When I told my parents that I planned to attend seminary after college and become a Lutheran pastor—with the final goal of writing and teaching theology—my father strongly suggested that I not attend a Lutheran college. He felt that I would have a broader experience and understanding if my college education was not from the same system as the seminary I would later attend. With that in mind, I looked at small liberal arts colleges in the Heartland of America, ranging from Oberlin College in Ohio to Creighton University in Nebraska. My short list of three colleges attracted my attention because they were then experimenting with “open curriculum,” meaning that students had greater freedom to choose their courses, not required to take a predetermined number of hours in science, math, languages, etc. (Frankly, one of the reasons this option attracted me was my hope to avoid physical education.) The second such college I visited with my parents fit that description and felt like a comfortable community, so I enrolled and committed myself to four years at that campus.
I could write thousands of words about my college experiences. I took classes (and graduated at the top of my class) and also participated in a variety of extracurricular activities, including writing for the student newspaper, broadcasting contemporary Christian music on the campus radio station, taking part in student government, being a member of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and even playing on an intramural basketball team. (Did you catch the irony?) I was part of a tight group of friends; we saw ourselves represented by contemporary movies such as The Big Chill and St. Elmo’s Fire. But the most relevant experiences as I aimed for a career in theology were the classes I took in religious studies.
The college’s religion professors were largely older white men who had been pastors (much as I would be described today if I were a college professor). Their approach to the Bible was far different than that I had learned growing up in a conservative Lutheran family and congregation, and it was equally different from what I would learn in seminary. They taught about supposed sources of Biblical accounts such as J, E, P, D, and Q. We spent more time examining the communities from which the Bible allegedly arose and less time considering what it had to say to people today. At the same time, Christian theology was dividing into assorted schools of thought such as liberation theology, black theology, and feminist theology, but the professors were not up to date on those approaches. They also had only academic exposure to non-Christian religions. Granted, they had the wisdom to invite the local rabbi to teach a class on Judaism. But I also learned about Judaism from a Jewish friend on campus (who did not like the local rabbi), and I learned about Islam from an assortment of Muslim students on campus, one of whom was my first roommate. My exposure to Hindu thought came from Beatles music, but I also learned to read texts from east Asia and south Asia and to see the material world and the spiritual world from those perspectives.
As my father had hoped, I learned many important lessons from my college religion classes. I learned to defend my faith in a mildly hostile environment. (I say “mildly hostile” because it was possible for me to disagree with my professors, even while taking an exam, and to earn an A provided I could defend my position.) I learned how to communicate in the language of scholars who are not conservative Lutherans. I learned how to be friends with people who did not share my core religious beliefs. I learned how to discuss religion and other controversial topics without ending friendships or becoming entangled in emotional wrangling or dead-end conversations. I found more reason to hold to my beliefs, having experienced the world in which people of contrary beliefs live and function. And I took part in a wide array of studies and student activities, not being limited to academic life of a purely theological bent.
But I did not learn how to survive in a conservative Lutheran academic community. J.