Forming a Faculty
University classroom experience in concert with a large and varied body of colleagues and the pursuit of a terminal degree for that role comprised the last 12 years of this author’s full-time service. Prior to that, my service had been as pastor among the people of God in several parishes and then as a trained Intentional Interim Pastor in traumatized congregations. My service at Concordia University, Nebraska was consummate as it gave me ample occasion to reflect on earlier (and later) years of my wondering at the source and nature of our confidence in the experience we call “Lutheran.”
As a result of it all, I am more certain today about the strengths of being Lutheran than I ever have been. My confidence at this point is not so much a result of demonstrating, as a professor of doctrine, the validity of the Lutheran tradition by its academic canons, fruitful as that exercise is. Instead, I have found the Lutheran framework to be a robust description of the Lord’s constant work in the formation of faith in Christ and love for people, a celebration of the wonder the Lord has embedded in human creativity, and a persistent goad to the pretentions of intellectual hubris. I am convinced that, to the degree that an entire faculty in any institution embraces this Lutheran formation and re-formation, that faculty becomes a fitting tool of the Spirit in a fallen world.
My recent engagement with Jacques Barzun’s magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence, was a sweeping confirmation of Romans 1:18-32: humanity’s futile efforts to secure life apart from the “knowing of God”—the way of thinking that is faith. Barzun amply explains why, officially, public education has ostensibly eschewed any effort to shape worldviews for students. But nothing and no one is neutral. Objectivity, the holy grail of Modernism’s quest for certainty and independence, is a chimera. Its pursuit has enmeshed our culture and society in contests of power over gods of our own making; and the results display themselves today in the body politic.
Interestingly enough, Barzun’s survey begins with an appraisal of the impact of freedom set afoot by Luther in the Reformation. It would seem that as soon as we humans lay hold on the pervasive actions of the Lord to secure our liberty (Genesis 2, Exodus 14, Jeremiah 31, John 8, Galatians 5) and then seek to quantify and regularize that liberty, we somehow lose it. Individuals and faculties need regularly to be summoned back to baptismal surrender, for its freeing benefits are the Lord’s doings for us and through us.
As Barzun explains, the claim for human objectivity as “Justified true belief” is the shibboleth marking what counts for knowledge in our culture of the West (and now, more and more, the rest of the world). It is the long-held dream that we can get above the vastness of the creation and secure the viewpoint of the Creator, or invade creation’s details to grasp its essence in particular. Here is the false hope: that we can strike upon that particular language and pattern of thinking by which we can “be like God.” As valuable and helpful as is the knowledge that our disciplines generate in coping with the everyday, they run the risk of becoming the wisdom that the Lord’s wisdom counts as foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:20).
Lutheran faculties and faculty members recognize the core of justification that Luther experienced 500 years ago is not scholarly accomplishment, intellectual self-satisfaction, and especially not the pursuit of the approval of a fallen world. Ultimately, the core of justification is the act of the Lord’s grace that for Christ’s sake is continually claiming and shaping us through Word and sacrament. What makes for a “Lutheran faculty,” then, is only hinted at by our public and pledged allegiance to such a viewpoint. In point of fact, this core actually takes place among us as the continual experience of law and promises shapes us as individuals and pervades our teaching and undertakings. And this we can teach to others.
I’ve been struck recently by the remarkable account of Elijah and Ahab and Jezebel as a report of the Lord’s doings not only in ancient times. I think it gives us a glimpse into the dynamics of our own struggles today in a pagan culture of worshiping the conspicuous and the controllable, and the challenge for us all of despair and for confidence of faith. I’ve grown convinced that “Lutheran faculties” happen less at Mount Carmel when the fire falls and “proves us right,” and more in solitude at Mount Horeb when the still, small voice calls us, then sends us back to the task—not unlike Luther’s tower experience with Paul’s letter to the Romans.
J. Dirk Reek, Ph.D.
Op/Ed Editor, Issues in Christian Education