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The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001) 768-769

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Book Review

The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies in American Higher Education

The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies in American Higher Education. By D. G. Hart. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1999. Pp. xiv, 321. $38.00.)

Darryl Hart of Westminster Seminary reconstructs the Liberal Protestant establishment's efforts to gain a subdued presence on campuses in the United States. Conforming initially to the Enlightenment dogma that only empirical evidence verifies scientific (the only worthwhile) understanding, they were left with little to offer but morality and piety. And in the "First Age," 1870-1925, Liberal Protestants conceded that not even morality could be purveyed by a "sect" (church), which dealt only in private, unverifiable, claims. They saw no difficulty, however, in its being purveyed by a nation. Faith thus repressed became a [End Page 768] vague moral earnestness in service of "the Power in the Universe which makes for righteousness," or "whatever in human sensibility is of finer texture." Indeed.

So Religion hid in chapel. At the turn of the century, churches began funding a miscellany of campus programs: Sunday schools, campus ministers, and endowed chairs of Bible study. Then in the 1920's foundations began to endow schools of religion, lecture series, chaplaincies, and campus congregations. And they saw that it was Good: verifiably Good. "Jesus was scientific, Christianity was tolerant and generous, science was fundamentally ethical" (p. 89).

Early in the second "Age of the Protestant Establishment," 1925-1965, mainline Protestant efforts enjoyed a new access: broad course requirements in General Education or Western Civilization, where their Bible or ethics courses were accepted for credit as "developing a sense of values." The National Association of Biblical Instructors (NABI) was founded in 1909 to provide academic respectability.

The Neo-Orthodoxy of the thirties was impatient with all this reductionism, and called instead for scholarly biblical studies and theology--on their own terms. But liberal Protestants cravenly prevailed: a misfortune Hart typifies in the collapse of The Christian Scholar into Soundings (1967), replacing "Christianity" with "common human concerns" for its editorial focus.

The Age of the American Academy of Religion, 1965--present, is well documented black comedy. Departments of religious studies become home to what Hart kindly calls "a generic humanism." "Religious studies became an omnibus discipline, governed more by a sense of inferiority than a coherent academic mission" (p. 224). The annual cult gathering of the AAR, rival to the Shriners' Convention and spoofed in Paul Mankowski's classic "What I Saw at the American Academy of Religion," provides a vaudeville stage for liberal Protestantism rampant, with Catholics and Jews gardants et passants. The outcome was "a form of scholarship that, whether unimaginative or intellectually respectable, remained only vaguely Christian" (p. 189).

Hart believes that the "discipline" of Religious Studies has become marginal to the Academy and its culture of disbelief. In its craving for justification by faith alone in the Church's cultured admirers (more lethal by far than her cultured despisers), RelStud leaves its practitioners without an authentic method of inquiry and "waters religion down to the point where faith makes no actual difference" (p. 251).

Hart remains wistful about those two decades after World War II, when Christian scholars were nervily confident that they themselves knew a thing or two, and that the scientists knew much less than they imagined. It is difficult, however, to blame the extinction of such discourse on the Academy, instead of on the suppliant Liberal Protestant entrepreneurs who so willingly signed away their faith with reason.


Ishmael Law



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