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Augustana is a Lutheran College

By Kai Swanson ’86


If there has been a constant in the past 150 years, it has been the fact that Augustana is related to the Lutheran church. But the nature of that relationship has changed no less than the student body, the curriculum or any other facet of the institution.

We started as the college of a denomination; so much so that we not only shared a name, but during our first decades almost everyone who worked at the college was also an ordained pastor of the church. Through the first half of the 20th century, Augustana became something of a Notre Dame for Swedish Lutherans, binding a body of people together through cords that were at least as cultural as they were Christocentric.

Today Augustana is a premier college of the liberal arts and sciences related to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Earlier this decade, the Augustana Board asked the college to articulate that relationship in a meaningful way. While the resulting Five Faith Commitments [see p. 24] have been used as a template by other schools seeking to define and strengthen their ties to the ELCA, when it comes to Augustana's church relationship, people still ask the sort of question confirmation pastors love: What does this mean for us?

Chapel is no longer mandatory, there are more Catholic students than Lutherans, and somewhere back a few decades the Department of Christianity was renamed the Department of Religion. For some, this might make Augustana seem a less Lutheran college. You only need to look at old yearbooks to see the ways in which Augustana looks less Lutheran; or at least we look less homogenous, and though I have friends who think otherwise, the two terms are not, in fact, synonymous.
But are these the measuring sticks against which to gauge our church-relatedness? Not according to Tom Christenson, a professor at Capital University and the founding editor of Intersections, a journal of Lutheran higher education that is now published here at Augustana under the editorship of Bob Haak, director of Augustana's Center for Vocational Reflection.

In The Gift and Task of Lutheran Higher Education (Augsburg Fortress, 2004) Christenson identifies four prototypes of religiously affiliated institutions. The first three define whether an institution is Lutheran (or Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, etc.) either by the presence of a religious community or by expectations related to behavior or theological conform-ity. Were Augustana to measure its Lutheran-ness thus, we would note the 1960s as a bellwether decade, during which the Seminary left Rock Island with the creation of the Lutheran Church in America. Its departure reduced the size of the "religious community" on campus, prompting a decline in the number of ordained clergy among the faculty and administration of the college. In 1962, the Augustana Synod's last year, there were 11 ordained faculty and administrators; today there are four.

As for "behavioral expectations," Augustana was not alone during the 1960s in experiencing the tectonic shift away from the notion of a college being a surrogate parent. The result made life on campus almost unrecognizable to students of just a generation before. There are of course still behavioral standards here, but they have much more to do with developing personal responsibility than with religious strictures. That's in contrast to a century ago, when football and dancing were both prohibited on religious grounds. (By the way, football was certified kosher at Augustana about a half century before dancing.)

A lack of "theological conformity" cannot be ascribed to the 1960s. Presidents Andreen and Bergendoff, though being great partisans on behalf of the Augustana Synod, were nonetheless stalwart in their efforts to ensure Augustana was not only accessible to, but open to being enriched by, students from other faith backgrounds. Three of my favorite stories from these two presidencies-which lasted from 1901 to 1962-involve Jewish, Greek Orthodox and Mexican Catholic families and clergy being assured by the presidents themselves that their children would be valued for who they were and not targeted for what they were not.

So we don't pass muster as a Lutheran college if the first three of Christenson's archetypes are applied to our relation-ship. Fortunately, that's not the test he argues as being the one that matters. Rather, Christenson's fourth prototype challenges the observer to look beneath any veneer to find where the deep understandings of learning and being human reside at a college. As he writes:

We are Lutheran colleges and universities because of our educational vision, a vision about what it means to be human in the world, given the task of knowing and communicating what we know, thereby shaping a service to the world.

The educational vision of a Lutheran college owes an inexhaustible debt to Martin Luther himself. Into a world which for centuries had taken as a given the papal bull of Boniface VIII that "outside the church there is no salvation," Luther injected the idea that one might not actually need the intervention of an earthly authority in the transaction of salvation. Rather than indulgences sold by a church, the only purchase price for grace is faith in the radical idea that it's freely given.

This touched off a revolution that was more than ecclesial; the Reformation changed intellectual history as well. Long story short, it placed academic freedom and personal dis-covery at the core of our educational vision. "A religious view without freedom," Christenson writes, "tends to reduce the world, to shrink it to one that confirms the opinion of the leader and does not open one to challenge."

A religious view with freedom, on the other hand, takes faith. When a history professor challenges a student to question the dominant narrative, or a religion prof urges a student to take the Bible seriously rather than literally, I can almost hear the distant sound of a parent's furrowing brow. But because Augustana is a Lutheran college, we have faith that our questioning and exploration will lead to a discovery that is life-shaping.

And possibly world-changing. In the ELCA, education is linked structurally as well as conceptually to vocation. The same office that works on education from early childhood to seminary and beyond also works on issues related to ministry-including ordained professionals and the ministry of daily living. Stan Olson, the ELCA's executive director of vocation and education, pioneered a catechism, of sorts, that goes like this:

Because of Christ, the world;
Because of the world, vocation;
Because of vocation, education.

The first line in Olson's catechism is essential: It describes the central role of the Lutheran under-standing of Jesus Christ in Augustana's past, present and future. Which, to paraphrase Luther's allegory of the "Christian Shoemaker," is not to say that we put tiny crosses on each diploma we award. Rather, it means that from the indebtedness of gratitude for grace undeserved we are impelled to fulfill our calling to the benefit of all.

Note that "all" has no asterisks. That's why such a calling is so vital, particularly in these days when it seems that two of the largest groups on earth are those who see faith as a "my way or the highway" prop-osition, and those for whom faith is irrelevant. In the space between them, Augustana has developed, and will continue to develop, the kind of community Ernest L. Simmons saw as ideal in his book, Lutheran Higher Education: An Introduction for Faculty (Augsburg Fortress, 1998) when he described "a community ethos in which faith can be encountered without being imposed."

The world is hungry for such a place. As the emerging evangelical leader Shane Claiborne observed in a recent article in Esquire magazine (OK, so I don't only read Augsburg Fortress stuff), "Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination. But over the past few decades our Christianity, at least here in the United States, has become less and less fascinating...and the sort of Christianity we have seen on TV and heard on the radio looks less and less like Jesus."

Trying to force religious identity is counterproductive, whether you're talking about people or institutions. Dwelling in the Gospel, on the other hand, is fascinating. Although it might have been said differently-and possibly in Swedish, to boot-Olson's catechism has been at the heart of Augustana since its first days. It's why so much of what we do is about encouraging students to listen with their hearts for what the world is asking of them, and then to respond with their minds by equipping themselves to most effectively answer that call. And as long as that is true, then Augustana will be a Lutheran college.