The Liberating Arts of Faith and Learning
Judge Tunheim and all Concordia College Regents, Bishops Rindy and Wohlrabe and all clergy, greeters on this stage, delegates of the academy, faculty and staff, students, dearly beloved family and friends, welcome on this April day in the 121st year of Concordia College. I feel keenly the privilege of standing with you here: of standing in the history of Concordia, with the visionary Pamela Jolicoeur, the great and good Paul Dovre, with all the women and men who have served this college. “How but in custom and in ceremony/Are innocence and beauty born?” wrote the poet Yeats.1 In an age where “ceremony” often is taken to mean empty formality, I trust that it is not so for us: This Founders’ weekend, we invoke the strength of our past, our joy in the present, and our hope for years to come. Yesterday’s chapel and Corporation Assembly, the Founders’ dinner, this morning’s seminar – they are and were meant to be real, live occasions that can shape this college we love. In that spirit then, I plan to talk about how we can best fulfill the mission of Concordia: to influence the affairs of the world by sending into society thoughtful and informed men and women dedicated to the Christian life.
My wife Anne and I offer our abiding gratitude to all who have made this weekend work: our facilities crew, dining services, campus ministry, preachers and speakers, musicians, Communications, archivists and video wizards, the inauguration planning committee, and the persistent, peerless Tracey Moorhead.
Anne and I grew up in western Pennsylvania, where the first U.S. president is George Warshington, where the national bird is the iggle, and where the Coen brothers have never seen fit to stage a film. Now in our 12th Midwestern year, we have exchanged the Appalachian foothills for the Red River Valley, and the heartache of the Pittsburgh Pirates for – the Twins. One of our pleasures has been to discover Midwestern literature, music, and film. Among those Midwesterns, the movie Sweet Land has become a favorite: Adapted from a story by Will Weaver, and set on the Minnesota prairie just after WWI, it plays out a three-generation narrative that starts with a Norwegian farmer who has arranged a bride to come from his homeland, only to discover that she is German – and not welcome at his church, nor by those who must grant her the papers to marry him. And to make matters worse, says the local Lutheran pastor, her coffee is too black. I’ll return to this couple at the end of my talk, but for now let me tell you that the film opens with their grandson, in his forties, confronted with a realtor’s offer to buy the family farm for more than two million dollars. “It’s what they would have wanted,” the realtor tells him. And this question frames the film: What will he do with his heritage?
I have been brooding about this story since Randy Boushek, Concordia regent and chair of the search committee, told me the wonderful news that I had been called to this place. What is our heritage? What is our “sweet land”? In nine months this is what I have seen: Our sweet land is our faith – our faith in learning, faith in beauty, faith in the love of God. Faith that is not blind allegiance but trust – what you give yourself to with open eyes and an open heart. What these three faiths share is this: They are liberating – not a prison, not a trap, but a gift, never to be forgotten, never to be yielded.
Our heritage is our faith. What will we do with it? In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks with sobering clarity about the servant who hid his one talent away rather than investing it: “Take the talent from him,” says the master in the parable, “and give it to him who has ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given … ; but to those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”2 Anyone who has paid attention to the challenges of 21st century higher education knows that this parable applies emphatically to private colleges. Our heritage is our faith – in learning, in beauty, in the love of God. Will we hide it away, sell it short, or, trusting in our freedom, take the risk to invest it? Here is my argument for today and for the days to follow: Concordia College is a communal act of faith, a heritage not to barricade or to give away, but to cultivate for a good harvest so that we and all our graduates become responsibly engaged in the world.
I turn now to those faiths to recall what we have inherited and to think about what we might do with it. First then, learning: We are heirs to the ancient liberal arts, which are the arts of freedom and community – freedom so that each may flourish and community so that “thoughtful and informed men and women” will devote themselves to the common good. At America’s colonial and 19th-century colleges, those arts were chiefly the study of language, literature, and history, with some growing attention to math and science – but at any rate, a course of study the same for all students. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the introduction of academic specialization in the arts and sciences, and more pre-professional disciplines, of the now all-pervasive credit unit, and of the familiar trinity of major, core, and elective courses. I have spent my life inside this system, and I have – for the most part – loved it. But as Earl Lewis reminded us in this morning’s seminar, it is far from invulnerable, and far from being above debate. Daily we hear that residential education may soon be overtaken by online learning, that it may be unsustainable in a nation where we have yet to fashion the public-private partnership needed to fund it, and, most painful of all, we are asked, “What is the use of it?”3
The constant jangle of these anxieties and apocalyptic cries can lead us to the conclusion that they are merely crying wolf. After all, “What is the use of it?” is a quotation from naysayers rebutted in John Henry Newman’s defense of liberal education, The Idea of a University – 1858, 33 years before Concordia was founded. But the dangers are real, and the motto of Lake Wobegon – “we are what we are” – will not do. If an American baccalaureate is an accumulation of credits, then credits can be purchased anywhere and transferred to “satisfy” – an interesting use of the verb – the graduation requirements of almost any school. If learning is merely gathering information, then there is a world of information on my iPhone, and I need no faculty to guide me, much less to live in Livedalen.
But now is the time for the liberal arts. At Concordia, we should pursue those arts in a “curriculum” centered not on collecting credits but on developing the competence, creativity, and good judgment students will need to thrive as citizens and professionals. No form of learning can better cultivate the habit of asking searching questions about human being and purpose than ours – if we will (in our freedom) push against our frantic lives and build the room in which to do it. If we want the examined life for our students, we will need to live it ourselves. And no form of learning can better encourage students to take on difficult tasks, fall short, and regroup to try again than a residential community of scholars, where students work shoulder to shoulder in apprenticeship with faculty who practice the same intellectual risk taking and invention. Our recent Celebration of Student Scholarship provides a striking instance of the discipline of analysis, imaginative synthesis, and skillful communication in the sciences and arts. Can we imagine the arc of Concordia student career in which that level of study, creation, and presentation becomes the norm?
A Concordia education should be one in which each college year offers and demands more freedom and responsibility than the last, more study both collaborative and independent, more opportunity for student leadership in innovation both inside the formal curriculum and out – from the student investment group of the Offutt School of Business to the student-driven venture of EcoHouse. This is where technology can help us, extending the range of our resources and the communities with whom we can collaborate. Guided by faculty and staff, informed and connected by resources near and far, increasingly challenged and trusted to take on the most difficult tasks, they can commence from here with the culture of reflection, inquiry, creative problem solving, and attention to the greater good as the fabric of their minds and will.
Our heritage is a faith in learning, and a faith in beauty. Such a faith is no mere ornament but a deep understanding that beauty reveals truth. Our cherished Christmas concerts, literary endeavors, theatrical performances, visual arts, and the rhythms of our worship answer a question about our human worth and our deep interdependence. Yet the mirror image of the attacks on the liberal arts can be seen in lamentations on the decline of the humanities and fine arts, chronicling a loss of interest and of funding within and beyond the academy. Once more, we might be pardoned for noting that this lament is sounded every time there is an economic downturn – as Debra Humphries of the Association of American Colleges and Universities recently remarked, “the humanities have died many times” (San Francisco conference, January 2011). But once more, there is genuine danger here: nationally there are fewer humanities majors, arts programs are being cut in American schools, and across the academy we have not trumpeted the ways our arts and humanities students prosper after college.
Yet our faith in beauty is not misplaced. I was introduced to Rainer Marie Rilke’s poem, Archaic Torso of Apollo, by the Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffman, when my friend Dale Nimrod brought him to Luther College. Rilke describes an ancient statue of the god of poetry and music, a statue that has come down to us “defaced,” yet “suffused with brilliance from the inside,” so filled with light that it “burst[s] like a star,” so that in its presence “there is no place/that does not see you.” And then comes Rilke’s final line: in German, Du mußt dein Leben andern – “You must change your life.”4
A stunning line, but I know that everyone here understands it: the arts surprise us, even convict us, only to give us back ourselves. This is the odd thing about the arts and humanities: they invite us to play – to try on others’ lives and new ideas – and in that imagined world we discover who we are and might become. This was exactly what our Chapel Choir director Michael Smith was talking about in chapel on April 17: “When I have the honor of directing a choir,” he said, “I see a wonderful thing happening – the protective walls we tend to put up around us to seal off the hurts of the world, fall away. We see the real persons” all around us. At Concordia, let there always be great courses in the arts and humanities, but even more, let the humanities and fine arts, let our faith in beauty, shape our entire campus culture, challenging us to ask who we are, what we love, and what we are to do.
Our heritage, is a faith in learning, in beauty – and in the love of God. Anne and I came to the Lutheran church as young parents, drawn initially by really good music, but drawn further in over the last 30 years by the great epiphany that set Martin Luther on fire: that the justice of God lies in mercy, the transforming news that the love of God sets us free – free from dread, but equally, free to lead lives of learning, good work, and service.
In 1891 and the years following, despite the reputation of Moorhead for Saturday night vice, despite the mice who haunted the inner walls of Bishop Whipple Hall, and despite the Swedes of Hope Academy who mocked them as “Corncobs,” our founders established Concordia: a co-educational school, offering an education for future lay leaders as much as for aspiring clergy. If at our distance the early culture of the college seems provincial, it was in fact a place that opened America to the children of immigrants, with a frank emphasis on citizenship apparent in celebrations of Washington’s birthday, mock political conventions, encouragement of English speaking in classes and chapel, instruction in elocution by Professor Rose Knestrick, and, later, the American eagle on its seal.5 Though the strict residential life of the 1890s makes our present day look like wild liberty – the wooden sidewalks were literally “pulled in” at 10 p.m. and the “kerosene lamps blown out” – it was in fact progressive in its aims, moving the sons and daughters of the prairie into a larger world.6
It still does, though not only sons and daughters of the prairie but also those from the woodlands and Badlands and mountains, from Africa, Canada, Europe, the Middle East, south and east Asia, Latin America – all those invoked by the flags before us – and yes, even Swedes! Though many colleges of the church have distanced themselves from their religious roots, we do not, and though our church has faced its own struggles, we prize our life in the liberating grace of God, who sets us free to do what is good for our own sake and for the sake of our neighbor. We see that liberating love in the work of 2006 nursing graduate Miquette Denie [images shown], who since her commencement has not only begun her career in Haiti as a nurse and teacher but has founded TeacHaiti, which has brought more than 200 radically poor children into school, children who without her intervention would never have crossed the threshold of education.
Our faith calls us to ask, who is our neighbor? The Haitian child? The Kurdish refugee of Fargo-Moorhead? The classmate of different orientation? In whom do we see the face of Christ? On firm foundation grounded, we place our trust in God, who makes us and makes us whole, opening our college doors and recognizing our common humanity in love and service. As John Churchill noted in today’s seminar, we approach global learning not as privileged consumers with the world as our big box, but as learners for whom “the expanded field … offers the pursuit and cultivation of sympathetic imagination.”7 In our faith language, we must become “no longer strangers and aliens,” but citizens together,8 respecting our differences, offering hospitality, working for the lives our children will lead together in a world that so much needs the gifts they bring.
And this brings me to my ending argument. We practice our faith in learning, in beauty, in God somewhere. Bodily beings, we are bound to the land, water, and sky that frame our lives, and for which we have joyful and solemn responsibilities of stewardship. At Concordia we have long been sharply aware that this heritage, this sweet land, means that we live in common even with those far from us in place and in cultural assumptions. With pride we sustain a commitment to global education that shines from the children in the Concordia Language Villages and to the undergraduates who return from international study and service with lives transformed.
Yet as senior Julie Arnold recalled in chapel this month, it can be as much of a challenge to recognize our interdependence locally as it is with far-flung places. As Julie told us, we must cultivate a sense of place. We are “global” not only when we journey to other nations but also when we do business, when we make choices to sustain our shared environment, and when we cross 8th Street to find our neighbors in this valley. I think of 1995 graduate Jeff Johnson, who spoke this Sunday on campus of his company, Marvin, centered in Warroad, Minnesota, a company that made a radical decision when the market for the building products they make plummeted in the current recession: in the words of President Obama, who honored them this December, it was a decision “not to lay off a single one of their four thousand” or more employees. The president quotes Marvin’s CEO, who summed up their motivation simply: “We could be anywhere. But we are in Warroad.”9 We could be anywhere, but we are in the Red River Valley, whose shared earth, water, and sky, and whose diversity of commerce and culture call us every hour to be responsibly engaged in the world.
In the film Sweet Land, the young Norwegian farmer, whose name is Olaf Torvik, finds that prejudice prevents Inge, his hoped-for bride, from receiving the papers she needs to marry him. At the same time Torvik finds himself at an auction where the farm of his closest friend is about to be sold off because that friend cannot make his payments. In an act as rash as founding a college on the prairie, Torvik bids on the farm – $7,000 – even though he does not have the money. He wins the auction but only to be told that if he does not pay, the sheriff will take his own farm away in recompense. Torvik and Inge work to bring in their harvest, but the money is far less than their debt. In the scene you’ll watch now, they walk across their empty fields and sit to wait for the sheriff to come [film clip played].10
Like Olaf Torvik, no one of us has the resources – in money, in labor, in ideas – to sustain our heritage. But we do. Concordia College is a communal act of faith – in learning, in beauty, and in the love of God. In such a faith, in words from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1837 Phi Beta Kappa lecture, we can light the “concentrated fires” that will “set the hearts of [our] youth on flame.”11
I am glad beyond words to stand with you in that act of faith.
I am glad to stand today with our students, with my colleagues of our faculty and staff, with our regents, with our partners in church and community, with precious friends. And I rejoice to be here with my dear mother and father, with Anne’s parents – the four who taught us to love education – with my kind and good sisters and brother, with my nieces, with Josh and Meg, our glorious and beautiful children, and with Anne Craft, loved beyond all telling.
Thank you, everyone. Now we go to work. As you will hear now from the choir,
The promise of living
With hope and thanksgiving
Is born of our loving
Our friends and our labor.12
Soli Deo Gloria.
- William Butler Yeats, “Prayer for My Daughter,” http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15530
- Matthew 25:28-29, NRSV.
- John Henry Newman, 1858, in Prose of the Victorian Period, ed. William E. Buckler (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958), 180-81 (italics mine).
- Carroll Engelhardt, On Firm Foundation Grounded: The First Century of Concordia College 1891-1991) (Moorhead, MN: Concordia College, 1991), 36-38.
- Engelhardt, 28-29.
- John Churchill, “The Liberal Arts in a Global Age,” Concordia College, April 28, 2012, p. 8.
- Ephesians 2:19, NRSV.
- See http://marvinblog.com/president-obama-recognizes-marvins-commitment-to-community.
- In the film clip, Olaf and Inge wait for the sheriff to come and tell them that they will lose their farm, but in fact, their neighbors come, having collected the money to pay their debt, with some left over for planting, and the Lutheran pastor presents Inge with papers that should enable her to marry Olaf.
- Quoted in Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 20120, 172.
- From Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land, libretto by Horace Everett. The opera was first performed in 1954.