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A Student's Guide to Religious Studies
By D. G. Hart
ISI BooksCopyright © 2005 Intercollegiate Studies Institute
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThis guide is designed to help students navigate the study of religion in American higher education, to discover the best that our universities and colleges have to offer. First, we will explore the history of religion in American higher education, the rise of religious studies as an academic discipline, and several characteristic features resulting from this complicated history. Then we will recommend the best ways to approach the West's greatest religious thinkers and most significant texts. If students approach the academic study of religion understanding this background and with realistic goals, religious studies may prove a hospitable environment for faith and understanding not only to coexist, hut to flourish.
I. THE UNIVERSITY'S RELIGIOUS ROOTS
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The Myth of Christian
Higher Education in America
America's most prestigious universities have their origins in the colonial era (roughly 1600 to 1775), a time when religion held a prominent place in the nation's public and intellectual life. Harvard and Yale, for instance, were founded under the auspices of New England's Puritans, while Princeton started chiefly with the support of mid-Atlantic Presbyterians. Thus, the best universities in America emerged for explicitly religious reasons, with the training of clergy a primary rationale for undergraduate education. Even after the American Revolution and ecclesiastical disestablishment, the needs and beliefs of religious bodies continued to shape higher education in the United States. As the new nation spread across the continent, denominational colleges sprang up everywhere Americans sought higher learning. These colleges featured a liberal education with a decidedly Christian ethos. The church's influence was felt, for example, in the standard senior-year capstone course in moral philosophy. The college president-invariably a minister-would integrate the entire undergraduate curriculum while also vindicating Christianity's truth and the necessity of religion for the good society.
If American undergraduate education was intentionally Christian during the colonial and antebellum (1800 to 1860) eras, it appeared to diverge considerably from its historic character with the advent of the research university, a development that significantly altered American learning during the post-Civil War decades. This "revolution" in higher education severed America's colleges from their Christian roots and established as the goal of learning training in the methods and specialized research of the natural and social sciences.
Big business-as opposed to the churches-was responsible for the founding of most of the new research universities. Cornell (1865), Johns Hopkins (1876), Stantford (1885), and the University of Chicago (1890) were made possible only by drawing on the fortunes of leading industrialists. At the same time, older institutions started to abandon the religious rules that governed their procedures for hiring and recruiting in order to attract the funding that the new learning required. Higher education became more expensive in part because of the new subjects it incorporated; to keep pace colleges needed to add courses and faculty in the natural and social sciences. Additionally, the specialization of academic disciplines created the need for even more courses and faculty; the course in moral philosophy, for instance, had covered ground that would later require courses in philosophy, sociology, history, anthropology, and ethics-at least. Suitable faculty became harder to find because of the increased demand for specialists in concentrated areas of study.
Indeed, one of the most significant changes wrought by the rise of the research university was the professionalization of knowledge. Unlike the previous era, when the learned gentleman (most often a minister) could teach a variety of subjects in the undergraduate curriculum, in the research university (and in the colleges that sought to emulate them) scholars specialized in narrow fields of study as experts. What the colonial and denominational colleges may have lacked in cutting-edge scholarship they made up for in their attempt to integrate a whole range of knowledge from a religiously informed perspective. Thus, curricular integration was now sacrificed for the sake of intellectual expertise.
These changes in American higher education have fueled the plausible notion that colleges and universities began to secularize after 1870. To be sure, the place of religion at the new research universities (and at those liberal arts colleges that tried to keep up with them by following the path of academic specialization) was noticeably different. Chapel usually became voluntary, religious tests for faculty hiring generally faded away, and the sense that the churches were the rightful proprietors of higher learning gradually evaporated thanks both to the new ideals to which administrators and faculty adhered and to new sources of funding. What is less credible in this generally accurate portrait of late-nineteenth-century American higher education is the notion that the denominational colleges undermined by the research universities had been bastions of Christian higher education in the first place. As friendly as the colonial and denominational colleges were to faith-and it should be remembered that since the churches were their patrons the colleges did not really have a choice-the explicitly religious content of their undergraduate curricula was minimal. Those who maintain that our colleges and universities need to return to an older pattern in which religion was central to higher learning need to revise their arguments. Formal religious study has always been more or less marginal to American higher education. To look, then, to religious studies as a means of recovering an older Christian-centered vision of higher education is both to misunderstand the achievements of the past and to constrain the possibilities of the future.
The Era of the Christian College
Many of the difficulties laced today by those who study religion in American higher education stem from the English and Protestant precedents that the British colonists in North America followed when establishing colleges in the New World. For the British Protestants who founded colleges in Massachusetts (e.g., Harvard) and Virginia (e.g., William and Mary), formal instruction in the Christian religion-that is, the study of Scripture and theology-was almost exclusively reserved for those training for the Christian ministry. Such theological education was not part of British university instruction even For those who would become clergy. (Not until the nineteenth century did British colleges and universities establish faculty posts in explicitly religious subjects.) Prospective ministers needed to have university training, but their education was a primarily literary one that provided a familiarity with ancient languages, texts, and authors. For theological instruction, students would supplement their university education with apprenticeships completed under the supervision of settled ministers. Here is where future pastors would become better acquainted with church teaching, biblical interpretation, and ecclesiastical polity, and where they would gain firsthand experience of parish life. This same pattern prevailed in the New World, where the colonial colleges included religious training sufficient to maintain a godly society but insufficient to prepare students for the ministry. For the formal theological education necessary for ordination, prospective ministers typically needed training beyond college.
The lack of formal theological instruction in undergraduate education helps to explain why prior to the nineteenth century leading theological scholars were more often pastors than professors. Take Jonathan Edwards, considered by many to be the greatest American theologian. Edwards's training and ecclesiastical appointments were fairly typical of the time, even if his scholarly output was remarkable. He was a graduate of Yale College and apprenticed with his grandfather in Northampton, Massachussetts, before being ordained and succeeding his grandfather as pastor of that congregation. As a defender of the First Great Awakening, Edwards established a reputation as both a devout pastor and a learned theologian who was able to use philosophy to justify religious revivals. Still, all of Edwards's literary output took place on the frontier of colonial society-a small town in western Massachusetts, not in a faculty office at Harvard or Yale. In fact, some of Edwards's most important theological works were produced after a conflict with his Northampton congregation forced him to accept a call to mission work among nearby Native Americans. Because of Edwards's reputation as a pastor and scholar, a network of congregations and pastors developed along the Connecticut River Valley that became known as the New Divinity. This informal association depended on the apprenticeship model of theological training. Most of the New Divinity network's members had at one time studied with Edwards and served as an intern in his congregation; in turn, these Edwards students took on apprentices who would also become part of the New Divinity theological tradition.
Edwards's own literary output, as well as his establishment of an informal school (or tradition) of theology, underscores the place of formal religious instruction during the colonial era. As difficult as his own personal circumstances may have been, Edwards's distance from an academic institution was not unusual, because the best formal American scholarship in theology and the Bible was produced by pastors like him. At the same time, the cultivation and preservation of a particular pattern of religious training flourished best outside the colonial colleges. The formal study of religion was chiefly an activity for the churches, which not only provided the training future ministers needed before ordination, but also resolved the various disputes arising within religious communions. The study of religion was a fairly technical field of inquiry not regulated directly by the institutions of American higher education. Of course, it clearly was important to colonial society. But even so, formal religious study was not part of a classical education and so had no home in the colleges and universities.
A similar pattern would prevail in the denominational liberal arts colleges founded by churches in the nineteenth century. These institutions were clearly Christian in character, but the curriculum continued to be dominated by Greek and Latin, and knowledge of the ancient world was supposed to provide the basis for understanding, wisdom, and virtue. Aside from the senior-year course in moral philosophy, which acquainted students with the demands of Christian conduct and evidences for the truth of Christianity, the denominational college's curriculum made little room for the formal study of the sacred scriptures and theology.
Religion's academic fortunes began to change in the nineteenth century with the advent of the theological seminary. Congregationalists in New England started Andover Theological Seminary in 1808 and Presbyterians followed suit in 1812 with Princeton Theological Seminary, thus signaling the decline of the older apprentice model of ministerial training. Seminaries provided a more efficient way to train ministers for the rapidly expanding nation. In turn, the faculty at these institutions, all ministers themselves, eventually acquired the status of theological experts whose full-time job was religious study and inquiry; unlike Edwards and his like, they were not required to combine their scholarship with pastoral responsibilities. During the nineteenth century almost every church founded its own seminary or added a divinity school to an existing college, as was the case with Harvard and Yale. In the late nineteenth century, when the research university was rising to prominence, the divinity-school model became increasingly common. The University of Chicago, Emory, Vanderbilt, and Duke all added their divinity schools during these years.
But as much as the creation of seminaries and divinity schools may have helped to improve the academic credentials of religious studies, formal instruction in the Bible and theology continued to be a sphere of inquiry set apart from the arts and sciences. Theological education, even in its more professional setting, was still reserved for ministerial preparation. It was not regarded to have special relevance for, or applicability to, the humanities or sciences. The marginal standing of theological education within American learning was a source of great consternation to seminary and divinity school faculty. Thus, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries various plans were put forth to overhaul theological education. Such undertakings usually sought to bring theological study into the mainstream of American higher education and to train ministers who would be better equipped to address the concerns of America's rapidly industrializing and urbanizing society. Ironically, this attempt to improve the standing of theological education actually reinforced the perception that formal instruction in the Bible and theology were subjects far removed from the regular arts and sciences, from the real world.
Theological educators, in fact, did not propose to reform ministerial training by demonstrating the importance of biblical exegesis or systematic theology to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Instead, it was a prominent notion in the seminaries and divinity schools of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that religion, given the chance, could, like other fields of learning, contribute to society's improvement. This was the era of the Social Gospel, when the mainline Protestant churches sought to demonstrate faith's relevance to everyday life by lending support to numerous social reforms designed to offset the lamentable side-effects of large-scale industrialization and urbanization. Church leaders also professed to discern in social and cultural developments signs of the kingdom of God. The net effect for the study of religion was to shift ministerial training away from theology and the Bible to include more instruction in the natural and social sciences. The natural sciences, it was thought, would help ministers answer objections from skeptics who doubted divine control of the evolutionary process. The social sciences would prepare future clergy to channel religious vitality into those various reforms which sought to preserve Christian influence in America's fast-changing cities.
Some university presidents welcomed these changes in theological education, believing that they heralded a new and better day for the churches. In fact, it was during this era (1880-1930) that religious studies arguably reached its nadir as an academic discipline. The creation of seminaries and divinity schools had provided theological education with an institutional foothold in the academic world, but these theological schools could not withstand the challenge presented by the new learning of the research university. Consequently, in trying to show the relevance of religion to other fields of study, theological educators, paradoxically, accomplished precisely the opposite: they brought the new knowledge of the research university to bear on religion. Instead of specializing in their own fields of inquiry (i.e., the subdisciplines of theology, scriptural exegesis, etc.), theological educators dabbled as generalists in fields for which they were ill equipped. On the eve of the twentieth century, the prospects for religious studies in American higher education looked bleak, not simply because of the threat posed by secularization, but also, and perhaps more decisively, because of religion's historically marginal status in the nation's colleges and universities.
Excerpted from A Student's Guide to Religious Studies by D. G. Hart Copyright © 2005 by Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Excerpted by permission.
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