Editor’s Introduction August/September 2021: Lutheran Higher Education, Rooted and Open

[1] When my son started thinking earnestly about college, he was pretty sure he wanted to major in biology and environmental science, but his high school studies had also centered around singing and playing the tuba.  I told him, that with a very few exceptions, the best liberal arts schools that, also, offered excellent music education are ELCA colleges.  Plus all four of his grandparents had attended Lutheran colleges, as had his great grandfather.  Thus persuaded, he was willing to go on an ELCA college tour.

[2] Our campus tours were delightful.  We visited Capital University, the only ELCA university with its own conservatory of music.  We looked at the stave church that had been rebuilt on Augustana College’s campus in Rock Island.  We admired the tributes to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation that were highlighted at Wittenberg University.  He was enamored by the sweet hospitality of Luther College’s music students and faculty.  We admired the diversity and the city living offered by Augsburg University. Carthage, Roanoke, St. Olaf, California Lutheran, and Pacific Lutheran University were all considered. In the end, Gustavus Adolphus was his overwhelming favorite. After helping him move into his dorm room in St. Peter, Minnesota, in September of 2019, our family sat in the chapel with him listening to all the other families  sing in harmony with perfect pitch the lovely lyrics of  Thomas Troeger’s beautiful hymn, “Praise the Source of Faith and Learning.” The song felt right for students embarking on a new learning journey.

[3] Troeger, is a Presbyterian, who wrote this hymn for an event at Duke University.  But it has become a favorite on Lutheran campuses. The song reminds the singers that students who are rooted in a faith that God is the source of wonder and passion for learning must be open to exploring the world in all its diversity even as they trust that there is a loving purpose beyond what can be calculated.

[4] This rooted and open understanding of education has Augustinian roots.  Faith must seek understanding, demanded the African Doctor.  And, the former Augustinian monk, Dr. Martin Luther,  was an advocate for both faith and learning.  We so often emphasize Luther the pastor, that we forget to remember that Luther remained also a university professor throughout his entire career. He was certainly an advocate for education as we can see in his 1530 Sermon on Keeping Children in School,[i] and an advocate for life long disputation and dialogue, as we can see in his disputations and table talks.  Moreover, his Reformation theology and Augustinian epistemology has grounded and continued for over 500 years to inspire deeper study and new creativity in music, art, philosophy, and science among Lutheran musicians, artists, philosophers, and scientists around the world.

[5] In 2018, The Board of Directors of the Network of ELCA Colleges and Universities endorsed Rooted and Open to articulate and celebrate the common calling among NECU institutions.  This issue of JLE discusses that calling and in turn calls readers to consider how the church and its congregants can work to serve these institutions as important places where critical and creative thinking flourishes, especially at this moment in time.

[6] Rev. Dr. Guy Erwin’s piece starts off the issue.  He explains his own journey in the church and in academia in a thoughtful essay that calls the reader to consider how academics, church leaders, and laity need to examine their hearts, explore their vocations, and work together so as not to rescue the church but to serve ourselves and our neighbors as we seek to live faithfully.

[7] Next, Dr. Courtney Wilder’s essay provides a snapshot of how her teaching at Midland College during the pandemic was rooted in Luther’s theology and, thus, encouraged students to consider over and over the question “What does this mean?” as they sought to understand themselves, their world, their circumstances, and their vocations.

[8]  The final four essays are part of a larger project, an edited volume titled So That All May Flourish: The Aims of Lutheran Higher Education, an edited volume that will be published from Fortress Press in 2022.  This volume will contain essays from more than fifteen contributors who discuss the core commitments, distinctive strengths, and contemporary callings of ELCA colleges and universities.  For this issue of JLE,  Rev. Dr. Mark Wilhelm, the executive director for NECU, explains the purpose of Rooted and Open and provides an introduction to the new volume of essays.

[9] Next, Dr. Martha Stortz’s essay demonstrates how the commitments of Lutheran education are a foundation that provide hospitality to students of other faiths and open Lutheran students to the importance of interfaith dialogue. Dr. Vic Thasiah’s essay relates how Lutheran schools are grounded in a service to neighbor that links anti-racism work to ecological care of creation.  Dr. Deanna Thompson’s piece specifically points to ways that Lutheran colleges help students deal with contemporary events and trauma.

[9] In this difficult age, when there is grave concern about our capacity to work together across differences in order to serve our neighbors even as they and we suffer systemic racism, an ongoing global pandemic, and dangerous weather due to climate change, this issue of JLE discusses the importance of life long faith and learning as it is taught in ELCA colleges, universities, and churches.

[10] It has been two years since leaving my son at Gustavus Adolphus as a freshman.  The first six months, I was able to visit and to attend concerts and lectures on campus.  But then, the pandemic meant no parent weekends or family campus visits after March of his freshman year and throughout his sophomore year.  But his texts and phone calls, along with those of the president and staff, let me know of all that was happening and reminded me of ways I can support my student and all students there.  May this issue of JLE similarly connect off-campus readers to on-campus students and workers as we see how church and academy must work together to grow in understanding of our world in order to better serve its needs.


[i] See Luther’s Works, Volume 46.

Jennifer Hockenbery

Jennifer Hockenbery serves as Editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics .  She is Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Humanities at St Norbert College. She attends Grace Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI.