The Idea of a Lutheran University

Mark D. Tranvik, Professor of Religion

To begin, my apologies to John Henry Newman, who wrote a famous essay called “The Idea of a University” in the middle of the nineteenth century. My effort will be a pale imitation of his, but we share the same intent: articulate the purpose of higher education in a complicated and confusing age. So we move to consider Augsburg University. Just what does it mean to be a Lutheran institution of higher learning in the early twenty-first century?

Let’s begin by reminding ourselves that Augsburg is a Lutheran university. Our mission statement could not be clearer. This is a school “guided by the faith and values of the Lutheran church.” Now many in academia will be confused by this claim. It will frighten some because they have seen the ways religion has been used as a weapon to silence all but members of a privileged club of faith. They want to downplay the school’s religious commitments, seeing religion as a source of rancor and division that is best tolerated and diluted. Or given the current political landscape, others will identify any faith with right-wing politics and the unholy alliance many have made with the Republican party and the current president.

But Augsburg is actually up to something far different. The Lutheran faith is rooted in the sixteenth century teachings of the German reformer, Martin Luther. His central insight is that our fundamental human identity is not earned, merited or deserved but rather given freely in an act of love in the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This in turn liberates men and women to embrace vocations or callings that serve all of their neighbors. It needs to be stressed that the Lutheranism professed at Augsburg is a generous and humble faith. It is grounded in a divine generosity that is radically open to the world. It listens carefully to those who have no faith, to those who have questions about faith and to those who embrace a faith whether that be Christian, Muslim, Jewish or another tradition. Lutheranism does not have all the answers and does not seek to be monolithic. It recognizes that everyone benefits from a genuine engagement with those who have differing views.

This brings me to the importance of faith at Augsburg. I have taught here almost a quarter of a century. I have noticed an increasing divergence in that time between the faith of the faculty and the faith of students. The faculty has become more secular for a wide variety of reasons, most of them cultural. Our students, however, are more interested in faith than ever. As Augsburg has become more diverse, it has become less Lutheran. There are far fewer “church kids” in our classrooms, that is true. But based on my experience of teaching over 100 students every year in our introductory course (Religion 100), there is a much higher interest in religion and faith than there was in my early years of teaching. Now we have fascinating, illuminating and unpredictable conversations between Baptists, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, Muslims, Jews and agnostics. I can say unequivocally it is a much richer classroom experience than when Augsburg’s student body was half Lutheran. So…yes, our students have changed. They are more interested in faith than the previous generation and generally pleased to be at a school which honors that interest.

Further, Augsburg, like all schools, wants to be student-centered. And our students want their education not only to be about what they are going to do but also about who they are. This gets us into the realm of vocation, and Augsburg has resources particular to it which can be of immense help.  Now, let it be noted that the religion department does not own the “meaning” issue. Questions about direction and purpose in life are explored across the curriculum. But the distinctive Augsburg and Lutheran approach to those questions involves vocation, and this is where the religion department has a special teaching role. We eat, drink and sleep vocation in a way the rest of the college does not.

Finally, we must ask the question: What makes Augsburg University unique?   Our mission statement is pretty generic with the exception of the clause, “guided by the faith and values of the Lutheran church.” The way Augsburg expresses that conviction is through vocation. It is a “thick,” counter-cultural concept that needs to be revisited regularly in the educational experience. If vocation is diminished in the new curriculum being proposed this fall, then we will be faced with the question: What distinguishes Augsburg? How would we be different from Hamline or Metro State? St. Thomas knows it is Catholic and has three required religion courses to underline this. St. Olaf and Concordia St. Paul both know they are Lutheran and require two courses each in religion. Whither Augsburg and the idea of a Lutheran university?

This article first appeared in the Friday, April 13, Edition of The Echo.