13 May, 2010

How to Create and Sustain a Consciously Lutheran Identity

Adam Smith and his idea of specialization have come to roost with a vengeance in the nests of the Leucorean [Wittenberger] university and college. The result? History is the job of the historians; philosophy that of the philosophers; worse, theology, that of the theologians. Lutheran colleges and universities have “specialized” theology out of the life of the faculty, if not de iure, then certainly de facto. What to do?

Precious faculty development dollars need to go to things that colleges and universities need to do largely for purposes of accreditation. What follows is a modest proposal to divert a modest amount of those funds toward understanding Lutheranism within the university. How?

Give an annual, and significant ($100/month/participant), grant to a small and therefore competitive faculty reading group that will read, examine, peruse, discuss, ponder, argue over, and write about a classic Lutheran text, finally producing a cache of essays short or long that bring the text into conversation with their disciplines. This cache of essays should be intellectually responsible (as the object of serious wrangling within the reading group), communicative, and thus also inspiring to others to think about how their own discipline and its bases and preconceptions and fundamentals speak to Lutheran theology, or rather vice versa.

For example, a theater professor might discover that, far from what we Americans think of the provenance of theater in the modern West—that it’s the stuff of dissolute, drug- and sex-addicted oddballs like Poe—it was actually vigorously used during the Reformation and post-Reformation eras by Lutherans (Luther, Melanchthon, Strigelius, von Rist, to mention but a few) frequently for Lutheran purposes. Aha! What a discovery! And this is rooted deeply in Lutheran realism which is a sort of “Egyptian-gold worldliness” (as opposed, e.g., to the non-realism and other-worldliness that permeates Calvinist theology; we Lutherans can sing, “Our God is dead,” it being otherwise difficult to say exactly what happened at the Place of the Skull; but it’s anathema in Geneva. And this difference can be traced to respective stances on realia, or the data of theology and of, well, thought.). Lutheran realism, in turn, lies at the heart of Wittenberg’s pursuit of, e.g., what we know as the hard sciences (on which see the relevant essays by Philipp in Kusukawa and Salazar).

Where to start, then? Oswald Bayer, for example, or Hermann Sasse, or Luther’s Address to the German Nobility, should be, and in fact are, eminently intelligible to anyone qualified to serve on a college or university faculty. But find your own list of goodies—and yet make sure they’re goodies. That’s why you need a learned Lutheran running the show: C.S. Lewis, as fun as he is to read, just isn’t going to cut the mustard here. (This point has been driven home to me in the last month as a clergy reading group I’m in has taken up Mere Christianity, which is woefully inadequate from the perspective of and as a vehicle for Lutheran thinking. Sorry, Clive.).

So why not? Why not give it a shot? Why not “de-specialize” theology? And now I’m talking to you, whoever you are: why not become the Lutheran Socrates? Of the real Socrates Cicero claimed he was the first to bring philosophy from the sky and put it in the streets and marketplace and make it dwell among men. Why not take Lutheran theology from the theology department and make it the province of the whole faculty?

Actually, that’s too soft a peddle. The case really needs to be stated like this: how can we afford not to make Lutheran theology the province of the whole campus? What makes a college Lutheran isn’t just its chapel (the University of Minnesota and Univ. of Wyoming have very fine Lutheran chapels, but they’re not for that reason Lutheran universities). The faculty alone doesn’t do it (there are lots of Lutherans teaching at lots of different places, but they don’t make their colleges Lutheran). Nor does the student body (again, the U of M, etc., etc.). Let all of those things be present; but if the intellectual framework is missing, it means nothing. And the only way you can get the framework is to work at it, and read, and think, and argue, and wonder, and write.

So share a good book; learn to think Lutheranly with your fellow Lutherans; and most, learn to think about yourself, your work, your discipline like a Lutheran.

Who knows what might come of it?


Steve Gehrke said...

Jon, You know I love the sentiment expressed in this post. To me the question is how do we make this happen?

I see two basic challenges. The first is how do we get the discussion started between those who are theologically trained, and those of us in academia who are not? The second is, how do we find time to do this, considering our general professional business (as in "busy-ness") and the fact that doing such writing/thinking is not what we are hired to do? I'm a tenured full professor, nonetheless my job description is pretty clear that I'm to teach assigned classes in chemical engineering and carry out externally funded research in my discipline. Nonetheless, the barrier that really keeps me from undertaking such a project is that I don't really know what to do or how to start doing it if I did.


Jon Bruss said...

Steve, good points, both. The first can be answered quite easily. Money talks. If Lutheran colleges care about being Lutheran, they can, and will, put their money where their mouth is and divert some very modest faculty development funds towards the support of getting everyone across the faculty, or at least representatives from across the faculty, reading and thinking like Lutherans. The second can be answered by simply pointing out the radically different venue in which you live and in which a Lutheran college/university lives. I suppose the nearest analogue to the type of thing we're doing at KU would be Valpo, where there's actually a college of arts and sciences as well as an engineering school and a law school, etc. Okay. So what? Well, suppose guys like you and I went to teach there, you in engineering and I in classics. Doesn't it stand to reason that our professional commitments will also begin to include working at understanding what Lutheran ways of thinking say about our respective disciplines? I grant it: I think it's harder in your case--but who knows? No one, frankly, has tried all that hard to figure it out. And as I mentioned in the post, the Kusukawa and Salazar volume (translations of Melanchthon's orations across the academic board) would be a really good starting place.

So: you're right. You don't have time. Nor are you professionally obligated to do this. In fact, to the extent you "stole" professional time to do that, you'd be unfaithful in your vocation as it stands right now. However, were the tables turned, and were you to be teaching at, e.g., Valpo, wouldn't it stand to reason that a Lutheran univ. delivering a Lutheran higher education to Lutherans from Lutherans would want to locate what it's doing within a Lutheran intellectual apparatus?

I think we've been happy for a long, long time thinking that people who are by tradition Lutheran teaching students who are by tradition Lutheran (or the nice chapel on the Lutheran campus; or the fact that "there are all these Lutheran kids around here") maketh a Lutheran education. I don't think it does. Or at least I don't think it grasps the full potential here.

It'd be like teaching the "knack" of being an engineer without teaching the habits and mindset of an engineer. Does that help?

Steve Gehrke said...

Hi Jon,
I recognize that you are writing about a specifically Lutheran college/university, whether building a new one from the ground up or reforming an existing one. I also understand that you are emphasizing that Lutheran education is more than Lutheran faculty teaching Lutheran students. The mission statement of Valpo's engineering college could be KU's. Valpo's COE's homepage says nothing about Lutheranism - the only religious statement is that it is "committed to teaching and operating in the Christian tradition of Valparaiso University." I'm not picking on Valpo, but they claim to be the only Lutheran engineering school in the US so that's the only point of reference for me. And if I was hired to start a chemical engineering program at Valpo, I have no idea how the major would be any different (in terms of the engineering core or professional practice) from KU.

I take your point that there SHOULD be a difference, and I think there COULD be, but I have only ill-formed ideas about what such differences are and how to go about figuring out what they are much less applying them in the classroom. And as you note above, I don't know of anyone 'who has tried all that hard to figure it out.' I'm gradually appreciating your point that maybe such majors don't in fact belong in the kind of institution you are envisioning. But I still think the world needs Lutheran engineers, and I think engineering as a discipline could benefit from Lutheranism (and I think it has, historically). If students were to attend the kind of institution you envision whether for 2 years or 4 years, how would they transition to a secular university in a 'vocational' major?

So my question is somewhat tangential to your post as I'm thinking in terms of Lutheran faculty at secular universities. We're the ones who would have to figure out how this would work since the faculty you want don't exist.

So if we got the money, what would we do with it? Right now, I see no particular reason to recommend to my nephew who has K-8 education at an LCMS school now planning to major in engineering in 2011 consider Valpo or a Concordia. Today, I think attending Minnesota in engineering and attending ULC would be the best route to becoming a confessional Lutheran engineer (anyway, that's how it worked out for me).


Jon Bruss said...

I think your sense about where your nephew ought to go is about right on. Frankly, I think there's no excuse for Lutheran institutions to offer a lesser education, "just because we're Lutheran." In other words, the argument goes something like this: "Well, of course, what the student doesn't get by way of an engineering education s/he gets by way of all the salutary influences we have around here [at Lutheran college/university X]."

The claim is dubious at best, misleading and self-serving at its worst.

But there are two more points here. First, one of my contentions has been that the church focusing its resources on what is necessary for it to be a well-functioning church, that is, on the tools necessary for adequately supporting the theological task of the church (at both the clergy and lay level) is of primary importance. Only once the church has seen to that in its higher education can it legitimately move on to other things, and only in so far as those things don't pose a risk to the central objective, of educating theologically literate and articulate clergy and laity and forming them in such a way as to make a faithful appropriation of the deposit of the Faith. The second contention is that every discipline within the Lutheran university must find a theological rationale. That's not the same as saying that every discipline must directly serve theology. But it's also not saying that delivering subject matter x, y, or z at a Lutheran institution is good in and of itself, which is kind of where we're at now.

Perhaps a better way to put it would be this: given a Lutheran substrate, what would the shape of a university be? What would the disciplines look like (if there are such)?

I've been enjoying following up some interesting reformational & humanistic fall-out, not least of which is the development of a radically different astronomy from what had dominated science since Ptolemy. Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe were certainly Lutherans or influenced by Melanchthonian thought. PM, extending certain Medieval trends, but also heavily under Renaissance influences, found great reasons to study the world as the creation of God, and to use it (through such things as engineering, with its practical goods for humankind). All this was undertaken under a profoundly theological view of the world, in fact, in which theology was not one among many, but the central, discipline, the central approach to it all. And one could argue that the birth of modern science derives from the humanist/reformational impulse to view the created order as something valuable--and to some extent under human control--as the CREATION of God (and not as eternals, like the Greeks would have thought it) and, more, as the creation of God FOR HUMANS.

But now I'm starting to do what a learned scientist or historian of science, like you, needs to do. But maybe this gets the juices flowing.

Steve Gehrke said...

On BJS there is a current thread on what makes the education at the Concordias "Lutheran". There is no whiff of anything you've discussed on this blog. It is focused on the usual: whether or not evolution and homosexual behavior is denounced, how may religion classes students must take, how pious the environment is, whether offering majors unrelated to the core mission of the church but that help subsidize the future church workers is adequate justification for offering them. As we apparently agree, attending a secular university with a solid confessional Lutheran chapel may accomplish the same thing for students majoring in things like engineering.

Your second to last paragraph is exactly where I'm coming from regarding science-engineering and Lutheranism. I've read just enough of that literature over the years to think it is relevant to the discussions on this blog. You may find it interesting that I first learned of this as a senior at K-State when I took a course on the History of Science solely to fulfill a humanities elective requirement. It turned out to be one of the most memorable and significant courses I took as an undergrad. I still emphasize to my students today the fact that there are real human beings behind the science and engineering they are using and studying. I contrast the different approaches to understanding and applying the equations we use. Chinese students seem to have the most difficulty with that fact, Americans the least. The Chinese are better at thinking systematically though. But this another topic. But my experience is that different cultures educate students to think differently and this is reflected in their technical work. Absolutely it makes intuitive sense to me that Lutheran education would train students to think differently from non-Lutherans based on my experience teaching students from every continent and major religious group. Exactly how it is different, though, I have only fuzzy ideas, except that the way I am trained to think as engineer has always seemed aligned with how I am taught in the church, while I always here complaints from those in the secular liberal arts that higher ed and the church are presented as being at odds with one another.

Bethany said...


I think this is a great idea in theory, but I suspect it would be impossible to implement in any LCMS or other Lutheran colleges currently. At the Roman Catholic college where I teach, most of the Roman Catholics (most professors actually aren't Catholic) are either only nominally Catholic or actually opposed to Catholic teachings. I suspect that at most of the Concordias most of the professors are only nominally Lutheran at best and would actively resist the implementation of any effort to strengthen a confessionally-Lutheran identity. Perhaps I'm wrong about the Concordias (I attended Calvin College), but based on what I've heard from others, I doubt it. It would be wonderful if there was a vibrantly confessional Lutheran liberal arts college in America (the existence of one is one of my fantasies). Something sort of like a Franciscan Steubenville for Lutherans, where all the faculty and staff are dedicated to Lutheran theology and identity. Maybe some day.

Jon Bruss said...

Well, these things vary in (a) dedication to Lutheran identity and (b) quality of education delivered. If this is a dream of yours, join the club! I suspect there are more of us out there than we might imagine. I also KNOW that one of our failings (individually & corporately) is that we're pretty poor at getting together to get things done. But hopefully we can create some sort of network through Ren. Mus. of interested parties and help bring about some really positive things. That's the idea anyway. So my thought is: let's keep talking!