Lutheran Studies at PLU

1. Critical questioning of current knowledge and values

A commitment to the advance of knowledge and skill is nothing new at a Lutheran university. Indeed, the Lutheran reform of education began with one sixteenth century professor’s doubts and questions concerning the received tradition of the previous three hundred years. While the dominant paradigm of religion informed almost every aspect of late medieval life and thought – including education – Martin Luther, among others, asked if that paradigm had begun to fail. His experience of terrible anxiety and the questioning which it produced joined rigorous study within his university discipline.

Such study yielded a series of questions which continue to shape Lutheran education: Should one university discipline control all others or should each one enjoy the freedom to pursue truth through its own methods? Who should have access to education: all citizens or only the wealthy? Is social welfare – caring for the neighbor in need – the sole responsibility of churches and politicians or the duty of all persons in society? Is one called to escape a messy world through religion or engage its many problems with faith and courage? How does the study of history in every field expose student and teacher to an expansive rather than a shrinking memory?

Since there is no “golden age” in which life or thought is pure and fresh, we should not portray such a scenario for Lutheran education. While Luther asked critical and troubling questions of the status quo, of what most people thought was normative, he and his colleagues claimed that there could only be one of way of interpreting the Christian faith they supported. While they promoted primary education for all boys and girls, not just privileged children – an astonishing and radical innovation in the sixteenth century – they also supported the closure of convents where many women, for over a thousand years, had found a measure of learning and agency unavailable in a patriarchal culture. While they advanced the notion that every person should have voice in the selection of their religious leaders – unheard of in the hierarchical society of the Middle Ages – they tended to overlook the ambition and corruption evident in the ruling princes who supported their reforms. This is to say that while Lutheran education claims the critical questioning of social values and received knowledge as a central practice and cherished legacy, a measure of intellectual arrogance and understandable blindness can attend every significant reform or cultural change.

Luther’s oft-repeated question – “What does this mean?” – remains an appropriate and troubling question for any member of a university to entertain. Indeed, the capacity to question remains part of the genetic encoding of Lutheran higher education. Thus, the Lutheran reformers recognized centers of education – places in which important questions could be entertained without censure – as crucial in the formation of persons who could link “thoughtful inquiry” with “service” and “care for others.”

At Pacific Lutheran University, this questioning continues among a faculty committed to the advance of knowledge in the many disciplines which constitute the modern university. Whether through experimentation in the natural sciences, critical assessment of received traditions in the humanities and fine arts, or field and clinical research in the social sciences, PLU professors are committed to a teaching and learning environment that introduces students to the methods and questions which lead a biologist, an ethicist, or a sociologist to search for truth within their particular areas of expertise.