The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches

By Hughes, Richard T. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 1999 | Go to article overview

The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches


Hughes, Richard T., The Catholic Historical Review


The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches. By James Tunstead Burtchaell, C.S.C. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1998. Pp, xx, 868. $45.00 clothbound; $30.00 paperback.)

In The Dying of the Light, James Burtchaell offers a copiously researched, eminently readable, and highly subjective account of the ways in which churchrelated colleges and universities in the United States-as Burtchaell tells the story-have broken faith with their founding religious traditions. This book is history, but it is also a jeremiad, a lamentation for what has been lost. Essentially, this book is the story of how many church-related institutions of higher education have made their way down the slippery slope that leads to secularization.

Burtchaell tells his story by focusing on seventeen institutions representing seven different Christian traditions: Congregationalists (Dartmouth and Beloit), Presbyterians (Lafayette and Davidson), Methodists (Millsaps and Ohio Wesleyan), Baptists (Wake Forest, Virginia Union, and Linfield), Lutherans (Gettysburg, St. Olaf, and Concordia at River Forest), Catholics (Boston College, College of New Rochelle, and Saint Mary's of California), and the Evangelicals (Azusa Pacific and Dordt).

According to Burtchaell, the slippery slope is greased by a variety of factors: a deep foreboding on the part of church-related colleges and universities that religious institutions are intrinsically inferior to non-religious ones; a fear that an institution's forthright Christian identity might somehow place it in the camp of right-wing extremists; a shift from liberal arts to professional studies or adult studies or remedial studies, often in response to financial exigencies; the failure of institutions to hire faculty; recruit students,and appoint administrators and board members whose commitment to the founding denomination is beyond question, prompting a numerical decline of denominationalrepresentation in the student body, the faculty, the administration, and the board: the loss of denominational control and, in the case of Catholic institutions, the decline of religious orders in terms of both numbers and influence; the role of faculty who exhibit little or no interest in maintaining a vital connection with the founding denomination or in nurturing any sort of religious sentiment in their teaching or in the curriculum; the failure of faculty, administrators, and board members to explore how Christian theology can, in fact, sustain the life. of the mind; the role of well-meaning presidents who subtly redefine the religious mission of the institution in an attempt to either broaden its constituency or make the institution more academically respectable, or both; the tendency of presidents and other administrators to engage in -double-speak" as they seek to portray the institution in one way for this constituency and another way for that; the progressively vacuous language that institutions employ for purposes of selfdescription, e.g., from "Catholic" to "Christian" to "spiritual" to "value-centered-- to 'religious"; and the visible loss of nerve that is apparent in the evolution of institutional mission statements.

Of all these factors, the most critical in Burtchaell's view is the failure of church-related institutions to maintain their denominational particularities. Thus, the subtitle of his book: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches. But one must ask, since Burtchaell never makes it plain, why he regards denominational particularity as so important. The answer to this question is not immediately self-evident, especially in light of Burtchaell's own contention that some faith traditions bring to the table an intellectual tradition that can sustain the life of the mind, while other faith traditions do not. In such a case. why should not Christian particularity give way to a broader Christian witness? …

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