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Lutheran foundation provides
PLU's academic identity

BY PHILIP A. NORDQUIST '56

Questions about PLU's church-relatedness - what that has meant and what it should mean - have been much discussed during PLU's 107-year history. This has certainly been true in the recent past. The reasons are complicated, but the latest questions have been heavily influenced by concerns about our identity, purpose and direction in the larger American society. Developing a mission statement has been one response to the concerns and confusion.

The recent discussions about church-relatedness at PLU have emerged from various directions and for a variety of reasons. In March 1979, church-relatedness was analyzed by the Mooring Mast. The campus pastors responded. An ad hoc committee on "Christian context" was formed in 1981 and a number of discussions were held. In 1982 the Mooring Mast featured a series of articles on the "L" in PLU. The stationery during that era read "Quality Education in a Christian Context."

In 1985 Provost Richard Jungkuntz asked in Scene whether a context could be Christian. The technical theological answer was no, he wrote, but then he argued PLU was known by its "wholeness, a unified wholeness greater than the sum of the parts." What made PLU's context Christian was its "intentionality" out of which came its nature and existence.

The dialogue continued, especially during the centennial celebration in 1990, and was addressed at length in the centennial history, "Educating for Service." The discussion has continued further. There were articles in the June 1993 Scene about PLU's "Enduring Mission" and in 1995 the Mooring Mast asked once again, "What's Lutheran about PLU?"

This interest during the '90s reached a climax in the 1995 long-range plan PLU 2000: Embracing the 21st Century. In a strongly worded section called "Reaffirming the Tradition of Lutheran Higher Education," the document states: "Nothing more decisively identifies Pacific Lutheran University than its founding and perseverance in the tradition of Lutheran learning." It then spells out in some detail what that means.

PLU still stands in an educational tradition that was profoundly influenced by Martin Luther and the Reformation. Some of Luther's most compelling theological and educational ideas are still foundational at PLU. Fundamental here is Luther's dialectical or paradoxical theology that distinguishes between the "right hand" and the "left hand" of God. Salvation is the work of the right hand, and creation and all that it contains (including education) is the work of the left. Christ and culture have a paradoxical relationship.

The created world is good - it is not to be denigrated or avoided as some religious groups advise - and it is open to free and creative but responsible activity and analysis, using reason and justice as norms.

Roland Bainton, a well-known Lutheran scholar and author, has written in his typically earthy and compelling way that Luther embraced secular life - the wonders of nature, eating and drinking, whining dogs, screaming children, married love, intimate friendship, and the necessity of education. Education is demanded by God and is part of the fundamental structure of creation. It does not bring salvation, but it can and should improve the quality of life. That is a wonderful foundation for educational activity, certainly for a church-related university.

Lutherans establish and maintain colleges and universities to help care for the earth and to give society the kind of leaders and citizens it needs - the kind who serve their neighbors and work for human dignity and justice.

A second overarching theme initiated by Luther is intellectual freedom. That theme has been present since the Reformation and is fundamental to the modern university. One cannot imagine modern European and American education or intellectual life without it. In his actions and concerns, Luther was one of intellectual freedom's most important authors. He wrote, "No science [including theology] should stand in the way of another science, but each should continue to have its own mode of procedure and its own terms."

PLU is a university in that sense. Undergirded by dialectical theology, with a daring enthusiasm for learning and a sense of vocation and service, it is dedicated to academic freedom. And it must be remembered that PLU is a university, not a congregation, though happily there is one on campus. A university is not a convent or a seminary, as John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote in his classic book "The Idea of a University." Neither is it a Bible college of the contemporary American sort marked by fundamentalist triumphalism.

Finally, because PLU is a university, but a university with a dynamic and dialectical relationship to the church, there is an ongoing dialogue between reason and faith. The area where they meet is the mostly uncharted and often volatile border region where passion, leadership, service and care are generated and where vocation is worked out. The energy produced by this activity fuels the best of what PLU accomplishes and stands for. The examples are beyond numbering.

The necessity for such dialogue is essential and if it stops it should shake all who care for the institution out of their complacency. I assume that is why the Mast and Scene continue to ask questions about purpose and identity and to report the answers.

[PHOTO: Philip
Nordquist]Phillip Nordquist '56 is a professor of history and chair of the faculty at PLU, as well as author of PLU's centennial history book, "Educating for Service."

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Source: Pacific Lutheran Scene, Winter 1996
Edited by: Janet Prichard, Senior Editor (prichajd@plu.edu)
Maintained by: Webmaster (webmaster@plu.edu).
Last Update: 12/17/96