has a presence in Washington, DC, where it monitors government issues that affect member schools, defends religious liberty, lobbies for and against legislation that might have an impact on Christian higher education, helps ensure that CCCU schools are represented in national associations, and functions as one of the largest, most influential coalitions in higher education.
Ironically, perhaps, the threat and fear of secularization have helped to renew Christian higher education. Whether all of us have read Marsden’s history or not, as movement leaders we know its overall thesis and are well aware of its cautionary narrative. This awareness strengthens our resolve to stay on mission. The same may be said of many cultural and intellectual trends that remain inimical to Christian conviction. We know that we need to be distinctive and cannot afford to compromise. We also know that we will have to fight to maintain our place in the academy, and that this will require deeply Christian reflection rather than merely superficial faith integration. Moreover, we know that we need to help each other more than we compete with one another. Our shared determination to remain on course—rather than to wander down the well-worn path of spiritual decline—has become one of our greatest strengths.
What the Future May Bring
What can Christian scholars who care about the project of Christ-centered education expect over the next 25 years? The events of recent decades have compelled Dr. Marsden to reassess some of his prior interpretations. More plot twists are sure to come, but from our present vantage point, what might we expect future historians to say about Christian higher education by the middle of the 21st century?
Hopefully, they will say that our movement has not only survived, but also strengthened. At the present moment, though, this seems far from certain. The financial pressures that began with the recession of 2008 have been unrelenting. Narrower operating margins, higher debt loads, and soaring discount rates have left many CCCU schools with perilously low financial ratios. Demographic downturns are looming—one resulting from the aforementioned recession and an even deeper one coming in the 2030s, caused by the current global pandemic. Just as concerning, if not more so, is the current fragmentation of the evangelical church in the United States, where social and political viewpoints seem to have become more deeply held and decisive than biblical and theological convictions. The evangelical center is shrinking. Rather than anticipating growing enrollments, Christ-centered colleges and universities can expect to compete more fiercely for a smaller pool of candidates, increasing the price sensitivity of prospective students and their families, and thus driving discount rates still higher. This challenge likely will be exacerbated by the stubborn persistence of anti-intellectualism in many evangelical communities, where crisis events, political partisanship, and social media echo chambers lead to ever narrower perspectives. There is less tolerance for opposing viewpoints, which often breeds an unhealthy mistrust of Christian higher education.
Christian higher education also faces clear and present threats from a hostile form of secularism that neither respects religious liberty nor believes that certain religious convictions are compatible with academia. Up until now, Christian colleges and universities have enjoyed relative freedom to pursue their distinctive missions. But recent legislative and judicial assaults (such as the Equality Act and Hunter v. Department of Education, respectively) have deliberately tried to coerce Christian colleges to either change their convictions on sexual ethics or else lose access to federal funding. Similar efforts were made to prevent students at CCCU schools in California from receiving state grants. Social pressure has also been applied to block participation in athletic competition, as in the media campaign against Baylor and Oral Roberts Universities during the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Gordon College faced similar challenges—not only from their athletic conference, but also from local school districts that temporarily blackballed their student teachers. Whereas many of the secularizing trends that Marsden documented were internal or broadly cultural, we now face more targeted attacks on our very ability to carry out our mission, even in a pluralistic society. Although Marsden is correct to say that higher education still has room for diversity of religious expression, the time is coming and has now come when Christianity is regarded as a danger to suppress, not merely an irrelevance to dismiss.
Recent frontal attacks on Christian higher education matter because financial resources matter for sustaining our mission. History teaches us that pursuing the life of the mind is a luxury. It takes money to afford the time and space for the deeper reflection that excellent scholarship requires. Money also helps provide the total support that students need to persist in their education. Access to the formal structures of higher education matters as much as finances do. While students can learn and grow without receiving accredited degrees, for example, or without competing at the highest levels of collegiate athletics, it would be hard for them to make their full kingdom impact in society without these privileges. And credibility in our communities matters too. Having students cut off from jobs, internships, and training opportunities is bad for them, bad for everyone.
To be sure, Christian higher education is still largely accepted, even if it is not always respected. However, the gains of recent decades feel more tenuous now than they did even a few years ago. Christian colleges and universities seem poised to face hard choices between exclusion and compromise. Under extreme political, social, or financial pressure, it is possible to imagine former friends, colleagues, and allies abandoning our cause. Having a positive story to tell about Christian higher education in 2050 will take more than simply staying on mission, therefore. In addition to making principled, savvy decisions where possible, we will also need reasonably favorable circumstances in many areas that lie beyond our control in a pluralistic society.
Building strong networks will help. Administrators can do this by staying actively engaged in higher education organizations at the state and national level. It is vital to have someone at every table who represents our interests, defies negative stereotypes about evangelical Christianity, and reminds other educators of our unique mission, while at the same time working for the common good. Faculty members can stay engaged by doing first-rate scholarship, by influencing intellectual trends rather than merely imitating them, and by bringing a faithfully, authentically, explicitly Christian presence to their academic guilds as well as to their campus communities.
Recommitting to our Christ-centered mission will also help. As Marsden surveys the current landscape of higher education, he observes that secular in-stitutions lack a firm basis for teaching their students the meaning of life. Many of the ideals they pursue are unwittingly dependent on Christian values and commitments. Christian colleges and universities, by contrast, not only care about the higher purposes of higher education, but also have a coherent redemptive narrative to shape students’ lives and callings. We are counter-cultural in this regard, which strengthens what some economists would call our market niche and brand identity.
Christian higher education certainly stands to benefit from its burgeoning global networks. As Marsden briefly mentions, there is a growing interest in Christian higher education overseas, especially in Asia, Africa, and Australia. The CCCU is seeing steady growth in international memberships and affiliations; its triennial meetings are beginning to live up to their name as “Global Forums.” Beyond their traditional focus on ministerial and professional education, many schools in the majority world are giving increasing attention to the liberal arts. They want to learn from their counterparts in the United States—especially the noble tradition of faith integration. However, they also want to stand as equal partners in developing degree programs, collaborating for research, and sharing best practices for training student leaders. Here we have as much to gain as we have to give.
There is huge potential in global cooperation, if only this potential can be realized and maximized. The strong biblical and theological convictions of international universities can help nurture the soul of Christian higher education in America. We may be confident that today some of the finest Christian universities the world has ever witnessed are being faithfully conceived in Brazil, quietly starting in China, steadily growing in Korea, and rapidly advancing in Africa. Hopefully, one day there will be a grander narrative to relate, and it will be impossible to tell the story of Christian higher education in America without talking about its life-giving connections to the worldwide evangelical movement.