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LUTHERAN HIGHER EDUCATION AT PLU is a distinct form of rigorous higher education that asks students to bring their whole self to their education and clarify their life’s vocation.

Our context: Highly secular and diverse: religiously, culturally, racially. This Context makes us work harder to define and embody Lutheran Higher Education because one cannot fall back on religious or cultural commonality. It is an advantage because it makes us a leader in defining a thriving, widely-accessible form of Lutheran Higher Education today.

1. Distinct Form of Higher Education

  • An Education with Foundational Core Elements / Values
    • Differs from State/Research Universities with “value-free” research
    • Uniquely values the importance of critical questioning
    • Values liberal arts as a foundation for free thinking, innovation and service (a liberating education)
      • Luther’s two theses in “The Freedom of a Christian” were that people were free and yet called to serve others (both free and servant).
  • Our values are intentionally expansive, non-restrictive; they come from the Lutheran tradition of Reform (religious, educational, social, political) in the 1500s

“The university draws from its cultural and religious roots in the Renaissance and Reformation the belief that education expands possibilities for meaningful life and work and for contributing to a more just and equitable society.” [PLU 2010]

Our Core Elements

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.

Free inquiry shapes effective worldly intelligence and service in the world. Martin Luther’s free investigation of scripture led to his breakthrough and the posting of the ninety-five theses on October 31, 1517. Luther argued against the sale of indulgences (church-sanctioned spiritual favors) based upon his understanding of God’s free and unearned gifts of life, community, forgiveness, and peace as revealed in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In Luther’s intellectual work lay the seeds of a new vision of free and responsible society.

The intellectual structure of the Lutheran reform movement was laid in previous centuries by the twin influences of the medieval European universities and Renaissance humanism. The medieval universities provided the foundations of free academic inquiry through a curriculum shaped by the classical trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy). These in turn provided the basis for advanced medical, legal, and theological studies. Renaissance humanism dedicated itself to the recovery of the classical heritage under the watchword ad fontes (“return to the sources”). Besides new understandings of art and civic life, humanism revived the study of Greek and Hebrew that enabled Luther’s biblical studies, his reform of late medieval theology, and translation of the Bible into German, the language of the people. His insistence that Christian life is rightly marked by freedom from legalism and superstition created a new freedom to engage the world with an active intellect. As a consequence, beginning with the curriculum of Wittenberg University, the Lutheran intellectual tradition was deeply rooted in and shaped by language study and historical study. Moreover, Luther’s theology and his understanding of education bestowed autonomy upon the various disciplines of worldly study. Here was a dialogical education that revived the classical emphases of Plato and his successors.

This intellectual tradition subsequently absorbed the empirical methods of the new science, and the German universities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries submitted all literary, scientific, historical, philosophic and theological knowledge to penetrating scrutiny. Great minds like those of Kant and Hegel exemplified this critical intellectual heritage at its best.

Yet this precious legacy of free inquiry was not always fostered or welcomed among Lutherans. Battles over orthodoxy contributed to the Thirty Years’ War; the free thinking of German Lutheran professors had little impact upon Prussian militarism; Lutheran culture contributed to political quietism during the Nazi period. At the same time, Lutheran colleges established by immigrants in the United States came to inherit more fully the freedom of inquiry that was the birthright of the European universities and Lutheran higher education.

The Lutheran intellectual tradition, consequently, has lent a highly distinctive set of interlocking emphases to the educational mission of Pacific Lutheran University today. Seven language departments cover languages strategic for the Lutheran intellectual tradition. The university sponsors chairs in both Lutheran and Holocaust Studies and professorships in Scandinavian Studies and Education. Language and historical studies are highly valued. Scientific inquiry is conducted in first-rate laboratories and departments. Creative writers on campus explore the heights and depths of the human experience. The social sciences inquire into the forces of society and culture. Music and art are practiced, composed, and crafted. All students take critically-sophisticated classes in philosophy and religion. One of the best and largest Departments of Religion in the West conducts inquiry across a broad range of sub-disciplines. Indeed, Pacific Lutheran rests within this robust intellectual tradition and its insistence on freedom of inquiry.

The roots of the liberal arts (artes liberales) extend back into classical antiquity. Roman education, for example, progressed from basic literacy (the province of the litterator), to secondary school under the grammaticus, and finally to rhetorical education with the rhetor. Rhetoric allowed for a career in public office or the law courts. The achievements of Greco-Roman culture were eclipsed in the West for some centuries after the fall of Rome (410 C.E.).

During the Middle Ages, monastic scribes preserved a significant body of ancient learning in Latin. However, more complete Greek learning was preserved only in the Byzantine Empire while Arab culture retained and developed ancient knowledge of numbers. The founding of universities in Europe (Bologna, Paris) established the medieval curriculum of the trivium and quadrivium. These studies provided the foundation for professional studies in Theology, Law, and Medicine. The medieval curriculum was profoundly enriched and expanded through Renaissance humanism with its insistence on the study of poetry and literature, history, language study, and ethics.

Humanism fostered the recovery of texts, civic virtues, and spiritual values of classical Greece and Rome. Humanism counted “the human the measure of all things” and aimed to develop all human potential as gifts from God. The learning of the Greek language and study of Greek texts revived as these cultural influences came to the West from Constantinople. Likewise, scholars began the study of Hebrew as Jewish scholarship gained notice. Gutenberg’s movable type (1450s) allowed for the printing of books and the spread of broader literacy. The recovery of classical art inspired many new forms of artistic creativity, such as in the work of Michelangelo and Da Vinci. Painting acquired perspective and sculpture acquired life-like realism. Bernini effected the grand renovations in Rome, reminiscent of the monumental architecture of the classical age. Scholars like Erasmus and Luther urged reform of the Church, felt to be moribund by confused traditions and corrupt practices. Indeed, the Lutheran Reformation drew upon significant cultural features of the Renaissance: Greek and Hebrew texts for translation of the Bible into the German vernacular, dissemination of theological arguments through printed tracts, depiction of reformed theology in visual art (Lucas Cranach), new musical genres (Johann Sebastian Bach), and architecture (Nickel Grohmann).

The Lutheran intellectual tradition, then, was closely allied with a renewed liberal arts curriculum, which in the cases of Erasmus and Luther was highly rhetorical, taking the study of words seriously. Moreover, this tradition continued the Renaissance appreciation of the arts and music, and remained open to the emerging modern sciences. The German universities of the Enlightenment consequently developed what Sydney Ahlstrom called the “critical Lutheran tradition.” These liberal educational currents migrated to America and eventually shaped Lutheran institutions of higher learning down to the present.

Signs of liberal arts education are everywhere in the curriculum of Pacific Lutheran University.

Seven language departments cover languages strategic for the Lutheran intellectual tradition. Great classic literary, theological, and philosophical works are studied in English, Religion, and Philosophy classes. The social sciences offer sophisticated theory and ideas about practical policy. Advanced mathematics and science courses are taught on campus. The musical programs are of the highest quality. Works of art abound across campus, including the Rose Window in Eastvold Hall. Students are encouraged to ask big questions, and to seek their own vocations of service, leadership, and care in the world. The student potential for effective service in the world is stimulated by an intellectual tradition living within a solid liberal arts core education.

Lutheran education is indelibly marked by a love of liberal and collegial learning. It was, in fact, a group of Wittenberg scholars – working together – who launched the reform of education, ethics, language study, marriage, music, social welfare, and theology – to mention only a few. Such reform began with the serious questioning of the status quo, a questioning which led the authorities of church and state to brand Luther as a heretic and a criminal. Indeed, were it not for academic colleagues, friends, and unexpected benefactors, Luther’s reform may well have died quickly.

One of Luther’s earliest claims was that every Christian should have access to his or her central religious text, the Bible. Yet he had grown up in a society where most people were illiterate, the Bible was in Latin, and only the educated few were able to read and interpret the ancient book. Thus, in his “Address to the German Nobility” (1520), Luther argued that access to this central text – which had become the charter of religious and social reform – was absolutely necessary.

In order for Germans to read it, however, he insisted that city councils establish public schools for boys and girls, financed by a public tax, in which they would be taught to read. This insistence on literacy gave rise to the kindergarten (the “children’s garden”) and the gymnasium (the secondary school), the first founded in 1528. For the first time in human history, public schools were established to educate children regardless of their socio-economic status. Influenced by the Italian humanists, the German reform insisted on the study of languages as a communal activity: students learning together under the guidance of their instructors. Indeed, the cultivation of literacy opened all knowledge to all students, an opening enhanced by the latest communication technology: the printing press.

At the same time, Lutheran professors led the reform of university education. Drawing on humanist concerns, they included the study of languages, history, poetry, and ethics in addition to the medieval foundation in the trivium and quadrivium. And yet their educational reform was undergirded by a profound sense of human limitation, that is, no one person and no one discipline could possibly grasp the totality of the natural world and all that dwells within it. Luther insisted that “no science should stand in the way of another science, but each should continue to have its own mode of procedure in its own terms … one should not condemn the other or ridicule it; but one should be of use to another, and they should put their achievements at one another’s disposal” (“Lectures on Genesis,” 1535).

Since the disciplines need each other, teaching and research could never be private enterprises. Of course, the scholar may need to do his or her research in solitude, without distraction. Yet the teaching scholar at a Lutheran university is called to share the results of his or her research with other scholars and with students – “they should be of use to one another.” This insistence on the real though limited nature of human knowledge thus cultivates an intellectual humility and charity which is at the heart of a humanist university. In a culture which prizes individual achievement, a Lutheran university rightly asks how we might put our scholarly achievements at one another’s disposal and for the common good.

Lutheran higher education follows Martin Luther’s own declaration that all of creation holds intrinsic value, from the majestic mountains to human communities to the tiniest living components of life. Some Christian traditions today may declare that spiritual matters are superior and good whereas the world is inferior and intrinsically bad. To these claims, Lutheran thought provides a resounding No!

While there have been times when a bleak view of human nature has marked the Lutheran tradition, Luther had a robust love of creation, good food, play, pleasure, and intimate human relations. In fact, some have argued that Luther’s own marriage and family led him to become increasingly earth-affirming as he aged. We are not called to another supernatural world, escaping this one, but rather God is seen in, with and under creation. God the creator is not just passing through an allegedly “evil” world but rather, in a very integral way, God’s very being is knit into and is present everywhere. Affirming that God is creator, present within creation and it processes, entails a high estimation of the world’s value. Indeed, some of Luther’s own writings led to forms of thinking about human society and the natural world that promote social justice and diversity as well as strong commitment to sustainability.

In his famous 1520 treatise “The Freedom of the Christian,” Luther states that God’s grace and love raises all humans to the same level – he claims that “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” No human is intrinsically superior to another. This sentiment is distilled into Luther’s famous insistence on a “priesthood of all believers” – a community of spiritual equals – which challenged many of the hierarchical structures and practices of his day. Following this lead, Lutheran higher education assumes that humans are fundamentally equal and no race, gender, social status or orientation can claim an intrinsic superiority over others. In addition, all occupations and vocations are necessary and complementary for serving the common good.

Beyond the bounds of human society, the radical value of all of creation is also affirmed. “God speaks true and existent realities,” writes Luther, “thus, sun, moon, earth … you [and] I … are all words of God” (“Lectures on Genesis,” 1535). Rather than supporting a creationist argument, Luther’s writings on Genesis affirm a developmental understanding of the natural world, an understanding rooted in divine reality and one that affirms the a distinct purpose and value for every element in the natural world. Likewise, Lutheran higher education takes this claim and the resulting responsibilities to care for the earth seriously.

At Pacific Lutheran University, our mission statement affirms that we are called to care for “other people, human communities and the earth.” Indeed, the decennial planning documents, PLU 2010 and PLU 2020, state that justice, diversity and sustainability are values upheld across the university’s curriculum and practices. PLU supports the health of human bodies through such educational programs as Nursing, Movement Studies & Wellness Education and Dance. The university supports the Women’s Center, athletic teams, the Health Center, and fitness classes while the Dining and Culinary Services department illustrates these commitments through constant innovative concern for local, sustainable, and healthy food choices. The respect and care for diverse bodies, all equally valued, is demonstrated through many individual courses taught across the curriculum and strong support through the Diversity Center, Campus Ministry, Veterans Affairs, International Education, and Disability Support Services. Care for the earth is honored through Environmental Studies and through PLU’s commitments to sustainability in buildings, waste management and recycling, composting, and its long time membership in the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

Mention the word “vocation” to a group of people, and you’re likely to get a wide variety of definitions. Some will think that “vocation” refers to particular occupations involving skilled work (e.g., as a carpenter, electrician, or mechanic). Others may assume a broader definition and define vocation as the job one does. Yet a third group will define vocation as following one’s passion in choosing a major or an occupation, or even a hobby. While all of these definitions contain some aspects of vocation, they do not completely encompass the understanding that pervades Lutheran institutions of higher education.

In Luther’s time, “vocation” was understood to apply only to those called to religious service. That is, only priests, monks, nuns and others called “away from the world” to serve God had a “true” vocation. Part of Luther’s reformation offered a radical redefinition of the popular term “vocation.” A human being is not called away from this world – with all its beauty as well as with all its untold suffering. Rather, argued Luther and his colleagues, one is called to enter and engage the world, especially those who are in need, powerless, or suffering. This means that every person is called to live her or his life in relationship to others within daily life. While the young Luther was raised with the notion that only the work of religious professionals really “mattered” in the world, his emerging reform insisted that all persons – virtually all persons – form part of an interdependent web in which life and health are sustained and supported: “A cobbler, a smith, a peasant — each has the work and office of his (sic) trade, and yet they are all alike” (“To the Christian Nobility,” 1520). As one contemporary philosopher writes, “The test for vocation was not ‘Are you doing something religious?’ but ‘Are you serving … the real needs of your neighbor?’ ” (Tom Christenson, Who Needs a Lutheran College?).

Lutheran higher education takes this claim seriously – that a significant dimension of faculty, staff, and student development is hearing and responding to the call of being with and caring for others rather than living in splendid isolation or imagining one’s “vocation” as service to the self alone. To that end, our educational mission emphasizes an essential relationship between rigorous learning and engagement with this world, not one without the other. Thus, a degree from a Lutheran college equips students to consider how their careers will enhance – rather than diminish – the “life, health, and wholeness” of those they encounter throughout their lives.

It is possible, then, to see that Lutheran colleges and universities have a corporate vocation – not only to provide an excellent education in a particular discipline or field, but also to nurture within their students, staff, and faculty a genuine and profound commitment to the common good. Thus, PLU’s mission statement gives one succinct version of the vocation of Lutheran colleges and universities – “Educating for lives of thoughtful inquiry, service, leadership, and care: for others, their communities, and the earth.” Not only do we encourage our students to discern where and how best they can serve the world (their vocations), we ourselves serve the world through the provision of this education. At their best, then, Lutheran schools are organized around this calling, a calling committed to the promotion of human well-being in a world marked by much ignorance, discrimination, injustice, and suffering. The administrators, staff, faculty, students, benefactors, and alumni of Lutheran colleges and universities rightly work together, then, as agents of thoughtful reflection and effective action in their neighborhoods, regions, and throughout the world.

One of Martin Luther’s essential reforming insights insisted that while human beings are called to work diligently in this world, they can do nothing to work for or earn God’s favor. This counter-intuitive insight, discovered in Luther’s study of the New Testament, contradicted the cultural perception that human beings are called to strive for “perfection” or keep many religious rules and, in so doing, earn the favor of the divine. To this deeply-rooted religious sensibility, Luther offered a steadfast No. Rather, he argued, God freely and graciously offers life, health, and wholeness (the root meaning of the word “salvation”) without the need for human effort.

Such a claim was and is intended to free a person from anxiety, from wondering if he or she had “done enough” to earn God’s favor or an eternal destiny. But if the “knot” of human striving to escape this world had been cut, what was one to do with one’s life on this earth? Are human beings called to use their religious or political or personal freedom in any way they see fit, to narcissistic or even destructive ends? Again, the Lutheran reformers argued for something else: with freedom from religious laws or superstition or the need to always justify oneself, a person is called to use his or her God-given freedom responsibly and maturely in service to others in this world. Luther succinctly states this new reality in his seminal ethical work, The Freedom of Christian (1520): “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none; a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” While Luther admits that the two statements seem to contradict each other they are a part of the Christian reality and reflect the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 9: “Though I am free and belong to no one, yet I have made myself a servant to all.”

This emphasis on freedom from anxiety, from making oneself “perfect,” from earning divine favor, and its corresponding emphasis on responsibility to others permeates the Lutheran culture of world engagement. Thus, Lutherans have established schools (from pre-kindergarten through graduate level universities) and seminaries. They have created hospitals, orphanages, retirement centers, and long-term care facilities. Lutherans in the United States are diligent and vital leaders in humanitarian and religious efforts to feed the hungry, diminish poverty, and eradicate disease – both here and in developing nations. Through national and international networks, Lutheran colleges and universities collaborate with Lutheran Community Services, Lutheran World Relief, and the Lutheran World Federation to help and support the neighbor in need.

Thus, the joyful spirit and tenacity with which Lutherans engage the world is a unique dimension nurtured and proclaimed in word and action on Lutheran campuses. It is an integral part of the academy. Indeed, Luther’s words concerning freedom and service are not empty rhetoric at PLU. They are embodied in students who care for the earth, serve the homeless, grow and share the produce of our community garden with the hungry, and enter as alumni into public service as mayors, state legislators, governors, and members of Congress, as medical researchers, healthcare providers in poor countries, and non-profit lobbyists in the halls of political power. They are embodied in faculty and staff who serve their neighborhoods and towns as volunteers, consultants, and citizens who share a commitment to sustain and advance the common good.

“I will therefore give myself to my neighbor,” wrote Luther, “and will do … what I see will be needful, advantageous, and wholesome for my neighbor.” In a culture marked by hyper- individualism, PLU offers a challenging vision of what it means to live an authentic human life: one in which our fate is inextricably bound up with that of others and the degree to which our students, faculty, staff, and alumni transcend narrow interests in service to life, health, and wholeness.

“For you are powerful, not that you may make the weak weaker by oppression, but that you may make them powerful by raising them up and defending them. You are wise, not in order to laugh at the foolish and thereby make them more foolish, but that you may undertake to teach them as you yourself would wish to be taught.” – Martin Luther


Critical Inquiry / Questioning

  • academic freedom and deep knowledge
  • questioning status quo, received tradition that pushes the edges of what we know now
  • engaging tradition and shaping the future

Access to learning for all – a hallmark of the Protestant Reformation
Liberal/Liberating Education: liberal arts = education for freedom
Leadership in society to diminish suffering & injustice
Service as one’s call and purpose

2. Asks students to bring their whole self to their education and vocation in the world

  • Students are encouraged to bring their religious, cultural, social values and perspectives to their education.
  • Religious beliefs are treated with respect as valuable to the believer; Many people in our world engage the “holy” or spiritual and these are assets they bring to our educational community.
  • We welcome students to explore how their education intersects with their religious identity: Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Native American Religious Traditions. We also engage these traditions through academic study of their history, beliefs, and current role in politics and society.

Unlike Secular Universities, Religious questions, perspectives, values and discussions of faith are welcome;
Unlike Some Bible Colleges & Religiously-Identified Universities:

  • We do not expect conformity of beliefs, agreement with particular doctrines of a particular religious tradition
  • We do not leave critical inquiry aside when it comes to Religion but rather propose that a society educated and able to think well about religion may be a more humane one.

Unlike current stereotypes about Religion: PLU does not equate religious affiliation (Native Religions, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and more) with an anti-intellectual/anti-science stance or a lack of the best, contemporary rigorous scholarship.

What Lutheran Higher Education is Not at PLU:

  • Only a past historical tradition – it is a living, reforming heritage
  • Is not about the number of religious students / chapel attendees on campus
  • Religious conformity or expectation of adherence to a particular Religious tradition

Our Relation to the ELCA:

  • We continue to be in relation to one of the most progressive Christian churches in the United States
  • The ELCA’s policies matter to PLU’s direction but do not dictate our curriculum or University policies