I couldn’t help but shudder when I heard Eboo Patel praise Concordia for leading the way with interfaith dialogue at this year’s Opening Convocation. His high praise (although namely attributed to the establishment of the Forum on Faith and Life and the soon-to-be chapter of his Interfaith Youth Core’s organization “Better Together”) just did not line up with the repeated actions of the college regarding individuals from different or of no faith traditions.
We are a college that has repeatedly denied requests of recognition from fundamentalist Christian groups, such as The Remedy or Campus Crusade for Christ. We are also a college that on two notable occasions in 2010 denied the formation of a secular students club. We are a college that when a student comes up with a distasteful t-shirt campaign against a group of already marginalized students, largely stands back, rather than taking a stand. In most cases, we shy away from frank and crucial conversations regarding our faith and non-faith backgrounds.
Yet central to the Lutheran academic tradition is the word “engagement.” At Concordia, we are called to do more than simply be informed, more than be well-read. We are called to engage (an action verb), getting our feet a little wet as co-inquirers to become responsible citizens of this world, and “to search for truth, with nothing off-limits for inquiry and critique” as noted on the college’s website. However, the college often fosters an environment that shies away from this mission, in the name of preserving it.
To be frank, we have a tremendous amount of work to do to even meet the praise that was attributed to us at Opening Convocation, and our work should involve real steps to achieving the high goals set in our mission statement.
President Craft, in the framework of his strategic plan for the college, “Whole Self, Whole Life, Whole World,” highlights the importance of interfaith dialogue. Yet the college’s path forward is unclear to many of my peers, including myself. I can hardly keep track of the number of centers for “faith” and “learning” at the college. From the newly established and widely promoted Forum on Faith and Life to the longstanding Dovre Center for Faith and Learning, to the Offutt School’s Lorentzen Center for Faith and Work. Who knows what any of these centers actually do? I have yet to find one student or faculty member who can fully explain their purposes. I’m most certainly not discounting the good work they likely do, I’m just pointing out the over-saturation of organizations — ones that many members of the Concordia community have no understanding of.
Some organizations, like I briefly mentioned above, are notably left out of the conversation. Secular students likely find it troubling to see numerous opportunities for those identifying with a particular faith tradition to gather and form a community when they are without one themselves. Many of my secular friends are hopeful, however, that a new attempt to form a recognized secular student organization will be more fruitful after administrative changes at the college. I’m skeptical, especially when Concordia officials used the mission of the college and its affiliation with the ELCA as principal reasons for putting a kibosh on the project. In fact, most ELCA-affiliated colleges have recognized student organizations for secular students. Most notably, our nearby sister colleges Augsburg, Gustavus, Luther and St. Olaf have recognized similar groups for students. Clearly, this is a Concordia concern, not one of the ELCA.
But why is that? In no way would a recognized secular student group make Concordia abandon its mission or to the values of a college of the church. In fact, it would further advance our goals to Become Responsibly Engaged in the World. It would also show that we are not insecure in our Lutheran academic tradition.
Our Religion 100 courses force us to re-think religious study. Some expect a treatment of the Bible akin to Sunday School and are instead introduced to an academic study of religion that does more than repeat old stories. Instead it encourages us to analyze the meaning of those stories, asking questions that are uncomfortable but necessary.
We must do the same as a college if we are truly a place of inquiry, dialogue, and most importantly, of engagement.
Matt Hansen, a fourth-year student, writes The People’s Republic of Matt, a politics column in Opinions. He double majors in political science and sociology at Concordia. On Twitter: @MattHansen