21 December, 2009

(5) (b) The Lock-Step Curriculum

The model that seems to make the most sense for re-launching confessional Lutheran liberal education in the higher forms is the lock-step curriculum model. Examples of this type of higher education are available in Thomas Aquinas College (Roman Catholic), New St. Andrew’s College (orthodox Reformed), and St. John’s College (non-sectarian). This model has so much to speak for it that it will be difficult to distill it to several concise points, but this is an attempt to do so.

Financing. A college on this model has a relatively low overhead. Because the curriculum is focused on “the Greats”—the great human achievements in literature, music, philosophy, theology, science, and mathematics—and because it depends for its whole approach on a direct encounter with the texts that are these great achievements, it does not need an extensive library, extravagant laboratory space (scientific lab work reproduces seminal experiments on the basis of primary texts, beginning with, e.g., Pythagorean sound-theory, lever theory and flotation theory (Archimedes), and working through Newton, Mendel, Curie, Einstein, etc.), offices of experiential learning and service learning, etc. Student life is student-driven, meaning that sport is intramural or on the club level, student productions such as plays are, from start to finish, student productions, etc. The college provides space for these things, such as [equipped or unequipped] sporting fields, a stage and other such spaces, but not the personnel and other outlay required. All faculty in this model are required to teach across the curriculum, which alleviates the burden of supplying a certain number of disciplinary experts to build an adequate discipline-specific curriculum.

Initial cost. The cost to launch such a program would be, by rough estimate, $5 to $10 million for a campus (+10% of cost of campus as a maintenance endowment), along with another $16 to $20 million in endowed funds that support, respectively, 8 to 12 initial faculty positions [the endowment draws down, say, a rolling-three-year average of 5% of principal for annual salary and benefits support of $800K to $1M = 8 to 12 faculty positions]. Costs to students are fee-, book-, and room-and-board-driven. That is, with buildings in place and paid for and faculty salaries and benefits paid from endowed funds, the only outstanding to costs to students are those for administrative fees, their textbooks, and their room and board.

Viability. In the long run, a college on this plan is more viable than many other models. Since its overhead is low, since it invests its early funding not in extras, but essentials, and in such a way that it guarantees the long-term survival of those essentials, its bottom line is not driven by student numbers. In other words, in theory the college could operate with one student per year, because all its essential functions would be provided for financially. Conversely, stresses brought about by uptrending student enrollment can be met by student contribution to room and board, etc., or, conversely, met by ceilings placed upon student enrollment with a maximum “sweet number” in view.

Intentionality. Of all the possible curricula, the lock-step curriculum places into the hands of educators and, as a result, students, the greatest degree of predictable gain from the education proferred, intensified by the inevitably on-going conversation prompted by a shared education: it is not just one group of 5 students who read the Meno, but an entire class cohort, simultaneously, and upper-classmen have already read it and integrated it into their further study. Nor is the professor working through Archimedes’ experiments with the students in that term ignorant of the Meno, affording a fertile cross-germination between apparently divergent disciplines. The question, e.g., What does scientific discovery have to do with philosophical outlook? remains a constant throughout the four years of a student’s education, its answer ever more complex and nuanced over time.

Centrality of theology. In a lock-step curriculum, theology, ever more profoundly grasped and ever more deeply brought into conversation with human culture as the student’s walk through the curriculum unfolds, is and remains central; not, however, in a way that makes theology do what it does not or cannot do. In other words, while it may have some things to say about history, for example (as in Augustine’s De civitate dei), it is not made into a mathematics or science book, even if it may have claims and ways of looking at things that differ from and challenge assumptions and conclusions in other disciplinary lines. In a Lutheran context, however, it is self-understood that all things are “captive to the Word,” even if and when the surprising, but tentative results of this may be a validation of what is prima facie antithetical to the Word.

Language study. In the lock-step curriculum language study is required across the four years, and, because, as above, professors teach across the curriculum, intentionally reinforced across the curriculum. Ideally, language study will include an ancient language and a modern language, or a language used in the modern era. Greek provides the obvious ancient language as that tongue that unites pagan antiquity and Christian antiquity in a direct way. Latin or German are the obvious candidates for the modern tongue: Latin because it unites Roman pagan antiquity, pastristic-era Christian antiquity, the whole of the Middle Ages and the Reformation and Renaissance down to well into the 18th century and beyond. German is another obvious candidate as one of the chief langagues of the Lutheran Reformation, one with its own body of good literature from the Middle Ages on, and the language of confessional Lutheranism in the States until the late 19th century across the board, with continuing influence and use well into the second half of the 20th century—not to mention the 20th-century and present-day German Lutheran theologians, such as Sasse, Elert, Bayer, and many others. Language study is, however, critical in the curriculum, providing a window into worlds far beyond the confines of a parochial 21st-century American culture broadcast popularly through the pervasive electronic media. More importantly, language study forms that central locus of liberal education, grammatica, the study of words and how they work and are put to best use. Of course, it also provides at a level unachievable apart from knowledge of the original language an encounter with primary texts of vital importance to the Church and Western culture. And yet, not all languages can be entertained, and more than two is inadvisable, given the constraints. But as C.S. Lewis reminds us that all Christian living is particular Christian living, that is, Christian life is instantiated for each individual in the here and now on the basis of his connections in life—his station in life, as Luther would say—, just as that’s the case, so also is it the case that a good education need not (perhaps dare not) embrace everything, just a few good things (on which see the entry on a Few Good Books).

Religious life. As in all models here proposed, the religious life, as constituted by the divine service where, through His Word and Sacraments, God creates and sustains the individual Christian and the whole Christian Church, is at the heart of campus life. Certainly once-daily Matins with a brief homily is utterly requisite, with a rich liturgical and hymnodic practice, as is the regular celebration of the complete Gottesdienst, the “Mass,” every Sunday and on major and minor feasts. In a well-formed community, regular pauses will also be taken throughout the day to observe the hours, using the psalms as the rich food of the daily office. Following monastic practice, which was maintained well into the Reformation and into the confessional age, the 150 psalms are read, within a month, sequentially in the office over the five daily hours (this volume provides a possible resource--certainly the only one available among Lutherans today). The additional “pay-off” of such a practice is the ability to see the world as Luther did, whose own monastic life steeped in the psalms afforded him his profound insights into the life of a Christian, its tensions, dualities, triumphs, and disappointments. The music curriculum will, of course, enhance the rich hymnodic and liturgical life of the campus.

16 December, 2009

The Fundamental Rhetoricity of Lutheran Theology, Rhetoric, and the Curriculum

The dimensions of the New Testament term πίστις (pístis), generally translated as “faith,” are many, and what I’m here proposing is not meant in any way to be exhaustive. In fact, I want to focus on just one aspect of the term: its basic rhetoricity. The term, is of course, like everything in the New Testament (with the exception of such Hebrew terms as “Sabbath,” etc.), a term borrowed from pagan antiquity. And its most well-known use in pagan antiquity was within the context of rhetoric, both explicit and implicit. That is, it appeared in both self-consciously rhetorical situations and in unself-consciously rhetorical situations. But what the term meant in pagan antique rhetorical contexts was “persuasion,” or “the position of being in a state of having been persauded,” “conviction.” [For those who go in for such things, linguistically speaking πίστις (pístis) is a zero-grade passive/perfect verbal noun derivative of the ε-grade verb πείθω (peítho) “to persuade.”] Its choice by the New Testament writers to express “faith,” belief, trust in God, gets at the idea that all of this is a “conviction that” certain propositions are true [e.g., John 20.31: “These things have been written in order that you may BELIEVE (πιστεύητε; pisteúete) that [proposition:] Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and in order that BELIEVING (πιστεύοντες; pisteúontes) you may have eternal life in His Name.”]

Nor is this a New Testament theologoumenon. The God of Scripture deals with Himself and His creation in a fundamentally rhetorical way. The eternal counsel of the Triune God is the eternally on-going conversation between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit [see, e.g., Psalm 110.1: “The LORD SAYS to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Psalm 2.7: “The LORD SAID to Me, ‘You are My Son; today I have begotten You.’”] The eternal counsel to save a lost and condemned creation is borne in words, as our hymn puts it:

“He SPOKE to His beloved Son, [Er SPRACH zu seinem lieben Sohn] / ‘’Tis time to have compassion. / Then go! Bright Jewel of My crown, / And bring to men salvation.’” [“Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice,” Martin Luther; LSB 556.5; ELH 378.5]

The intra-Trinitarian dialogue from eternity to eternity has as its goal the mutual conviction of the Persons of the blessed Trinity. God doesn’t talk to Himself for nothing.

Speaking of the term “nothing:” God even convinces what is not, or what is nothing, or, better yet, nothing at all, to be something as the first of His external acts: “And God SAID, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.’” [Gen. 1.3] “Nothing” obeys God and becomes “something,” in specific, “nothing” becomes light. What had no power of its own because it was nothing at all is called into existence and does something (shines) by the convincing utterance of God. This becomes a stubborn pattern in Scripture, and if you don’t get this, you don’t really get the first thing about theology: God always operates by His Word. God always creates FAITH by His Word because what that FAITH is is πίστις (pístis), conviction, “the position of being in a state of having been persuaded” that the proposition offered by God is true [again, see e.g. John 20.31]. When God wants to bring comfort to His people, He doesn’t give them a hug. He speaks. Isaiah 40.1: “‘Comfort, comfort My people!’ says your God.” Isaiah here is saying that God told him, Isaiah, to comfort the people. It goes on [Isaiah 40.1]. God is addressing Isaiah: “SPEAK tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, etc.” The whole comforting motion initiated by God is initiated by His WORD: it’s rhetorical! He tells Isaiah what to do. Isaiah is convinced. He has πίστις (pístis); or rather, the Word of God creates the πίστις (pístis) it demands. And Isaiah turns around and SPEAKS the Word that commanded him to SPEAK in order to arouse the same conviction in Jerusalem. The Word announcing the comfort is itself the comfort offered.

And so on it goes. Even in the Law-Gospel dialectic—or rather, especially in the Law-Gospel dialectic. When Paul says that “the Law works wrath,” [Rom. 4.15] he means that the WORDS, e.g., “Thou shalt not commit murder,” CONVICT me or PERSUADE me that I stand in transgression of the command. In other words, when it is told me that I have broken the Law by calling my brother a fool, I have no choice but to admit the charge, to be convinced, and convicted, of the accusation. [Sorry, brother, I have said raka to you]. Conversely, “where there is no Law, neither is there transgression,” [Rom 4.15b]. That is, where the Law does not ANNOUNCE its demands in WORDS it has no power to convict, to persuade me of my wrong-doing. However, where the Law does announce its demands it always has the power to convict because it always articulates in what way I have transgressed it. Ironically, the Law creates its own kind of πίστις (pístis), its own kind of standing in the position of having been persuaded. But it’s one that makes me hate the God who convicts me of my sin.

The Gospel is an altogether different WORD and creates an altogether different PERSUASION or CONVICTION. But it’s still completely within the rhetorical realm: “So then faith [πίστις; pístis] comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ.” [Romans 10.17] This Word is, like the Law, a proposition that wants to persuade me. The proposition is this: that in Christ the Law has been fulfilled on my behalf, that all condemnation is removed from me for the sake of Christ, that in Christ the eternal intentions of the Father toward me are clearly revealed and are nothing but unfettered gift. Faith, my being persuaded of this proposition, of this “word of Christ,” works its own reciprocal utterance, that of “calling upon the name of the Lord,” a calling upon God that is coterminous with my being saved [Romans 10.13]. And even in the fellowship of those who are being saved, rhetoric is constitutive: “Speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” [Eph. 5.19]. Paul could have easily put the case differently: convince one another by using the Word of God. “Preach the Word” [2 Tim. 4.2]. This is to look at the front end of a two-step process, the end being the arousal of faith, because in Scripture and its world, all words have one purpose only: to create conviction, persuasion, πίστις (pístis), faith.

What grew out of this observation in the Reformation-Era reform of higher education was a primacy placed upon rhetoric. Rhetoric scholars tell me that it would be wrong to say that during the Middle Ages rhetoric as a discipline had disappeared. But it had grown sallow and limp: in the universities it did not have pride of place in the faculty of the arts like it came to have in the reformational reform of the university curriculum. In the early reforms of the University of Wittenberg—already before 1530—the cold, sterile dialectic of scholasticism was replaced, and later crowned, by the teaching of rhetoric. Disputations were, at least initially, suspended and replaced by orations. The models taken for this were classical and biblical models. In the realization of the fundamentally rhetorical nature of biblical discourse, rhetoric or, personified, Rhetorica, became the handmaiden of theology.

Today Mme Rhetorica goes largely naked and unadorned in confessional Lutheran higher education, her only bit of clothing a skimpy course in public speaking, maybe or maybe not required, and often threadbare in its less than intellectually rigorous content. But if she, with the rest of her Muses, can be reborn, she will hold pride of place, permeating the curriculum, exercised at every turn, clothed in a gown woven together from all the strands of the curriculum. Because if we live in a world called into creation from a nothingness persuaded by God’s Word to be, and to be something; and if we understand ourselves as we are, as creatures whose being consists fundamentally of being addressed by God, that is, under the conviction of the Law, and persuaded that in Christ we have a gracious God, it stands to reason that the rhetorical word, the word that creates persuasion, is an intellectual glue that makes all things cohere.

13 December, 2009

(4) The University of Christendom Model

In this model, the "orthodox" of each denomination or confession would work together to establish a university on the Oxford model, wherein the university would be comprised of colleges run by the adherents of the several confessions.

In this particular model, those services and physical locations that can and should be shared--green and leisure space, libraries, dormitories, refectories, work-study, etc.--are. In other words, it does not become the burden of any one denominational college to build and maintain a library, 50 acres of sporting fields, or a student union, or to operate a student work-study program or financial aid office. The cost for those elements is shared. College and university consultants say that there's a minimum enrollment under which a college on the standard model (the departmental model) risks financial failure. The number typically given, except in cases of massive endowments, is 1,200 students. The larger potential student body size of the "university of Christendom" model can help ensure the flourishing of each college by allaying some of the financial pressures against success through sharing the cost of facilities. A shared refectory, library, and dormitory space (consider the cost of building several refectories, substantial libraries, and dormitories for under 500 students apiece), not to mention green and leisure space, removes the full onus from the back of any one group.

Does this require confessional compromise? No. The charter of such an institution would be drafted in such a way as to allow each denominational group to flourish in a pattern that accords with its own confession. In essence, the "university of Christendom" model can be thought of as an "academic town." Just as a Lutheran college today uses services provided by the town in which it's located--water, for example, trash removal, even the interlibrary loan services of the local public library--so in this model would each college use the academic town, as it were, of the "university of Christendom." The only difference is that a "university of Christendom" would provide services more germane to the residential and academic nature of the "town": room and board facilities, library facilities, student union, green space, certain student services, etc. Each college would be responsible for its own requirements for graduation and maintaining its own chapel and whatever else it deemed conducive to fostering its particular confession.

What the model requires is the coming together of several groups within "orthodox" Christianity to find land and build buildings. Upfront challenges include discovering such groups and garnering their interest in the project; success in meeting these challenges, however, promises a substantial reward, which is the implementation of denominationally orthodox higher education that might not be or is not otherwise available. Furthermore, macro academic departments can be created across the university so that a philosophy department will not be comprised only of the, say, 2 Lutheran philosophers on the campus, but of all the philosophers on the campus, potentially affording students a richer educational experience.

Weaknesses in this model include: the potential for the erosion of confessional standards; tension in values over certain shared responsibilities; the proportionately larger initial start-up cost (although this would be shared); agreement, with other denominational groups, on the geographic location of such an endeavor (Lutherans and the Reformed are predominant in the Upper Midwest; but what of other groups whose population centers are to the West, East, or South?); the difficulties--and threat to institutional integrity--that could naturally be experienced if certain financial burdens are disproportionately borne by one group or another.

Add to That

I have to add to the list of ways getting confessional Lutheran liberal higher education off the ground the long-standing idea of my friend and former pastor, Pr. David Kind:

(6) The House of Lutheran Studies

More on which anon.

Practical Models

In some of the following posts, I plan to outline the various practical models for implementing confessional Lutheran liberal higher education in North America in the 21st century. Along with those outlines, I hope to consider the pitfalls and promises of each. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

(1) Reform of one or several existing institutions
(2) Establishment, within or connected to one or several of the existing institutions, of a separate unit, department, or school
(3) The St. Catharine's/Brock University model
(4) Establishment, with other groups of other denominationally orthodox Christians, of a university comprised of colleges sponsored and run each according to its own confession
(5) Establishment of a self-standing, independent institution that adopts either:
(a) a classical American liberal arts college curriculum (departmental structure with distributive core) or
(b) a lock-step curriculum

For each, I plan to consider feasibility in financing, personnel, curriculum, facilities, and other such things. Stay posted.

Other good ideas are always welcomed, and better and best ideas encouraged!

10 December, 2009

Sine quibus non

What for lack of a better term I'll call "meta-books" generally fail in my estimation to do justice to their subject. A meta-book is a book about books, just like "meta-history" is a history about doing history. But they do have their place. For anyone interested--not in assuming lock, stock, and barrel what they say, but--in imagining and thinking about liberal education from a confessional Lutheran perspective in modern North America, there are a couple of libri sine quibus non (books without which not). Not all of these are particularly Lutheran, but they make some arguments that we Lutherans either can espouse or that can cause us to think more purposefully about the education we wish to deliver in our institutions of higher education and its philosophical commitments and underpinnings.

I give them, for the record, here:

Augustine, De beata vita (On the Blessed Life).

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

Werner Jaeger, Early Christianity and Greek Paideia.

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.

Philipp Melanchthon, A Melanchthon Reader. trans. Ralph Keen.

• Philipp Melanchthon, Orations on Philosophy on Philosophy and Education. trans. Christine Salazar. ed. Sachiko Kusukawa.

John Henry Newman, Idea of a University.

Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture.

Plato, Symposium.

"Lutheran Civilization" and a Few Good Books

Some years ago I was teaching in Sewanee at The University of the South. That was during the depradations of what I’ll call the Spellings régime in the U.S. Department of Education. It seemed like every day there was more and more bad news spilling out of the agency. And the agency had the colleges by the you-know-whats. Federal money had long since become the unsalubrious life-blood of colleges and universities; and receiving it meant pleasing accreditation agencies. The news from the top, from Republicans suspicious that undergrads were being hopelessly brainwashed by useless liberal professors with nothing better to do than use their lecterns as bully-pulpits for Marxism and feminism and postmodernism, was that colleges and universities must now measure student outcomes. In other words, if a student set out to learn history, the colleges and universities needed to measure what the student had gained from his or her years of education. (Little did the Spellings régime realize how completely and dehumanizingly it had drunk down the Marxist-materialist thesis; see below).

Now, this isn’t a plug for useless education. So hold your horses. This is a critique of using fiat and mandate tied to financing to force quantifiable, socially and economically “productive” outcomes. In fact, it's a critique of quantifiable socially and economically productive outcomes. If you’ve caught the liberal arts bug yet, you’ll know where this is going.

Liberal education has never thought of itself in terms of social and economic “outcomes,” whatever those may be. It operates with a completely different framework. It says something like “you are what you read.” And so it reads. And it reads what has emerged over the years to typify, challenge, change, re-trench, reinvigorate, repristinate, etc., that which, in the most traditional of ways, is good, beautiful, and just. Notice you don’t see “quantifiably economically and socially productive” as one of the criteria.

To put it differently: we read Homer not to become better social workers or engineers, but to become better humans, or rather, to understand our own humanity (and if we do that, we'll probably become better social workers and engineers, but that's for another time). Why? Because Christian liberal education begins with the premise that the human being, who stands as the crown at the center of all the Triune God's erstwhile and ongoing creative activity, whom, as a race, God Himself in human flesh redeemed through the spilling of His blood, whom, socially broken, God Himself reintegrates into the communion with Himself and of His people through the rich and daily forgiveness of sins in the one, holy, sanctified Church—that that creature in its essence cannot, dare not, without great affront to God Himself, be boiled down to a cog or consumer unit in a world that, at the end of the day, is deprived of spirit and soul and remains nothing but material, the atoms exchanged in the ongoing ebb and flow of primal energy.

Talk about two fundamentally, radically different visions of humanity. In the one, mankind is no better than a squirrel, except that he can be trained better and more intentionally—a mere accident of an impersonal Big Bang with the added bonum of an instinct that can be tamed; in the other, mankind from Adam to the last person is endowed with body and soul and spirit and loved and given to unceasingly, in body, soul, and spirit, by a God who is a Personal Being whose very essence it is to love and give, first within in His Being, from Father to Son, and back, etc., but so infinitely that it spills forth toward created beings which, from their creation to their redemption to their sanctification are nothing if not given to by God.

But back to the Spellings regime: what Margaret et al. formulated was the (perhaps unwitting?) death-knell of liberal education: a policy that forced colleges and universities—even Christian ones, even Lutheran ones!—to buy into the basic premise that humans are but cogs and consumer units. That was step one. Step two was to get rid of anyone she didn’t get a harumph out of.

That's when she, as the Chronicle of Higher Education put it, "barred the American Academy for Liberal Education [AALE] from accrediting new institutions or programs for at least a half year." Because they read books. And because they operated with a premise about being human that differed from the truncated Spellings vision. I'm glad to say the AALE seems to be doing better these days, even if it, and liberal education, are not yet out of the woods.

All of that by way of saying that in those days I was down in my cups (albeit, when figure of speech reprised reality, I opted for the Lutheran malt-and-hops version of "wherever two or three [Episcopalians] are gathered, there's a fifth"). It was at those times, that my colleague and good friend Chris McDonough would remind me, not without a bit of nationalist pride, that Irish monks once took to the hills with nothing more than the few books they could gather in their arms--this, of Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization lore.

It was just a few good books. I am reminded by this of so much of what we know about Lutheran history, but that rarely gets isolated like I'm going to do now. One thematic strand woven into the history and fabric of Lutheranism is that it is, finally, about a few good books, and all of them about One Good Book, aka The Good Book. It's about reading. It's about reading closely, and well, and taking seriously the claims books make on you. In the world of Scripture, words aren't just words, they're powerful things. They do what they say. God's words do what they say, and the correlate of this, one often overlooked, is that other words do what they say, too. You are what you read. In other words, if you're going to be a learned, eloquent, thoughtful Lutheran, you have to read like a learned, eloquent, thoughtful Lutheran.

That's why Lutherans care about books. The story of confessional Lutheranism in North America is the story of words and books. Words mattered. And words matter. You can't re-write the Augsburg Confession with Samuel Schmucker and remain Lutheran. The confessional Lutheran laity arrived in this country poor and destitute. But they had their books: their hymnbooks, their Small Catechisms, and their Bibles. Because words mattered, so did books.

But not all of them. Knowing a few good books well is worth a great deal more to being a learned, eloquent, thoughtful Lutheran than knowing many books.

Perhaps this serves as a principle in Lutheran higher education, then: books matter. Good books matter. Knowing how to read, and read well and intensively, matters. And if this serves as a principle of Lutheran higher education, then it stands that at the center of Lutheran higher education is the reading of good books. Lutheran higher education not only can, but even must, concentrate on this center.

This alleviates so much of the burden of institutional culture that has developed, in line with the materialist premise betrayed by the Spellings régime, in modern Lutheran higher education. It means that a good, confessional Lutheran education will focus not on the scholasticism of modernity (just as the reformed University of Wittenberg rejected the scholastic apparatus for a bracing encounter with primary texts). It means that a good, confessional Lutheran education won't replace reading good books with doing good deeds (read: service programs and the like). It means that a good, confessional Lutheran education can--even must--be constituted by the reading of good books.

This has curricular, and therefore institutional, repercussions. It means that the curriculum of the confessional Lutheran college can, may, must be devoted to the reading of a "few good books," to the classics of the West, the repository of what is, traditionally, good, beautiful, and just. It means that an institution can, may, must concentrate all its resources on just that.

And with that comes freedom. Such an education does not require massive, expensive facilities, but small, well-appointed seminar rooms; it does not require competing with business for its best minds, but dedicated, educated, eloquent, thoughtful Lutheran educators who think a few good books are important enough to forego a handsome salary (which does not mean they shouldn't be well paid, just not exorbitantly); it does not require amassing a student body of consumers for whom one college is better than another on the basis of its amenities, just students who wish to become learned, eloquent, and thoughtful Lutherans.

A venture like this promises to be small. But that's fine. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. And a few good books in the arms of fleeing Irish monks [read: learned, eloquent, thoughtful confessional Lutherans] are enough to preserve the modest thing we might call "Lutheran civilization," a civilization that, in its cultivated sense, is one of few good books, and of The Book.

24 November, 2009

The Good Doctor on Being a Good Doctor

Quae faciant theologum: 1. gratia Spiritus; 2. tentatio; 3. experientia; 4. occasio; 5. sedula lectio; 6. bonarum artium cognitio. [WA TR 3.312.11–13, no. 3425]

Most learned Lutherans raised on Lutheran lore are eminently familiar with a different set of Martin Luther's requirements for being a theologian: oratio, meditatio, tentatio faciunt theologum (= prayer, meditation, and temptation make the theologian).

But Luther was fond of lists, and frequently developed parallel lists for the same topic. In his writings you'll find there are 2--no, 3--take that back, 7! marks of the church. Likewise, the fuller list of the "things that make the theologian" can be expanded to six items: 1. the grace of the Spirit; 2. temptation; 3. experience [just as no one can understand Vergil's Georgics, according to some of Luther's last words, without having been a farmer for five years; and just as no one can think about ethics, according to Aristotle (Eth. Nic. 1.4), without having been raised and become practiced in virtuous habits; so also the real theologian can't really understand this or that Word of God and its claims on him apart from a life lived under the horrifying Law and the sweetness of the Gospel]; 4. the occasion; 5. unstinting reading; 6. knowledge of the "good arts."

It falls to Lutheran higher education, with its purpose through intellective means to produce theologically learned and eloquent laity and clergy, to provide 5. and 6. Do we seek a rationale, a historical grounding, in the Wittenberg Reformation for present-day endeavors in Lutheran higher education? Here it is, in nuce: bonarum artium cognitio, knowledge of the "good arts" (one of a number of monikers in the Good Doctor's contemps for "the liberal arts," including: bonae litterae, litterae humaniores, artes liberales) gained through a sedula lectio, an unstinting reading. In other words: immersion in the liberal arts. Anything else is a mere distraction.

This is hardly an antiquated idea. To be sure, it is antique, and hails from antiquity. But in a time much like our own, when things were changing more quickly than you could bat an eye (printing press ~ internet; space exploration ~ discovery of the New World; engagement with "the Turk" ~ engagement with the modern Islamic world; social upheaval ~ well, social upheaval), it was precisely to the ages-old disciplines of the liberal arts that the Reformers turned to anchor their intellectual world. Because, as they well knew, nihil sub sole novum: there is, in fact, nothing new under the sun. Human nature hadn't changed; the way humans communicate hadn't really changed--they still used language, even if in print rather than solely in manuscripts, and certainly still in speech. And the way God addressed Himself to His creation hadn't changed: verbum Dei manet in aeternum, "the Word of God remains forever," acting toward His creation in the deeply "incarnational" way it has always acted--coming in human form, language, rhetoric, thought-patterns, etc., to address an audience that used the same to communicate.

The liberal arts were indispensable to the Reformation because, well, the Word is indispensable to the Reformation, and the Word cannot be understood externally, cannot be really grasped, without the external tools needed to understand it.

That's the Good Doctor on being a good doctor.

Just in Case You Missed It

The Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology issue for Reformation 2008 (17.4) was devoted to the question "What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?" lutheranly-put: "What hath Athens to do with Wittenberg?" The guest editor was C.P.E. Springer (initials intended by his parents, so he tells me, to evoke that other C[arl] P[hilipp] E[mmanuel], the son of J[ohann] S[ebastian], themselves products of exactly the kind of schooling Renascentes Musae is devoted to). Under Springer's guest editorship, the volume brought to voice, as from the cave of the Sibyl, the rumblings and groanings for a higher education that in form and substance advances and supports the theology of the Wittenberg Reformation that have long been underground in confessional Lutheranism (Aeneid 6.42–44). If nothing else, the volume expresses, loud and clear, the longing among confessional Lutherans today for an education worthy of the Reformation of which we are heirs. Contributors include the above-named guest editor with an introduction, "Wittenberg and Athens" as well as an appreciation of Luther's appreciation of the fabulist Aesop; the Renascentes Musae blogger on the shape of the university reforms at Wittenberg in the first years; Kevin L. Gingrich on what Erasmus' 1516 Novum Instrumentum Omne hath now wrought in the study of the New Testament; Anders Kraal, James A. Kellerman, and Mark D. Nispel, in separate papers, addressing the misunderstanding held by many who paint Luther's theology and Lutheran theology in general as fideistic; and Martin R. Noland on "The Lutheran Mind and Its University," which should form the starting point for any further thinking about what the 21st-century re-birth of the Muses re-born in the Wittenberg Reformation should like--institutionally, intellectually, spiritually, and in its curriculum.

So, just in case you missed it: the good people at Logia assure me that they are happy, for a modest price, to send you the totum of which this brief advertisement is but a pars [click here].

22 November, 2009

How you say 'dat?

Renascentes Musae (reh-nah-SKEN-tays MOO-sigh).

That's right. Reh-nah-SKEN-tays MOO-sigh. We use phrases like ad fontes!--back to the sources--but to the Wittenberg Reformers, the analogue to the Reformation of the church was the REBIRTH of the Muses, literally, "the Muses in the process of being re-born, or renascentes Musae." In Wittenberg, the Renaissance was concomitant and not parallel to, but inextricably bound up with, the Reformation of the Church. The religious Reformation, that is, the call to repentance and faith in the One Lord, Jesus Christ, the Redeemer from sin, death, and the devil, was, from beginning to end, a university movement. It began in the lecture halls (or the Schloßkirche door) of Wittenberg; and it came to its consummation there, more or less, at Bergen Abbey. Called Kloster Berge in German, in the 1570s it was an institution dedicated to learning; and it was here that the formulators of the Formula of Concord hammered out their great, learned consensus that this is what Scripture teaches and what we must believe and confess. The intellectual toolbox of the consensus at Kloster Berge was an intense reckoning with the Western theological tradition, a keen use of the tools of dialectic, and a deep, intense knowledge of the languages of Scripture and the West.

21 November, 2009

Worth Reading

Benne, Robert. Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001. xii + 217 pp. ISBN 0-8028-4704-8 (pbk.). $19.00.

Robert Benne's Quality with Soul is a book that must be read not only by Lutheran college faculties and administrators, but also by governing boards and synodical officials involved, however tangentially, in the maintenance and advancement of their institutions of higher learning—the Concordias, Bethany Lutheran College, Martin Luther College, and Wisconsin Lutheran College. Benne joins a host of recent authors on the problem of the secular drift of once church-related institutions of higher education in the United States. Quality with Soul, however, attempts to break with the jeremiad tradition of its predecessors, notably George Marsden's, James Burtchaell's and Mark Noll's books, and to offer a glimpse at six colleges of or associated with the church that have to varying degrees continued to realise their spiritual mission: the Baptist Baylor University; the Reformed Calvin College; the evangelical Wheaton College; the Roman Catholic University of Notre Dame; and the two Lutheran schools, St. Olaf College and Valparaiso University. Benne's more optimistic approach is also more sociological and cultural-anthropological than merely historical (as those of his predecessors). With this book, he hopes to create a roadmap of sorts for colleges teetering on the balance between their sponsoring religious traditions and the onslaught of secularisation that will allow them respectably to foster their religious commitments.

Gloom and doom cannot, however, go missing from the picture, and Benne devotes the first forty-seven pages of his book to an assessment of the present situation, boiling the problem down to a loss of resolve in three main areas: persons, ethos, and vision. By persons, Benne means the faculty, administration, staff, governing board, and student body of a college or university; by ethos, he means the "feel" of the campus; and by vision, he means the intellectually articulated purpose of the school in public materials and the classroom. In each of these areas, schools with religious commitments have experienced a drop—in many cases a precipitous plunge—in the impact of the sponsoring religious tradition. Benne traces this drop/plunge to a number of factors both internal and external. Externally, perceived market forces have drawn schools toward an American blandness that seeks to instantiate what amounts to the state-university multi-versity model (to borrow a term from Russell Kirk). Benne's words, because fitting for a number of the Lutheran schools mentioned above, are worth citing here:

[The schools] had to get students in order to survive. One response to such a severe challenge was simply to cast about for educational programs that students wanted. A fairly common result of this search was to move into professional and pre-professional training, especially business, but also engineering, nursing, social work, law, and communications....Each of these endeavors, however, moves schools away from a liberal arts focus and thereby diminishes cohesion as academic communities. In these conditions, a living tradition of education—especially one religiously based—becomes difficult to maintain, particularly when each of these professional endeavors brings to the school a fairly autonomous and secular understanding of its particular field....It becomes increasingly unlikely that colleges will advertise themselves as seriously religious if they are trying to attract students to these sorts of programs. This reluctance further dilutes religious identity and mission. (22–23)

Another external factor Benne identifies is the enlightenment paradigm of increasing specialisation and disciplinary attention to questions internal to the discipline and not of broader intellectual interest. This paradigm is today formative in the education of college and university teachers in the graduate schools, and continues throughout an academic career to tug at the minds of teachers through professional organisations.

The internal factors Benne identifies are the incapacity adequately to articulate a theological identity and mission for the institution and weakening ties, often financial, between the big business of an institution of higher education and the sponsoring church body. The latter is self-understood. The former, however, is relevant to the modern Lutheran school. Benne observes three phenomena, all of which, I would argue, are visible in scads in modern Lutheran schools. The first is a cultural accommodation. This, of course, is an experience that our own parishes are not impervious to, and it includes a lack of willingness to practice Lutheranism as Lutherans practice it, on the premise that we have not what we have not also received. In other words, the rich liturgical tradition of Lutheranism gives way to a bland evangelical style of worship; the chorale tradition with its rich doctrinal gravitas is replaced by feel-good, pick-me-up ditties; the liturgical, clerical dress of historic Lutheranism is replaced by the business propriety of the two-piece suit; in the interests of inclusiveness, what is offensive in Lutheranism to the dominant evangelical thrust among "conservative Christians" is down played in chapel homilies.

The second internal factor Benne labels as pietism, by which he means a non-intellectual view of Christianity that replaces serious theological investigation, teaching, and exploration in the classroom with a busy sort of Christianity that does without knowing why (service programs, etc.). This, too, is a major threat to the modern Lutheran school. In many cases, the theology departments remain the only place a student might—and I emphasise might—encounter a real, lively tussle with the orthodox Lutheran tradition. One teacher I know from a Lutheran school told me once that her Christianity was on display all the time for students: it wasn't uncommon for her to start class with something like, "Gosh, what a beautiful day. Isn't God wonderful?" Beautiful-day theology, however, as appropriate as it may be to Grandma Schmidt's kitchen, has no place—as both intellectually and theologically vapid—in an institution of higher education whose theological goals are intellectually carried out in a real, intellectual engagement of the theological tradition with the academic enterprise.

The final internal factor Benne identifies is an inadequate theological response to increasing secularisation, observing that Tillich and Bultmann were the ringers of choice in meeting the increasingly secularised academy halfway. This, one hopes, has not been an issue in the Lutheran schools of the old Synodical Conference.

Illuminating is a chart on page 49 in which Benne gives a typology of four different kinds of once-religious schools: Orthodox, Critical Mass, Intentionally Pluralist, and Accidentally Pluralist. Most LCMS, WELS, and ELS schools fall into the "Orthodox" category as Benne defines it.

The second, and longest, section of Quality with Soul is devoted to an exploration of the history, ethos, vision, and demographic realities of the six colleges he views as having a healthy tie to their theological traditions; for each, Benne tells a story very different from the pessimistic narrative of Burtchaell and Marsden. One is not always convinced, though, that the optimism is warranted or that he has gotten his facts right. In the case of St. Olaf College, for example, Benne draws attention to one outstanding example of a decisive hire—Robert Jenson, back in 1988—to claim a discernible pattern of intentional hiring of Lutherans, something that could not be further from the truth. In fact, St. Olaf now, eight years after Benne's Quality with Soul appeared, is in a more tenuous position overagainst Lutheranism than it was in 2001. The optimism is not warranted because the facts do not support the case.

In the third and final section of Quality with Soul, Benne offers several helpful steps that colleges might take to reinforce their positions within their sponsoring religious traditions, including hiring policies, strengthening of the religious ethos of the school, and ways to improve the intellectual articulation of the theological vision in departments of theology. His baby-steps cum political grease approach to this is probably the right one, given the often virulent and hostile secularist element on many one-time religious campuses. And if the demographics are right, it is going to be the schools that retrench within their traditions that will find themselves healthy and vibrant several decades from now.

A modern confessional Lutheran's reading of Benne will be only monitory. In other words, it is not in most cases the case that the schools of the old Synodical Conference run the risk of secularisation, although certainly in pockets some degree of secularisation may be apparent (within certain departments, for example). Benne does, however, point out several ways in which the religious perspective of our institutions could be fostered, and I've attempted to draw many of the conclusions for a specifically Lutheran setting above.

I would, however, like to offer another set of comments, one that I hope will be taken very seriously. Quality with Soul begins with the premise that once religiously affiliated schools fall into one of three main typologies: (a) high-quality, highly secularized; (b) high-quality, religiously connected; and (c) low-quality, religiously connected. It is the latter category that should worry confessional Lutherans the most. As a matter of fact, there is no confessional Lutheran college with a national ranking by any nationally-recognised instrument. These rankings measure prestige, something that is based ultimately upon the quality of faculties, facilities, curriculum, and student body, and on the size of endowments and budget. In other words, the rankings, as problematic as they are, do reflect to a remarkable degree the quality and quantity of institutional assets that go into making a high-quality education. Confessional Lutheran colleges just don't have what it takes—but this dearth is rooted in and supported by decisions taken over the lifetime of institutions and now on a daily basis. And the problem is not just one of embarrassment at the intellectual non-representation of Lutheranism on the national scene, it is one that has to do with the welfare of our church bodies, our congregations, and individual Lutheran students and families faced on an annual basis with the unenviable choice of high-quality education at the cost of a secular environment, or religiously-informed education at the cost of quality.

What can be done to redress this situation?

First, Lutheran schools must drop the survival-at-all-costs mentality that has governed their decisions for decades. The diffusion of an institution's educational mission is linked to a dissolution of the theological mission, a scattering rather than a concentration of already precious resources, and a drop in the quality of the education delivered. These decisions are taken to bolster the operating budget for a season, but in the long run prove detrimental to the intellectual and spiritual well being of the college.

Second, Lutheran schools must undertake every effort to recruit and keep the highest quality faculty. This particular tack is often presented as an either/or proposition—either high quality faculty or faculty committed to the religious program of a school—but such a perspective is both defeatist and misinformed. In fact, accomplished confessional Lutheran academicians in virtually all disciplines are to be found throughout the country. But they must be attracted to a confessional institution by: (a) advertisements for teaching positions in expected venues (professional rather than synodical publications, the latter which are not taken seriously) that express the institution's seriousness about its academic enterprise; (b) "reasonable" teaching loads that will allow them to continue to research and publish; and (c) salaries that are competitive.

Third, resources must be concentrated. This is a particularly acute problem in the Concordia system, wherein financial, personnel, and physical resources are scattered across the country where none of them can do alone what they could if drawn together. Thus, instead of having ten barely-viable philosophy departments in ten schools, why not create one large, vibrant philosophy department in one school with the very best faculty, adequate library resources, and funding that can support vigorous research agendas, all the while turning out well educated philosophy majors? For the WELS and ELS schools, the problem is different. These institutions need to present a compelling vision to wealthy constituents and highly-qualified academicians not presently employed by them.

Fourth, student bodies capable of the highest order academic work must be admitted. This may mean that certain nice young men and women of the sponsoring church body will not be admitted due to lack of adequate academic preparation. It will also mean, however, that the many highly qualified students who today find no good reason to attend a confessional college will begin self-selecting and presenting themselves for admission, rather than applying to Bates or the University of Michigan.

Fifth, governing boards must provide support for all of the above, both moral and financial, realising that the achievement of a good thing is never easy; and they must make a long-term commitment to the improvement of the institution with whose welfare they are charged.

Of course, all of the above is understood as taking place within a community of learning that is vibrantly orthodox and confessional, and that demands of its faculty and administrators a living appropriation of the Lutheran intellectual and spiritual tradition through serious study of Scripture and the Confessions, and teaches it to students in theology courses, in the living liturgy, and in the on-going wrestling with the Lutheran tradition across the disciplines which leaves no one unbruised, but also not without a blessing.

In darker moments, I'm quite convinced that nothing like what I describe above could ever happen. But then again, who knows? Maybe the next generation's Robert Benne will write of a remarkable confessional Lutheran school whose deserved reputation exceeds its size and the size of its sponsoring church body. And maybe the next St. Olaf College will emerge not from the liberal, unionistic mainline of American Lutheranism, but from the old confessional, orthodox Synodical Conference.


This blog is devoted to one relatively narrow topic, confessional Lutheran higher education in North America, which is, arguably, in crisis. The intent of this blog is to re-think the confessional Lutheran higher education endeavor by extracting what it might, could, and should look like from the theology and intellectual structure of the Wittenberg Reformation.

Why is this necessary? The lies we tell ourselves.

As anyone might observe about institutional confessional Lutheranism in contemporary North America, it frequently does business backwards. That is, it begins with the way things look and are, now, and attempts to justify them on the basis of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the practice of what's called contemporary worship. I'll let you fill in the blanks, but consider how this recent document "grandfathers in" contemporary worship practices.

In the matter of higher education, we've also managed to drink our fair share of the KoolAid. What is good is what we have now, we tell ourselves, and then we extrapolate higher education's purpose and mission from what has become institutionalized in our colleges, universities, and seminaries. And here we've told ourselves some lies.

Like the argument for justifying the curricular mayhem in our colleges and universities: it's better to have Christian personal trainers, physical therapists, business people, and media workers than non-Christian ones. Therefore we support programs in exercise sports science, pre-physical therapy, business, and media design. While I certainly--certainly--am not devoted to the proposition that the Church's only interest in higher education is church workers (pastors, teachers, deaconesses), I am devoted to the proposition that confessional Lutheran higher education does not have an inherent interest in placing Christians in the professions. As Luther famously quipped, it's better to be ruled by a competent knave than by an incompetent Christian. The point being that the good to society derived from one's conduct in a professional vocation cannot reliably be linked to one's profession of Christianity or not. A good and principled engineer can design an interstate bridge just as well as a good and principled Christian engineer. There's no debate about that. And since that's the case, it raises the question, once again: what interest does the Church have in preparing [Christian] business people, physical therapists, media designers, personal coaches, and the like?

I'd argue that the Church's interest in higher education is the creation of a laity and clergy that is theologically literate and conversant. Let's leave it right there: the Church's interest in higher education is a theologically conversant and literate laity and clergy.

This certainly doesn't mean that we should convert all of our colleges and universities into glorified bible colleges. What it does mean is placing theology not at the margins of the educational endeavor, but at the center. And it means the construction of an intellectual apparatus that can support real theological thinking. Such an apparatus includes: the basic languages (German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew in an and/or way), a sustained encounter with The Greats (literary, musical, scientific, mathematical, etc.), a focus on rhetoric in writing and speech (the canon of invention, today so sadly represented as evidenced in the presentation of silly papers and speeches on insignificant topics can be repaired by turning rhetoric back on the materials of a solid education).

What does this look like on the ground?

As with all things, there are good, better, and best answers. There are also bad answers; and bad answers to this question are evident in scads: limited resources directed toward curricula in which the Church has no inherent interest. There's an easy litmus test you can use when you look at program offerings in institutions of Lutheran higher education. You can ask yourself, when your cursor slides over an academic program, two questions. Question one: Can the Church survive without a [name the professional vocation]? Question two: Is the theological task of the Church aided by study of [subject/program]? Using this litmus test, a significant proportion of programs, minors, and majors in the colleges and universities of institutionalized confessional Lutheranism in North America could be eliminated (along with the significant monetary outlay required to support them--salaries, accreditation costs, infrastructure, library holdings, etc.).

Answers on the good end of the worst<-->best spectrum show moral, financial and human investment overwhelmingly (I'd argue exclusively) in traditional liberal education, configured any number of different ways. One way is a lock-step curriculum, as practiced at St. John's College (non-sectarian), Thomas Aquinas College (Roman Catholic), or New St. Andrew's College (orthodox Reformed). This model has a great deal that commends it. Another way is what has become known as the traditional American liberal arts college departmental structure (think Top-50 liberal arts colleges) with a strong distributive core. Many colleges claim it, but few have it. Most of them fall short in two ways: the existence of majors outside the traditional liberal arts, such as those mentioned above in "Lies we tell ourselves," and the failure to provide a rigorous, integrated core. Shortcomings in the core have traditionally been in foreign language and remain so. Mathematics is increasingly underrepresented. In some curricula, requirements have become so diffuse as to be meaningless. And the carry-through into the rest of the curriculum is often problematic (writing and speaking at responsibly high rhetorical levels should not cease after English 101 and Speech 101, but be enhanced throughout the curriculum).