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During my sabbatical year of 1985–86 at St. Edmunds College of Cambridge University, I had the good fortune of having many conversations about Christian higher education with James Burtchaell, who also had a year-long sabbatical there. He had recently moved from the provost’s office of Notre Dame to its theology department.

I had moved in 1982 from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago to Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, recruited by President Norman Fintel in order to build a strong religion department and to help strengthen the connection of the college to its Lutheran heritage, including the founding and shaping of a Center for Religion and Society.

Burtchaell was fearful that Notre Dame was loosening its connection with the Catholic tradition, as so many other Catholic schools had done. He was very interested in criticizing and preventing such a move.

I was still in mild shock about the Roanoke College that I found when I arrived there in 1982. Half the department chairs were hostile to the college’s connection with any sort of religious tradition. The other half were apathetic about that connection, not seeing any relevant connection between the college’s Lutheran heritage and liberal arts education. Only two of us department chairs thought it important to hire Lutheran Christians if the college was to have any continuing relation to its original founding. The Dean and the President both farmed out the hiring of new faculty to the departments.

The shock came from the contrast to what  I experienced when attending a Lutheran college in the Midwest in the late 50s that was unabashedly Lutheran in its identity and mission. Though I had lectured at many Lutheran colleges while I was a seminary professor for nearly twenty years, I had not looked closely at their overall religious substance. After my jolt in arriving at Roanoke, I now had to take a closer look. What had happened in those twenty years?

A great aid in taking that closer look came from my friend Burtchaell, who had followed up his interest in the secularization of Christian schools. In the April and May 1991 issues of First Things Burtchaell wrote two connected articles entitled “The Decline and Fall of a Christian College.” The articles presented a very long and highly erudite historical account of how Vanderbilt moved from being what Methodists hoped would be their flagship Christian university to a thoroughly secular institution in which Christianity offered no public relevance. In the articles he points to nine fateful moves that were crucial in that secularization.

Though there were some earlier studies of secularization in higher education, this one was a game-changer because of its clarity and passion. In hopes of understanding the process of secularization, I had already organized a faculty/administration discussion group on the subject of Christian higher education. When Burtchaell’s articles came out, we were given tools to understand what had happened. We could almost put our college’s name in every reference to Vanderbilt that Burtchaell made. His work was enormously helpful to understand what had happened and gave us clues about how we might take measures to mitigate the secularization process and perhaps rebuild a viable Christian college.

However, those articles were but a foreshadowing of what was to come in his The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches, a tome of 868 pages, published by Eerdmans in 1998.1

In that volume he traced the process of secularization of seventeen colleges and universities from different religious traditions. He elaborated grand historical accounts of the “dying of the light.” He seemed to save his harshest judgments for Catholic colleges and universities, which led his order to interdict him from further writing on the subject of Christian higher education.

In his huge book, he conditionally affirmed some schools, but all of them, he feared, are in jeopardy of losing their souls. One of his more positive accounts was that of St. Olaf, which in the 90s seemed to project real light. After some positive comments about the St. Olaf of the 90s, he mysteriously pronounced that: “Other indicia suggest the Midwest college is entering a divestiture of its Lutheran identity that, though much longer in coming, could be swifter in its eventual accomplishment.”2

Other schools—Azuza Pacific and Calvin—were assessed quite positively, but Burtchaell had little confidence in their futures as Christian schools. The light is dying and “There was, in the stories told here, little learned rage against the dying of the light.”3 There is only a smoldering stump left; we will have to start all over again in the future.

This highly pessimistic conclusion made me wonder if he had overstated his case by making such a negative blanket judgment about widespread secularization and its inevitability.

For one thing, the president of Roanoke who had recruited me had made some courageous steps in reconnecting the college with its Lutheran heritage. He made stronger connections with the Lutheran synods that supported us. He put many strong lay people from those synods on the board. He invited the Virginia Synod to move its headquarters onto our campus in a lovely old building. He invited many synodical events to locate on our campus. He had the advancement department find donors for endowed Lutheran chairs in my department and for scholarships for Lutheran students. He had the admissions department recruit more Lutheran students. He hired a dean who was friendly toward the religious heritage of the college and who encouraged department chairs to hire Christians. Those administrative efforts helped to retrieve some of its religious heritage, which I depicted in an article for The Christian Century in 2001.

I was also aware of other colleges and universities that had “kept the faith.” I thought Burtchaell was overly pessimistic about the state of Christian higher education. I thought also that he had a too stringent set of requirements for “keeping the light alive.” There were other sorts of church-related colleges, I thought, that could persist as Christian colleges even though they did not live up to his stern criteria.

In 1999–2000 I had a sabbatical that I spent at Valparaiso University, researching and writing a book on Christian higher education that was something of a challenge to Burtchaell’s pessimism. I wrote Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions.4 I researched and visited all six: Notre Dame, Baylor, Wheaton, Calvin, St. Olaf, and Valparaiso. I was convinced that the light had persisted and even strengthened in some of them.

I developed a typology that sorted out the six. Two were what I called “orthodox,” because all members of the faculty and staff had to be Christians of a certain tradition. They were Wheaton and Calvin. The other four were what I called “critical mass,” wherein the administrators of the school kept roughly two-thirds of the faculty, staff, and student body composed of members of the sponsoring tradition. The Christian vision was the guiding paradigm for the life of the school.

I even argued for a third type—“intentional pluralism”—in which the Christian vision was given a “place at the table,” even though most of the faculty, staff, and students were not committed to the formative role of religion in the school. That type fit my school, Roanoke College, at which the presidents during the 80s and 90s seemed to guarantee a “place at the table” for serious Christians in the faculty, staff, and student body.

I thought my book refuted or at least qualified Burtchaell’s pessimism. Further, I was relieved that he was interdicted and could not write a scathing review of my book in First Things. Burtchaell did not suffer fools gladly.

However, one day about a year after Eerdmans published my book, I received in the mail a thick envelope from a J. Burtchaell. Initially he was quite complimentary in his long letter, but then announced the verdict: you are wrong on two types, the critical mass and he intentional pluralism. Both are unstable, and those schools will secularize within a decade or so. Only the orthodox will survive, and they will have to take care.

It’s been a long time since I received the letter. At first, I didn’t accept his verdict, but as the new century has progressed, I was haunted by his judgement that the two types were unstable and would weaken.

The second part of this post will appear tomorrow.


  1. James Tunstead Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light : The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1998).
  2. Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light ,  518.
  3. Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light ,  851.
  4. Robert Benne Quality with Soul : How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2001).

Robert Benne

Robert Benne is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.  He currently teaches Christian Ethics for the online Lutheran Institute for Theology.   In 1982 he founded the Roanoke College Center for Religion and Society, which the College named in his honor in 2013.  He was Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion and Chair of the Religion and Philosophy Department at Roanoke College for 18 years.  Before that he was Professor of Church and Society at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago for 17 years.  A native of Nebraska and a graduate of Midland University, his graduate degrees are from the University of Chicago.  He has authored 14 books, the one most relevant to the current blog is Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with their Religious Tradition (Eerdmans 2001).


  • Joseph Wallace says:

    Dr. Benne, a wonderful article…And sadly, spot on. I attended a Christian school in the late 70’s that embraced intentional pluralism, and even then I was taken back by the liberal moral and political influence on campus (and freely accepted).

    Fortunately, I have served on faculty at two evangelical Christian universities in recent years (Asbury University and Campbellsville University), and I can say both schools have stayed true to their core value statements and commitments to students (and their parents) to be unashamedly Christian in ‘thought, word, and deed’ throughout the campus culture and experience.

  • Bob, this is really wonderful stuff! It is amazing how fresh, up-to-date and necessary that such reflections continue to be as we move toward the third decade of the 21st century. And you raise implicitly the question in this initial discussion of what, as active participants, theologians, and leaders in Christian we can do about the current state of affairs, if anything. Perhaps starting all over again is the only option for many. Thank you for such an engaging, much needed look at a phenomenon that has already been around for at least 40 years.