Uncovering the Prophetic Voice of the Christian Academy

A chapel talk given on Monday, Feb 19, 1996
Chuck Huff

I would like to begin this morning with an observation that George Marsden made in 1991 in an article titled "The Soul of the American University."

...Very few people seem to think that religion is "very important" for higher education. Protestants in America are divided about evenly between evangelical and moderate-liberal. Yet neither group supports any major universities that are Protestant in any interesting sense. They do have a fair number of small liberal arts colleges. Those schools that are connected to mainline denominations tend to be influenced only vaguely by Christianity. Some of the [evangelical schools] are fairly good colleges. ... It is especially puzzling that [Protestant churches] have become so little interested in Christian higher education.

So, Mr. Marsden has thrown down the gauntlet. Given the way he uses "evangelical," I do not think he means to include St. Olaf in that group. That must mean he includes us in the "only vaguely influenced by Christianity" category. Even worse, he could have simply forgotten us. But in fact, St. Olaf serves as a fine and imposing contradiction to Mr. Marsden's complaint. We are (if the press releases and news reports are correct) among the best liberal arts colleges in the country. I have even seen reports calling us "the best" church related college in the country. And we are, I submit, more than vaguely, and often far too uncomfortably, Christian. But Mr. Marsden is right to be puzzled, because for too long we have hidden our light under a bushel. On the pretext of humility, we have twisted our forelocks and shuffled our feet when people like Mr. Marsden have asked for examples to refute their claims. It is more comfortable to remain under the bushel, for there at least we will not be laughed at. I suggest it is time we remove the bushel and join the dialogue about higher education in this country. That we take on the prophetic mission of a beacon to the nation that engaged Christianity and excellent higher education are not mutually exclusive sets.

The church does have something to contribute to the dialogue on higher education and we see it in the best of what happens here at St. Olaf. We know that life is more than a livelihood and so we encourage our students to take religious issues seriously, to go abroad, to study broadly and creatively. We recognize that good scholarship requires the cultivation of virtue, and so we ask our students to engage in ethical reflection within their majors, and instead of simply stuffing them with facts, we work closely with them as they learn artistic, humanistic, and scientific virtues of enquiry. Finally, we believe that success is found in faithfulness rather than in winning whatever game it is you think you are playing, so we invite our students to chapel, and join them in various forms of faithfulness, from building houses to holding prayers. And our students do not simply have these things done TO them but they actively volunteer their time in service, in research, and in song. They seek out and craft their own chances to be faithful, to practice virtue, and to live whole lives.

So where has this excellence been hidden that Mr. Marsden would overlook it? It has been lost in a time of simplistic caricatures. During this modern and even post-modern time, the church has been caricatured as either selfish and reactionary on the right or as simpering and naive on the left. Higher education has been caricatured as either the narrowly technical and job oriented hire-me-I'm-a-good-cog-for-your-machine major, or as the muddy, confused random-and-obscure-studies major. And so we come to Mr. Marsden's caricatures. When it is good enough to notice, Christian higher education is only vaguely Christian and uninteresting. And when it is more clearly Christian, it can only aspire to the "fairly good" lest it get out of the narrow and orthodox line. Hogwash.

Well, now you know my opinion of this false dilemma, but we cannot ignore it, for it represents the opinion of many Americans. Instead, we must face the dilemma and dispute with its adherents. In this forest of false caricatures our nation has lost the rooted voice of the Christian tradition of careful and committed scholarship. Of course, the "Christian tradition" is not a simple or even a single one. It is really a confluence of many streams of thought and experience. But its strength lies in that diversity, and in the multiplicity of mistakes and triumphs that diversity has encompassed over the last 2 millennia.

This tradition, if we listen to all of it, allows us to say "both/and" to the many simplistic choices popular thought offers us. If we listen to all the tradition, we can both be deeply Christian and rigorously intellectual. We can both praise the church for its excellence and bluntly point out its failings. We can value and embrace academic rigor and challenge its objectivity. A college that does these things can be a beacon of wholeness to a fragmented nation and can testify that the choices are not as stark or as simplistic as the caricatures would have us believe.

If there is no alternative in Christian higher education to narrow fundamentalism, thoughtful Christians will prefer to choose secular institutions. This slow, resigned hemorrhage to secularism is the educational equivalent of Peter Berger's claim that as the church becomes more transparent to reason, it will inevitably sink either into irrelevance or into secular submission. This is the picture that George Marsden gives us. We can be either "vaguely Christian" or only "fairly good." But St. Olaf College can offer an alternative, if it chooses to. If we choose not to, we must then choose either of the horns of the dilemma Berger presents us, irrelevance or secularism. And we must do so knowing we could have done otherwise.

To play this role of prophetic voice in the venue of a national dialogue is dangerous, and we must be sure both to speak out strongly, and to listen to our own voice. The excellence that is hidden here on Manitou hill is the basis and the body of our argument. If we allow humility to drift into timidity we will be afraid to advance the argument at all, and we will abandon the field to the caricatures that now possess it. Real humility will involve listening to our own voice, rejoicing in the excellence and repenting of the faults.

I recognize that institutions cannot repent, but they can search their structural souls, not simply for financial inefficiencies, but for structural unfaithfulness. If we want to speak to the world of our vision, we can and should scrutinize our hiring, our admissions, our benefit structures, our curriculum, our support for scholarship, our financial matters, and all other corners of our institution for their faithfulness to that vision. As we do this, we will both be faithful to our mission, and will strengthen our argument to the nation that academic and spiritual excellence can be mutually supportive.

In a time of financial crisis, can we afford to choose such a bold path? Let me ask instead: can we afford, in the long run, to be less than faithful to this path? It is our calling, and we have spent more than a century building a nationally known college of the church. I pray we will have the courage to grasp the vision today.
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