Faculty: Check Your Faith at the Door

The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship by George Marsden

(New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 142 pp., $22)

SOME 40 YEARS AGO, a friend of mine, finishing up his graduate studies at a world class university, was interviewed for a teaching job at a large midwestern school.

The interview went well. My friend was encouraged. The department chairman even offered to drive him to the airport for the trip home.

They got there early and went to the coffee shop to pass the time. There, the department chairman asked a question that apparently had been bothering him.

“I know you're a Catholic, but … you don't really believe all that stuff, do you?”

“You bet your life I do,” my friend replied. “Then I'm sorry,” the chairman said, “but there isn't any place for you here.”

Shocking, to be sure. But that was a long time back. An extreme case. Not typical—perhaps not even then, and certainly not now.


George Marsden has no anecdotes of this hair-raising sort to tell, but his conclusion isn't very reassuring: Religious believers may be allowed into secular academe these days, but at the price of keeping their faith to themselves. It seems that the tolerant, broad-minded, academic community can find a place in its ranks for just about everything except the open profession of Christianity.

Marsden, a Protestant who teaches history at the University of Notre Dame, caused something of a stir a few years back with a book, The Soul of the American University: From Establishment to Established Nonbelief. There he examined the process by which, in only a century or so, mainstream American higher education, Protestant in origin and sponsorship, turned resoundingly secular.

In The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship he returns to a theme touched on but not developed in the previous book. It is not just, as he puts it here, that “contemporary university culture is hollow at its core” but that, more specifically, this dominant academic culture “trains scholars to keep quiet about their faith as the price of full acceptance.”

This is less surprising than it might seem. As Marsden and many others point out, the much-prized commitment to “diversity” on the part of our multi-cultural university world can actually work as a powerful stifler of dissent and enforcer of conformity.

Especially that is so where religion is concerned. Marsden writes: “Peoples of diverse cultures are welcomed into respectable academic culture, but only on the condition that they leave the religious dimensions of their cultures at the door. The result is not diversity, but rather a dreary uniformity. Everyone is expected to accept the standard doctrine that religion has no intellectual relevance.”

Ironies abound in the resulting state of affairs. In the contemporary academic environment, Marxists, feminists, gays, lesbians, deconstructionists, African-Americans, and other groups celebrate—indeed, flaunt—their identity and ideology. Questioning that is simply not allowed.

But Christians are easily hushed. “Separation of faith and learning is widely taken for granted in our culture,” Marsden remarks.

Even so, some readers who agree with his analysis of the problem will find his prescription for dealing with it rather too soft.

Marsden is concerned to find a way for Christians to win acceptance in academic culture without ceasing to be visibly Christian. His aim is not to challenge the “pragmatic liberalism” of that culture but to avoid absolutizing it; that goal achieved (if ever it is), he has no difficulty with accepting pragmatic liberalism as “the modus operandi for the contemporary academy.”

Others do. This is an old problem for Christians: Fit in or fight? But of course, given pragmatic liberalism's lock on academic hiring and tenure decisions, Christian academicians who reject fitting in are unlikely ever to enjoy the option of fighting. In any case Marsden's way would be, at the very least, a large step in the right direction.

To what end? Ultimately, to the end of showing how faith and scholarship interact to the benefit of each. Marsden writes: “Many particular aspects of a Christian scholar's work will look much like the work of a colleague with another monotheistic set of commitments.

“Yet the relative importance that we assign to things, the central questions we ask about them, and the assumptions that lie behind these questions will all vary according to what makes up our larger picture of reality. The differences in the larger picture for the religious person … are beliefs about God and how God relates to us and the rest of reality.”

On any genuinely multi-cultural campus such beliefs would deserve and receive at least as fair a hearing as many others currently welcomed and cosseted by academe. Marsden finds Christian scholarship to be alive and well at some Protestant liberal arts schools. As for Catholic institutions of higher learning, his assessment is unsettling.

In the last half-century, he says, while becoming academically stronger, the Catholic schools also have become “much more like their non-Catholic counterparts,” and now the meaning of their identity as Catholic is “sharply debated. These Catholic institutions have “considerable potential,” he concludes, but it is “a potential that will have to be mobilized if they are to continue to be havens for Christian intellectual life.”

Russell Shaw is based in Washington, D.C.