The Church and the Academy

Von Ogden Vogt

Berry Street Essay, 1937


Read before the Ministerial Conference

May, 1937


Few facts about American history are more impressive than the establishment of colleges by religion. Not only were the earliest academies started by the earliest churches—Harvard, Yale and others—but as the frontier swept westward, church schools were established almost as rapidly as churches. As a boy I attended Salt Lake Academy under a Congregational minister. My college was Beloit. Its president then, as now, was a minister. Just the other day I visited Berea College, established by a church and still presided over by a minister. The support of the academy by the church has continued down to this present day. Living members of my parish have contributed many thousands of dollars to our nearest university.

Meanwhile, few developments in America are so ominous, so fraught with peril to the national welfare, as the general irreligion of American colleges and universities. That the flower of our youth today is being bred under the withering influence of scorn of popular religion on the part of its teachers is a major disaster. Moreover, that the whole process of education is without the ordering, informing, presiding influence of essential religion is a contravention of education itself.




The professor does not go to church. In some college communities, yes. But in the great university centers, no. The city churches surrounding our most famous universities have very few academic members. Where there are official college services of religion, the attendance of faculty members is meager. A few strong professors have a mature rise of social responsibility and genuine religious convictions. They are intelligent and loyal supporters of the church, but they are an extremely small minority. One said to me not long since that it was  much as his social standing in university circles was worth to uphold religion or be seen entering a church.

The prevalent attitude is one not of indifference merely: there is widespread opposition. This opposition expresses itself in many ways—from the classroom jibes and wise cracks to sober argument and discussion. In many academic lecture halls, thousands of our finest youths are subjected to the devastating influence of smart and jesting allusions to the church and what it stands for. A classic instance of this academic attitude in my own region was an entire lecture on religion three or four years ago by a great scientist and a man of generous sympathies who merely set up the straw man of the fundamentalism in which he had been bred and then tore it down. And the strange and terrible thing is that a large part of the student audience did not know what a travesty the lecture was. Directly across the street from the lecture hall is one of the most distinguished and enlightened churches in America, a church of the Disciples denomination. Yet the university professor discussed religion not in terms of its nearest exemplar, but as represented in its backward forms. What would he think if a minister discussed science in terms of astrology or numerology?

Not unrelated to the lack of interest or the overt opposition of faculty members, especially the younger ones, is the ignorance of religion by the presidents and the corporations which elect them. In recent years, several men have been chosen for the presidency of leading universities whose lives were devoid of any concrete religious connection.  When the new chapel of the University of Chicago was first publicly opened, President Mason addressed the alumni without making a single allusion to the building or the forces of religion which produced it—as, for that matter, they produced the university itself.  Such an omission was either a glaring impropriety or the clearest evidence of the very indifference to religion I am alleging.

This academic aloofness takes another astonishing form in the sons of theological professors. Many of them today are not consistent supporters of any particular church. How their minds get into that state of false freedom from social and religious responsibility is a curious question.

For the separation of university men from community life including religion much can be said in explanation if not in justification. For one thing, the professor tends to withdraw into the seclusion of the academic cloister because his salary is too small to permit what he feels to be a normal share of social movement in the larger community. He cannot compete with others of like ability in certain forms of social activity and so retires to the company of his own kind. He feels not a personal but a financial inferiority.

Then, too, the modern university teacher is not first a teacher but primarily a scholar or scientist. He feels not only the inner urge toward research and creative work but the outer lash of the system always goading him to publication. He is pressed for time. His advancement depends upon keeping up with an ever accelerated pace of production. How can heave the energy for civic or religious duties?

A deeper reason for the defection of the academy from the church is its intellectual difference with religion. Numbers of professors do not go to church because they cannot find a church whose faith comes near to being in accord with their own convictions. There is no doubt that the average American church is intellectually backward. The academy is thinking thoughts and speaking a language different from those of the church.

Still another cause of the separation is the ignorance of liberal religion on the part of colleges and college men, in spite of the fact that around all our oldest and greatest universities are churches of free intellectual life and that inside the same universities are scholars and teachers of free religion. In no small measure this state of ignorance is due to the colleges having often left responsibility for religion in the hands of the Y.M.C.A. I cannot forget how shocked I was on entering Yale almost thirty years ago to discover the sweetened pablum fed to the students at Dwight Hall by Y.M.C.A. men who appeared to be entirely ignorant of the grown man's religion across the yard in the divinity school. The prevailing pattern of religious life in our colleges has been set by John R. Mott and Robert E. Speer, probably more than by any others, and upon their shoulders must rest a considerable part of the responsibility of having held back generations of American college men from any intellectual progress in religion. Their work, however valuable otherwise, has nevertheless contributed to the present unfortunate severance of the academy and the church, for it has kept many thousands of American students from any real acquaintance with liberal religion.




Over against these charges, which lay the blame for the divorce of church and college largely upon the church, I should like to call attention to several counter-considerations. First, the academy has made a premature judgment on the church. It has not taken sufficient account of the time factor involved in religious change as compared with scientific change. Religion is not primarily intellectual. Its convictions are born of moral and emotional experiences rather than primarily of logic. They are less readily abandoned just because they are vital and personal rather than abstract. Nor has sufficient cognizance been taken by the academy of the great changes which have already occurred in religious thought. All the Major American denominations have many liberals, and these men of the church often feel that they have been abandoned by the men of the academy at the very time when their own intellectual battle is on the way to being won. Their remaining task is not made easier by the fact that they are in general without the aid and comfort of their natural allies.

The college is in position to be of important service to the church.  Almost any backward community church could be set forward if even a small group of college men were willing to let their influence be felt. I am as sick at heart as anyone at the slowness of intellectual progress in our American churches. I see its damaging effects in many communities. But the forward movement is there, and it is strong and vital.  It is destined to continue in the church with or without the aid of the academy. It is definite indictment of the typical professor that he, whose very calling would seem to involve a superior capacity of observation and judgment, should have so slight an understanding of where the intellectual battle is and of his responsibility with respect n it. One remembers the famous lines of Arthur Hugh Clough:


It may he, in yon smoke concealed,

Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,

And but for you, possess the field.


The same grim words apply with an equal or even more stinging cogency to the social conflicts of our times. The church contains thousands of men whose voices are raised with growing courage against economic injustices and on behalf of nobler concepts of social order.  It is a blunder of the first magnitude to regard them as negligible because their words are not published beyond their own localities. The minister has defended the rights of academic freedom, but the professor has not sustained the minister in his struggle for a free pulpit. A new alliance of church and academy would constitute an unbreakable guarantee of free thought, and free speech. Men of the academy have made a premature judgment on the church with respect to the possibilities of its power for effective social action.




It may also be said that the professor has a poor sense of society. He is likely to excuse himself from the normal duties of citizenship.  Quite properly feeling the virtues of his academic renouncement of the prizes of competitive life and of his devotion to the exacting demands of scholarship, he thinks of himself as above the battle and outside the obligations laid upon other members of the community. He is a poor citizen, not simply with respect to whether or not he goes to the voting booth, but with respect to all the many affairs for which a good citizen must be responsible. He is likely to be a monastic who more or less resigns the world to its fate. In all this, there is something admirable, but it is secured at a great cost to the professor and to society.

For surely a prime duty of every citizen is to have some concrete connection with the maintenance of those institutions of society without which there would be no society. Those who ignore the church must assume a responsibility for creating some other method of fulfilling its functions. What proposal have the professors for the cohesion of the state? By what practical processes do they expect people to become motivated toward honesty, trustworthiness and responsibility? By just what organs of social intercourse will men be regularly inspired to mental alertness and growth? Through just what agencies will it be possible for the ordinary man to find those high satisfactions which are derived from the celebration of life as a whole?

I do not find in academic circles, not even in the minds of many social scientists, any adequate concept of society, any clear notion of what it has cost somebody to produce a social order, establish its institutions, including the academy, or to maintain the perpetual equilibrium between freedom and order, without which there is no agreeable life anywhere. I do not, of course, claim that any particular religion is the sole source of social cohesion, moral motivation, spiritual satisfaction and freedom. Yet I do claim that when an actual historic religion can no longer supply these needs, men turn invariably to some new total conception and way of life which may properly be called a new religion.  Some intelligent people vaguely feel that our old religion has failed in these functions, but I do not find that they have any clear proposal for an alternative. The usual academician does not have the awareness that a citizen of his capacity ought to have, either of the nature of these necessities for social order or of the success of the common church, which he ignores, in supplying them.

The college is not concerned for the unity of American culture. It should know that there has never been any historic societal culture not rooted in a popular religion. Does it expect some other culture pattern hereafter? Or does the college not care for culture at all? Is it to be responsible for a permanent cleft in our society? Or can it start a new religion? Popular religions are not made, they grow. Which is the shorter way to the future unity of American culture—to attempt a rival religion, or to reform the one we already have? Unless the academy can again turn its mind toward religion, it may become the chief obstacle to American cultural advance.

Our typical university professor does not have a philosophy of religion. In addition to his ignorance of liberal churches, already noted, he often does not know as much about the department of religion in his college as men in that department know about his field. He tends to conceive of religion in outworn terms. Indeed, he might have a very much higher opinion of the church if he could think in the terms of a modern philosophy of religion. For the average church actually accomplishes something which no other institution does accomplish and which nothing short of religion anywhere can accomplish. Its intellectual life may be backward, its aesthetic expression feeble, and its ethical influence limited, yet it does what nothing else even attempts—it unites these major activities by the alchemy of an inner process, making them aspects of one complete experience. Every other phase of life, practical or intellectual, is partial, fragmentary or abstract. Only religion deals with life as a whole and only in religion can one find fulfillment. If the intellectual understood this function of religion, he would not so readily ignore the church. We have not meant to insinuate that the life of the scholar does not display the quality that John Dewey calls religiousness. The passion for science is of the same quality as the intellectual and moral devotion of religion. But religiousness is not the whole of religion.

Another reason for the religious indifference of the academy is its prevalent lack of character or personality development of its student. It no longer conceives its task of education in terms of the whole man. The college is a place of learning; it exists for the advancement of knowledge. Or its function is to teach youth how to think or to become wise. It has little concern for the private lives of its students. Such at least is the view of the university's function apparently represented by many present-day educators.

By some it is suggested that the character influences of education are not the official concern of the academy but the incidental experiences of college life. If this is true, then it is all the more important for the professor personally to set an example of good citizenship. How shall young citizens be assisted to community responsibility at home by the civic aloofness and irresponsibility which they observe at college? How shall they learn to respect and support religion as exemplified by the less advanced church of their own town when men whom they admire disdain the superior institution of religion in the college town?



But can the statement that the character influences of education are not the official concern of the academy be sustained?

There was no question of the place of religion in the early American college. It was assumed to be central. It was both motive and end. Until the foundation of the state universities, the Christian college was the only college. Services for the worship of God were held daily in the college chapel, and attendance was required of all students. There were courses of Bible study and often courses on the evidences of Christianity. In recent years one college after another has abandoned the conduct of daily prayers at which attendance was required, after an unbroken custom, in some instances, of many generations. Required chapel is still maintained in some colleges, and voluntary services of religion are held in almost all, except of course the state universities. During this period of change, I have heard of only one college or university that has made the change an occasion for a critical analysis of academic religion. There probably are others, but I have read no reports of faculty or corporation committees and no address or paper by any college president on the subject. In these recent years there have been many warm discussions in faculty meetings over the question of required chapel. Apparently, none of them has been sufficiently complete to warrant publication. I am convinced that in most institutions there has been no mature consideration, no thoroughgoing study, of the place of religion in education.

In the older education the uncriticized assumptions of the centrality of religion may often have been false, but the fruits were on the whole sound.  At my college, Beloit, when George Collie or Hiram Dinsmore, scientists, conducted chapel, one was confronted with a hard, vigorous, unsentimental but intensely sincere religion. Robert Coit Chapin and Theodore Lyman Wright, humanists, brought a religious experience far richer than that of typical evangelical piety. The sermons of President Dwight Eaton and the prayers of Puritan William Porter are gratefully remembered. Yet even so, religion was not fully integrated with the educational process as a whole. Its methods of expression were derived from already ancient custom. It did not conceive that there might be other and possibly more effective modes

No greater service has been done American education for many a long day than brilliant analysis of its maladies and their cure by the recent books and papers of President Hutchins of the University of Chicago. He exposes with devastating clarity the futilities of mere fact finding and the absurdities of an educational system of many members but no wholeness of body. He declares in the Yale Review of June, 1936, that the university "has departments running from art to zoology; but neither the students nor the professors know what is the relation of one departmental truth to another, or what the relation of departmental truths to those in the domain of another department may be." Dr. Hutchins finds in the discipline of metaphysics the principles of order necessary for a new unification of the now separated factors of the educational process. Theology he passes by as today lacking in the sustenance of revealed truth and an orthodox church. In two recent papers in The Christian Century, the editor has hailed the general insights of President Hutchins with vigorous approbation, taking equally vigorous exception, however, to his choice of philosophy rather than theology as the queen of sciences. But may I suggest that both philosophy and theology are intellectual or abstract categories, that behind them both are what might be called life categories, and that supreme among the life categories is religion.




At this point we come to the major issue: whether the education of the college youth of our nation had better be a matter of intellect only, the imparting of factual knowledge and the training of reason, or whether it can and should essay a broader task. regarding the whole area of personal and social adjustment as its proper field.

I am prepared to hold in high respect any university which might adopt the rigorous if narrow policy of the first alternative. Such a plan would of course exclude religion from the academic economy entirely, except as a subject of study like any other. It would, however, exclude also all vocational training and, indeed, much scientific research. The logic of this choice President Hutchins seems willing to accept. He would place both research and professional training in separate institutions. He does not say that he would close the doors of the university chapel, but I take his position to imply that. In his paper in Harper's Magazine, November, 1936, he clearly affirms the intellectual to be the sole concern of education. "If education is rightly understood it will be understood as the cultivation of the intellect. The cultivation of the intellect is the same good for all men in all societies. It is, moreover, the good for which all other goods are only means. Material prosperity, peace and civic order, justice and the moral virtues are means to the cultivation of the intellect. An education which served means rather than ends would be misguided."

The concrete historic system of education which seems to inspire Mr. Hutchins' pattern of education is the medieval university. But there are profound differences between that historic actuality and his ideal project, and the chief of them is his narrow emphasis upon the intellectual. In an Atlantic paper, November, 1936, he alludes to a previous article by Professor Whitehead of Harvard University: "Mr. Whitehead underlines the unity of knowledge and the subsequent unity which should be aimed at in education. He says that science, philosophy, and religion express three factors belonging to the perfection of human nature; they can be studied apart, but must be lived together. The great triumph of the medieval university was precisely here: the major disciplines were studied to a certain extent together. The three factors were studied together because they must be lived together.  Of course they must be lived together; and, I believe, the student must live them together in college as well as afterward. Can Mr. Hutchins hope for something comparable to the medieval intellectual synthesis without the vital religious synthesis which belonged to the medieval university?  It is this consideration which prompts my suggestion that education to be integrating must be organized under the aegis of religion

Such an organization of education might work. It has not, at least in modern times, been tried; for there is no very deep integration of the purposes and meanings of academic departments to be accomplished by the present chapel services at Harvard or the university church in Yale, or the single Sunday service in Chicago, accompanied though they may be by certain affiliated student activities.

Although it is a most imperfect statement of the idea, may I quote a paragraph from a book of my own published ten years ago:


Some large American universities have recently abandoned required attendance on religious services. I believe they would not have done so if we were not all confirmed in the notion of religion as strictly personal. If the faculty of a great university had an imaginative concept of religion as a comprehending and societal category, the logic of that concept would develop an academic service of worship as the central feature of university life. If we begin by assuming that relion is a purely personal concern, supplemented by the assumption that it is also specific and historic, then we eliminate all those who cannot claim it for themselves personally or who cannot agree to its specific form. If, on the other hand, we assume that religion is the attempt of an entire societal body to achieve the highest self-consciousness and relational character of which it is capable, then by very definition that religion must include all members of that particular society. At any rate I should like to see some great university make the attempt to express whole in the highest corporate manner, with the definite consciousness that expression may be and is religion. (Modern Worship.)


This statement assumes that religion is the comprehending category.  As applied to any specific historic religion, Christianity or Buddhism, or any other, it means to note that such religion is actually comprised of intellectual and moral and aesthetic factors woven together into one ordered wholeness of experience. As applied to a person or a society of persons who have no specific religion whatever, it means that whenever they set aside an occasion to review all the facts and forces of their existence in their total relations, not simply as an intellectual exercise but in order to determine their mutual obligations and their several or common purposes and in the light of such survey and determination find the highest kinds of satisfaction, then their action is not political or scientific, artistic or domestic, philosophical or practical; it is religious

It is this kind of action I have in mind when I suggest the experiment of education under the presidency of religion. The college religion would not begin upon the basis of religious beliefs but of religious actions—the actions of survey and commitment and celebration.  The very effort of the academic community as a whole to select and adapt its aims and purposes in the light of a review of all disciplines in their total relations would of itself be a religious action, and should be so regarded. Specific church religion inherits definite traditions not easily corrected by generic tests. Nevertheless, there are some parish churches where new thinking about the general philosophy of religion has greatly modified the traditions. Academic religion may begin more or less afresh and attempt formularies of order and of action at once religious and free. Where such an experiment is not feasible, a more vigorous generic philosophy of religion might greatly improve the existing religious expression. Methods and modes must wait the purpose and the opportunity, but the groundwork should be the constant effort of the best minds concerned.




The advantages of such a religious usage in a college might be many. It might solve the dilemma of initiation and fulfillment. The academy need not undertake the full ends in the possible beginnings, and yet may initiate something reformatory at once. It might solve the dilemma of the changing and the changeless, by affording an abiding structure into which to pour the perpetual flux of changing ideas and ideals. It might solve the dilemma of mental and moral education, by affording a regular method of emphasis upon the whole man. It might solve the dilemma of fact and opinion, by giving a proper place to both. It might solve the dilemma of present and future by assuming an unbroken continuity of responsibility for citizenship. It might solve the dilemma of order and freedom in academic departments, by constituting them an amalgam in which all elements are subordinated to the requirements of the common whole. It might solve the dilemma of specific and generic religion. The academy need not accept the content of any specific church religion whatsoever, yet it would be specifically religious.

This program might also solve the dilemma of isolation and cohesion. The academy would be no less independent of the church, yet the cause of the church, which is religion, would not be abandoned by the academy. This is a point of sore peril in America today. The leaders of education all assert their concern for the unities of American culture. But surely there is no educated man who does not know that culture comes from religion. Is it conceivable that we must be content with the expectation that the cultured are all to be outside the universities; that the academy will be cultivated but not cultured, and the church cultured but not cultivated?

No one wishes the academy to become a church, or to attempt the functions of the church, any more than that the church should become a college. Yet their provinces overlap and interlock in ways that cannot be avoided—logical and psychological, societal and individual. The Reality which the church worships and the academy seeks to understand is the same Reality. In so far as it can be worshiped or understood at all, it must be understood and worshiped by both the church and the academy. Failing some such solution, we shall have no American culture for many generations. Developing such a harmony of aims and experience, church and academy may together master our disorders and lead us into the most brilliant age humanity has seen.