Religion: The Practice of Faithfulness
Religion is virtually inescapable at St. Olaf College, and that's a good thing for higher education, because, etymologically, religion is an art of connections. From the Latin "religare," the word "religion" means "to bind together," and religion is meant to bind people to God, people to each other, and people to the creation. A college with a religious perspective, therefore, is committed to investigating the ties that bind people in meaningful relationships in Creation. It has cosmic significance, because it's committed to seeing how human beings fit into the cosmos.
St. Olaf is committed to the interplay of faith and learning. Richard Hughes suggests that all human beings live by faith, because there isn't enough empirical fact to justify even their daily behavior. If you wait for enough undisputed facts to tell you how to act in the world, you're going to wait a long time. So, even if you don't think of yourself as religious, you act on a minimal kind of faith in many aspects of your life. You place your faith in some facts and not others, some authorities and not others, some ways of thinking and not others.
But many human beings place their faith not only in facts or human authorities, but also in God. For them (and for many of us) religion is important not because it fills the gaps of fact and conviction, but because it fulfills our lives as human beings. Faith isn't just the way we deal with what we don't know; it's how we deal with what we know too. It's a form of trust in the shape of the universe: as Martin Luther King said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Theology is important because it tells us about things we need to know, and can't find anywhere else. At a college of the church, faith can inform reason and vice versa, and both of them can bend toward justice.
Still, although St. Olaf is an expression of a church, faith is not its central purpose. Even a church-related college is not a church. A good liberal arts college is a good thing, whether it's church-related or not. And there's religion at a good liberal arts college, whether it's intentional or not. The difference between a church-related liberal arts college and a secular institution is a matter of intentionality and practice. Although church relations can sometimes make liberal education less liberal, a good church relation can make a good liberal arts college more liberating, because it adds critical perspectives to the life of the mind.
This section, therefore, considers what religion does to the liberal arts, and vice versa. It explores several questions. What good is a college for a church? What good is a church for a college? Why should religious people be involved in higher education? How does St. Olaf understand its involvement in higher education? How does religion intersect with the life of the mind at St. Olaf? How is religion a part of our community life?
At St. Olaf, we are committed to religion as a matter of content, context, contest, and conduct. We believe that religious study, including theology, should be a significant part of the content of a liberal arts curriculum, because religion is an integral part of the individual, intellectual and institutional lives of human beings. Theology offers ways of thinking carefully about faith, which is an experience of trust in God. We believe that religion--and theology--should shape the context of academic studies, both in and out of the classroom, by adding questions and perspectives to our intellectual lives. We believe that religious claims--like all other claims at a college--should be contested. At a college, religion can't be just what we presume or assume; it's an intellectual matter, a matter of thoughtfulness and mindfulness, of argument and conversation.
Finally, we believe that religion should shape the conduct of life, not just on Manitou Heights but in the whole world. Lutherans--and many other religious people--call this religious dimension of the conduct of life "vocation." At St. Olaf, the answer to the question "What is college ultimately for?" is "A life of worth and service." We learn for the joy of knowing, but inert ideas are not enough. We expect ideas to be applied--in the workplace, at home, in politics, in voluntary organizations--in service to others.
Conversations are an essential way to make the connections that are at the heart of religious life. At St. Olaf, we actively invite varieties of religious (and non-religious) people to conversations about the importance of religion in life and culture. The mission of St. Olaf College is religious, but it isn't sectarian. It derives from an understanding of God and God's ways in the world, but it doesn't require a belief in God for productive participation in the community. This college is not the best place for everybody, but the college's religious commitments should enhance rather than inhibit all people's participation in this educational community.
Why (and How) Lutherans Do Higher Education
When Lutherans go to college, they go with historical precedents, following in Martin Luther's footsteps. Luther was a monk with a master's degree and a doctorate in theology. The reform movement that took his name emerged from the university, and had both religious and
intellectual roots. Luther's basic belief in the free gift of God's grace, for example, wasn't just a whim; it was an intellectual insight derived from the scholarly exegesis of scripture. Luther issued his 95 Theses at the University of Wittenberg, because he welcomed disciplined argument about his ideas.
Luther appreciated the life of the mind for several different reasons. For him, faith was never superstition, or dumb (and dangerous) belief. People needed to know how to read to understand the Scriptures. A confessional church--one defined by a set of theological principles--needed (and still needs) members to understand, interpret and apply the principles of the faith. People informed by faith and reason needed to be able to say which was which, and how they worked together. Luther, therefore, wanted people (and not just Lutherans) to use reason, experiment and experience to satisfy their curiosity and help them live better. Convinced that the church should be semper reformanda--always reforming--he expected them to study their traditions in order to shape them for their children. He would have appreciated the recent observation that "to be a Lutheran in the United States means always to be asking, 'What does it mean to be a Lutheran?'"
Luther's interpretation of the "two kingdoms" of God also affected his understanding of education. He believed that the world was God's gift to humanity, and that God governed it in two complementary ways. On the one hand--the right hand--God governs through the gospel and grace, offering a message of incarnate love, and a call for fallen people to repent and to be reconciled with their Creator. God addresses the gospel directly to each person, and calls for a personal response, a response that is itself a gift of God's grace. This kingdom emphasizes the holy and the sacred, the intersections of nature and the supernatural.
God also governs the creation through law--through the laws of nature, and the laws and customs of human societies. In the human sphere, God works through social structures to bring order and justice to a disordered world. Families, communities, economic institutions, and governments take responsibility for responsible action in the world, restraining people from harming each other, and encouraging them to be good for each other. "More than any great Christian leader before him," Reinhold Niebuhr suggested, "Luther affirmed the life in culture as the sphere in which Christ could and ought to be followed; and more than any other he discerned that the rules to be followed in the cultural life were independent of Christian or church law." While love and mercy are the core of the one kingdom, order and justice are the focus of the second. On the left hand, the secular kingdom isn't supernatural; it doesn't emphasize holy ground or sacred rituals or spirituality. But it's not profane; it's just religious in a different way. God works in ways that we can see, and in ways that we can't. Lutherans don't believe that God is absent from this second kingdom, but present in common and creative ways. For Luther and Lutherans, then, being fully religious is not different from being fully human--it's a way of being fully human.
Education serves the goals of God's second kingdom, educating people to understand God's creation, to act as stewards of it, and to serve each other in their common life. In Luther's worldview, education prepares people for both general and particular vocations in the world. As he thought about vocation, Luther realized that the fact of God's saving grace freed people from the merely instrumental purposes of work. If people were saved by grace alone, then their works (and work) could be an act of gratitude and service. Unlike other religious traditions that privileged the religious life of clergy and cloisters, Luther preached the priesthood of all believers, the multiple ministries of human beings for each other, the religious practices of everyday life. This comprehensive view of vocation expanded the arena of education, as it prepared students for service--personal and professional, civic and political--in the world.
Luther also valued education for the secular public welfare. In an impassioned argument for Christian schools, he contended that "the welfare of a city does not consist solely in accumulating vast treasures, building mighty walls and magnificent buildings, and producing a goodly supply of guns and armor. Indeed, where such things are plentiful, and reckless fools get control of them, it is so much the worse and the city suffers even greater loss. A city's best and greatest welfare, safety, and strength consist rather in its having many able, learned, wise, honorable, and well-educated citizens." Like Jefferson and other Americans of the revolutionary generation, Luther expected people to learn about public issues, and to contribute to the commonwealth.
Luther didn't think of God's two governances as dichotomous. In fact, Luther's conception of two kingdoms is essentially dialectical and dialogical. Both kingdoms are God's, and people are responsible for keeping them in conversation with one another. Luther never imagined that a church--or churched people--could be anywhere other than in this world. He never imagined that religion could be a purely private affair. Conversely, Luther never imagined that the so-called "real world" could be real without the interventions of common grace. The beauty of the "two kingdoms" metaphor was that it gave Luther (and us) a way of appreciating ambiguity, and of recognizing that multiple layers of life can and do exist at the same time. It helps us understand, for example, how people can be both saints and sinners, both rational and rationalizing, both serving and selfish--all at the same time.
De-emphasizing the scholastic and pietistic traditions of religious education, Luther's interpretation of two kingdoms established a critical tradition in education that offered interdependent autonomy for both spheres. At St. Olaf, we have embraced this tradition. We understand Lutheran higher education to be a very catholic Lutheran tradition, embracing many valuable understandings of Christian faith and learning. It's a kind of Christian humanism celebrating the wide world of inquiry and scholarship both for itself, for the insights it brings to the Christian tradition, and vice versa.
What this means is that St. Olaf doesn't have to be academically unique as a liberal arts institution to be faithfully Lutheran. We don't believe in Lutheran mathematics or biology or sociology or history, even though we may believe that Luther and other Lutherans may have interesting things to say in these areas. Liberal education at St. Olaf doesn't have to be baptized or Christianized to be good; it's already good. As Luther said, a Christian cobbler makes good shoes, not inferior shoes with crosses on them. We have a Lutheran warrant for our excellence in the liberal arts, for using our gift of reason to probe and prove, to experiment and experience, to sing and dance and symbolize. We even have a Lutheran warrant for the agnostic faculty member who may teach irreligious students about Luther or Kierkegaard or Buddha or Darwin or Virginia Woolf. But we also have a warrant for keeping our faculty and students in conversation with religious traditions, even in a document like this. We are distinctively Lutheran both by our educational excellence, which is good in itself, and by our commitment to critical conversations within and between the kingdoms of God.
Religious Foundations of St. Olaf
In its 125 years, St. Olaf has embodied the Lutheran practice of semper reformanda, asserting its mission and identity in new contexts that have demanded new formulations of the creative tension between the two kingdoms of God. American culture has changed a lot since 1874. People have different experiences and expectations. The churches have changed, and St. Olaf's church relation is different now than it was in the nineteenth century. Higher education has changed too, and St. Olaf has tried to adapt the best practices of American higher education. Students in the early twenty-first century are different than students of the late-nineteenth century. St. Olaf embodies a living tradition. We aren't traditionalists, locked in an academic or religious fundamentalism. But we aren't just blowing in the winds of change either: we have roots, and they hold us to ideas and values that we interpret for our own time. The light isn't dying here: when the first candles of inspiration burned near the nub, we've had the good sense to transfer the flame to new ones.
St. Olaf College was founded by religious people for several reasons, and one of them was religion. When St. Olaf began, the intellectual and cultural foundation of the college was the Norwegian Lutheran tradition of Christian religion. Because they believed that a Christian way of thinking and acting in the world was a good thing, our founders took care to pass that good gift on to the younger generation. In addition to providing higher education for men and women, the Articles of Incorporation promised "to preserve the pupils in the true Christian faith as taught by the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and nothing taught in contravention with the convention of said church." Even in 1874, though, St. Olaf chose a creative tension between the two kingdoms of God. Unlike the creative possibilities offered at other Norwegian-Lutheran institutions, St. Olaf was not founded as a seminary, nor was it connected to a divinity school. In 1874, it didn't even have an official church sponsorship. President Mohn captured this dynamic tension when he explained that "our school is not what is called a `school of religion,' yet it is for the sake of religion that this school was founded."
By 1918, the college catalogue promised "a higher education on the basis of the Christian faith as taught in the Evangelical Lutheran Church." By the mid-Thirties, the catalogue suggested that the college emphasized Lutheran doctrines and traditions, but "no propaganda with respect to those who may belong to other denominations." By the mid-Sixties, St. Olaf took "the position that men and women are called by God to faith and service. Accordingly, it provides the opportunity for worship and seeks to graduate students who are morally sensitive and theologically literate."
In 1974, the Identity and Mission statement interpreted the original St. Olaf mission of establishing a college "for the purpose of giving young men and women a higher education in harmony with the Christian faith" as a call to provide a "Christian context" for higher learning. This context consisted of institutional support to preserve the insights and values of the Christian heritage, and of professorial support for a dialogue between the disciplines and Christian faith. To Harold Ditmanson, chief author of the 1974 statement, such a goal was not sectarian. But it did support "the conviction that no member of the community should be able to avoid being brought face to face with his own ultimate commitments and with the persistent problems of human life to which Christian faith speaks."
Today, we affirm St. Olaf's religious heritage and commitments, and we now shape that reformed and reforming tradition for our posterity. We think we serve our students best--and all of higher education too--not by being officially uncommitted or noncommittal, but by committing ourselves to a particular tradition that offers substantial leverage in approaching questions of religion and the liberal arts. We believe that, in this case, particularity is the best way to general usefulness. Higher education in America is best served, not by the development of manufactured McColleges, but by the preservation of a variety of different educational traditions. The Lutheran tradition is one of them, offering a theological understanding of education that enhances the best practices of the liberal arts tradition. Both Lutherans and non-Lutherans can learn a lot from it, as they might also in the specific traditions of other denominations.
Committed to the critical model of religious education, to the dialectic and dialogical principles of Lutheran educational philosophy, we intend to keep the contemplation of sacred and secular in close proximity. At St. Olaf, it's significant that the Chapel and the Library are connected by the Commons--faith and reason are united by the conversational spaces that bring them together.
Telling the Truth, For God's Sake
At St. Olaf we try to be intentional about the intersections between religion and liberal education. First and foremost, because we are a college, we are committed to telling the truth. Like faculty at every other institution of higher education in America, the faculty at St. Olaf have a responsibility to seek and share their interpretations of the truth, and their particular passion for the truth. Some of us do this for religious reasons, and understand our work as vocation; others of us do it because of professional propriety (which often derives from long-forgotten religious warrants). In either case, within Luther's framework of two kingdoms, this is what you would expect. In either case, this commitment to a quest for truth is the primary way that the faculty--religious and secular--fulfill the religious mission of a college of the church. At St. Olaf, it's the way that the students and faculty--both called to be seekers of truth--are involved in a rich convocation of individual vocations.
A college of the church can pay particular attention to truths that make people uncomfortable. We can follow the truth wherever it leads. In a world where scientific truths can be a matter of life or death, it's important to investigate the way the world works. In a world where human relations are in need of improvement, we need social scientists to say how our social world works. In a culture often at odds with its values, it's essential to think clearly about what we ultimately value, and why. In a society that often shades and spins the truth, colleges have a critical role in setting things straight.
Sometimes, therefore, it's essential to speak truth not just to our students, but to power. Colleges can be a truth serum for the churches and the culture, speaking in the prophetic voice of the Christian tradition. St. Olaf's 1974 Identity and Mission statement suggests that "as a point of intersection between the church and the world, the college can serve to articulate and emphasize the social responsibilities of the church. The church has been sensitive to the spiritual and personal needs of those with whom it comes in contact, but it has found it more difficult to be sensitive to the ways in which personal injuries are often the result of social injustices. . . . A major impediment to this kind of sensitivity is an inability to acquire perspective on present action and policies. The evil done in other times or by other persons, institutions, or nations seems clear. The evil done in one's own time by one's own institutions or nation is not seen so clearly. A college can provide this perspective by its habit of seeing actions and policies in wider historical, social, and cultural perspective." Often, it seems, provocation is a part of the academic vocation. Often, Christ and culture are in uneasy tension. Often, careful study gives Protestants (and others) something to protest about.
Since the ultimate values for a college of the church also transcend the cultural values surrounding it, a church related college can challenge worldly claims to ultimacy. It can speak the truth about the culture that it serves. In Earth in Mind, for example, David Orr notes that a conventional measure of academic success is successful people. He contends, however, that "the plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage. . . . And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture defines it." Where other institutions may uncritically accept the norms of the culture, a church-related college has the responsibility to evaluate (and sometimes challenge) them.
A church relation can also be a corrective for a college, not in calling it to be a church, but in truthfully reminding it to be faithful to its commitments as a college. Since the ultimate values for a college of the church transcend the liberal arts tradition, a church-related college enjoys a critical perspective that can remind liberal artisans of their own best insights. It can remind all of us of the humane and humanizing purposes of liberal education. It can critique the narrow vocationalism of higher education with a more robust conception of vocation. It can remind critical cynics of the goodness of the world; it can help uncritical absolutists to contextualize values. It can remind objectivists of the need for evaluation and judgment. It can challenge practitioners of all the disciplines to consider issues like the character of human beings and the demands of justice. It can help pedant professors remember that their real subjects are students, and truth, not the disciplines. A college of the church can lobby against the fragmentations of the academy, asserting the unity of truth and the wholeness of students. It can affirm learning as a good for its own sake; and it can call learners to think about how their learning serves their communities.
Why We Study Religion
Good thinking is, of course, a good thing, as is telling the truth. But it's not quite good enough at St. Olaf. Unlike many liberal arts colleges, we also focus explicitly on religion in the life of the mind and in the lives of the people of the world. We teach religion to let students dive deeper into themselves and their traditions. We think critically about the cultivation and preservation of Christian learning. We teach students about Christian ways of being in the world. We do this in several ways, and for several reasons. We do it, first, because, like St. Olaf's founders, we think that Christian ways of thinking and acting in the world are a good thing, and we want younger people to know about this tradition--in some depth. When conversations in the classroom go deep, we don't have to stop.
We teach students about religion, second, because religion matters to most Americans. Eighty-five percent of Americans have received religious training as children. As a matter of practice, two-thirds of Americans belong to a church or synagogue or mosque. And on any given weekend, about 40 percent of us will show up for services. We are, by many measures, one of the most religious nations on earth.
Third, we critically converse about religion because even Americans committed to living a religious life lack a language and a contextual framework for thinking seriously about that challenge. Contemporary American religion, says pollster George Gallup, lacks biblical roots. "Most Americans are hard-pressed to say what they believe and why." Sometimes this religious illiteracy is the fault of the churches. Robert Wuthnow, for example, has considered how religion affects our lives at work, which is--aside from sleep--the thing we do most in our lives. He finds that Sunday sermons don't tell us much about Monday decisions, and that most of us don't think much about how religious teachings affect the way we work and spend the money we earn. As a result, religious people don't act discernibly different during the workweek. Like cultural chameleons, we tend to blend into the crowd. Even in matters of religion, the churched and the unchurched in America have a lot in common, differing most on matters of personal freedom. And in that area, it seems, church people are experiencing a conversion experience to the unchurched point of view, becoming increasingly suspicious of the so-called "narrow" strictures of religion. The serious study of religion can help our students cope critically and constructively with these cultural pressures.
A fourth reason for including religion in the liberal arts curriculum is because we want to offer people social and intellectual support for their religious commitments. Most Americans believe that religion is important to them, but they're not so sure that it's important to anyone else. In a very telling juxtaposition, one survey found that 66 percent of Americans think that religious faith provides important guiding principles for their lives. But only 18 percent think that religious faith is an important part of most people's lives. We don't see much social support for our religious commitments. The culture--and its colleges--seems to see religion as a private matter, sequestered on Sundays, but having little to do with the so-called "real world." This college sees it differently.
A fifth reason for the practice of religion and theology as liberal arts is that both the Western intellectual tradition and the American academic traditions are immensely religious. The Christian heritage is a constitutive element of Western civilization, whether we like it or not. It's hard to make sense of Dante or Milton or Martin Luther King without a fairly strong sense of Christianity. It's not entirely truthful to consider a painting of a "Madonna and Child" as a mom and her kid, or a cathedral as just a big building. It's hard to understand the Declaration of Independence without understanding Jefferson's sense of "Nature's God." It's not intellectually honest to teach American history without teaching the history of religion. And it's virtually impossible to understand contemporary American society without understanding American religion, although lots of academics try. Still, American higher education often overlooks this matter that matters to Americans. In many disciplines, religion is just an afterthought.
A final reason for the academic practice of religion and theology is diversity. Honoring Luther's insistence on the extensive scope of the intellectual community, St. Olaf can encourage an academic and theological dialogue with people (both on campus and elsewhere) who aren't Lutheran or Christian. These conversations help all of us to sharpen our sense of the truth, and our appreciation for the varieties of religious experience. As Martin E. Marty observes, Lutherans know that they have the truth, but they also know that they're not the only ones who do. If we are all faithful to the truth (and not just to our truth), we find that we have something to learn from different believers and non-believers alike. Practicing this kind of epistemological humility, we enhance the possibility of finding the truths that help us in our continual reforming.
In its broadest sense, the Christian heritage is also a constitutive element of almost all American colleges, and not just the church-related ones. Any good American educational institution should pursue critical studies of Christianity, if only to understand itself. But the church-related liberal arts college can carry on an intelligent conversation with the Christian tradition in a place where there is institutional interest in the conversation, a disposition to treat the tradition and its religious practices with generosity, and yet a willingness to submit it to genuine critique. And especially at a Lutheran college, the critique is essential; if the critique isn't genuine, then the enterprise isn't worth pursuing because we lose the dialectical and dialogical qualities that are essential to a Lutheran educational philosophy.
A college of the church can challenge mistaken assumptions about religion, and about its role in the world. A college of the church can speak truth in such a way that it helps people think clearly about religion in their lives and culture(s). It can assist the vast majority of Americans who have religious commitments, but lack the intellectual and social resources to live them out well. A college of the church can speak the truths of religion and about religion to a culture that needs that truth. At St. Olaf, we are committed to doing this in intersecting and overlapping ways. We require certain forms of study, and we encourage many others.
How We Study Religion
We require the disciplined study of the Bible, for example, not as a call to conversion or worship, but as a call to understanding the central scripture of Christianity, and arguably the central text of the Western tradition. The Christians among us believe that the Bible contains the inspired word of God, a revelation of God's activity in creation and redemption, of the patient work of maintaining a (sometimes thankless) relationship with imperfect people. Others find the Bible inspiring if not literally inspired, and study the inspiration that it has provided to people and societies, art and music, theater and literature in Western cultures. One of the most-read books of all time, it merits careful consideration by Christians and non-Christians alike.
St. Olaf also requires the disciplined study of theology, a liberal art. As liberal artisans, we invite students to think carefully and rationally about God and the implications of God. We ask students to address specifically religious questions, especially those posed by the Christian tradition. Like the other disciplines of the college, theology is a way of thinking--both critical and normative--developed and developing over time. It embodies a community of inquiry that has helped human beings to make sense of their lives and their world for a long time. Theological literacy includes (at the very least) Biblical knowledge, the practice of the discipline of theology, ethical understanding, and a contextual understanding of religion and culture. Its characteristic questions, theories, methods, and practices help students to "read" and make sense of a variety of big questions in their lives.
St. Olaf is also committed to the academic study of Ethical Issues and Normative Perspectives. As late as the 19th century, a college student's final academic experience was a course in moral philosophy, taught by the college president. The presumption was that a college education would inevitably lead students to certain conclusions, and that the college president could tell them what those conclusions were. The assumption was, as Peter Gomes reminds us, that "people do not teach themselves to be good," so somebody else has to do it. Contemporary St. Olaf presidents no longer teach capstone courses in moral theology, but they still do preach occasionally in the daily chapel service. We don't presume, as some of our predecessors did, that either education or religion lead all people to the same place, nor do we believe in the omniscience or infallibility of college presidents. But we do believe that ethical literacy is a reasonable goal of undergraduate education, and we consider it part of our mission to help students shape a moral philosophy for themselves--both individually and collectively.
The required upper-level course in Ethical Issues and Normative Perspectives--often in a student's major discipline--analyzes ethical issues from a variety of perspectives (including Christian theological perspectives) that show students how important norms of justice and guides for moral reasoning might work in the world. Like the nineteenth-century capstone course in moral philosophy, this course challenges students to think about the ethical implications of their education and their experience. It challenges students to think seriously about the goodness of the good life, and to consider a variety of ways of acting well in the world. It invites students to understand and develop their own perspective by setting it in conversation with other perspectives in ways that enhance both personal commitment and respect for difference.
Less formally, but no less intentionally, St. Olaf is committed to the study of the Christian tradition, and of religious practice throughout the world. The Religion Department offers courses that introduce students to the fundamentals of Christian belief and practice. These students learn not just what others have taught, but also how to form their own reasoned views of religious issues. Complementing their global studies, they gain an understanding of how religious symbols, beliefs, rituals and texts--especially the traditions of Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam--have influenced the human cultures of the world. In other departments of the college, too, religious questions and concerns can be a part of the best professional practice. Throughout the curriculum, faculty and students can converse freely and deeply about the religious dimensions of human experience. Historians may consider the impact of religious ideas and institutions on reform movements; English professors may highlight the religious imagery in classic (and contemporary) literature; sociologists and anthropologists may address the interweaving of religion in the social life of the world's peoples; biologists can address the religious questions raised by discussions of biotechnology. In other academic aspects of the college, too, we can take religious questions seriously. St. Olaf is internationally known, for example, for its exemplary program of choral music. A large number of St. Olaf students sing in a choir. A large part of the choral tradition is sacred music, and at St. Olaf, we can take the sacredness of the music seriously. Sacred music is not just words and notes on a page; it's a system of meaning and expression, and it is, for God's sake, religious. And it helps that all of these studies take place in a context of regular religious practice. Seeing your Chemistry professor in Chapel, for example, is one way to learn that faith and reason are not incompatible.
Religion and the Art of Freedom
Properly construed, the Christian religion is about the practice of freedom. Properly understood, few things are as liberating as Christianity. People are created with free will, and they freely use it--sometimes to no good effect. After the Fall, freedom is neither a natural condition or an earned achievement, but another gift--a gift of God's love in redemption. The response to this God-given freedom is to take the risk of moral action, doing the best you can, and knowing that, in any case, God does love you. A liberal arts education can help students discern the good, and to incarnate it in their lives.
Within a Lutheran framework of two kingdoms, Christian education is also about the practice of free inquiry. Within this framework, people are saved by God, and not by human accomplishments. Because we are not saved by intelligence or academic degrees or a certain GPA--but by God's free grace--we are free to think about anything. Assuming that in God's creation truth always complemented faith, Luther could support the passionate pursuit of truth. Free academic inquiry is, to some extent, a consequence of Christian freedom.
Free inquiry is not always easy, or free of significant consequences. Usually, it's just the opposite. Sometimes, at a college, you find that what you learn confirms what you believe. Sometimes, you find that what you learn challenges what you believe, and that you have to search deeper for the resolutions of understanding and belief. Sometimes the challenges result in harmonies, other times in dissonance. Sometimes this counterpoint of mind and soul leads to transformation. Sometimes this transformation is dramatic, and other times nobody but yourself knows it.
Religion and Community Life
A college connects with religion primarily on intellectual terms. But a church-related college may have other connections. Because religion is a theory and practice of connections, it keeps the mind connected to other elements of human life. Lots of colleges claim to educate the whole person, but what exactly do they mean by "whole?" When a college of the church claims to educate the whole person, the whole includes the holy. Such a college assumes that students have brains and bodies, but it also assumes that they have souls and a spiritual life, however well developed. It believes that students (and other people too) are made in the image of God, and that God calls them (and us) to certain kinds of action in the world.
Several basic Christian teachings, therefore, affect the common life of a school like St. Olaf. Believing that people are created in God's image and likeness, we try to treat them with the dignity they inherently deserve. Believing that people are created by God to take part in the Creation, we believe that they have important things to do with their lives. Believing that people have a capacity for good and evil, we try to create institutions that make it easier to be good. We offer support for each other in the pursuit of the true and the good. Believing that people will always make mistakes sooner or later (the technical term for this is human fallibility), we believe in forgiveness and a theology of second chances. Even if some students don't believe in God, the college's foundational beliefs have benefits for them. It means that we are committed to treating people with the respect and dignity due to creatures made in the image and likeness of God--even if we don't believe in the same God, or in any God.
In a secular institution, this behavior might be called "common sense." You obviously don't have to be Christian (much less Lutheran) to be good to one another, and for one another. In part, that's because there's a lot of Christian teaching built into the social construction of American common sense. But Christian teachings also help us with some of the uncommon sense of the gospels--like the Beatitudes, or the strange mathematics of forgiving seventy times seventy.
In its community life, therefore, St. Olaf makes explicit religious connections that are only implicit at other institutions. Without being coercive, we provide opportunities for engagement, and encourage students to take religion seriously and personally. At St. Olaf, religion isn't just an academic department or a course of study, it's a part of the pattern of patterns in many students' lives. For many students, religion is not merely a subject of study, but a force that informs their lives. For members of the St. Olaf Student Congregation, for example, religion isn't just academic: it's practiced and practical. For some other students, religion is what other people do. But for virtually everybody, religion is a presence to be considered. All college convocations begin and end with prayer, and the chapel bells call people to worship every Sunday and every weekday. At St. Olaf, interest in religion isn't universal, but it isn't weird either; instead, it's just normal.
St. Olaf believes, for example, that the gospel should be faithfully proclaimed. The life of a religious community almost always involves worship. At St. Olaf, we are committed to proclaiming the gospel and providing opportunities for sharing the Word and the sacraments, and for offering thanks and praise to God. In liturgy and the sacraments, we celebrate the convergences of the natural and supernatural, the serendipities that some of us call grace. We remind people of the living tradition, and help them figure out how to keep the tradition vital. We speak the language of faith and grace and mercy and justice and forgiveness and salvation in a central place in the life of the community.
We arrange community time to signal the priorities of our lives. Because it's important, St. Olaf celebrates daily chapel in the middle of campus, in the middle of the morning, in academic prime time. At daily chapel, members of the faith community and their friends and colleagues gather to hear words of scripture, and words of reflection on those scriptures. The faithful come to share their voices in prayer and hymns and homilies. It's a place for paying attention to the spirit in the world. Chapel speakers include faculty and administrators, students and staff, connecting the words of the gospel with the worlds of their own experience and concern. We don't schedule classes or official meetings during chapel, so that the whole community is free to come together. The twenty minutes devoted to Chapel on weekday mornings are a way of telling time, even for students who never enter the Chapel. "I'll meet you after Chapel," they say, implicitly acknowledging the importance of Chapel as a time apart at the college.
Sunday services are organized by the St. Olaf Student Congregation, which is organized by the students, who are its founders, leaders, and members. Students read Scripture, sing hymns, and compose prayers that connect them to Christian traditions, to the Creator, and to Creation, including each other. They become community by sharing the sacrament of communion. Since 1951, the Student Congregation has occupied a central place in the religious life of the college, bearing witness to God's love by calling people to worship, study, stewardship, and fellowship. The Congregation's Council consists of four "commissions" that address the students response-ability to the call of the Gospel. The Worship Commission works with the college pastors and the music organizations to plan daily chapel, Sunday morning services, Sunday evening Taize, Wednesday evening compline, and festival worship services throughout the year. The Life and Growth Commission enriches the spiritual life of students with Bible study and discussion groups, speakers, forums, and concerts. The Extra-Campus Commission pays attention to the global perspectives of the congregation. And the Stewardship Commission works with the Student Government Association and the Volunteer Services to organize opportunities for students to share their gifts with others, both on and off campus.
Music and the arts are an integral part of the St. Olaf worship community. We preach the gospel in word and song and sight and movement. Liturgy is not extra-sensory perception, but it is designed for multi-sensory participation and perception. We sing hymns that harmonize ideas and aesthetics. On Sundays, six of the college choirs take turns providing music for worship. Three other musical ensembles, and a subset of the St. Olaf Dance Company also regularly contribute to worship services.
At St. Olaf, we also encourage people to incarnate their religious commitments, to embody love and justice and other virtuous abstractions. We encourage the practice of religious virtue, as well as the contemplation of it. We encourage the discernment and development that help students find a calling, a way of doing well by doing good. Even at college, we provide substantial opportunities for work in service to others. The Volunteer Network coordinates activities that allow hundreds of our students to find ways to be helpful to people on and off campus. The Student Congregation dedicates 90 percent of its budget to charitable giving. Some of this giving is local. But the congregation also maintains a global perspective, contributing to schools and missions and relief efforts all across the world. It maintains an ongoing relationship with a district of schools and churches in Tanzania, sending hundreds of books and thousands of dollars annually for scholarships, resources, facilities, and church work.
The practice of religion isn't limited to the Student Congregation, nor is the practice of service. Within the pattern of patterns that is St. Olaf College, there's a substantial religious weave. Student organizations like Inter-Religious Dialog, Christian Activities Network, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Catholic Students Association, BASIC (Brothers and Sisters in Christ) Bible Study, Inter-varsity Christian Fellowship, Student Christian Outreach and Care Ministry sponsor a variety of programs. At St. Olaf, the practice of service isn't always religious either. Several of St. Olaf's international programs are study-service combinations. St. Olaf students serve also in the college's TRIO programs--Educational Talent Search and Upward Bound. And each and every year, groups of students who propose service projects live together in the honor houses on St. Olaf Avenue.
Although these service projects are usually extracurricular, they have an impact on the academic life of the college. A recent study of the Higher Education Research Institute discovered that every one of 35 different outcomes--in academic development, civic values, and life skills--was positively influenced by students' service participation.
This practice of service doesn't end at graduation. St. Olaf is the # 1 source of Lutheran seminary enrollments from the nation's Lutheran Colleges. It has been the # 1 source of volunteers for Lutheran Volunteer Corps for every year of LVC's existence. And the college is always a leading collegiate source of Peace Corps volunteers.
As in other aspects of our college life, our commitments don't end at the borders of the campus. As Tom Christenson suggests, "we are called to explore what Christian freedom implies for a community of inquirers, not only in regard to curriculum and campus policies, but also in relation to the economic, social and political life of our institutions." Christian freedom isn't freedom from social and political life; it's freedom to shape social and political life so that it's easier to be good, and to be good for other human beings. It's freedom employed in the service of justice.
Varieties of Religious Experience
OK, so what if you're not Lutheran? What if you're Catholic or Jewish or Buddhist? What if you're an agnostic or an atheist? What if you're doubtful or indecisive? Is St. Olaf a good place for you? Can you work well here, as a professor, a staff member, or a student?
In the contemporary Lutheran tradition, the answer is "yes." It's a Lutheran thing not just to serve Lutherans, but all our neighbors as well. The call of vocation doesn't call people to serve Lutherans; it calls people to serve all of God's children, which is all of us. It's also a Lutheran tradition to learn from people who have truth to tell, by keeping Lutherans in conversation with people from other faith communities. The college doesn't require religious belief in faculty and students, but it seeks people interested in the questions that religion and theology pose for us.
St. Olaf students seem to have figured this out for themselves. About half of our students are Lutheran, but students from a great number of religious perspectives seem to flourish at St. Olaf. Almost 20 percent are Catholic, and smaller percentages are Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian and Episcopalian. But Jews and Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus are also a part of the college community. This religious multiplicity is good for all of us for many reasons, in part because it can keep all of us honest with ourselves. Agnostics can be good for the faithful--any faithful--because agnostics exemplify other ways of being and doing good in the world. Conversely, religious people can be good for agnostics, because encounters between believers and non-believers encourage both to clarify their own beliefs, to practice respect and toleration, to understand and learn from those with different worldviews. In short, like the college's international programs, the inter-religious dialogue at St. Olaf advances the central purposes of liberal education.
Because the Christian religion is about the practice of freedom, students at St. Olaf are free to make their own religious choices. They may worship or not, pray or not, sing hymns or not, join Bible study or not. And they do just that. St. Olaf schedules daily chapel and Sunday services, but not all of our students go. In religion classes, students are not graded on their religious commitments; they are graded on their understanding of religious issues. We hope that religious learning will sometimes lead to religious transformation, but we teach for the sake of learning, not for the sake of conversion. Students are free to practice their faith (or not), but they are required to think about faith. St. Olaf students must engage in the conversation and confrontation of Christ and culture, but what they say, and what they hear, is entirely up to them.
As Lutherans would expect, we haven't yet perfected the interplay of faith and theology and service. But St. Olaf does achieve many of its goals. A recent study suggests that, compared to students at flagship public universities, students at Lutheran colleges like St. Olaf find a pervasive emphasis on faith and values (84 percent for Lutheran college students vs. 35 percent of flagship university students), and they find opportunities to interact creatively with students of similar values (83 percent vs. 59 percent). Students find many more opportunities for spiritual development on our campus (79 percent vs. 24 percent), and a much better integration of values and ethics in classroom discussions (65 percent vs. 25 percent). Compared to the flagship universities, our students are much more engaged in church and religious activities (64 percent vs. 28 percent), and they learn more about their faith and values during their college years (60 percent to 10 percent). In addition, many more of our students know faculty members on campus who serve as models of spiritual life for their students (38 percent to 8 percent). While 14 percent of students at the flagship universities found help in integrating faith into other aspects of life, 60 percent of students at Lutheran colleges did.
The survey also shows that our graduates apply these values in later life. Again, compared to graduates of the flagship public universities, our graduates attach more importance to raising a family, to applying moral and ethical ideals to decisions, and to integrating faith and life. They place a higher value on contributing to their communities, promoting racial equality and other social justice concerns, and by joining organizations that help the disadvantaged. And by every measure of involvement, they are more involved with service and volunteer organizations, and with religious congregations, both as members and as leaders.
This is not bad. But still it could be better. And so St. Olaf is still semper reformanda, following our rich tradition of 125 years of experiments with ways to enlarge the circle of conversation about things that ultimately matter. As Dean Gertrude Hilleboe said in 1929, "ours is a definite program to plant the seed, to surround our students with all the constructive forces for spiritual growth that we can. We can nurture and cultivate, but we cannot force growth. We may see fruits in some, in many none, but we know that if we are faithful God will give the increase."