Two years ago, Eerdmans published an 868-page book with the melancholy title, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches, by James Tunstead Burtchaell, a distinguished scholar and past president of the American Academy of Religion. Burtchaell's grim tale was in the air last week when a decidedly more optimistic group gathered at the Kennedy School on October 6 and 7 to consider "The Future of Religious Colleges."
The conference, sponsored by Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) and headed up by Paul Peterson, the director of PEPG, and visiting scholar Paul Dovre, brought together scholars representing a wide range of faith traditions: Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Christian Reformed, Mennonite, Churches of Christ, Nazarene, Mormon. And one session was chaired by a friendly outsider, Alan Wolfe, whose Atlantic Monthly cover story, "The Opening of the Evangelical Mind," was a recurring reference point in the ongoing conversation, along with Burtchaell's book, Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and George Marsden's The Soul of The American University and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. Noll and Marsden both gave papers, as did Gordon College's president, Jud Carlberg—who was one of many Christian college leaders in attendance.
Perhaps the most interesting theme to emerge from the conference was articulated by Richard Hughes of Pepperdine University, the foremost historian of the Churches of Christ. Hughes observed that, as the papers made clear, each of the faith communities represented there has within in its own tradition distinctive resources for promoting education that is deeply Christian. And at the same time, clearly these communities can learn from one another—both from the strengths of other traditions and from their mistakes.
With good reason, we lament the divisiveness of denominationalism. But the conference showed how the distinctiveness of denominational traditions can also be a blessing, if we are open to learning and correction from our fellow believers. The future of religious colleges is not assured—far from it, as Burtchaell's admonitory history won't let us forget—but as we begin a new millennium, the light is still bright.
John Wilson is Editor of Books & Culture and Editor-at-Large for Christianity Today.
For more on religious colleges, see the excellent collection of essays in The Future of Christian Higher Education, edited by David S. Dockery and David P. Gushee, as well as Burtchaell's The Dying of the Light, Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and George Marsden's The Soul of The American University and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship,
Alan Wolfe's 17-page Atlantic Monthly cover story, " The Opening of the Evangelical Mind," is available online.
The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities site has more on what's happening now in that world.
The Program on Education Policy and Governance site doesn't have anything on the conference.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
RU-486 Uncovers a Lie—And It's Not Just About Abortion | Think the abortion pill is indicative of postmodernity? You're wrong. (Oct. 2, 2000)
Pencils Down Part II | Think your vote matters? You poor, misguided fool. (Sept. 18, 2000)
Pencils Down, the Election's Over | According to political scientists, Al Gore has already won. (Sept. 11, 2000)
Humans and Other Animals | How much do we share with the birds of the air and the beasts of the field? (Aug. 28, 2000)
Cardinal Mahony's Baloney Sandwich | The public face of Catholic social teaching. (Aug. 21, 2000)
In Praise of Miscegenation | Racial categories don't mean what they used to. Hallelujah. (Aug. 14, 2000)
"Give 'Em Hell, Harry!" | Looking back at the 1948 presidential campaign. By Elizabeth Jacoway (Aug. 7, 2000)
Roaring Lambs | The Evangelical Culture of Euphemism, Part 3. (July 31, 2000)
The Evangelical Culture of Euphemism, Part 2 | Should we distinguish between public and private discourse? (July 24, 2000)
The Culture of Euphemism | A dispatch from the Christian Booksellers Association convention. (July 17, 2000)
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