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

By James Tunstead Burtchaell
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (1998). xx + 868 Pages.

Reviewed by
12.1 (Spring 2001) : 103-105

Martin Luther, in describing the importance of Christian education, once commented, “God has preserved the church through schools. They are the preservers of the church” (“Table Talk, No. 5557.” Luther’s Works. 54. Ed. and trans. Theodore G. Tappert and Helmut T. Lehmann [Philadelphia: Fortress,1967] 452). Yet, the great Reformer was not pollyannaish about the potential danger that such institutions could bring the church. In one particularly passionate moment Luther took aim: “Thus there is no need of Christ and of Scripture, if the teaching of the . . . universities are valid. For this reason I have said that . . . the institutions of higher learning are not good enough to be heretical. No, they surpass all heretics and they are the bilge water pool of all heresies, errors, and idolatries which have existed from the beginning of the world. With them they push Christ and the word of God completely to the side, and they only keep their names as a cover-up” (“The Gospel for the Main Christmas Service.” Luther’s Works. 52. Sermons II. Ed. and trans. Hans J. Hillerbrand and Helmut T. Lehmann [Philadelphia: Fortress,1974] 82).

Luther’s indictment of the danger that existed as colleges and universities abandoned their theological moorings is the heart of James Tunstead Burtchaell’s monumental historical work, Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches. Burtchaell is a former president of the American Academy of Religion and was previously associated with the University of Notre Dame as a professor of theology. No stranger to the discussion of disengagement, Burtchaell’s two-part essay, “The Decline and Fall of the Christian College” (First Things, April and May 1991), was a sobering reminder of the general trend toward secularization that has plagued America’s religious institutions. Burtchaell has authored numerous works including From Synagogue to Church: Public Services and Offices in the Earliest Christian Communities (Cambridge University, 1992), Rachel Weeping and Other Essays on Abortion (Life Cycle Books, 1990), and Catholic Theories of Biblical Inspiration since 1810: a Review and Critique (Cambridge University, 1969). The work being reviewed resides in the flow of previous scholarly works which have addressed the issue of ecclesiastical disengagement, notably fellow Notre Dame scholar and historian George M. Marsden in The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University, 1994) and Douglas Sloan’s (Teacher’s College, Columbia University) critique in Faith & Knowledge: Mainline Protestantism and American Higher Education (Louisville, Ky.: Westminister/John Knox, 1994). Burtchaell readily recognizes these critical Protestant works, along with Philip Gleason’s treatment within the Catholic church, Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University, 1995). The tension between church and college is recognized in the aforementioned treatments and in such works as Merrimon Cuninggim’s Uneasy Partners: The College and the Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994) (cf. J. Gregory Behle, review of Uneasy Partners: The College and the Church, by Merrimon Cuninggim, The Master’s Seminary Journal 10/2 [Fall 1999]:288-90).

Previous reviews of Dying of the Light have discussed potential theological misrepresentations or biases by Burtchaell, a Catholic scholar, in analyzing the integral nuances of transforming Protestant institutions (cf. Warren Benson’s review of Burtchaell’s Dying of the Light in Christian Education Journal 3ns [Spring 1999]:142-43.). Therefore this review will not rehearse such concerns. Although the author follows an organizational scheme similar to that found in Hughes and Adrian’s Models of Christian Higher Education (cf. J. Gregory Behle, review of Models of Christian Higher Education: Strategies for Success in the Twenty-First Century, by Richard T. Hughes and William B. Adrian [eds.], The Master’s Seminary Journal 9 (Fall 1998):234-36), institutional selection is markedly different, given the differing foci of the two works. When institutional replication does occur, one is left with a sense of puzzlement—Burtchaell discusses shifts at St. Olaf College (Northfield, Minnesota) in the context of Lutheran higher education (Dying of the Light, 503–18), while Hughes and Adrian cite St. Olaf College as a “model” of Christian post-secondary education (Models of Christian Higher Education, 82–96). Such tensions point up the difficulty of definition in any discussion of “models” of Christian higher education, particularly among historic denominational schools that have broadened their institutional constituencies and reduced or eliminated confessional or theological distinctives. Burtchaell assumes a broader, more inclusive, definition of “Christian” in the work. Discussion includes disengagement among the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, and evangelicals as representative Christian populations.

Burtchaell’s historical work is detailed, being drawn from both primary institutional records and secondary sources. The text is copiously noted and offers a detailed index for referencing purposes. This reviewer would have appreciated a bibliographic essay to synthesize the essential literature and offer a discussion of historiographic method, especially given the mass of literature disseminated in the text. The prefatory material provided by the author is essential reading before one wades into this massive work. Burtchaell’s acknowledgments among consulted scholars reads as a venerable list of “who’s-who” among Christian higher education historians—further bolstering an already strong work.

Theological differences aside, evangelical colleges might consider carefully the case-history of Azusa Pacific University as a paradigm of evangelical disengagement. Though arguments might be made that Burtchaell’s classification of “evangelical” as a distinct denominational grouping is spurious in the literature, owing to problems of definition (both historically, denominationally, and theologically), institutions with fundamentalist heritages might give particular attention to the warnings provided. The case of Azusa Pacific as an evangelical institution is particularly noteworthy.

Burtchaell’s concluding chapter, “The Story within the Stories,” summarizes well the author’s observations on recurring themes among disengaging institutions. Such observations should be noted by administrators and trustees concerned with their own institution’s ecclesiastical commitments and moorings. The regularity of such occurrences across both denominational and theological lines suggests patterns that are both predictable and easily replicated in the rush for academic credibility or institutional prestige.

The author has provided Christian higher education with another important contribution to the disengagement and secularization literature. Readers interested in either denominational developments within American church history and its effect upon the colleges, or readers interested in Christian higher education in general, will appreciate the significance of this work. Potential readers will likely gravitate toward their own denominational heritage; however, the lessons that can be gleaned from the experiences of others should be equally considered. Burtchaell’s observations and conclusions sound uncomfortably familiar to those acquainted with the subject.