The Spirit of Service: Exploring Faith, Service,
and Social Justics in Higher Education
As a born and bred Calvinist working and teaching at Calvin College, I must admit up front that the invitation to review Brian Johnson and Carolyn O’Grady’s edited collection of faculty essays on faith, service, and justice in higher education has proven a pleasant, though not undaunting, challenge. Written from multiple faith, disciplinary, and pedagogical perspectives, the book holds together in its singular institutional perspective—all of the contributors are either faculty members or recent graduates from Gustavus Adolphus College, a college in St. Peter, Minnesota with strong historic ties to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The book serves many valuable purposes, including its demonstration of how one institution can work through a focused conversation about how these three big topics—faith, service, and social justice—can be viewed in such different lights even at one institution, depending on multiple layers of perspectives ranging from discipline to personal faith commitments to generation and culture.
For this Calvinist, the book is a fascinating manifestation of Lutheran academic engagement in contemporary American higher education. I will admit to my deep discomfort with Gustavus Adolphus’s resolute commitment to a diverse range of theological (or a-theological) perspectives among the faculty on campus. This openness emerges again and again as the Gustavus community’s primary commitment. To help adjust to this, I returned to my copy of H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1951 book, Christ and Culture, where he presents a typology of theological perspectives on how Christ relates to culture. Niebuhr characterizes my tradition as one that sees Christ as a transformer of culture, implying an ability to imagine Christ and culture as coming together through the work of institutions like colleges and universities through the gradual renewal of all things. My Lutheran friends, according to Niebuhr, see Christ and culture as fundamentally in paradox, making questions about how faith fits with higher learning more problematic. Where some Calvinist institutions, like mine, have attempted to present a theologically harmonious perspective to their students by requiring of their faculty not only a commitment to the Christian faith but also to the Reformed tradition of historic Christianity, Lutheran institutions like Gustavus Adolphus have been far more wary of such requirements. Indeed, faculty contributors to this volume alone represent a wide range of faith, including traditional Lutherans, a Buddhist, a Hindu, atheists, an evangelical, and Catholics. In his thoughtful essay on “Faith, Social Justice, and Service-Learning in Environmental Studies: The Struggle for Integration,” geographer Mark Bjelland highlights the Lutheran perspective well, while admitting that his response to the challenge of multiple faith perspectives in the college community “has been to broaden the reading list, to continually ask questions, to revel in paradox, and to occasionally reveal my own convictions” (82).
The book includes fifteen chapters arranged in three parts: “Analyzing the Landscape,” “Practicing what we Preach,” and “Getting to the Heart of the Matter.” In Part One, readers learn about Gustavus Adolphus College and how it arrived at the place where big questions about faith and learning are safe to talk about. Part Two provides six case studies of how Gustavus faculty have integrated service, faith, and justice into particular curricular or programmatic experiences. And Part Three addresses larger issues such as faculty development, fear of disclosure in the classroom, and deep learning and also includes a chapter written by two recent alumnae. Johnson and O’Grady provide a nice book-end conclusion by offering curricular and programmatic suggestions that connect to specific questions earlier in the volume.
A necessary companion volume to Johnson and O’Grady’s is one that came out of Calvin College in 2002, Commitment and Connection: Service-Learning and Christian Higher Education, edited by Claudia DeVries Beversluis and Gail Gunst Heffner. The two volumes address very similar topics and demonstrate two profoundly different ways that small Christian colleges can approach big pedagogical questions related to service, faith and justice. In contrast to The Spirit of Service, Commitment and Connection contributors feel no obvious tension in terms of questions of disclosure of faith; on the contrary, Christian faith is assumed. The difference here points to a complicating element to The Spirit of Service. The tone of caution and apology is so prevalent in every author’s voice that it is readily apparent that no matter how many participate in this attempt to incorporate questions of faith into the campus dialogue relative to service and justice, the larger campus climate is not ready for it. In her essay “Faith, Peace, and Politics: Dwelling in Discomfort,” political scientist Loramy Gerstbauer discusses her journey into the Gustavus culture after undergraduate years at evangelical Wheaton College and graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame. She admits to wrestling to figure out a place like Gustavus. “After all, what did I learn at Wheaton except that my faith extends to all parts and exercises of my mind and is not restricted to one academic discipline or vocational pursuit?”(118). And despite her clear commitment to an integrated life, spiritually, intellectually, and socially, Gerstbauer seems to conclude that she can and should keep her personal faith outside her teaching, research, and scholarship in order to avoid offending students or others who might not share it.
Perhaps my favorite case study came from Jenifer Ward, a professor of German whose chapter, “Ora et Labora: Prayer and Service in an International Study Abroad Program” went the furthest in pointing out the need for the inclusion of a faculty member’s authentic self in any honest attempt to integrate questions of faith into the teaching environment. Ward accompanied several groups of students to Germany over a number of years, and constructs her chapter around seasons of the Christian year, beginning with Epiphany 1999, moving to Maundy Thursday 2000, and concluding with Pentecost 2000. Her experience of including herself in the practice of culpa, or communal confession and forgiveness, with her students, enabled her to experience a highly integrated teaching and learning experience. She admits that she was initially severely uncomfortable with the idea: “my scholarly and professorial self, on the one hand, and my Christian self, on the other hand, did not know how to be in conversation with each other”(147). Through the process of practicing culpa with her students in the context of a learning environment, she introduced parts of herself to each other. But Ward’s experience is the exception in the volume.
I recommend the book to academics whose intellectual milieu is perhaps vaguely curious and mildly tolerant of faith perspectives, but my guess is that many who have moved past fears of anti-intellectualism and who have recognized many of the mantras and dogmas of a naturalistic perspective as requiring an equal zeal for another type of “religious faith” will find the fear of integration and disclosure simply anachronistic.
Jeffrey P. Bouman,