OCTOBER 10, 2014

 

INTRODUCTION

I want to express my profound thanks to all of you who are here this afternoon. Your presence makes this occasion special. I thank those who have spoken and brought greetings to our University. Admiral Kibben from the United States Navy, Ms. Vogen from the Oak Park River Forest Community Foundation, Dr. Carroll from Dominican University and the Associated Colleges of Illinois, Dr. Mueller of The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, Dr. Wenthe of the Concordia University System, President Gilbert of the Northern Illinois District and the University’s Board of Regents, Mr. Garcia of the University’s Student Government, Dr. Spurgut representing the Emeriti Faculty, Dr. Smith of the University’s Faculty Senate, and Mr. Hanson of the University’s Staff Council. And a special thanks to Pastor Wietfeldt for his expert directions to all participants. I thank the faculty and staff for their presence and labor. Behind the scenes have been many people including faculty and staff that have spent hours planning and laboring to make this celebration possible. Finally, I want to recognize the most important person here today: the student.

On a personal note, I want to publicly thank those people closest to me and who share their lives with me. My wife Annette who married me 32 years ago on what turned out to be the false promise that she was getting a country pastor. My children as well. Rachel, who cannot be here because she lives in London and has just begun her new career there. Hannah, a junior at this University, who has willingly allowed me to invade her territory. And Caleb who left the only home he had known in Indiana to begin a new life in River Forest. I love them all and am grateful that the Lord has placed them in my life.

I realize that by its very nature a Presidential Inauguration focuses attention on the new president. In a real way, that attention tends to be misplaced. Truly that attention ought to be upon the University, its faculty, staff and students and its future much more than on a single individual. Concordia University Chicago has a 150 year history of service to the Church and the world and is today poised to continue that service for another 150 years. More importantly, a University is more than bricks and mortar and more than the latest technology – a University is flesh and blood human beings engaged in learning and service to humanity in the Church and the world.

 

THE CHALLENGE OF BEING A LUTHERAN UNIVERSITY

As we look around today and anticipate the future, we know that there are challenges before higher education in general and a faith-based institution such as a Lutheran university in particular. Concordia was founded for a specific purpose in 1864 – and that was to train German teachers for Lutheran schools. At the very heart of its inception was the recognition that all academic endeavors are to be shaped and informed by a commitment to the Word of God. One might speculate about how much easier that was 150 years ago than today as we, like every generation before us, look at the past and imagine it to be filled with golden ages that shine in comparison to our current age of stone. But our colleagues in history departments have a habit of undermining our best theories with facts. Those supposed “golden ages” were in fact as filled with challenges as our own.

But we do not live in the past, though we honor it. Nor do we live in the future, though we prepare as best we can to embrace it. We live in the present. And in our present and our culture, religion and its implications are increasingly marginalized. The “god” of the public square is supposed to be neutral enough that all can assent to him, her or it and as a result is a god that nobody can, in fact, recognize. The underlying culture of relativism, at work for so many decades, has become a culture of theological relativism. This impacts faith-based higher education in a dramatic way.

When an institution of higher learning dares not only to confess a Creed but to live out its implications in the realm of morality and ethics, that institution can do so only with the expectation that there will be a backlash from the dominant culture. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, in his famous sermon on Luke 11:5-6 “A Knock at Midnight”, wrote:

It is also midnight in the moral order. At midnight colors lose their distinctiveness and become a sullen shade of gray. Moral principles have lost their distinctiveness. For modern man, absolute right and wrong are a matter of what the majority is doing. Right and wrong are relative to the likes and dislikes of a particular community. We have unconsciously applied Einstein’s theory of relativity, which properly describes the physical universe, to the moral and ethical realm. Midnight is the hour when men desperately seek to obey the eleventh commandment, “Thou shalt not get caught.”

King preached that sermon 56 years ago, on September 14, 1958, right here in Chicago, Illinois. He could have preached it today anywhere in western civilization.

A University of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod shares common cause with all faith based institutions of higher learning. Aristotle once wrote, “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Faith-based colleges and universities represent a broad spectrum of religious thought and the right to that thought must be supported by all. To support one another in the free exercise of religion does not mean seeking a compromise in faith.

Rather, it means engaging in respectful conversation. It means speaking with a united voice. It means being prepared to take together the actions necessary to meet the challenges before us.

Though differing in theological orientation, we must stand together and face the current challenges to the free exercise of religion in higher education. In the words attributed to Benjamin Franklin at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” When government, accrediting agencies or public opinion require the religious commitment of any faith based university or college to be separated from a worldview, lifestyle and morality that arise from that commitment, everyone is threatened even if their own faith commitments differ. Faith must inform actions and attitudes. Without faith, our actions are shallow attempts at the intellectually dishonest subterfuge of “I personally believe such-and-such but would never let it affect my public position.” This becomes institutional obedience to that eleventh commandment described by Dr. King as “Thou shalt not get caught.”

 

A UNIVERSITY WHERE CHURCH AND WORLD MEET

So, where does that lead a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod University? As with any faith-based University, it leads us to a place where our faith intersects the world. Here is where the needs of the world are to be engaged with answers that arise from our central convictions about God. It is here that the Church and the academy meet and where conflicting claims can be evaluated, debated and perhaps resolved through a foundational commitment to unchanging truth rather than the ever changing ethos of our culture which is, as one person put it, “feet planted firmly in mid-air”.

Foundational to Lutheran education is the truth that those human beings who comprise a University, though as broken and pain-filled as anyone else, have the obligation to see our world as God sees it. We confess that He is the Creator of all and that He loves His creation even in its worst manifestations. He loves it so much that in Christ He has redeemed the world. His mercy to us compels us to see the world through His eyes of acceptance and love. His acceptance and love in turn compel us to embrace all who share our common humanity and to walk with them no matter how crooked and winding the path may be.

The manner in which the Church engages the world at Concordia may not be satisfying to those who would silence the voice of communities of faith. If I may quote Dr. King once more:

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.

In his context, Dr. King spoke about peace, economic justice and racial justice. Those struggles continue to this day but have been joined by a myriad of other issues including the obvious hot button topics like the sanctity of life from conception to natural death and marriage as a life-time monogamous union of one man and one woman. How we respond to issues of peace, economic justice, racial justice, life, marriage and so many others is the outcome of what we believe about God.

More specific to a faith-based University is what I will term “educational justice”. By that I mean a system and structure that opens opportunity to students and faculty alike not only to learn but to integrate the life of the mind with a commitment to live for something greater than self. There are barriers, real or perceived, that have prevented many from the benefits of higher education. Those barriers must fall. Concordia must continue to seek out those students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds as well as all other parts of our society and open the door that they might earn a Concordia degree. Our student body must be diverse in all of its dimensions to prepare every student for life in a culturally diverse and globalized world.

That very term “globalized” has become something of a catch-phrase in academic circles and runs the risk of becoming simple another trite phrase. Concordia is positioned to use it in more ways than as a simple buzzword that sounds contemporary and yet can be hollow and devoid of real meaning. “Educational justice” means that we must take seriously the reality that our world is interconnected and interdependent. This campus already has the presence of students from many nations – a number that will multiply in the next few years. The presence of the international community or lack of such a presence says much about a University’s commitment to global educational justice. Our campus is also diverse in its American student population who represent multiple economic, racial, language and religious backgrounds. A student at Concordia studies alongside of a broad spectrum of the crown of God’s creation – the human race in our diversity. That is globalization at its best.

“Educational justice” also means bringing a Concordia education to those who cannot physically be here in River Forest, Illinois. We must find new ways to deliver education to men and women around the world through our Graduate School and undergraduate programs even if the requirements of their lives do not permit attendance at a brick and mortar school. In doing so, however, the quality and depth of that education cannot be compromised if educational justice is to be served. This is no small task. But it is one that must be undertaken. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” While I would argue as a Lutheran theologian that it is the Gospel that is in fact the most powerful weapon, a University of the Church has been given the educational task, grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as its mission and through that educational task brings change to the world.

 

AT THE CENTER: THE STUDENT

At some point we need to bring this address and a long Inauguration ceremony to a close. I think it is also important to state the obvious.At the center of all educational theory and planning is one concrete reality: the individual student. Please let me emphasize this. It is not “students” as some faceless, generic and abstract concept but the flesh and blood reality of the individual. He or she is why a university exists. Neither Concordia nor any other school has an existence apart from this reality. If we did, we would simply be intellectuals talking to each other in meaningless chatter. It is all about the student. Whether the topic is finances, globalization, technology, academic disciplines or anything else that topic has no meaning apart from the individual student.

Each student is a unique creation of God who is loved by the Creator. Each has immeasurable value by virtue of who he or she is as a human being and as a student given to us as a gift of God. Nothing is more important. The real work of a University is not accomplished on a campus or through distance education technology. The real work and the lasting legacy of the faculty and staff of a university are found in the concrete life of its individual student and alumnus.

By intentionally and self-consciously opting to continue to be a LCMS university filled with the message of the love of God in Christ, Concordia will continue to fulfill a unique mission. Graduates will continue to be formed for Church vocations to serve the Church and the world by lives dedicated to the work of God through Word and Sacrament. Pastors, Teachers, Deaconesses, Directors of Christian Education, Church Musicians and others will impact both Church and world because of this University.

But we form servants also for vocations throughout society. Allow me to name but a few of the many. Concordia needs to prepare men and women to be physicians, nurses and health professionals who serve Christ in their vocations of mercy and healing. The world needs business leaders and lawyers whose professional lives are guided by the ethical implications of the Christian faith. The world needs military leaders guided by the ethics of faith that inform their decisions. The culture needs artists and musicians who use the beauty of God’s creation to glorify Him. Humanity needs Concordia trained leaders who have the convictions and courage to advocate for and to serve those who are in need, those who suffer, those whom the world looks past as if they did not exist, those whom Jesus described as “the least of these my brethren.”

Above all things, Concordia must be what it was formed to be: a place where the Word of God reigns supreme and where that Sacred Word shapes and informs all that is done. As an institution of the LCMS, Concordia is united to a confession of faith and practice that cannot be compromised even under intense external or internal pressure from the contemporary culture. This University, as part of the Church, is to be “in the world but not of the world.” We are a voice toward the conscience of the world. Only by recognizing that and rededicating the University to what it in fact truly is – the place where Church and academy meet – can Concordia serve the Church and the world. This is a different and special place. The ancient words of Joshua to Israel speak directly to the Lutheran universities of 2014, “Choose this day who you will serve……….but as for me and my house (and our University!), we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:14).

Daniel L. Gard
Week of Pentecost 17, 2014