An enormous, living tradition

November 8, 2013 — Features


On the 2011 tour, geology professor Bill Bilodeau climbed a tower in the town of Bautzen, located in eastern Germany not far from the Czech Republic and Poland, to snap this photo.

By Marja Mogk

I did not grow up Lutheran, so the travel seminar introduced me to “enormous Luther” – his earthy language, his larger-than-life presence. He became real to me when he had just been, well, in many ways, Gumby.

What I discovered wasn’t entirely easy. Martin Luther was not an easygoing character and shared many of the tragic intolerances of his century. But he also pushed those around him to move beyond their comfort zones to create, with community at the center of their awareness, a better world.

He was a great champion of public education for children – boys and girls, across class lines – long before that was accepted in Western Europe. As he pointed out in his Address to the Councilmen of Germany in 1524:

Now the welfare of a city does not consist solely in accumulating vast treasures, building mighty walls and magnificent buildings, and producing a goodly supply of guns and armor. Indeed, where such things are plentiful – and reckless fools get control of them – [it is so much the worse for everyone]. A city’s best and greatest welfare, safety, and strength consist rather in its having many able, learned, wise, honorable, and well-educated citizens.

And what kind of education did Luther have in mind? He was a champion of the liberal arts – before that, too, was a common priority. As he continues in his Address to the Councilmen:

I would have [students] study not only languages and history, but also singing and music together with the whole of mathematics…. How I regret now that I did not read more poets and historians, and that no one taught me them!

Luther’s goal with this curriculum was to move his people to understand the world beyond the limits of their own town walls. He argued that if “children were instructed” by quality faculty:

They would then hear of the doings and sayings of the entire world, and how things went with various cities, kingdoms, princes, men and women. Thus, they could in a short time set before themselves as in a mirror the character, life, counsels, and purposes – successful and unsuccessful – of the whole world from the beginning.

Luther was not the only Lutheran we encountered in Germany during the seminar who made a difference.

There was August Hermann Francke, founder of the Francke House, committed to educating children of all abilities;

There were the Lutheran pastors Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Schneider, who died in concentration camps for their commitment to the value of human life;

There were the citizens of the GDR during the communist era who likewise found the strength to resist at great personal risk through their Lutheran faith.

Of course, every religion or system of ethical thinking has those who through faith or commitment to humanitarian values are able to live into the fullness of humanity or to transcend it. But these are the Lutheran ones, and it was change-making for me to “meet” them where they worked, advocated and died.

It has changed my sense of CLU’s “middle name,” my appreciation for a university that would invest in this kind of opportunity for its faculty and staff, and in their relationships with one another, and my appreciation for my colleagues with whom I traveled, whose thoughts helped me to understand my own – and whose fabulous, eclectic personalities still make me smile.

One of the testimonies in my cohort is that new faculty-staff relationships and co-curricular collaborations are thriving as a result. I know there’s a bike trip planned. My colleague Lisa Loberg and I are giving a paper at UCLA in a few weeks – a project that we thought of together in Germany.

Now, when I tell people I work for a Lutheran university and they want to know what that means, I can draw on our experiences this summer to answer the question.

And I can take these experiences into the classroom with me, so that perhaps I can help my students expand beyond their comfort zones and town walls, and I can too, until we become, well…

More enormous in and within the Lutheran tradition.

Thank you.

Since the summer of 2008, about 70 CLU employees have gone on the University’s Lutheran Identity Travel Seminar, visiting sites in the former East Germany. Associate professor Marja Mogk, chair of the Department of English, gave reflections on the 2013 journey as the devotion at an October faculty meeting. They are edited and condensed here.