Vanity, variety, vision: Protestant universities and the American experience

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How has Protestant higher education influenced America? The question might call forth some grand claims, but it also immediately signals a major difficulty. Protestantism is not one entity but many. Can any description of Protestantism and its universities encompass the whole? Our approach will be first to divide and then, not to conquer, but to provide points of reference for a conversation that includes both Protestants and Catholics involved in higher education. The title provides a road map for this essay. The first section discusses “vanity,” a serious temptation that has bedeviled Protestant higher education from the beginning, and we link vanity to the misguided desire for monolithic Protestant influence. The “variety” portion of the essay underscores the historically pluralistic character of Protestantism and its schools of higher learning. Finally, the “vision” section articulates a “pluralithic” (yes, that’s pluralithic not pluralistic) understanding of our calling as Christian—not just Protestant—scholars, teachers, and administrators. Pluralithic Christian higher education recognizes and honors our many particularities, but also confesses the unity for which we long as followers of Jesus. Before we begin, a word of self introduction is appropriate. Protestantism is never generic, and the two of us are Protestants of a distinct kind, or at least of a distinct mix. Between the two of us, we have one set of grandparents who were German Lutherans, but the other three sets were all Scandinavian Pietists who would have felt right at home with the puritanical and devout worshipers portrayed in the classic film Babette’ s Feast. Of course, America influenced them, and here they became much more revivalistic and dispensational than if they had stayed in the Old Country. Still, they were warm-hearted and sincere Christians, and in large part because of them we still remain, in many ways, evangelicals even if our church membership is now in the mainline.


Originally published as: Jacobsen, D., & Jacobsen, R. H. (2007). Vanity, variety, vision: Protestant universities and the American experience. The Cresset: A Review of Literature, the Arts, and Public Affairs 70(4), 5-13.