21 November, 2009

Worth Reading

Benne, Robert. Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001. xii + 217 pp. ISBN 0-8028-4704-8 (pbk.). $19.00.

Robert Benne's Quality with Soul is a book that must be read not only by Lutheran college faculties and administrators, but also by governing boards and synodical officials involved, however tangentially, in the maintenance and advancement of their institutions of higher learning—the Concordias, Bethany Lutheran College, Martin Luther College, and Wisconsin Lutheran College. Benne joins a host of recent authors on the problem of the secular drift of once church-related institutions of higher education in the United States. Quality with Soul, however, attempts to break with the jeremiad tradition of its predecessors, notably George Marsden's, James Burtchaell's and Mark Noll's books, and to offer a glimpse at six colleges of or associated with the church that have to varying degrees continued to realise their spiritual mission: the Baptist Baylor University; the Reformed Calvin College; the evangelical Wheaton College; the Roman Catholic University of Notre Dame; and the two Lutheran schools, St. Olaf College and Valparaiso University. Benne's more optimistic approach is also more sociological and cultural-anthropological than merely historical (as those of his predecessors). With this book, he hopes to create a roadmap of sorts for colleges teetering on the balance between their sponsoring religious traditions and the onslaught of secularisation that will allow them respectably to foster their religious commitments.

Gloom and doom cannot, however, go missing from the picture, and Benne devotes the first forty-seven pages of his book to an assessment of the present situation, boiling the problem down to a loss of resolve in three main areas: persons, ethos, and vision. By persons, Benne means the faculty, administration, staff, governing board, and student body of a college or university; by ethos, he means the "feel" of the campus; and by vision, he means the intellectually articulated purpose of the school in public materials and the classroom. In each of these areas, schools with religious commitments have experienced a drop—in many cases a precipitous plunge—in the impact of the sponsoring religious tradition. Benne traces this drop/plunge to a number of factors both internal and external. Externally, perceived market forces have drawn schools toward an American blandness that seeks to instantiate what amounts to the state-university multi-versity model (to borrow a term from Russell Kirk). Benne's words, because fitting for a number of the Lutheran schools mentioned above, are worth citing here:

[The schools] had to get students in order to survive. One response to such a severe challenge was simply to cast about for educational programs that students wanted. A fairly common result of this search was to move into professional and pre-professional training, especially business, but also engineering, nursing, social work, law, and communications....Each of these endeavors, however, moves schools away from a liberal arts focus and thereby diminishes cohesion as academic communities. In these conditions, a living tradition of education—especially one religiously based—becomes difficult to maintain, particularly when each of these professional endeavors brings to the school a fairly autonomous and secular understanding of its particular field....It becomes increasingly unlikely that colleges will advertise themselves as seriously religious if they are trying to attract students to these sorts of programs. This reluctance further dilutes religious identity and mission. (22–23)

Another external factor Benne identifies is the enlightenment paradigm of increasing specialisation and disciplinary attention to questions internal to the discipline and not of broader intellectual interest. This paradigm is today formative in the education of college and university teachers in the graduate schools, and continues throughout an academic career to tug at the minds of teachers through professional organisations.

The internal factors Benne identifies are the incapacity adequately to articulate a theological identity and mission for the institution and weakening ties, often financial, between the big business of an institution of higher education and the sponsoring church body. The latter is self-understood. The former, however, is relevant to the modern Lutheran school. Benne observes three phenomena, all of which, I would argue, are visible in scads in modern Lutheran schools. The first is a cultural accommodation. This, of course, is an experience that our own parishes are not impervious to, and it includes a lack of willingness to practice Lutheranism as Lutherans practice it, on the premise that we have not what we have not also received. In other words, the rich liturgical tradition of Lutheranism gives way to a bland evangelical style of worship; the chorale tradition with its rich doctrinal gravitas is replaced by feel-good, pick-me-up ditties; the liturgical, clerical dress of historic Lutheranism is replaced by the business propriety of the two-piece suit; in the interests of inclusiveness, what is offensive in Lutheranism to the dominant evangelical thrust among "conservative Christians" is down played in chapel homilies.

The second internal factor Benne labels as pietism, by which he means a non-intellectual view of Christianity that replaces serious theological investigation, teaching, and exploration in the classroom with a busy sort of Christianity that does without knowing why (service programs, etc.). This, too, is a major threat to the modern Lutheran school. In many cases, the theology departments remain the only place a student might—and I emphasise might—encounter a real, lively tussle with the orthodox Lutheran tradition. One teacher I know from a Lutheran school told me once that her Christianity was on display all the time for students: it wasn't uncommon for her to start class with something like, "Gosh, what a beautiful day. Isn't God wonderful?" Beautiful-day theology, however, as appropriate as it may be to Grandma Schmidt's kitchen, has no place—as both intellectually and theologically vapid—in an institution of higher education whose theological goals are intellectually carried out in a real, intellectual engagement of the theological tradition with the academic enterprise.

The final internal factor Benne identifies is an inadequate theological response to increasing secularisation, observing that Tillich and Bultmann were the ringers of choice in meeting the increasingly secularised academy halfway. This, one hopes, has not been an issue in the Lutheran schools of the old Synodical Conference.

Illuminating is a chart on page 49 in which Benne gives a typology of four different kinds of once-religious schools: Orthodox, Critical Mass, Intentionally Pluralist, and Accidentally Pluralist. Most LCMS, WELS, and ELS schools fall into the "Orthodox" category as Benne defines it.

The second, and longest, section of Quality with Soul is devoted to an exploration of the history, ethos, vision, and demographic realities of the six colleges he views as having a healthy tie to their theological traditions; for each, Benne tells a story very different from the pessimistic narrative of Burtchaell and Marsden. One is not always convinced, though, that the optimism is warranted or that he has gotten his facts right. In the case of St. Olaf College, for example, Benne draws attention to one outstanding example of a decisive hire—Robert Jenson, back in 1988—to claim a discernible pattern of intentional hiring of Lutherans, something that could not be further from the truth. In fact, St. Olaf now, eight years after Benne's Quality with Soul appeared, is in a more tenuous position overagainst Lutheranism than it was in 2001. The optimism is not warranted because the facts do not support the case.

In the third and final section of Quality with Soul, Benne offers several helpful steps that colleges might take to reinforce their positions within their sponsoring religious traditions, including hiring policies, strengthening of the religious ethos of the school, and ways to improve the intellectual articulation of the theological vision in departments of theology. His baby-steps cum political grease approach to this is probably the right one, given the often virulent and hostile secularist element on many one-time religious campuses. And if the demographics are right, it is going to be the schools that retrench within their traditions that will find themselves healthy and vibrant several decades from now.

A modern confessional Lutheran's reading of Benne will be only monitory. In other words, it is not in most cases the case that the schools of the old Synodical Conference run the risk of secularisation, although certainly in pockets some degree of secularisation may be apparent (within certain departments, for example). Benne does, however, point out several ways in which the religious perspective of our institutions could be fostered, and I've attempted to draw many of the conclusions for a specifically Lutheran setting above.

I would, however, like to offer another set of comments, one that I hope will be taken very seriously. Quality with Soul begins with the premise that once religiously affiliated schools fall into one of three main typologies: (a) high-quality, highly secularized; (b) high-quality, religiously connected; and (c) low-quality, religiously connected. It is the latter category that should worry confessional Lutherans the most. As a matter of fact, there is no confessional Lutheran college with a national ranking by any nationally-recognised instrument. These rankings measure prestige, something that is based ultimately upon the quality of faculties, facilities, curriculum, and student body, and on the size of endowments and budget. In other words, the rankings, as problematic as they are, do reflect to a remarkable degree the quality and quantity of institutional assets that go into making a high-quality education. Confessional Lutheran colleges just don't have what it takes—but this dearth is rooted in and supported by decisions taken over the lifetime of institutions and now on a daily basis. And the problem is not just one of embarrassment at the intellectual non-representation of Lutheranism on the national scene, it is one that has to do with the welfare of our church bodies, our congregations, and individual Lutheran students and families faced on an annual basis with the unenviable choice of high-quality education at the cost of a secular environment, or religiously-informed education at the cost of quality.

What can be done to redress this situation?

First, Lutheran schools must drop the survival-at-all-costs mentality that has governed their decisions for decades. The diffusion of an institution's educational mission is linked to a dissolution of the theological mission, a scattering rather than a concentration of already precious resources, and a drop in the quality of the education delivered. These decisions are taken to bolster the operating budget for a season, but in the long run prove detrimental to the intellectual and spiritual well being of the college.

Second, Lutheran schools must undertake every effort to recruit and keep the highest quality faculty. This particular tack is often presented as an either/or proposition—either high quality faculty or faculty committed to the religious program of a school—but such a perspective is both defeatist and misinformed. In fact, accomplished confessional Lutheran academicians in virtually all disciplines are to be found throughout the country. But they must be attracted to a confessional institution by: (a) advertisements for teaching positions in expected venues (professional rather than synodical publications, the latter which are not taken seriously) that express the institution's seriousness about its academic enterprise; (b) "reasonable" teaching loads that will allow them to continue to research and publish; and (c) salaries that are competitive.

Third, resources must be concentrated. This is a particularly acute problem in the Concordia system, wherein financial, personnel, and physical resources are scattered across the country where none of them can do alone what they could if drawn together. Thus, instead of having ten barely-viable philosophy departments in ten schools, why not create one large, vibrant philosophy department in one school with the very best faculty, adequate library resources, and funding that can support vigorous research agendas, all the while turning out well educated philosophy majors? For the WELS and ELS schools, the problem is different. These institutions need to present a compelling vision to wealthy constituents and highly-qualified academicians not presently employed by them.

Fourth, student bodies capable of the highest order academic work must be admitted. This may mean that certain nice young men and women of the sponsoring church body will not be admitted due to lack of adequate academic preparation. It will also mean, however, that the many highly qualified students who today find no good reason to attend a confessional college will begin self-selecting and presenting themselves for admission, rather than applying to Bates or the University of Michigan.

Fifth, governing boards must provide support for all of the above, both moral and financial, realising that the achievement of a good thing is never easy; and they must make a long-term commitment to the improvement of the institution with whose welfare they are charged.

Of course, all of the above is understood as taking place within a community of learning that is vibrantly orthodox and confessional, and that demands of its faculty and administrators a living appropriation of the Lutheran intellectual and spiritual tradition through serious study of Scripture and the Confessions, and teaches it to students in theology courses, in the living liturgy, and in the on-going wrestling with the Lutheran tradition across the disciplines which leaves no one unbruised, but also not without a blessing.

In darker moments, I'm quite convinced that nothing like what I describe above could ever happen. But then again, who knows? Maybe the next generation's Robert Benne will write of a remarkable confessional Lutheran school whose deserved reputation exceeds its size and the size of its sponsoring church body. And maybe the next St. Olaf College will emerge not from the liberal, unionistic mainline of American Lutheranism, but from the old confessional, orthodox Synodical Conference.

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