23 November, 2010

A Monitory Lesson

The Chronicle of Higher Education takes up the curious case of the now-defunct Founders College, what happens when what you have is a great idea and what you don't have is all your ducks in a row. Read more by clicking here

13 November, 2010

Why Not Accept the Status Quo? An Open Letter to Ray, a Skeptical Lutheran Reader

Ray, a reader of RenMus, has left some provocative comments on the last post, Well, Of Course. The present post attempts to address them, and, as you can see, I’ve organized these thoughts around answering the question, Why not accept the status quo in contemporary confessional Lutheran higher education and, by implication, work with and within it?”

Coat of Arms, Wittenberg
The answer to this question is, in some sense, the entirety of this blog. But let me try to condense things as much as possible. First, the status quo in confessional Lutheran higher education hardly resembles anything distinctly or even noticeably Lutheran. I don’t think there’s any big secret here. In the vast majority of its programming, what the average synodical conference college does differently from, say, Cardinal Stritch (just to take an example with which Ray will be familiar) is so minuscule that students, especially those in satellite campus and evening programs, have to make an effort to discover any unique residuum of Lutheranism. This, by the way, puts the lie to the notion that opening the doors of Lutheran institutions to all comers is really “missional.” This is a pious self-blandishment and -deception at so many levels. First, it’s an extremely expensive way for the church to fulfill the Great Commission. Second, because the residuum of Lutheranism is so scant, it’s frequently the case that most non-Lutherans can enter and exit a great many Lutheran colleges without so much as a brush with the bracing claims of Scriptural, Lutheran theology. Third, as it’s sold it’s a terrible bait-and-switch scheme, even though the “switch” never really occurs (see “Second,...” just above). One might add that while the church certainly is and must be engaged in works of love toward the world (charitable and human-care undertakings), it is not clear to me that higher education, especially with a steep price-tag attached to it, is such an offering. The church’s charity is charity (“Come, buy without money!”), not charity on the back of student debt.

That’s the Lutheran theology element of the critique. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there are not Lutheran theologians at the Lutheran colleges. I’m not saying that those theologians do not teach Lutheran theology. But that also does not mean that I am saying that all of the Lutherans are really Lutherans, either, nor that all the faculty are actually Lutherans, much less ones who can give what could be identified as a reasonably articulate account of Lutheranism. But therein lies the problem.

Ray wonders whether eschewing such professional-preparation courses as pharmacy or exercise science or what have you is a wise move on the part of those who advance a Wittenberg higher education. In other words, the question is “Why can’t RenMus and the professional and pre-professional courses of study just get along, i.e., exist side-by-side, in the same institution?” Answer: Because they can’t. Please note, that’s the “can’t” of impossibility, not the “can’t” of “uneasy, but liveable relationship.” There are many reasons for this. First, students are important to other students’ education. In fact, some educators identify “peer-group” as the single most important factor in a student’s college-years intellectual development. The peer group in a “multi-versity” is so broad and uneven that it has a corrosive effect on the entire student body. If one’s experience in higher education has been with high-quality liberal arts colleges, this factor will hardly have been apparent. However, it is a reality. A conversation can be only as good as its weakest link. If higher education is something like a sustained conversation between students and students and students and faculty, etc., the impact of the recalcitrant is utterly destructive. It would be like going to a Star Trek convention only to find that more than 50% of the people there wanted to talk about Desperate Housewives.

Second, when an institution of higher education, especially a Lutheran one, develops programming that is not characteristically Lutheran, that is, that lacks an account for why Lutheranism needs that program, the motive is always the profit motive (despite our pious self-blandishments; see above). This motive opens the floodgate to an Iliad of evils, not least of which is prizing and prioritizing the new programming over the “old standard.” Not only is it the case that the concerns of the Evangelical Lutheran Church are represented in an attenuated way or not at all in major curricular decisions (such as core requirements), but now the entire curriculum is shifted to meet the needs of what I like to call “grabby” professional and pre-professional programs. The argument might go something like this: A legitimate business major doesn’t have room for a heavy distributive core. Now, since everyone at institution X earns the B.A., the B.A. requirements across the institution need to be curtailed to accommodate the professional programming. Again, the church’s interest is derailed. Not only that, but as mentioned above, this places serious students of, say, theology or history or chemistry in a class with students who regard all of those courses as hoops to jump through (Desperate Housewives fans in a conversation with Trekkies about Star Trek). Again, the impact is corrosive on the student body. One might argue, even, that theology fares even worse in this scenario than the students (and therefore the students with it): as Robert Benne has well pointed out, the marginalization of theology on campuses has the effect of reducing it to what he calls a pietism, wherein religious feelings are expressed in the vaguest of terms (“God is great, God is good.”) and not brought into real converse with the intelllectual project or academic disciplines of the institution [see the post Worth Reading]. Thus to put a RenMus program in an existing institution is something like throwing the lambs to the wolves; there’s that bit about pearls, too.

Third, a Lutheran skeptic might wonder why a RenMus higher education could not or would not benefit, financially, from being attached to an institution with income-generating (?) programs [on this see Steve Gehrkes monitory words in several comments on earlier posts]. In other words, why not use, say, a pharmacy program to underwrite a Wittenberg humanistic education? First, see the arguments above. Second, if generating income to support core programming is the goal, I can think of many ways to make money more effectively than by skimming the slim margin off tuition payments for a professional program that, in any case, provides a distraction from the institutions purpose.

There are more universal concerns here, too, and unfortunately this post has grown way too long. But let me add a couple of points. First, the professional programming mentioned above is animated by an entirely different value system from that that underlies Wittenberg higher education. In Wittenberg higher education, that is, the higher education that the Evangelical Lutheran Church has at its heart, the goal is theologically learned and conversant laity and clergy. The education itself, while ordered to the goods of the church, state, and individual, takes what looks to us today like an indirect route to those goods: it mines the past for the present and the future. Carl Springer in his recent talk at CTSFW [click here, and then click on Listen/View Conferences and Events; then click on Lutheranism and the Classics; then click on Wise, Steadfast, and Magnanimous] points out that Lutherans, by habit and even by confession, “back” into their future. The future is unknown, except for the eschatological horizon when Jesus will return. The past is known. And we approach the present and future on the basis of what is known, using (again, a quaint notion) the best that has been thought and written in the past. In other words, the notion of utility that partially animates Wittenberg education should not be confused with utilitariansim, which is what animates professional programming. Second, it is always the case that the proliferation of programming takes the eye off the ball. Efforts at an administrative, curricular, financial, admissions, development, and PR level that can and should be aimed at advancing and fostering an ongoing encounter with Lutheran theology, developing awareness of the Wittenberg reformational approach to the life of the mind, foregrounding the Christian life of vocation (not vocationalism) become so scattered that what is said about the important core purpose of the institution becomes something like background noise—perhaps at most a kind of mood lighting or light God-“musack.”

Penultimately, given the reality on the street, even approaching an institution that presently exists in order to create something like a Wittenberg curriculum would require showing up money in hand. In other words, it is not the case that present institutions will simply divert funds from what they are already doing to develop a Wittenberg curriculum. Since that’s the case—that is, since it requires starting from scratch anyway—it’s best to keep it at a safe remove from what history has shown to be the inexorable progresss of a typical confessional Lutheran institution of higher education.

Will this mean teaching a handful of students in a trailer park in Northern Wisconsin? No, it must not; for it all to work properly, architecture, location, curriculum, faculty, governance, financing, admissions requirements, student body, etc., must all work together, that is, be expressive of the same animating idea or ideal. As I’ve tried to show above, just one element being out of whack can and most frequently does have a long-term and irreversible deleterious impact.

Finally, I express my thanks to Ray for putting his finger on and pressing the issue. Much of what has been said here has been alluded to or touched upon lightly in other posts; the fruit of Rays prompting, Why Not Accept the Status Quo? attempts to draw a line from RenMus’ critique of contemporary confessional Lutheran higher education to the envisioning of a better way. 

04 November, 2010

Well, Of Course

It is time to get rid of the humanities as unproductive, useless money drains. Gradgrind has been making the case for years. The numbers! The facts! And now we have this from the maven of humanism, Stanley Fish, in an Opinionator column of his in the New York Times several weeks ago [click here for the article]: “I have always had trouble believing in the high-minded case for a core curriculum—that it preserves and transmits the best that has been thought and said—but I believe fully in the core curriculum as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists.”

Thomas Gradgrind
Well, there you have it. Milan Kundera has one of his characters, Paul, say that Europeans will never be able to fight another war because they don’t believe in anything anymore. That is, the French can’t and won’t fight for the French way of life because they don’t believe in it (at least against other nations; I’m not saying anything about torching their neighbors’ businesses and bashing the windshields out of tante Yvette’s car, an altogether understandable way to preserve one’s way of life). Nor can perhaps the most-listened-to (or heard) of the humanists in the U.S. today make a case for the humanities that is anything else than a French temper-tantrum at his friends losing their jobs.

But let me put it to you: why would you do anything else—if you didn’t believe in it?

This is what has been slowly choking the life out of the humanities. Once the Gradgrind argument became vogue—that is, once we bought the idea that facts, numbers, etc., should determine the good of the humanities—it was only a matter of time.

Ironically, the humanities have in some sense been a millennia-long protest against a view of the world that is “just the facts, ma’am.” Their very existence, their very own articulation of their raison d’être, is that they give access to some other non-quantifiable, qualitative dimension of human life: that of the soul, that mysterious thing we all know we have but whose existence we cannot prove by empirical measure.

Humanism, in fact, and Wittenberg humanism in particular, prizes this unproven thing, this thing whose existence has no demonstrable measure, as the center of human life, as the definitional element of humans. Luther defines the human being by his aristotelian potential in his Disputatio de homine: hominem posse justificari—man has the ability to be justified. Here he lays a theological finger on the distinctive element of human beings as overagainst all other creatures. Humans have the ability either (failingly) to justify their own existence before God, or to receive from God the justification for their existence. All other things have their account. It is humans alone who seek—and either make up or blessedly receive—an account. In other words, it is humans alone who are possessed of a soul, a soul caught in immeasurable existential Anfechtung or temptatio. And that’s why we need the humanities—to help us live in this strange place, between God and the animals, between good and evil, between infinite beauty and unspeakable horror amidst the truths and deceptions, the scant justices and barbarous injustices involved in human life.

Thats what we think. But if that account makes no sense to you, at least the humanities keep a few of Stanley Fish’s friends employed. 

19 October, 2010

World-Class Liberal Arts for Lutherans

The point RenMus has been attempting to make—with some success, we hope!—is that a new way in Lutheran higher education can and must be found. Worn out are those attempts to turn essentially parochial institutions into the multi-use, “everything-to-everyone,” institutions we see today. In fact, the success rate for Lutheran colleges that have become everything to everyone if only they might win a few for their coffers is dismally low. The Church’s interest in higher education really cannot be anything other than “a theologically conversant and literate laity and clergy.” All other “objectives” of higher education can be met by large state universities. So let’s leave those objectives to them and attend to our own interests.

Liz Reisberg makes a similar point in today’s Inside Higher Ed in an article titled, “If not a world class research university, then perhaps world class liberal arts?” The piece hinges on two arguments. First, world-class research university is coterminous with big bucks; liberal arts education is relatively much less costly. Second, given the tortuous route of a typcial worker’s “career” these days, liberal arts education is poised today as at no other time to be useful.

Mutatis mutandis, the same arguments Reisberg makes can be directly applied to Lutheran higher education. Chasing the latest professional program is always going to be much more costly than sticking with a solid liberal arts curriculum—and the payoff disappointing to the effort given. And since Lutheran higher education educates for one’s vocation, Lutheranly understood, and not one’s “vocation,” understood as “career,” it uses the human arts (artes humaniores) to that end on the premise that one learns to be a human better by reading Thucydides than by learning the precepts of marketing.

While the first point is one going to the proper management of limited resources, the latter is really a theological, not a merely aesthetic, issue. The Wittenberg Reformers were convinced that the higher education entailment of the Lutheran Reformation was a radical approach to the Western intellectual tradition through the sources themselves. To be sure, other approaches to higher education were wildly popular at their time; Melanchthon could complain with the best of us that students eschewed the liberal arts and chose instead what was “universally more saleable.” But for the Wittenberg Reformers, higher education was a matter of best preparing students to live under God’s call in a world and under orders created by God for men and their benefit. It was not, finally, business prowess or bureaucratic advancement that made for a life well-lived in the Wittenberg way; rather, a life well-lived in the Wittenberg way was one with a deeply cognizant sense of being located in a specific time and place, gifted with a certain wisdom handed down from antiquity and with an eschatological horizon that meant that this world was not all there was. That was the end to which the Wittenberg Reformers put the artes humaniores.

And that’s the end to which their modern heirs should continue to educate. Indeed, Thucydides is still the father of political philosophy, and the eschatological horizon hasn’t changed a bit. It’s only that we heirs of Wittenberg seem to have lost our way between our past and our future. But by approaching things like Wittenbergers, that is, by understanding what we ought to do now based upon where we have come from, based upon what we already know, we can find our way again. 

14 October, 2010

Lutheranism & Classics a Huge Success

The dust has finally settled, and I can offer a report on Lutheranism & the Classics. Attendance at the conference numbered over 150, and the response by those in attendance has been overwhelmingly positive. The conference drew together Lutherans and non-Lutherans alike (I ate breakfast one morning with a public school teacher from Colorado, a Methodist, who thought the conference sounded interesting and so decided to come!), clergy and non-clergy, and academics and non-academics. Speakers forcefully and persuasively made the case, both directly and indirectly, that the languages (classical Hebrew, Greek, and Latin) and the arts in which they find their home are the highest and most natural decoration of the Church and that the Church of the Augsburg Confession without them is like a stripped-out, whitewashed shell: a church building in Geneva, say, compared to the Stadtkirche Wittenberg. 

That's all fine and good, and you probably wouldn't have expected anything else to transpire. But those in attendance, both by their numbers and by their appreciative reception of the orations at the conference, confirmed that Lutherans want to be Lutherans. They want their children to be educated as Lutherans, they want Lutheran preachers in their Lutheran pulpits, Lutheran teachers in their Lutheran schools, and they want it authentically--not in an attenuated form. 

Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, which hosted the conference, has also generously published sound recordings of the plenary talks by Jon Bruss, Dale Meyer, Carl Springer, John Nordling, and Avery Springer and Jim Lowe. You can find these on the CTSFW Media page. Once you've navigated there, click on "Listen/View Conferences and Events," then hit "Lutheranism & the Classics 2010," which will bring up the five plenary talks. 

Papers from the sectional sessions will, along with the plenary papers, be available in a Logia 2012 special issue. I'm sure Logia would be delighted to have new subscribers in anticipation of that issue! 

To all who attended, to all who helped out, to all who spoke, many thanks. 

28 September, 2010

Foxes in the Chicken Coop

Critical observers of U.S. higher education—of which there are far too few—have certainly seen it coming for years, perhaps decades. I think it might have finally sunk in for me when, within the space of but a few years, the ubiquitous “caf” was renamed the “dining facility,” dorm rooms that looked like what you’d get for third-class passage on a ship were replaced by suites, and the cavernous rubber-and-sweat-smelling gym was turned into a “fitness center,” often as well appointed as the local for-profit fitness club. Ironically, none of this coincided with an equally obvious renewed emphasis on teaching and learning. Those on the busy side of the podium at the front of the room might even have been able to discern, over this roughly 10-year revolution that swept American higher ed, an inverse relationship between enhanced non-academic facilities and students’ engagement.

The problem was, those who should have been keeping tabs on it all were the ones who stood to gain the most from it: the fitness club for students is open, usually free, to faculty; the house-beautiful dorm rooms are as much a badge of pride for bricks-and-mortar administrators as they are for the students who take up residence there; and, well, everyone has to eat, and adults no less than students prefer padded chairs to benches, small tables to row seating, and a nice cut of beef in the stroganoff to yesterday’s shepherd’s pie. Meanwhile, students and their parents paid more and more; the federal government released more and more funds in support of “higher education” in the form of grants and loans; and the institutions kept doing what institutions do best: engage in a Veblen-esque conspicuous grasp for the biggest piece of the pie they could get.

Which makes it, frankly, refreshing that someone, finally, has someone’s ear: the president’s. In an interview with college and university newspaper staffs from around the country yesterday, Mr. Obama shows that he: (a) is onto the federal gravy train that has allowed higher education costs to soar out of proportion; (b) understands the higher-ed “arms race” (if I may be permitted: in 1985, 25 years ago, the comprehensive annual cost of one, very nicely appointed private institution [VNAPI] which I was fortunate enough to attend was just less than a brand-new VW Golf—$8,750; today, while the equivalent 2010 Golf runs roughly $16K, the comprehensive cost of the same VNAPI is $47K); (c) rightly views spa-like accommodations on campus as having little to no bearing on the quality of education; and (d) wonders out loud whether “research” may have gotten in the way of teaching and learning. You can read more about Mr. Obama’s interview in the Around Washington column in today’s Inside Higher Ed.

What does this all mean? First, this may be the first time I’ve seen these issues addressed publicly by anyone in Washington, although, as I've mentioned, critical observers have long noted these matters privately and in smaller venues. Mr. Obama’s comments may bring some long-overdue and well-deserved attention to some of the real problems in higher education. Second, this portends a new era of what we’ve been arguing for here on RenMus, a leaner, meaner curriculum, the creation of a shared culture not based upon whether students have private bathrooms with Kohler fixtures but on what they read. Third and finally, perhaps the reign of the foxes is over in the chicken coop.

That said, the foxes will be foxes as long as they can—even if it means destroying the chicken coop. The higher education juggernaut will continue. But there is room—and it is widening—for a new way, for a return to a tightly managed curriculum taught by teachers to students who want to be...educated. And Lutheran higher education, with its unique Wittenberg intellectual apparatus, is poised like few others to deliver.

17 September, 2010

Education & Schools of Education

In The Chronicle of Higher Education this week, Richard Vedder wonders, "Should We Abolish Colleges of Education?" I encourage you to read the whole piece (it's very short). Among other recommendations Vedder has is this, that "State governments should consider defunding students in colleges of education, requiring future teachers to major in an academic subject, etc."

Advice easily transferrable to the colleges and universities of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America. The rationale for teacher education, that is, for paedagogical education, is insufficient. How does it help to underprepare future teachers in academic subjects (mathematics, geography, literature, etc.?) in order to overprepare them for the moment when they first open their mouth in front of a class of first graders? Anecdotally, each and every year I have grown as a teacher--by experience. This is largely due to the fact that I entered the profession without a preconception about what a "good teacher" looked like, about what he or she did. And I quickly found out that teaching is like politics: the politician identifies what he or she wants, and gets there by any means possible. That's what teaching is like. It's a constant, tacit renegotiation on the part of the teacher with the students. The goal is always the same, but it's never met in the same way. It certainly fits nothing like a text-book version. But the point is this: nothing prepares you for life on Capitol Hill like, well, life on Capitol Hill. In the same way, nothing prepares you for teaching like teaching.

But nothing un-prepares you for teaching like having nothing to teach. An interesting study recently showed that students taught by novices (TAs) did, generally, as well as those taught by veterans (profs)--in the class in question. But the subsequent progress of the same group of students was tracked. Those taught by the profs went on to do better in courses later in the sequence than those taught by TAs. What does this mean? It means that content matters, and that a teacher's mastery of the content up and down the curriculum matters. What is salient in Calc I? What do students really need to be able to do and know in intermediate Greek to make it in advanced Greek? What bases must be built in in "Survey of American History" for subsequent courses in the Great Depression and the Civil War, etc.?

At the grade school level: what does a kid really need to know, really need to be able to do, to perform well later on in Geometry and Trig? The answer of the survey I mentioned above is that it requires, on the part of the teachers, depth of knowledge in academic subjects.

This, indeed, was and remains the Wittenberg way. Certainly the Reformers, both educational and theological, cared about pedagogy. But it was, for them, a guild craft, something gained in the shop (the school classroom), not in the classroom (the university classroom). The latter was for content.

What might Melanchthon's or Winsheim's or Dietrich's or...Luther's recommendation be today for the Evangelical Lutheran Church's parochial school teacher preparation? Perhaps we could tweak Vedder just a bit and say, "Synods and synodical colleges and parishes should consider defunding students in colleges of education, requiring future teachers to major in an academic subject, etc."


[Pictured above: Das Melanchthonhaus Wittenberg, where Melanchthon, in addition to his rigorous teaching schedule at the University and prolific publication activity, ran a school. Content mattered.]

13 September, 2010

Can the Lutherans Pull off an Ex Corde Renewal?

Ex corde ecclesiae, John Paul II's Apostolic constitution requesting (or requiring, depending upon your read of the document) greater faithfulness to Catholic teaching in Catholic colleges and universities, has just reached its milestone 20th anniversary. In "Catholic Colleges 20 Years after Ex Corde" in the Chronicle of Higher Education, David House marks the anniversary with a retrospective look at what the papal message has, or hasn't, achieved in Roman Catholic higher education in the United States. Among the positive results, he notes that:

[Roman Catholic] colleges are beginning to recognize that emulating secular institutions might be worthwhile in some instances, but not at the expense of what makes them truly Catholic and, therefore, distinctive.... The importance of theology and philosophy, undergraduate core curricula, and how graduates of Catholic colleges should be distinguishable from those of secular institutions has emerged because of Ex corde. [italics added]

House points out that in the U.S. context in which the Land O'Lakes Statement of 1967 was expressive of the going paradigm in the heady years of and after Vatican II, Ex corde faced some stiff opposition--a corrosive opposition to the Catholic way, a critical rather than a fostering stance.

Heirs of the Wittenberg Reformation might learn a thing or two from Ex corde's success. First, a retrenchment is possible. The Wittenberg way need not be a relic, a something that, à Hegel, has led to another, quite different something. Second, a broad consensus (by which I don't intend to say the creation of a big-umbrella consensus that means nothing) among Lutheran colleges about what is at the heart of Lutheran higher education, and a consistent application of that across the range institutional functions can, in the long run, show some positive gains. But this requires fearless leaders at all levels. Third, the founding of some centers or even entire institutions that can show the way has a leavening affect. Today, "Catholic higher education" is not defined by Georgetown, but by Ave Maria or Belmont Abbey College or Franciscan University of Steubenville. Such colleges and universities stand as a constant reminder to their accommodationist peers that faithfulness to Church teaching and intellectual responsibility not only are not at odds, but may even--and, in fact, must--work in tandem in pursuit of a unique vibrance of faith and learning.

Herman Preus is noted to have said once that the colleges of the Evangelical Lutheran Church won't be steered wrong unless the congregations want it that way. In other words, the health or sickness of the colleges is a symptom, not a cause, of the health or sickness of the congregations. Melanchthon made the opposite case: if you want to ruin the Church, ruin the institutions of higher education. The truth is probably more complicated than either man might have imagined. But it is clear that the two are interrelated--and that the Church of the Augsburg Confession, whether because it is healthy or because it wants to be healthy, requires a distinctively Lutheran higher education of the highest quality. The question is whether we have the will to do it.

[Pictured above: Lutherstadt Wittenberg, market square.]

This Just in from...Canada

More in the do ut des column: readers of RenMus, especially those directly involved in the delivery and management of higher education, may want to bookmark The Classroom Conservative, a blog by Craig Monk, faculty member and administrator at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. Oh, by the way, he's also apparently a reader of RenMus.

07 September, 2010

Lutheranism & the Classics Conference

CTS to Host Classics Conference in October

Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne is set to host next month’s Lutheranism & the Classics” conference on their campus Oct. 1-2.

The conference will strive to consider how the classical languages have influenced church, school, and home in the past, and how Greek and Latin are poised to enrich culture and civilization in both the present and the future.

The event is free of charge to Seminary students both at Fort Wayne and those in St. Louis, with the exception of the optional conference banquet Friday night. All wishing to attend the conference are asked to pre-register online at www.ctsfw.edu/classics.

Concordia Seminary President Dale Meyer will deliver one of the plenary papers at the conference entitled Ridentem dicere verum: Horatian Satire in Preaching the Law.”

My Greek and Latin teachers taught me to love the classics and to love that literature for its own sake, Meyer shared. Still, my younger years spent with the likes of Homer and Aristophanes, with Horace and Cicero and so many others have profoundly impacted my theological formation and service to the church. At this time of my life, I want to get back to a more active study of classics and welcome the conference as one way to do that.”

The conference will be presented in three separate tracks to specifically engage those in attendance. The tracks are broken up between an Academic track for Professional Lutheran classicists, a Classical Education track for educators, and a Concordia track for university faculty and students. Each of the tracks will be presented twice to give conference goers a broader depth of the material presented.

Throughout the conference, there will also be three worship opportunities, all of which will implement historical Latin in each of the services inside Kramer Chapel on the Fort Wayne campus.

According to the conference brochure produced by Rev. Dr. John Nordling, Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at CTS, The conference is intended for homeschoolers, pastors, classical’ educators (principals, teachers, parents), professional classicists, those who dont know the ancient languages yet (but are fascinated by them), high school Latin students and their teachers, and collegians.

During the two days of the conference, Nordling will also present his paper entitled Teaching Greek at the Seminary: What’s Involved and Why Greek Remains Essential for the Ministry.

Registration information, additional conference material, and suggested hotels can be found online at the conference website.

by Andrew Wilson; reproduced from the serial of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Around the Tower (Special edition, Sept. 2010, p. 4)

03 September, 2010

Wittenberg & the Sciences: An E-nterview

Steve Gehrke, our featured guest on RenMus the last several days, offers some further food for thought on this topic that we've taken up of late, the sciences and the Wittenberg way.

JB: Following are some of the questions that, at first blush, seem to be basic and preliminary to any further consideration: Has so much scientific water flowed under the bridge since the 16th century that it is impossible today to make the sciences at home in a Lutheran curriculum?

SG: This seems to presume that either science and theology are by nature hostile toward each other as disciplines, or else that scientists and theologians are. Since the Lutheran view would be that science and theology both are creations of God, I don’t think the former can be true. If the latter is true, then I think the two sides must be reconciled to each other and learn to communicate. If that occurred in 16th-century Wittenberg, why not among the heirs of that tradition?

JB: Is there such a thing as a Lutheran approach to science? And if so, how does it differ from, how does it complement other views? How might it be regarded as better or deficient?

SG: This I think is a most intriguing question. I have read it argued that science itself is a product of the Christian world view, because Christianity described the world as being purposefully designed for humanity, and this led to the idea that there were rules that underlay the universe that could be discovered and understood. It is empirically proven that great scientists and engineers need not be Lutheran nor even Christian. However, I don’t know how I would argue that Lutheranism would make better scientists (to answer that, one would have to define “better”). I have long thought that Lutheranism is especially compatible with engineering, a somewhat different question for another post.

JB: What need does the Church have of the sciences, if any? Put the other way around, what would be missing for the Church without the sciences? And are all sciences equal? Which are necessary, which are not?

SG: If science is understood as the discovery of the laws of nature as created by God, I think the church clearly would be missing something not to be interested in studying God’s handiwork. Exactly what would BE that missing something I’m not exactly sure. Would it be heretical to suggest that the Mind of God would be reflected in the workings of his creation? As noted above, the idea that It would be, informed the development of science in the Western world. The relationship between the Reformation and rise of modern science has been explored by scholars but I’m not well enough informed to try to describe it myself here.

I think the Church IS missing something by its general lack of involvement or appreciation of the sciences and technology. I can argue that the high view of science by modern society is less that people are impressed by esoteric scientific discoveries than they are by iPhones and medicines made possible by those discoveries. Because the Church is frequently reactive to technological developments rather than proactive it therefore does not have the influence on people that it could have, and in any case tends to promote the view that it is archaic and irrelevant (see my 2000 Logia essay on this point).[editor's note: Our friends at Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology assure us they'll be happy to send you a paper or electronic copy of this issue for a modest price.]

The usual hierarchy in the sciences is math>physics>chemistry>biology. I don’t know if any other science would be considered fundamental. Subjects like astronomy are simply a branch of physics, and geology of chemistry. Even biology can be viewed as a specialized subset of chemistry. But there are no distinct boundaries between any of the disciplines. For example, there are chemical physicists and physical chemists.

JB: What sort of philosophical or theological Weltanschauung is necessary to work under in order to have a healthy scientific community on a Lutheran campus?

SG: I think it understands that science is the study of God’s creation, but that this study and its application (technology) are clouded by sin.

JB: Will 16th-century guide-posts be helpful or harmful in this discussion? If helpful, how can they be enlisted?


I’ve read a little bit of the work of theologians of this era (mostly as presented by RD Preus in The Theology of Post-Reformation LutheranismVol. II God and His Creation) and find it very helpful. Lutherans and Calvinists were already developing theological differences in the area of theology and science. Quenstedt in 1683 in debating Calvinists found it necessary to assert “We must distinguish between the book of Scripture and the book of nature,” by way of asserting that we must let Scripture speak for itself (Preus p. 186). Doesn’t this sound familiar? But because these theological discussions occurred prior to Darwin, it provides different perspective on the relationship between God and His creation without getting trapped in the well-worn ruts of the creation-evolution debates. Maybe with this fresh perspective we can learn something new in considering post-Darwinian questions.

JB: Can a science-less curriculum offer a responsible Wittenberg education?

SG: This is the only question you’ve raised that is easily answered: No.

JB: Do the big quarrels, such as that between evolution and intelligent design, materialism and non-materialist views, matter? Do they drown out the healthy discussions, or do they create a context in which a healthy discussion may occur? Are they the only “going paradigms” that may be adopted?

SG: Yes, I think they unquestionably DO drown and HAVE drowned out healthy discussions. Otherwise, from does what your opening paragraph derive? (“Perhaps no more vexatious question, no question passed over in more silence, no question more [unpersuasively] pontificated upon, is that of the relationship between science and theology. The two don’t make easy bed-fellows.”) Part of the challenge of putting science into the Wittenberg curriculum is in fact figuring out how to keep this from happening. I don’t mean to minimize the importance of these debates, but this is far from the totality of science-theology interaction. Simply consider all of the bioethical questions raised by advances in modern medicine such as end-of-life issues. Simply look for anything written by Glibert Meilaender on the subject to see why every family must understand these issues, and why confessional Lutheranism may suggest different answers to those moral quandaries than the consensus of modern society (generally strictly utilitarian).

[Graphic above: The shields of arms of the Faculty of Law (left) and the Faculty of Medicine (right) of the University of Wittenberg; Melanchthonhaus, Bretten, Germany. The shield of the Faculty of Medicine depicts its patron saints Cosmas and Damian.]

30 August, 2010

Wittenberg and the Sciences: Some Thoughts from the Field

By Stevin Gehrke

EO Wilson is a non-Christian biologist (an expert on ants) who also is known for his writing on the relationships between science and religion. In contrast to the so-called ‘new atheists’ like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who find nothing of value in religion, Wilson believes that religion is an evolved behavior with natural selection advantages. He published a book in 1998 called Consilience to describe a need for the combination of knowledge from science, the humanities and the arts. Though he approaches the topic from a completely different set of foundational principles from Christians, I recently ran across some quotes from this book that resonated with me both as a regular reader of RenMus and as an engineering professor. The quotes below are taken from Wikipedia, which I’ve not had opportunity to verify (I’ve only read about the book, I’ve not read it myself), but I found it interesting that someone like Wilson echoes some of the concerns raised on this blog.

If the natural sciences can be successfully united with the social sciences and humanities, the liberal arts in higher education will be revitalized. Even the attempt to accomplish that much is a worthwhile goal. Profession-bent students should be helped to understand that, in the twenty-first century, the world will not be run by those possessing mere information alone. Thanks to science and technology, access to factual knowledge of all kinds is rising exponentially while dropping in unit cost. It is destined to become global and democratic. Soon it will be available everywhere on television and computer screens. What then? The answer is clear: synthesis. We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.

The quote opens with an intriguing statement that the study of the natural sciences can revitalize the liberal arts education. (As an aside, I have had a sense that is true and may make some comments along this line in a future post, but these ideas are quite fuzzy in my mind. But perhaps the readers of this blog can weigh in on this point in particular.)

To draw on my own experience, this “synthesis” of knowledge is the key goal of engineering education. The capstone senior courses in engineering (usually with “Design” or “Synthesis” in the titles) focus on teaching students how to integrate the knowledge they have gained in their other courses to solve a complex problem without a specific or single solution. While students have always tended to compartmentalize knowledge, engineering educators broadly believe that teaching synthesis of knowledge is an ever-increasing challenge in our courses. Most faculty have heard from students, with varying degrees of seriousness, “Why do we need to take classes [apart from earning the credentials for a job] when all the information is on the internet and quickly found using Google?” Wilson in this 1998 quote has concisely stated that the problem is not the ability to access information, but knowing what to do with that information – essentially, wisdom. But how can wisdom be taught?

Again, in Consilience Wilson also opines:

Every college student should be able to answer the following question: What is the relation between science and the humanities, and how is it important for human welfare? Every public intellectual and political leader should be able to answer that as well. Already half the legislation coming before the United States Congress contains important scientific and technological components. Most of the issues that vex humanity daily - ethnic conflict, arms escalation, overpopulation, abortion, environment, endemic poverty, to cite several most consistently before us - cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that of the social sciences and humanities. Only fluency across the boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is, not as seen through the lens of ideologies and religious dogmas or commanded by myopic response to immediate need. Yet the vast majority of our political leaders are trained exclusively in the social sciences and humanities, and have little or no knowledge of the natural sciences. The same is true for the public intellectuals, the columnists, the media interrogators, and think-tank gurus. The best of their analyses are careful and responsible, and sometimes correct, but the substantive base of their wisdom is fragmented and lopsided.

Here in the opening sentence, Wilson lays out a challenging question that I think most professors (never mind their students!) have some difficulty answering. Yet I agree that a clear answer is important to develop. Farther along in this quote, Wilson lays out some of the rationale for including a general education in the sciences as something important and in fact necessary for anyone who claims to be “well-educated” in any discipline, and for anyone who holds a position of responsibility and respect in society. It has been a constant aggravation in my adult life, as one educated in the natural sciences and engineering, to read and hear frankly ignorant statements made by the sorts of people described in the quote above, and extending to some theologically trained leaders in the church whom I greatly admire and from whom I have learned much. Even Wilson’s disparaging reference to “religious dogmas” (which I am sure he meant to apply to all religious teachings) can be accepted from an orthodox Lutheran perspective, when one interprets that phrase to mean any heterodox views strongly held without understanding or reflection.

Now, an education in science and engineering education doesn’t automatically produce great and wise leaders either. Although I reject the opinion I sometimes hear from colleagues in the liberal arts that education in these fields is only a step above a vo-tech education in auto mechanics and the like, it is true that engineers and scientists often fail to understand or anticipate the implications of their work. I try to bring up examples in my courses of cases where clever engineering solutions were rejected by society because a technological solution was not in fact THE solution (for an orthodox Lutheran, surgical abortions safe for the mother could be put into that category).

To be accredited, all engineering programs are required to have a liberal arts component in their degree programs, but in my opinion, these are not well-integrated into the engineering curricula across the US. Perhaps a Wittenberg education can provide the foundation for making better engineers and scientists as well as humanists?

[Graphic: Tycho Brahe, 1546–1601, shown with his instruments]