Since the 1960s, higher education in America has accepted the notion that the study and discussion of religious issues, beliefs, texts, traditions, and institutions are a quite legitimate part of a liberal education. Even the public institutions that should and do worry about the separation of church and state have come to accept “religious studies” as a standard part of the curriculum.
This was initially accompanied by strong assurances that the teaching of religion in colleges and universities was nothing like what is offered in church, seminary, or even church-related colleges. Yet, the reality of religion in the collegiate classroom was often rather different and more complex. After all, many students and faculty have religious interests and hold religious beliefs. It would be remarkable and deeply unfortunate if somehow the teaching and study of religion could be separated completely from those interests and perspectives.
What’s more, much has changed since the 60s. We are now in a day when religion is more welcome in the public square, and the efforts we have had to make to understand Islam and its role in the world have prompted us to promote understanding and discussion of all religions. In hindsight, many of the earlier efforts made to study religion, especially Christianity, in a rigorously objective way seem contrived, overdone, unfair — and, what is worse, a misrepresentation of religion itself.
Thus, while the teaching of religious studies is not conducted from a confessional or “dogmatic” point of view, it would be equally inaccurate to think that it offered students no opportunities to reflect meaningfully and constructively on their own beliefs.
Further, the meaningful and appropriate discussion of religion has not been confined to religious studies classes. In fact, on many campuses, it has emerged in other disciplines. Obviously, many of our literary, artistic, and philosophical traditions are tied to Christianity. A study of society, past or present, would be very truncated without a serious consideration of the role of religion in its many facets. And if we in higher education heed the recent call to help students consider “the big questions,” religious issues and beliefs must be considered not simply as part of the past but as live options for us today.
For the last two decades, higher education institutions have come to legitimize and even stress students’ participation in service opportunities in the curriculum and the co-curriculum. To be sure, service — or service learning, as it is most commonly called — is not being interpreted or justified as an explicitly Christian endeavor. However, its connection with the Christian practice of love of neighbor is obvious for those who have eyes to see. Outside of church-related higher education, service is justified by its importance in fostering student moral development, developing civic virtue, and integrating the students’ academic, personal, and moral development.
Regardless of its justification, it is widely practiced by secular colleges. Indeed, the data from the National Survey of Student Engagement indicate both that service has a strong place in non-church-related colleges and that students in these institutions engage in it to roughly the same degree as students at church-related institutions.
In the last decade colleges and universities have been giving greater recognition that students’ spiritual needs and spiritual development have a legitimate place in higher education. In 2002, a group of prominent researchers of higher education issued a manifesto of sorts calling for “issues of purpose and meaning, authenticity and identity, spirituality and spiritual growth [to] become a regular part of higher education’s landscape.” (February 2002) Indeed, the case has been made by arguably the most preeminent of higher education researchers, Dr. Alexander Astin of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, in a recent issue of Liberal Education (Spring 2004).
Once it is freed from an exclusive attachment to a particular ecclesiastical or theological tradition, spirituality can easily stand on its own as a legitimate part of campus life. What is more, the strand of liberal education that has emphasized educating the whole person can easily justify a concern with student spiritual development. Consequently, the discussion of spirituality in higher education is no longer out of bounds. One sees frequent efforts to understand it and give it a legitimate place in the educational program of schools of any description and affiliation.
The recent emphasis on spirituality is often based on a distinction between spirituality and religion. Highlighting this interest in spirituality, however, is not to suggest that religious practice has been ignored in higher education. Many colleges and universities, both public and private, have consciously adopted a pluralistic model of campus student organizations and campus ministry. Religious denominations and groups of various types are offered encouragement, the use of facilities, and even some financial support on an equal and fair basis. Many campus ministry programs are strongly supported and funded by sponsoring churches in the community. While the results vary widely, many students report that their association with a vital and active college fellowship has changed their lives.
In view of all of this, it is tempting for the church and church-related colleges to declare victory, rejoice, and give thanks for what is happening in American higher education. However, these hopeful developments give rise to a worry of a different kind: the rationale for church-related higher education may have collapsed. If its power and persuasiveness lie in the unique opportunities afforded students for serious reflection on religious issues, for moral and spiritual development, or for participation in a Christian community, the case for church-related higher education is now more difficult to make.
This is even more obvious when we take stock of what has gone on in many church-related institutions. In brief: the faculty who teach in church-related colleges are educated in leading graduate programs, and there may be little if anything that distinguishes their teaching from that of their counterparts in public institutions. The teaching of “theology” or “religion” in most of church-related colleges is no longer from a “dogmatic” or “confessional” point of view, for legitimate pedagogical reasons. As a result, what students receive in their religion or theology courses may be indistinguishable from what they would receive at a public institution as “religious studies.” There may be no more — and in some cases much less — attention to a student’s spiritual development at church-related colleges.
At the same time, most church-related colleges have understood their mission to include those from other denominations — indeed, from other religions. For this reason, their distinctively “Christian” content is by intention less distinctively Christian. Required chapel — maybe chapel of any kind — is no longer a part of the community, and there may be very little of campus life that strikes a student as specifically Christian. As at public institutions, the most vital religious life and community at church-related colleges may be off campus. Service learning may be less well developed and implemented than at non-church-related institutions. In short, what we have seen over the past 50 years is a powerful homogenizing tendency in higher education, and with few exceptions, church-related colleges have been strongly affected by it.
The future we face, then, is this. On the one hand, because of what has transpired both in higher education generally and in church-related colleges, we might easily conclude that the church-related college no longer has a role — its time has passed. Perhaps the church can content itself that its sons and daughters have very good college options elsewhere. If they choose wisely, they can find a collegiate experience that meets their religious and spiritual needs — at least as well as what they will find at a church-related college.
On the other hand, what is happening in higher education generally presents a tremendous opportunity for church-related colleges. They can rethink their mission and define themselves in ways that are faithful to their roots but also that make the most of the many good things that have happened in higher education. If they chose this path, they would find many partners ready and able to help. Better still, they might even aspire to be leaders and innovators in the very areas that have historically been central to their mission and identity — the study of theology at the collegiate level, the integration of faith and reason, service, moral and spiritual development, and religious life.
If church-related colleges are to seize this opportunity rather than simply to allow the forces of homogenization to run their course, the determining factor will be leadership. But who will provide it? Who will have the creative vision to see how all of these things can come together in new and meaningful ways? Who has the commitment to the value of church-related colleges to see the opportunity that lies before us and seize it? Who has the patience to work with others to explore the possibilities our age offers? In short, who will lead? Will it be college presidents or deans? Will it be faculty members? Will it be trustees or donors?
And will any portion of this leadership come from the institutional church? And if not as a leader, what is the church’s role? One would hope that it would at least be a faithful partner in any such discussion. But to do that it must have a point of view — some commitments and interests. Quite frankly, does the church want or need church-related baccalaureate education, or can its educational needs be met by the local churches and seminaries alone?
We may worry that the church will want to dominate such a discussion. While this is always a theoretical possibility, the greater danger in the present age is that the church will have very little to say. And no one to say it. If church-related higher education is to have a significant role in the future, who will lead?
Robert Holyer is provost of Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C.