Augsburg to reduce religion requirement — again?


Those leading a review of Augsburg’s general education curriculum have branded a section of their efforts as “Big Ideas.” Well, there is a really bad idea lurking in the details. And that is an implicit assumption that the university needs to reduce its religion requirement from two classes to one. Nothing is settled yet, but the momentum seems headed in this direction. There are several reasons why this is short-sighted and contrary to the school’s explicit mission as a Lutheran university.

About a dozen years ago Augsburg also went through a curriculum revision (how often do we need to do this?). At the time, the religion department agreed to reduce the number of required classes from three to two in exchange for an infusion of a theological understanding of vocation into all religion courses being taught. This was coupled with the idea that vocation would inform the rest of the curriculum as well, particularly in the Keystone courses.

The religion department readily agreed to this plan because it seemed to highlight a way to be a Lutheran institution in the twenty-first century. After all, the understanding of vocation was revitalized by Martin Luther and the Reformation. Augsburg, as a school deeply rooted in this heritage, would be a place where it was taught well. We were not promoting a “vocation lite” so prevalent in other schools. We have not flattened vocation to entail merely a “sense of purpose and meaning.” It does mean this of course but at Augsburg we have also stressed that students, faculty and staff also need to think about a calling within a transcendent dimension. They don’t have to agree but they do have to at least wrestle with a faith perspective. Similarly, those within a faith perspective need to listen to voices from a secular viewpoint. In other words, let’s have a vigorous conversation.

However, if the religion requirement is cut from two to one then this conversation will suffer greatly. The theological dimension will be diminished, calling into question our faithfulness to our mission to be “guided by the faith and values of the Lutheran church.” Let me be clear: the religion department does not own the conversation on vocation but it does have the training and expertise to inform that conversation theologically. Vocation lite is so tempting and, frankly, safe, given the secular assumptions of the academy. But does a school like Augsburg, which began a seminary (!), really want to take this path? What does such a move say to our graduates, many of whom are deeply involved in faith communities? What does it say to the “corporation” of congregations that actually owns the university? What does it say to the thousands of donors who have given to Augsburg because they saw it as a place where this faith conversation will be vital and alive?

Finally, in what can only be described as a great irony, the year 2018 will begin with the opening of a marvelous new building, the Center for Science, Business and Religion. That structure is built upon a theological understanding of vocation. Otherwise, the housing of these disciplines in the same space makes no sense. Visitors to the CSBR will immediately sense the faith dimension when they enter the building. It is adorned with a beautiful chapel and numerous quotations from Christians and members of other faiths. Meanwhile, in another building on campus a committee meets with the apparent intention of diluting the faith dimension in the name of a generic “sense of meaning and purpose.” They have largely ignored the question of what it means to be a Lutheran university, all in the name of Big Ideas. That strikes me as a bad idea.

This article first appeared in the Friday, November 10, 2017, Edition of The Echo.