Brief Comments on “Our Calling in Education: A First Draft of a Social Statement “

[1] First of all, I give thanks to all who have served to draft this social statement. This work is both important and urgent. I won’t comment at length about its importance. That should be obvious to all who take the time to read it. Its urgency is apparent to me because I have, in the last four years or so, been a visitor at about half of the campuses of our ELCA colleges and universities. I can, therefore, attest to the fact that the issues which the task force raises in the document are issues which are being energetically discussed and debated on those campuses. The faculties and staff of these institutions are seriously asking, “What does it mean for us to be a Lutheran college or university?” “Is this only a feature of our past and not an essential feature of our present or future?” And, “Does anybody (including the ELCA and the churches in our region) care?”

Our Calling in Education
[2] From the first publication of the study document I have applauded the title of your work, “Our Calling in Education.” I believe that we can say even more than that the church has a calling to educate. One way to think about the church is to say that the church is a living manifestation of the Spirit of God in Christ, i.e. a living manifestation of the loving embrace of God for the world, an embrace that takes the form of the cross. This is the Gospel of the reign of God, a gospel that has the power to question every worldly claim to ultimacy, that gathers in all whom the world considers outsiders, that empowers the lives of those in whom Christ lives. If someone were to ask, “Well, does such a church have a calling to educate?” the only appropriate response would be to say, “You’ve got to be kidding!’ I believe that we can say that the church is a calling in education.

[3] Yet we have, unfortunately often, not seen ourselves that way. This statement that we see here in its first draft has the potentiality to address and inform those of us who are engaged in education. But more important, much more important in fact, is its potential to inspire we who are the church. So that’s the question I would ask the drafting committee. Not “Is this a theologically adequate document?” nor “Is this an appropriately balanced document?” but “Is this a document that will turn somebody’s crank? Will it make the church excited to be the church, and the schools of the church excited to be so called?”

Called to Be Stewards of Creation
[4] The section of this draft that focuses on creation [pp. 5 – 7] pays a good deal of attention to what it means to be whole persons and creatures created in the image of God. I do not fault that focus. But the document focuses very little on another aspect of the creation story, namely that we are called to be stewards of the creation. This aspect of our calling is something Christians have traditionally paid little attention to. This is probably due to the fact that until recently we could assume a kind of permanence to the creation and its richness. The steward had little to do except harvest the richness of creation for his / her own pleasure and profit. We have, I think, a dawning awareness that this assumption has been mistaken. We are belatedly coming to take seriously the question, “Are we, the greediest species, sustainable?” We have to ask ourselves, therefore, what it means to take this call to be stewards seriously and what it means for the way we educate ourselves and our students. I believe that we need to pose the question for educators at all levels, “What do we need to know about the world to be good stewards of it?” “What are the implications of this learning-serving-stewardship for the way we learn and teach the sciences, history, economics?” What reason can we possibly give for not taking this call seriously?

The Secularist Temptation
[5] Compared to many, if not most, treatments of Christian higher education, this document does not make a big deal of what is commonly seen as “the threat of secularism.” In fact this document mentions secularization only twice (p. 34, lines 4 & 7). In a short document I know one can’t explain everything, but I think it’s important to explain why we, as Lutherans, do not want to make this the focus of our thinking about higher education.

[6] Many voices writing about Christian higher education (some of them Lutheran) see American colleges and universities as having slid into the great slough of secularism and that they are in process of being sucked under. Some are almost completely gone, others half submerged, maybe one or two are still afloat. I think it is appropriate that we question that assumption, that secularism is the great enemy, and that the future of Lutheran higher education should be seen primarily as a struggle against it. This is certainly a way in which to look at the situation of ELCA colleges and universities. I will argue that it is not the best way.

[7] The main reason for my questioning that assumption, that the secular and secularists are the great enemy, is the Lutheran understanding of vocation as a call to the world, not away from it. In other words, there are some very good Lutheran reasons for not demonizing the secular.

[8] Vocation, as understood in the medieval church, was widely understood as a call away from the world, a call to the religious life, a call to worship and contemplate a God above the world mediated to the world by means of the church. Luther’s rethinking of vocation, by contrast, locates the love and service of God in the world, the presence of God in, with and under the world. If the paradigm of calling and the religious life in the medieval model is the contemplative monk, the paradigm in Luther’s model is the shoemaker, the mayor, or the parent changing the baby’s messy diaper. Luther went so far as to question whether the religious life of monk or nun was vocation at all. It was far from being the paradigm. From reading Luther’s sermons one can see the difficulty his parishioners were having making this paradigm shift. They kept thinking that they ought to be doing something more than the tasks of their station, that they should be doing something uniquely religious. Luther keeps reminding them that they need look no further than their perfectly ordinary work done in service of the genuine needs of the world to find it. The service of God is the work at hand.

[9] How are Lutherans, then, related to the world? It seems to me that we needn’t begin with the assumption that the world is a place to avoid, nor that it need be transcended, nor even that it must be transformed before we can serve in it. We may work in perfectly ordinary (i.e. non-unique) ways in perfectly secular jobs and institutions in service of the neighbor and to the greater glory of God. Like Luther’s parishioners we find ourselves habitually compelled to ask, “But shouldn’t we be doing something religious?” “Shouldn’t we be doing something that marks our work as uniquely religious or uniquely Lutheran?” I think the uniquely Lutheran thing to do would be to get beyond asking such questions, but we obviously haven’t gotten there yet.

[10] What do Lutherans bring, then, to the work of higher education? It is not, I would argue, that we do our task religiously. We have good Lutheran reasons to be suspicious of that answer. It is that we do this work seeing it as vocation, i.e. as a way to serve the deep needs of the world and the real needs of our students to the greater glory of God. The work of education in Lutheran colleges and universities should, therefore, be informed by the constant and serious re-asking of these vocational questions: “What are the deep needs of the world?” “What are the real needs of our students?” “How does our work serve those needs?” “How has the gospel freed us to do this?” “What gifts do we have to bring to this task?”

[11] I would argue that the pervasive and perennial asking of these questions is transformative. It has the power to transform who we educate, toward what we educate, and how we educate. That is to say it has implications for mission, admissions, for hiring, for curriculum and for pedagogy. It also has implications for how we explain to ourselves and others what we are about. If someone asks the question, “Why do we need Lutheran schools?” or “Why do we need Lutheran colleges and universities?” we now have a very good answer. We need such institutions because the world has deep needs, because people have real needs, and because we have been uniquely gifted to address those needs, and because we have a calling, through God’s world embracing love in Christ, to do so.