The College-Related Church: Collaboration for the Future
by Ernest L. Simmons, Jr.
What do those who minister in our centers of higher learning expect from the congregations of our church? The author looks toward a "college- related" church as our churches collaborate with our ministries in higher education
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect." (Romans 12:2)1
The Lutheran tradition was born in a university. The dialectical interaction of the life of the mind and the life of faith has been a hallmark of the Lutheran understanding of the gospel from the beginning. It is embodied in the interest the church has in education at all levels, including higher education.
What those of us in Lutheran higher education and campus ministries would expect from the church grows out of this tradition. We want you to know that we exist and we are the church (your church) in mission in higher education!
While we strive to be church-related colleges/universities and campus ministries, what we expect from the church is a college-related church.
What is desperately needed is an intentional collaboration between the church and her colleges/universities and campus ministries for the future. There is a need to collaborate on both leadership preparation for the church and the intellectual encounter of the Lutheran tradition with contemporary life and thought.
Make no mistake. If we do not do this, who will?
009; Congregations alone are not equipped for such an educational task and, because of the separation of church and state, we cannot expect public universities to do it. We must do it together, or it will not get done. There is an intrinsic complementarity and reciprocity in our relationship that must not be taken for granted but fostered and encouraged.
In the brief remarks that follow I would like to reflect on our historical roots and suggest some cooperative responses.
Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures.2 The human question of why always hangs suspended between the finite and the infinite. Part of the grandeur of being created in the image of God, of humus (soil) become spirit-breathed and self-conscious, is the ability to ask why. We are a form of incarnation where the spiritual is made manifest in the material precisely in the transcending of self-interest.3
009; The study of the liberal arts assists one in opening up to the transcendent dimensions of life and in so doing equips faith for meaningful expression in service to the other. That is why there has always been a close connection between liberal arts education and the Christian faith. Faith frees the mind for open inquiry and creative reflection, for we are not saved by our own understanding but by the grace of God.
009; For Martin Luther the fundamental purpose of Christian education was the preserving of the evangelical message and the equipping of the priesthood of all believers for service in the church and the world.4 For Luther and his colleague, Philip Melanchthon, one of the direct results of the theological doctrine of justification by grace through faith was public education.
Luther insisted on the Christian life being lived right in the midst of the world so that the resources of faith must be brought to play on daily work and life, not in some separated, ostensibly more holy or religious sphere such as a monastery. This means that a sharp line between the sacred and the secular cannot be drawn for the Lutheran tradition. All of the finite world can in some way become a mask for God and must therefore be kept in constant relationship with faith.
Thus a dialectical tension, the paradox of faith, stands at the heart of the Lutheran tradition precisely because Luther refused to separate the life of faith from life in the world.
In education this tension finds expression in two forms of freedom: the academic and the Christian. Unfortunately, in much of higher education today. these two forms of freedom have become separated. One can image public higher education as being conducted using only the "left hand," the hand of reason, and the "right hand," the hand of faith, being tied behind it. Public education affirms academic freedom at the cost of Christian freedom. (Hence the critical importance of campus ministry at public universities.)
Conversely, but to a lesser extent, the church can sometimes be imaged as so preoccupied with the role of faith as to de-emphasize, if not neglect, the role of reason and the intellectual life. It moves with its "left hand" tied behind itself. This too leads to disadvantages, particularly in relating faith to contemporary life and thought.
Too frequently the church can be found encouraging a rather facile faith that borders on emotionalism rather than reflective judgment and commitment. It affirms Christian freedom but perhaps at the cost of academic, intellectual freedom.
009; Obviously, the Lutheran tradition envisions higher education as employing both hands to relate faith and reason, values and reflection. For this to occur, academic freedom must be honored as well as Christian freedom. Academic freedom does not mean absolute neutrality in learning and reflection but rather the free and open debate and dialog between various understandings, including the Christian. Academic freedom assures an open playing field, not that there are no teams on the field.
The Lutheran tradition in higher education therefore demands that both freedoms be present on our campuses. To have only the "left hand" is to lose Christian freedom. To have only the "right hand" is to lose academic freedom. Public universities often embody the former and many Christian colleges only the latter.
The Lutheran difference in higher education is to insist on the dialectical relationship of both freedoms, of both hands, as they serve the will and grace of the one God as their head.
As indicated earlier, what church-related colleges/universities and campus ministries would appreciate the most is a collaborative acknowledgement of our existence on behalf of the church in mission in higher education. (In this regard, I call your attention to the excellent article by former Southwestern Minnesota Synod Bishop Stanley Olson — and currently the executive director of the ELCA Division for Ministryin the latest issue of Intersections.)5
009; There are a number of specific ways in which that kind of collaboration can be deepened. Beyond the obvious support of encouraging students to come to our institutions (a one percent increase in high school graduates from ELCA congregations would fill all 28 ELCA colleges and universities.6) and the financial help that is so essential and always appreciated, it is hoped that students would come prepared in several specific ways.
009; First of all, we would hope that a sense of wonder and curiosity has been cultivated in their lives. Wonder is at the root of faith. While our feet are of the clay, our eyes and minds scan the stars. We find our place midway between quarks and quasars in such a fashion as to contemplate both.
009; This sense of wonder cultivates creativity in all academic fields but, even more importantly, can support personal, spiritual growth in connecting faith to the wondrous complexities of life around us. This would mean that intellectual and religious curiosity is encouraged and that no questions are off the table or considered too "risky" for the Christian faith to address.
Doubt, rather than being seen as the enemy of faith, can be understood as the growing edge of faith as a finite mind seeks greater understanding and expression of the transcendent dimension in life. Wonder is at the heart of the Lutheran dialectic of faith and learning.
009; Secondly, it is hoped that students can come planted with the seeds of vocation. Why are we here? Luther's answer was vocation. We are called by God to incarnate faith through vocation as loving service in the midst of the world.7
009; Christian vocation is the living out of baptismal faith in the midst of the creation as one seeks to be a "little Christ" to one's neighbor.8 It is through our work in the world that we incarnate faith and by so doing help sustain the creation.
Vocation rejects the separation of the material from the spiritual, of nature from grace, insisting that they be kept together. It is for this reason that Luther argued against leaving the world for the cloister, for this would be to abdicate one's calling to serve God against the forces of destruction present in the world. Our role is to help young adults cultivate and refine that sense of calling. We would hope to build upon the foundation planted in their prior experiences in the faith.
009; Last, but certainly not least, it is hoped that our future students could come better informed about the Christian faith and the biblical narrative. Most of our current students are now part of the "millennial" generation (high school graduates in the year 2000 or after), the children of "Generation X" and of "Baby Boomers."
Sociologists Neil Howe and William Strauss are referring to them as "the next great generation"9 but in many cases they are two generations removed from active engagement with the Christian tradition and have little formal understanding of the Christian faith. (Some mistakenly think Moses was a disciple and Martin Luther was a civil rights leader.)
I am not trying to place blame here on parish education but rather point out the great challenge we all face in preparing the next generation of Christian, much less Lutheran, believers and leaders. This condition has many causes: family breakups, geographic mobility with the loss of a sense of place, loss of a sense for the common good, rampant individualism, media and consumer ideological influence, changes in learning and thinking styles, to name but a few.
All of us, colleges/universities, campus ministries and congregations, are on the same side in facing these challenges and we must find more intentional ways to collaborate in addressing them.
The number and diversity of these challenges means that no "one size fits all" kind of solution is going to work. The church must understand and support a diversity of approaches and responses from its programs in higher education. We in ministry in higher education must also seek to work with congregations, synods, parish pastors, and other youth ministry professionals to address the challenges in a coordinated effort. Nothing less than the continued engagement of the Christian tradition with contemporary life and thought is at stake.
This generation of young adults is very open to spirituality and concerned to serve others. We have one of the greatest opportunities in decades to empower young adults for Christian faith and service. Together, we are indeed called to assist in the renewing of minds that they might discern "...what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect."
Ernest L. Simmons, Jr. an ELCA pastor, is professor of religion at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota.
For Further Reading
- The Dying of the Light, by James Tunstad Burtchall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
- The Future of Religious Colleges, ed. by Paul Dovre [former president of Concordia College] (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002).
- How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind, by Richard Hughes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2001).
- Religion, Scholarship and Higher Education: Perspectives, Models, and Future Propects, ed. by Andrea Sterk (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame, 2002).
- The Soul of the American University, by George Marsden (Oxford, 1996).
- Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with their Religious Traditions, by Robert Benne (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).
Two related books on teaching
- The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life, by Parker Palmer (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Pub., 1998).
- Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith, by Sharon Daloz Parks (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Co., 2000).
2. Some material in this article comes from Ernest L. Simmons, Lutheran Higher Education: An Introduction (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1998), also "The Lutheran Theological Tradition and Recruiting Lutheran Students," Intersections, no. 13, Winter, 2002, pp. 4-11.
3. See John B. Cobb, Jr., The Structure of Christian Existence (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967) esp. chap. 10. Nicholas Berdyaev once observed, "To eat bread is a material act, to break and share it is a spiritual one" (quoted in Langdon Gilkey, Shantung Compound (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 229.
4. Martin Luther, "To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany that They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools, 1524" Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957), 45:347-378.
5. See Stanley Olson, "The Marks of An ELCA College: One Bishop's Reflections," Intersections, No. 15, Winter, 2002, pp. 3-10.
6. See Lutheran Educational Conference of North America, www.lutherancolleges.org. "Reclaiming Lutheran Students Survey," 1999.
7. Ernest L. Simmons, "A Lutheran Perspective on Christian Vocation and the Liberal Arts - II," The Cresset (January 1989), pp. 11-15.
8. See Luther's "The Freedom of a Christian, 1520," in Luther's Works (American Edition, Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), 31:327-77.
9. See Neil Howe and William Strauss, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (Vintage Books, 2000).