30 March, 2010

Teach Us to Pray...

Over at incarnatus est, Pastor Alms has posted a marvelous excerpt from Augustine on baptism:


This is a the heart of the quote:

But, since we are destined to live
in this world where no one lives without sin, on that account
the remission of sin depends, not solely on the washing in
holy baptism, but also on the Lord's daily prayer which you
will receive after eight days. In that prayer you will find,
as it were, your daily baptism, so that you may give thanks
to God who has given His Church this gift which we
acknowledge in the Creed.

Augustine's emphasis on finding our baptism in our daily praying of the Lord's prayer reminds us of the precious gifts our students receive when we encourage them to pray and live faithfully in God's word and the church's traditions. In these efforts, Lutheran schools pursue a noble purpose.

Joseph Conrad and the Purpose of Art

Today, I taught Joseph Conrad's Preface to his The Nigger of the "Narcissus" to my students. While I wish Conrad would give more credence to the pursuit of Truth, I find myself drawn to the conclusion of Conrad's analysis of art and its purpose:

And so it is with the workman of art. Art is long and life is short, and success
is very far off. And thus, doubtful of strength to travel so far, we talk a little
about the aim--the aim of art, which, like life itself, is inspiring, difficult--
obscured by mists. It is not in the clear logic of a triumphant conclusion; it is
not in the unveiling of one of those heartless secrets which are called the Laws
of Nature. It is not less great, but only more difficult.

To arrest, for the space of a breath, the hands busy about the work of the
earth, and compel men entranced by the sight of distant goals to glance for
a moment at the surrounding vision of form and colour, of sunshine and shad-
ows; to make them pause for a look, for a sigh, for a smile--such is the aim,
difficult and evanescent, and reserved only for a very few to achieve. But some-
times, by the deserving and the fortunate, even that task is accomplished. And
when it is accomplished--behold!--all the truth of life is there: a moment of
vision, a sigh, a smile--and the return to an eternal rest.

A discussion of the benefits of both engaging art and pursuing an education rooted in the gifts of the Lutheran tradition and the rigors of the liberal arts should include their shared ability to encourage students to stop as they pursue ends such as a career, and see the world differently than they have previously. To paraphrase Conrad, when our education makes us see differently, perhaps we can begin to glimpse the Truth for which we have forgotten to ask.

18 March, 2010

Sound Familiar?

Johann Christoph Kunze arrived in the colonies in 1770. He had taught at Kloster Berge (left) near Magdeburg (which would, not 40 or 50 years later become a hot-bed of Lutheran confessionalism). Prior to that he had received a full-fledged classical gymnasial education at Halle and theological education at Leipzig.
Three years after his arrival, he founded a Seminarium--a Gymnasium, really--where students who had done passing work in the lower grades could continue their education. Solberg calls it a "thoroughgoing Latin school." The curriculum included: Greek, Latin, English, German, geography, history, philosophy, math, etc. Kunze's admirable goal was to provide learned teachers and preachers for the fledgling Church of the Augsburg Confession in the colonies.
What a waste. So Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg. But hear him out:
We have here in America large English institutions of that sort, academies, colleges, and universities. In these institutions every year large crowds of young gentlemen are created bachelors, masters, licentiates, doctors of law and doctors of medicine, and they are let loose on the world. Then the poor suckers wander to and fro. They have used up their small resources and have no way of making a living. They cannot dig, to beg they are ashamed, and so they sometimes become public charges. [in: Carl Frederick Hausmann, Kunze's Seminarium (Philadelphia: American Germanica Press, 1917), 28].
And there's no short-cut so short but that it's worth taking. Again, the esteemed Mühlenberg, who argues what a pity it would be:
to torment such candidates [that is, for the pastoral office] with foreign languages over a period of many years; it would be sufficient if they possess native intelligence, a compendious knowledge and experience of the marrow and sap of theology...an understanding of the mother tongue [German, of course] and English, and possibly also the declensions and conjugations of the Latin language...and, preeminently, a heart that loves the Savior of the world and His sheep and lambs. [in: T. Tappert and J. Dobberstein, trans., The Journals of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1945), 2.586–7]
Ah, the heart that loves Jesus and His sheep. It reminds of the road to hell paved with good intentions--or of the apocryphal story of Ole out working in his fields. Ever heard it?
Ole loved Jesus, yes he did. One day as he was out working in the barnyard the clouds formed odd shapes above him. As he looked, he saw these letters: G P C. Ole pondered and prayed and prayed and pondered for a long time and then, there it was, his answer. G P C meant Go Preach Christ. So Ole set off down the road to his Lutheran pastor and told him of his intentions. O, Ole loved Jesus, yes he did. And he could speak Norse and English pretty well, too. And he knew the catechism inside and out, you bet he did. But old Pastor Svendsen, he had been to the seminary and knew a little bit more about theology than Ole did, and so he set Ole straight. G P C didn't mean Go Preach Christ, it meant Go Plow Corn.
No less in Mühlenberg's case than in Ole's did a well-intentioned pietism get in the way of good theology and the kind of education that doing good, responsible theology requires (see the post on Robert Benne's critique of the pietistic turn in Christian higher education).
Let us only point out that it's a good thing no one gave God Mühlenberg's advice when He decided to call Moses to lead His people out of Egypt (see Acts 7.22).

11 March, 2010

Reason and the Limits of Her Whoredom

The troubling thing about great one-liners is that they take on a life of their own. Joe the Plumber quickly became an imaginary friend of John McCain's who had taken up in a shoebox under the latter's bed (so Saturday Night Live). "Reason, that whore," [WA 51.126.7] one of Luther's most famous quips, has also taken on a life of its own, haunting, as an imaginary friend, the recesses of the Lutheran mind, an invective turned as invective against "fideistic" Lutheranism. Sola fide, however, does not mean checking the hat of Reason in the narthex and it never did. To the contrary, it means, quite reasonably and on the basis of the clear words of Scripture, that salvation is appropriated to the individual through faith, not works. Reason becomes a whore only when, following her natural inclinations, she prostitutes herself out to the Law and reasons on the basis of the Law and the putative goodness of her master, the Old Adam, that she can and must do something to settle accounts before God's judgment. There she plays, and is, the harlot, dispossessing the soul of her spouse, Christ.

But as we have had occasion to point out elsewhere, Lutheran confessional theology reserves, with Scripture, a wide playing field for reason--for reason where she is Mistress, not madame. The following elegiac epigram was composed by Philipp Melanchthon on Book 7 of Plato's Republic which, as the epigram is entitled, is a "commendation of Dialectic."

Sermonis certas tradit Dialectica leges,

Quaque via poßis prendere vera, docet.

Ac velut in coenum incautus si forte viator

Labitur, atque udo polluit ora firmo:

Surgit, & immundis sordes detergit ocellis,

Abluit & turpi squalida membra luto:

Sic hebetes oculos acuit Dialectica mentis,

Lynceus ut videas lumina vera puer.

[Philippus Melanchthon, Epigrammatum libri sex, ed. Petrus Vincentius (Wittenberg: haeredes Johannis Cratonis, 1579), Liber Quartus, N2 43 recto et verso.]

Discourse’s sure regulations within Dialectic discovered

Teach you the road on which you pow’r upon truth may lay claim.

Just as the footman, unheeding, perchance may stumble in puddles,

Visage and face with the damp earth and its filth befoul:

He then arises and scrubs from his eyes, unclean, their foulness,

Washing that unsightly sludge, cleansing his aspect of filth:

So, just so, Dialectic can sharpen the mind’s blunt vision

That, like Lynceus, you, too, with acuity, see!

[Trans. J.S. Bruss © 2010.]

Sometimes things aren't what they seem, and sometimes nice girls dress in provocative clothing (is it pressing too far to mention Dostoyevsky's Sofia Semyonovna Marmeladova?). The God who communicates to humans through His Word, who inscripturates Himself in human language, does that because He has given the capacity to reason. Just let reason be--and remain--modest, Mistress of her realm, not madame in a street where she has no business.

07 March, 2010

Beyond Rhetoric

The cry of alarm can be heard once again. In its recent "Special Report: The Liberal Arts," the Chronicle of Higher Education provides a series of articles that provide the latest snapshot of what has become a long and rather exhausting post mortem of the liberal arts in American higher education.

In one of the articles in this series, "For the Liberal Arts, Rhetoric Is Not Enough," the president of Ursinus College presents his institution's efforts to emphasis the liberal arts on campus. The article can be found here (subscription required):


While providing an informercial for his college, President Strassburger has much reason to celebrate. In short, his college has worked to "craft a set of programs that made all the virtues that we claim for liberal education clear and transparent." They have found three primary ways of accomplishing this:

1. Their faculty has "developed a two-semester program required of all first-year students, what became known as the "Common Intellectual Experience."
2. All first year students live together in six residence halls as a way to foster intelligent discourse among the cohort.
3. Their faculty created an "Independent Learning Experience" that required every student to do "significant undergraduate research, study abroad in certain programs, student-teach, or have an academically legitimate internship."

President Strassburger's assessment data suggests that if students feel "their concerns about how to live a meaningful life are taken seriously, they will respond."

Spot on, as the British say. But what are the lessons for Lutheran higher education?

First, these efforts suggest the importance of faculty taking their vocations seriously. On a micro-level, what if faculty, as they design courses, intentionally allow the texts, values, and outcomes of a liberal education to shape the development of their syllabi and daily course content? What if they mentor students and advise them to pursue a liberal education? What if they, in their personal reading and research, grow themselves as students of the liberal arts? On a macro-level, what if faculty committees (Development, Curriculum, Assessment, and Uffda, how the list goes on!) pursue a liberal arts agenda in their committee work and use those values as the standard against which they measure their work?

Second, a Lutheran institution, grounded in Holy Scripture and the church's symobls, guided by the Church's tradition, has an embarrassment of riches to share with students. If we want to help students in a serious endeavor to consider "how to live a meaningful life," then we certainly have no reason not to orient them to the gifts Christ has given his people.

Even if a majority of faculty do not agree on these values or concerns, a concerted effort by those who love the liberal arts can make a tremendous difference in the lives of individual students and can carve out a corner in any institution in which those values survive, and by God's grace, thrive.

01 March, 2010


An article in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education, "Saving the Life of the Mind," by Goldie Blumenstyk, once again raises the specter of the ugly e-word, elitism, an epithet that goes with "liberal education" like "swift-footed" goes with Achilles. Blumenstyk's article reports on how it is that certain institutions are trying to undercut the elitist epithet for "liberal education." The irony is, in the process, they are making liberal education even more elitist than before.

The argument goes something like this: liberal education has become the preserve of the few rich in the United States, and is represented at elite Top-50 or Top-100 liberal arts colleges. Meanwhile, other institutions that once had a strong liberal arts presence have, under perceive market pressures, etc., developed increasingly career-oriented curricula, where "liberal education" is represented by a weakening core of courses. The solution, according to this article, is to combine liberal education with career education. The trick is to redefine what liberal education is, and then say that what you have is liberal education. Consider this, for example:
liberal arts means not only a course of study featuring a rich mix of disciplines in the arts and sciences, but also an education that emphasizes skills such as complex problem solving and requirements that students learn to apply classroom curricula to real-world experiences
On the positive end of things, this is a frank realization of the vitality and centrality of liberal education to the higher education enterprise. As the article notes, students at career-oriented institutions like Hamline in St. Paul and LaGuardia Community College are getting some exposure to some elements of liberal education. And yet, it is difficult to understand in just what way this is not essentially a re-tread of the old approach that eroded liberal education in the first place.

This approach is problematic in other ways, too. Is a rhetorical composition class subsumed under a business program the same kind of rhetorical composition offered and exercised in a liberal education? The question is rhetorical. The answer is no. Such a course may have elements of its liberal self, but it is certainly not the same thing.

In the last analysis, in spite of such approaches, or perhaps even because of them, liberal education remains as elite as it ever was, the preserve of those 50 or 100 top liberal arts colleges in the country. This has been the approach of the Lutheran colleges in the confessional ambit, as well, as we have had ample opportunity to point out. But it certainly need not have been that way; nor must it persist.