The Decline of the Secular University
C. John Sommerville
Oxford University Press, 2006
160 pp., 39.95
Todd C. Ream
The Devil We Know?
Academics are not certain of what lies ahead, but we are certain we are passing from one epoch into another. Such a transition is entailed by the decline of the secular university, as deftly sketched by C. John Sommerville, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Florida. The confidence colleges and universities once possessed concerning their identity and their requisite "business" is collapsing into circles of ever-intensifying debate. Public officials now seek accountability for the investment of tax dollars. Industry leaders expect responsiveness in relation to the needs of an ever-changing economy. Parents simply hope for a day when their sons and daughters will not return home and take up residence in their basements following commencement.
And yet amid the profound changes sweeping the academic world, Sommerville observes, "the public still has a sense that universities should be wiser than the rest of us." He wonders why. After all, "universities are not really where we look for answers to our life questions." Secularization, he contends, has precluded universities from raising such inquiries, let alone offering satisfactory answers. While Sommerville believes the next epoch for the university will prove to be better than the current one, I wonder if the proverbial devil we know is not, in fact, better than the devil we have yet to meet.
Few scholars are better prepared than Sommerville to help us understand not only the epoch we are leaving behind but also the one which lies ahead. The Decline of the Secular University is his seventh book; among his earlier ones are How the News Makes Us Dumb (InterVarsity, 1999), The News Revolution in England (Oxford, 1996), and The Secularization of Early Modern England (Oxford, 1992). And his efforts with the Christian Study Center in Gainesville, Florida, have surely helped to shape his latest book, as the stated purpose of this center is "to offer the university community the thoughtful consideration of a Christian understanding of life and culture."1
Sommerville's thesis in The Decline of the Secular University is that if the university is to be a place where life's questions are pursued, religion needs to be part of, if not central to, such conversations. Naturalistic science established itself in a host of disciplines as an objective means of validating knowledge. Even theology, the one-time queen of the sciences, found itself to be an estranged parent to academic departments now bearing names such as religious studies. Within these departments, objective inquiry proved definitive. And yet, as Sommerville suggests, certain concepts defy empirical analysis. The critical power of objective inquiry, for example, extends only so far when one is considering a concept like justice. To this end, Sommerville notes that "While some instances of 'justice' can be seen to be unjust, this doesn't dissolve the idea of justice; it makes the contrast all the more striking."
While many scholars acknowledge that the university is entering a postmodern phase in which "objectivity" is a contested notion, Sommerville claims the university is also entering what he calls a postsecular phase. In this respect his analysis differs from the accounts offered by scholars such as James Tunstead Burtchaell (The Dying of the Light, Eerdmans, 1998), Philip Gleason (Contending with Modernity, Oxford, 1995), George M. Marsden (The Soul of the American University, Oxford, 1994), and Douglas Sloan (Faith and Knowledge, Westminster John Knox, 1994), which generally tell the story of an unrelenting advance of secularism in higher education. An exception to this consensus, and hence closer in spirit to Sommerville, is the work of Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen (Scholarship and Christian Faith, Oxford, 2004).
Sommerville believes postsecularism offers opportunities for religion in higher education that secularism never offered. Roughly the first half of his book addresses various "troubles" which emerged in the secular academy. These alleged troubles emerged through attempts to define the human condition, maintain the fact/value dichotomy, eliminate religion, and judge religions. In his chapter entitled "Trouble Eliminating Religions," Sommerville turns to Stanley Fish for assistance in making his argument for the free expression of religious convictions in the pluralistic setting of the university. Echoing Fish, Sommerville contends that "Understood properly, toleration means allowing for proselytizing, not stifling it. For proselytizing implies the freedom of one's audience, as opposed to efforts to coerce it. Stifling religious views may show a lack of confidence." If one of the emerging virtues of postsecular academe is a true toleration of divergent viewpoints, then no rightful reason exists to eliminate religious viewpoints (a point also made in the "postscript" to Marsden's Soul of the American University).
Roughly the second half of Sommerville's book deals with how religious viewpoints may contribute to the postsecular university. He initially looks at areas of inquiry such as science and history. Sommerville argues that in the absence of religion, conclusions offered in both of these areas are often incomplete. In relation to science, for example, Sommerville lucidly works through the arguments voiced by physicists such as Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, and John Polkinghorne, concluding that "there is now wonder and mystery on the boundaries of science that suggests a religious awareness if not a religious response." The recognition of what exists on these boundaries is also present in almost all other areas of inquiry. In the postsecular university, Sommerville believes, "religious and personalist vocabularies might bring new realism and interest" to subjects that have been stripped of their human meaning. The university can once again become a place where "life's questions" are pursued.
While Sommerville's hopeful analysis is welcome, I remain unconvinced. On one level, Sommerville's book lacks a clear definition of religion (or theology)—a need he acknowledges at the beginning of chapter four. Perhaps religion is more than "a certain kind of response to a certain kind of power." For Christians, theology is the language we learn through the practices of common worship in which we participate as the body of Christ. Briefly stated, we welcome our newest members through baptism. Together, we are nourished by the hearing of Scripture and the taking of Eucharist. One scholar recently contended "that the epistemological precondition for theology was the community of the Church and the Spirit."2 Seen in this light, the university is the place where the language learned through the practices of the Church can be refined. Sommerville, by contrast, makes little mention of ecclesial life in his book. At times, he seems more concerned with civil life—suggesting, for example, that universities which take religion seriously "could find themselves more at the heart of our national life if they fostered an atmosphere of real exploration of concerns that the population has never given up."
On a second level, I wonder whether the postsecular university will embrace theological discourse understood as a language learned through the Church's particular practices. After all, this form of discourse is already recognized by the secular university, even if it is largely restricted to subjective or private contexts. The presence of the Church in various forms on the literal as well as figurative perimeters of even the most secular universities makes this very point. How will the postsecular university regard the expression of such particularistic convictions? It may welcome such discourse.
It may deem such discourse "theocratic" and "sectarian." Sommerville has done an admirable job of making the case for one answer. Time will tell if he is right.
Todd C. Ream is the director of the Aldersgate Center at Indiana Wesleyan University.
1. See www.christianstudycenter.org/about.php?
2. Gavin D'Costa, Theology in the Public Square: Church, Academy and Nation (Blackwell, 2005), p. 19.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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