I love the first day of class.
Every year, I walk into a classroom filled with new faces—freshmen making a new start. These young people stand anxiously on the edge of a new world. I tell myself that they are excited chiefly about the intellectual journey they are beginning-ideas, books, philosophy, literature. . . . I'm sure that's part of it. Of course, most of these students are living away from home for the first time. They now get to make their own decisions about what to study, what to read, what to eat (and drink), when to go to bed and when to get up. I imagine all that's on their minds too. They are ready to forge ahead into this new world but apprehensive about what they will find in it. They wonder how blank the slate really is. How strict are the rules? What happens if they make bad choices?
I see all this in their faces on the first day. There is a little bit of it in every student—even the grizzled senior, but it is most intense in the freshmen. As professor on that first day, I can feel the energy in the room. Freshmen take things seriously, because they know the stakes are high. They know that every class they take might be the one that introduces them to their choice of major, their job—their lifelong calling. Every book they read might be the one that stimulates an important new idea—maybe their own first book. Every essay assignment might produce the moment when they find their literary voice. No student argues more passionately about what Socrates really means than a freshman in her first month of class. And as professor, I get to play the guide in this adventure. When I walk into the room they look at me, as if they expect that I should know where they are going and what's going to happen along the way. I love that moment. Every year, the looks on my students' faces on the first day of class remind me why I wanted to teach.
It lasts until about October.
Usually, by the middle of the first semester, the excitement that charges the air in my classes at the beginning of a school year gets harder to feel. The students don't look at me quite the same way anymore. After all—as my students often remind me, I'm not their only professor. I'm not the only one assigning books and articles and essays. And—as they also remind me, they have lives outside the classroom too—friends, families, jobs, clubs. These all demand time. The excitement I felt on the first day is still there. You just have to know where to look for it. When you aren't careful, the sense of discovery that should distinguish academic life can get lost in the shuffle. Part of my job as teacher is to bring the intense excitement of the first day back and to make it seem real for both students and professor in every class session, every book, and every assignment.
Although Michaelmas comes near the end of the Christian calendar and in many countries is associated with the harvest-the end of a year's labor, in the academic world Michaelmas marks the beginning. It is the first term of the school year-beginnings for new classes, new students, and new endeavors.
Somehow, this Michaelmas I feel like the freshman. This is my first issue as editor of The Cresset. My excitement and anxieties over this new endeavor are much like what I imagine my students feel on their first day. Like my students, I have an opportunity to make something new for myself. This is a different kind of work than what I've been doing the past few years. It is a labor that I turn to eagerly, anxious to plow new fields and reap a different kind of harvest. I'm sure that this work will change me in some ways, although I'm not sure how.
Of course, my duty here is not to create things anew; it is to care for a legacy with which I have been entrusted. I know how well this journal has filled its mission. The Cresset has been described as 'a small lamp set on the wall.' Eleven editors before me have tended that lamp, and I can only hope that the products of my efforts will add something to the light that their labors have left us. This is a time of beginnings, but I will work to make it a continuation—a continuation of the traditions of wisdom and excellence that my predecessors have established.
So treat this first issue as my first assignment. Feel free to take out your red pen. I know that many of you have your own ideas about what this journal is or should be. I've heard from more than a few already. Please, keep the advice coming. I need to know what you are thinking. My immediate predecessor noted in one of his first columns that he was perhaps the first editor of The Cresset of a generation who never knew O. P. Kretzman and the first editor who was not born and raised Lutheran. If he was right, that makes me the second on both counts. When I remember that, it reminds me of how much I have to learn—and of how grateful I am for the trust that has been placed in me. I hope my excitement for my new vocation is apparent in the pages that follow, and I hope that it keeps coming through in every future issue. I will try to remain always your anxious freshman.
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I'm a political scientist by training, and I'm fascinated by the interaction of the realms of politics and faith. "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." Jesus made it sound so easy, but sometimes it's hard to know what belongs to each. So often, both God and Caesar seem to have a legitimate claim. How do we render unto both Caesar and God what each deserve? It can't be as simple as following God and letting Caesar shift for himself, for we are also told that "the authorities that exist are appointed by God." Does this mean that our duties to the political order—our duties as citizens—are themselves sacred. At what point does Caesar ask too much of us?
Two of the essays in this issue examine the teachings of the Reformers on some of these very questions, but the essays draw very different conclusions. William Frame sees in the Lutheran tradition, particularly in the writings of Melanchthon, the basis for a sort of "Christian civility" that allows for a vigorous life of service and civic engagement. Von Heyking, on the other hand, is more cautious about the Lutheran legacy. He suggests that Lutheran teachings are prone toward a sort of individualism that isolates us from the friendships and public life that are necessary in political order.
The remaining essays provide portraits of groups of Christians looking for ways to witness to the Gospel in the unique contexts of their own political communities. Joe Creech presents a study of conservative Christians moved by their faith to reform a nation that already called itself Christian. Sr. Janet Carroll considers the prospects for Christians who currently are seeking out a role to play in a nation that has long been suspicious of all things Christian.
Sometimes, we boldly proclaim our faith, even in the public square. Sometimes, we cautiously search for means of dialogue with fellow citizens who are suspicious of our motives. As Luther taught, the Kingdom of Man is not the Kingdom of God. The work of the state is not the work of the church, and, as Christians, we cannot use the state as one more tool with which to do the church's work. Yet, sometimes even Christians will need to render unto Caesar. Political community is not the end of Christian life, but it is one more realm in which we are called to serve and to seek God’s truth.