Skip to main content

The Soul of the American University Revisited

George M. Marsden
Published by Oxford University Press in 2021

Todd C. Ream serves on the faculty at Taylor University, as a fellow with the Lumen Research Institute, and as the publisher of Christian Scholar’s Review. He is the author and editor of several books including, most recently, Hesburgh of Notre Dame: The Church’s Public Intellectual (Paulist Press, 2021) and Public Intellectuals and the Common Good: Christian Thinking for Human Flourishing (IVP Academic, 2021).

One’s vocation is often an exercise in gratitude. Prior to my arrival at Baylor University as an undergraduate student in fall 1990, faith seemed incapable of mounting even a modest defense to the manner in which I perceived reason. Like Thomas Jefferson, I was tempted to cut passages from Scripture which failed to live up to my enlightened standard. Doctrine seemed unnecessary, and thus my behavior often collapsed into exercises of self-righteousness rather than pursuits of Christlikeness.

Prevenient grace demands credit is owed to people through whom God worked in my life prior to that fall. At Baylor, however, I encountered a community committed to dialogue between capacities I previously found disparate. Several professors spent countless hours in and beyond class, introducing me to ways they worked through how they understood faith, reason, and, in turn, the relationships the two shared in relation to various academic disciplines. To their credit, I learned I saw more dimly than I first believed but I also gained an abiding assurance that I did see.

My gratitude for those experiences was not fully realized until 1994 when I read George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University. While a graduate student at Duke University, I came upon a copy of Marsden’s book shortly after its release. The echoes of my former self in the university leaders Marsden described proved captivating. Harvard’s Charles Eliot seemed short-sighted while Yale’s Noah Porter seemed well-intentioned yet naïve. Initially, I believed the temptations they faced were unique to their respective situations and, in turn, the Baylor I experienced was secure for subsequent generations.

Marsden introduced me, however, to the reality that the theological architecture of the institutions these leaders were called to steward demanded ongoing prayer, reflection, and, because we see dimly, risk. No guarantee existed and thus failure to commit to such an exercise meant the Baylor I took for granted as an undergraduate may be the subject of Marsden’s next chapter. Gratitude compelled me to commit my life’s work to considering how that architecture could transcend more immediately appealing options such as acquiescing to or walling off from prevailing norms.

Thanks to Marsden, the perils of the former were laid bare. The perils of the latter, while less obvious, allowed mediocrity to parade as faithfulness. As a result, the theological architecture of a university worthy of a Savior’s sacrifice demanded more than either option offered. Prayer, reflection, and risk were in order. Future generations deserved a place where they too could learn to see dimly. That reality was not guaranteed but dependent upon members of each previous generation taking up the task before them in the light of God’s grace.

Fortunately, that task is not one taken up alone. History is replete with examples of figures who failed in that task. History, however, is also replete with figures who succeeded. Generational particulars vary but their counsel proves worthwhile. One of the greatest joys my vocation offers is the opportunity to learn from others committed to comparable efforts. The publication of The Soul of the American University fostered reflection across denominational, institutional, and disciplinary lines. Twenty-seven years later, I am optimistic the publication of The Soul of the American University Revisited will do the same.

To that end, I was pleased a distinguished group of scholars and administrators agreed to read The Soul of the American University Revisited, compare that experience with their reading of the The Soul of the American University, and share their reflections in the fiftieth anniversary issue of Christian Scholar’s Review. The historical core of Marsden’s work remains largely the same. Some may laud the streamlined version presented in Revisited, but I still prefer the more detailed nature of the original version. Regardless, part of the value of Revisited is how Marsden marshals twenty-seven years of ongoing reflection concerning the lessons that core offers today.

Despite what that core may initially lead us to believe, one of Marsden’s chief conclusions is the threat to the Baylor of my youth, for example, is not as clear nor as readily definable today as when he published the original edition. Scientific naturalism’s promise of neutral observation was believed to yield truth transcending time and place. While changing, the threat secularism posed in 1994 was more monolithic in nature than today.

Questioning that promise granted Christian scholars with greater latitude to argue for the relationship faith and reason shared in the practice of scholarship. Questions concerning that promise, however, also gave rise to an array of other options concerning what could also inform that practice. Competing with a heterodox academic culture would prove as challenging as competing with a supposedly orthodox academic culture. The need for prayer, reflection, and risk proves as important now as always even if the foci of those efforts changed.

Susan VanZanten opens this offering of reflections. She is the Assistant Vice President for Mission and Spiritual Life and Consulting Dean for Christ College, the Honors College at Valparaiso University. VanZanten is the author of several books including Joining the Mission: A Guide for (Mainly) New College Faculty. In her estimation, Marsden’s account prompted her to consider what gospel Christian institutions are oriented to serve. Part of the confusion comes when forces such as revenue production, while important, present as gospel. Another part of that confusion, however, can also come when we shrink the Gospel to a size with which we find mere comfort.

Susan M. Felch offers the second reflection. She recently retired from Calvin University where she served as Professor of English and as the Director of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship. Felch is the author and editor of several books including The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Religion. If Marsden prompted VanZanten to consider how the Gospel is defined, Marsden prompted Felch to consider in what we place our hope. Part of that effort, as Felch lobbied is that “we need to rehabilitate the word that rings with negative overtones throughout Soul Revisited: sectarian.” Only by doing so, she believes, will the Gospel prove compelling.

Philip Ryken, President and Professor of Theology at Wheaton College, offers the third reflection. He is the author and editor of numerous books including When Trouble Comes, Loving Jesus More, and commentaries on books from both the Old and New Testaments. Marsden prompted Ryken to offer a clear-eyed appraisal of both the challenges and opportunities a heterodox academic culture affords Christian colleges and universities. Regardless of what may come, he is equally clear institutions must commit resources, time, and energy to programs which help educators explore the relationship faith shares with their respective disciplines. All but a few of the foremost doctoral programs include such opportunities. As a result, institutions must provide even their most devout and learned colleagues with the means to weave together those threads of their identity.

Julia D. Hejduk, the Reverend Jacob Stiteler Professor of Classics and Associate Dean of the Honors College at Baylor University, offers the fourth and final reflection. She is the author and editor of several books including, most recently The God of Rome: Jupiter in Augustan Poetry. Marsden prompted Hejduk to wrestle with the importance of doctrine and how such understanding animates other dimensions of our lives. When fostering moral behavior, for example, Hejduk persuasively argued “Religious faith should make us into better people and better citizens. The problem, however, is that a God so instrumentalized is unlikely to be effective even as an instrument.” Individuals, and perhaps even a few adolescents, may confuse exercises in self-righteousness with pursuits of Christlikeness.

Such reflections would prove incomplete without a response from George M. Marsden. As a young scholar, Marsden was a member of the group who laid the groundwork for the transition of The Gordon Review to Christian Scholar’s Review. The University of Notre Dame’s Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History emeritus, Marsden was awarded the Bancroft Prize for Jonathan Edwards: A Life in 2004 and elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016. 

He spent part of his response pointing us to the difference between the secular academy of 1994 and the secular academy of 2021. One distinguishing difference, he notes, is the promise of scientific naturalism promoted a confidence which today’s academic culture lacks. He thus contends “The secular academy is in such disarray that following its lead in jettisoning the disciplines that have some of the best potential for moral formation may not be the best route to true flourishing.”

The pressures which Christian colleges and universities face today may prove great. The reward for exercising prayer, reflection, and risk concerning their theological architecture, however, may prove greater. When reflecting on their vocation one day, Marsden prompted me to ask for what will our successors offer their gratitude?

Cite this article
Todd C. Ream, “Taking Every Thought Captive: Celebrating 50 Years of Christian Scholar’s Review”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 51:1 , 33-36

Todd C. Ream

Indiana Wesleyan University
Todd C. Ream is Honors Professor of Humanities and Executive Director of Faculty Research and Scholarship at Indiana Wesleyan University, Senior Fellow for Public Engagement for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Senior Fellow for Programming for the Lumen Research Institute, and Publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.  He is the author and editor of numerous books including (with Jerry Pattengale) The Anxious Middle: Planning for the Future of the Christian College (Baylor University Press, September 15, 2023).