The Soul of the American University: From Protestant
Establishment to Established Non-Belief

By George Marsden
Oxford University Press, 424 pages, $35

Faith and Knowledge: Mainline Protestantism and American Higher Education
By Douglas Sloan
Westminster/John Knox, 336 pages, $20

The last time I reviewed a book for First Things it was Stephen Carter’s The Culture of Disbelief . I began that review by invoking Peter Berger’s aphorism that, if India is the most religious nation in the world and Sweden the least religious, then the United States of America is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. If you want to know how Swedish ruling power was established and consolidated, and why the Swedes have been able to defeat easily all challenges from the Indians, you can do no better than to read the two books under review here. The agnostics rule America, quite regardless of the popular piety to which politicians pay lip service, because their metaphysics (i.e., scientific naturalism) rules the universities, and the universities control the social definition of knowledge.

George Marsden’s book tells the complete story in greater detail than many readers will require, since basically the same thing happened at many different universities. Douglas Sloan concentrates upon a single episode. I enthusiastically recommend both books in their entirety, but readers with limited time might consider reading in Marsden the triple Prologue, the chapters on the Universities of Michigan and Chicago, the final chapter, and the “Concluding Unscientific Postscript.” In Sloan’s book Chapter Four is crucial; it is aptly titled “The Theologians and the Two-Realm Theory of Truth.” Once you get the basic idea, the rest is a matter of (very interesting) detail.

Marsden’s subtitle says it all: the story of the modern American University is that of a long march from Protestant establishment to established nonbelief. In the nineteenth century things like compulsory chapel services were common even in state universities, and Protestant Christianity was just about everywhere-except in Catholic Universities, of course-considered to be the governing ideology of higher education. When William F. Buckley’s 1951 book God and Man at Yale charged Yale University’s faculty with undermining the University’s traditional commitment to Christianity (and conservative values), university authorities responded indignantly and with apparent sincerity that Yale remained Christian “in a broad sense.” Today, if the President and Trustees of Yale were to proclaim that Yale is a Christian university, no doubt they would be met with a firestorm of protest-or howls of laughter.

At Duke University, famous today for basketball championships and postmodernist literary theory, a plaque at the center of the campus states that “The aims of Duke University are to assert a faith in the eternal union of knowledge and religion set forth in the teachings and character of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” That was what Duke officially stood for at its initial endowment in 1924, and many other universities would then have articulated their mission in similar terms. When Duke formulated a new mission statement in 1988, however, its aims had become entirely secular in character, stressing only values like “the spirit of free inquiry” and the promotion of “diversity and mutual tolerance.” The University’s previous Christian identity was relegated to history with a statement that “Duke cherishes its historic ties with the United Methodist Church and the religious faith of its founders, while remaining nonsectarian.” The new mission statement made clear, in Marsden’s words, that “Christianity as such is peripheral to the main business of the university” today.

The 1988 statement was not really a repudiation of Duke’s original starting point in progressive Methodism, however. It would be more accurate to say that the agnostic university of the 1980s was the logical culmination of a trend that was present in liberal Christianity from the beginning. To hold on to its ruling position in a pluralistic democracy, the Protestant establishment had to become “inclusive,” which meant that it had to suppress the distinctively Christian and supernatural elements in biblical theology. Becoming nonsectarian meant at first only cutting formal denominational ties. Because Catholics, Jews, and eventually atheists had to be brought within the tent, however, “nonsectarian” eventually came to mean “wholly secular.”

Christianity “in a broad sense” was merely a spiritualized version of enlightenment rationalism, in which natural science claimed sole authority to describe reality, progress claimed the role of God, and social reform claimed the status of salvation. By the early twentieth century, the “union of knowledge and religion” of Duke’s plaque looked more like a watered-down version of Marxism (with history marching moderately forward into a social utopia) than anything Calvin or Luther would have recognized as Protestant Christianity. When the tumult of the 1960s struck, the universities shed their Christian veneer without noticing that they were missing anything. The title of Marsden’s final chapter describes the end result: “Liberal Protestantism Without Protestantism”-and especially without God.

The progress of the universities from Protestant establishment to established nonbelief illustrates the principle that an establishment of religion sometimes does more damage to the religion being established-by wedding it to the culture-than it does to the unbelievers and dissenters who are supposedly the victims of discrimination. There was no fight to the finish between Christian theists and secularizers. The story Marsden tells is one of Christians in positions of formal power yielding willingly to each stage in the advance of secularism. Obviously, there was some element in the situation that made Christian (or theistic) resistance to secularization ineffective. What was it?

Readers can get the answer from either book, but I think Sloan makes the essential point particularly clear. The liberal Protestant establishment wanted to combine a scientific picture of reality with the highest religious and ethical ideas. What was overlooked, in Sloan’s words, was the “fact that nineteenth-century science, when viewed within its prevailing interpretive framework, was fundamentally at odds with religious and ethical ideas of any kind. This was clear to all who had eyes to see and who were able to look without flinching.” All the strenuous efforts to keep Christian theism alive in a university dominated by scientific naturalism only amounted to so much flinching before the disquieting implications of the scientific outlook.

The crucial issue in the universities, according to Sloan, is the faith/knowledge dichotomy. From a scientific point of view, “knowledge” is inherently empirical, coming from sense experience and scientific investigation. This is the legacy of pos i tivism, a philosophy that achieved its culminating triumph in the Darwinian theory of evolution. In modern universities professors take for granted that the universe began with something like particles in mindless motion governed by impersonal laws, and that everything that has appeared since is the product of a purely naturalistic process of physical, chemical, and biological evolution. “Everything that has appeared since” includes things like human religious and ethical beliefs, which are themselves presumed to be products of things like brain chemistry and natural selection.

The worldview of scientific naturalism preserves a place for religious beliefs: a place, that is, among the things to be explained by scientific methodology. The Christian religion thus enters the university with a status precisely equal to that of other comparable religious systems-of, say, the Aztec system of human sacrifice. Any individual, even a person of eminence in science, can make a personal choice to “be religious.” Such choices are made on the basis of faith-
i.e., subjective preference. A problem arises only if the Aztecs or the Christians claim access to knowledge. If they do that, they are claiming that their own beliefs are normative for unbelievers. Only scientists can claim that kind of authority, because what is endorsed by the scientific community constitutes knowledge, not belief. That is why Darwinian evolution can be taught in the schools as fact, however strongly the parents or students object, whereas a simple prayer acknowledging God as our Creator is deemed unacceptable-because somebody might object.

Douglas Sloan’s basic thesis is that any person who wishes to assert the viability of Christianity in the modern university must come to grips with the faith/knowledge problem. Of course, a scholar can be a Chris tian as a matter of faith, regardless of his or her attitude towards scientific knowledge, just as anyone can choose on the basis of faith to be a Muslim or a Rastafarian or a radical feminist. Prestige in the university goes only to those commitments that are seen as capable of generating knowledge, however. Once science has provided knowledge (Copernican astronomy, Newtonian physics, Darwinian evolution, quantum indeterminacy), various subjective ideologies can fit their belief systems into the framework of knowledge thus provided. Intelligent people are unimpressed with this trimming and prefer to give their allegiance to the metaphysical system that provides the knowledge to which other systems must do their best to conform.

All efforts to assert Christianity in the university ended in futility because of the inability or unwillingness of the Christians to challenge naturalism’s monopoly over the production of knowledge. Sloan’s chosen example is the failed “theological renaissance” of the 1940s and 1950s that featured Reinhold Niebuhr, his less famous but equally esteemed brother H. Richard Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich. These “theological reformers” understood that a purely scientific knowledge is inadequate, and denies the reality of personhood and meaning. Hence they tried to assert that factual knowledge has to be interpreted in the light of principles that transcend what is knowable scientifically. At the same time, they wanted to speak in a language intelligible to modernists, which meant accepting all the achievements of science and of the critical analysis of the Scriptures. Thus, the theological reformers “never tired in heaping ridicule on all religious persons who rejected Darwinism, lumping them all together as unreconstructed fundamentalists-
even though Darwinism represented in fact the extension of the mechanical philosophy to everything, including persons and spirit, and was a direct challenge to any theological conception of a meaning in history that transcends history.”

As Sloan sums up the results:

In the end the theologians pulled back from affirming unambiguously the real possibility of knowledge of God and of the spiritual world. They again and again resisted seeking or talking about knowledge of God for fear of the danger of applying objectifying and manipulative modes of thought where they did not belong. At the same time, however, they wanted to affirm fully and without question, lest they be thought religious fundamentalists, the same objective, analytic modes of modern science and historical analysis in every other domain besides faith. The result was a split that forced the theological reformers back onto faith presuppositions whenever they spoke about religion, and onto an increasing reliance on naturalistic approaches to the sensible world whenever they wanted to speak about ethics, science, or knowledge in general.

In short, whenever the chips were down, the theological reformers effectively conceded that naturalism is true. It should come as no surprise that a theological movement based upon a tacit acceptance of naturalistic metaphysics was blown away like so much dust when the passionate political movements of the 1960s emerged. Exactly the same fate awaits all religious revivals, however impressive they may seem for a time, if they lack the nerve or the intellectual resources to challenge the cultural assumption that knowledge comes only from naturalism.

Phillip E. Johnson teaches at Boalt Hall, the School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley.

Articles by Phillip E. Johnson

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