Pietas and a Christian University
Gilbert Meilaender

Reflecting one day on the regular invocations we offer to scholarship, freedom, and faith here at Valparaiso University, I was reminded of something that is missing from our newly minted (though traditional!) shield of character: namely, gratitude. We are said to be (or committed to being) “ethical,” but ethical is not the same as “grateful.”

Anyone who has read some modern moral philosophy will know that the term “ethical” is far too thin to be of much use in moral reflection or as a character description. What we need are virtues with thicker descriptive content, and in an academic setting—especially an academic setting that claims a connection to the church—gratitude is an essential virtue. It should shape our thinking and doing, and it does not simply leave us free to fashion our own way of life. Pietas, piety, is an acknowledgement of debts that by their very nature can never be adequately discharged.

Although my central concern here has to do with gratefulness to the church of my childhood for its commitment to teaching and transmitting a way of life, it is surely also true that gratitude is an essential academic virtue in a university. Sometimes we allow ourselves to suppose that our first task as teachers and students is to think critically, ruling no question out of bounds and looking back with a critical eye at those who in earlier times and places have thought about questions similar to our own. But our first task should be to cultivate in ourselves a grateful receptivity, a heart that is happy to be instructed and eager to appreciate, a willingness to learn as readily from Aristotle as from the most recent article in the New York Review of Books. In other words, “faith seeking understanding” should not be just a theological slogan. Such receptivity will protect us against the chronological snobbery (to borrow a term from Owen Barfield) that locks us into the assumptions of our own time and place.

For quite a few years after I had completed my graduate work and begun to teach, I had a kind of self-imposed policy: If I began reading an article in a scholarly journal, I finished it, even if it didn’t seem to make much sense or seemed decidedly wrong-headed. My notion was that it had been written by someone who knew something, it had been good enough to be accepted for publication, and even if it seemed wrong-headed to me the odds were good that the problem was as much mine as the author’s. A day finally came when I just ran out of time to continue to live by this policy, but I still think it was not a bad practice and that it was good for me both as a scholar and a person.

Gratitude may help protect those of us who teach from the petty tyrannies that come so easily to us. How readily we forget our invocations of freedom, as we require our students to acquiesce to the shibboleths of contemporary academic culture that make it difficult for us to practice an ecumenism of time in which we give voice to those who once thought quite differently than we do. The academician who cannot cite a passage in which “man” is used generically or the pronoun “he” is used to refer to God without adding the parenthetical “sic” is surely among the most pitiable of creatures.

Perhaps our deeper need, however, at least in a university that seeks to honor its historic connection to the church, is for a grateful spirit that extends to the churchly bodies that formed and shaped us—and, in particular, I have in mind here the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

For many, especially those of us old enough to remember a time when the church was more effectively present in the shaping of everyday life, a considerable debt of gratitude is owed the church. Drawn into the faith, we were taught (in Luther’s words) to “thank and praise, serve and obey” God. The freedom Christ brings was not formless; it was shaped and structured in the church’s way of life transmitted to us in worship, parochial school education, catechetical instruction, and countless less obvious ways. Certainly this was true for many of us who were raised in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

I have to say, though, that among us I seldom sense gratitude to Missouri for having been for many of us the place where we were initiated into both faith and life. Embracing any kind of diversity except the Missouri kind, we have forgotten the wisdom in G. K. Chesterton’s observation that “the best relation to our spiritual home is to be near enough to love it. But the next best is to be far enough away not to hate it.”

Too often, unfortunately, Missouri is the object of our condescension, even though, whatever her failings, our own accomplishments are hardly striking enough to warrant condescension. Indeed, we too often lapse into thinking that we—an academic community—can somehow transcend and bridge the increasingly deep divisions that separate Lutheran churches, as if we ourselves were a church. There is a kind of hubris in that faith in a church as invisible as ever one was.

Missouri was and is far from perfect, of course. Probably most of us who were raised within the LCMS have, over time, come to draw some lines in ways different from those that shaped our childhood. Nevertheless, I find myself increasingly grateful for a gift that this church body gave me. It set before me a God who in Christ not only forgives but also longs for us—longs to draw us into the holiness of his own life, to penetrate every aspect of our thinking and doing. The church offered not just a message floating free of a way of life but, rather, had its own way of life and its own culture. It spoke not only a word about reconciliation with God but also a word about that God’s commitment to make of us people who, in turn, long for him. It offered us—especially those of us who treasure our independence—the opportunity to learn obedience and to strive, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, “for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” It cared about and took seriously the intricacies (and the intricate beauty) of church dogma, preparing me for the day when I would realize that the Athanasian Creed’s articulation of God’s Triune life offers as good an image of the mutual reciprocities of love as we are likely to find, an image that was formative in our culture’s understanding of what it means to be a person.

In such ways, Missouri took itself seriously as church, and, to my adult surprise, I realize now that it helped me to appreciate more fully many Christians who were not reared in Missouri (and would not have wanted to be!). Were we less condescending toward and more grateful to Missouri, less inclined to offer ourselves as a kind of substitute church, we might in turn find ourselves newly appreciative of the concerns of others among us, such as Roman Catholics and Evangelicals.

To offer our community as common ground to those who already have or who seek a clearer churchly identity simply misses the point and is not in fact very invitational. Rather than supposing that we do or could constitute an alternative churchly community, which would only be a tiny club of the like-minded, we should honor the ecclesiastical differences that mark us. By helping members of our university community to acknowledge the claims their churches have upon them, by deliberately refusing to offer a substitute that makes few claims on them, we would cultivate in ourselves grateful hearts, the pietas of true virtue.

There are, of course, historical reasons for the direction we have taken, reasons having to do with the struggle within the LCMS that came to a head early in the 1970s. My own years as a seminarian were spent as that dispute was coming to its boiling point, and they were not pleasant years. I have a hard time being grateful for that, but I am strangely grateful for many of my seminary teachers—“strangely” because I eventually concluded that their vision of Lutheranism was and is a dead end. It was a Lutheranism that saw only law and obligation, where I have come to see the God who seeks to draw us into his own life. But in their own way they helped, or forced, me to think hard enough to turn elsewhere.

Having cut my theological teeth on a system that could only console the guilty and assume that those so consoled would leap up in service to neighbors, having been forced by that theology to think hard about some fundamental questions, I eventually came to see that it had relatively little to say about the way of life that Christians had struggled to transmit for two thousand years. Unable to provide the sort of thick description of Christian life that our world needs, it could only divide the law from the gospel—again and again, world without end. There was the law that kills and the gospel that makes alive, but no daily life of obedience that was anything other than a ceaseless dialogue between those two messages. There was no place for the Jesus who not only forgave the paralytic but also said to him, “take up your bed and walk.”

Hence, there was a kind of sterility about it. It seduced me, and quite a few others, into a kind of stereotypical preaching in which—as I now see—no matter what the text given me, for ten minutes (or so) I damned them and then for ten minutes (or so) I saved them. Indeed, it was only when I decided finally to scrap the system I had been taught that preaching became for me anything other than a chore and the task of theology took on greater clarity. But, of course, learning that took some years; it took reading and studying that went well beyond the rather narrow boundaries of my seminary training. And so I find myself grateful to Barth and Kierkegaard, to Augustine and John Paul II, to C. S. Lewis and Robert Jenson. I do not think, though, that I could have learned much from them had I not been formed initially by a church in ways that took seriously God’s deep desire to draw us into his own life—“God’s search for man,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it in the title of one of his books.

The Missouri of my childhood is often characterized as anti-Catholic, and so it was in certain ways (roughly the same ways that Catholicism at the time was anti-Lutheran). Yet, the puzzle is that, precisely because it took the church and her way of life seriously, it prepared me well for a day when I had to come to terms with papal encyclicals such as Evangelium Vitae and Veritatis Splendor. By contrast, the theological system in which I was later trained, dividing law and gospel world without end, did not really help me to enter seriously—both in agreement and disagreement—into the concerns of such encyclicals. Failing to see what Missouri did manage to offer, or, still worse, harboring a kind of inner animosity that can only feed condescension toward her, does not seem to generate within me a capacity for critical theological insight in the way gratitude can and does. It is pietas that truly sets us free.

In his Large Catechism Luther treats first the Ten Commandments and next the Creed. Near the end of his discussion of the Creed he writes: “The Creed brings pure grace and makes us righteous and acceptable to God. Through this knowledge we come to love and delight in all the commandments of God because we see here in the Creed how God gives himself completely to us, with all his gifts and power, to help us keep the Ten Commandments.” That is simply to say, as we recite when we use the Psalms, the church’s prayer book: “I shall walk at liberty, for I have sought thy precepts.”

Whatever may have been the failings and even the obstinacy of the Missouri in which I was raised, she really tried to be a church, tried to set before us and inculcate in us Christian obedience—tried to say, “take up your bed and walk.” And that, after all, is what it means to be Lutheran: Not to subvert God’s grace by attaching our own conditions to it. And not to subvert God’s commands by failing to pray, in words Christians have used at least since the seventh century, that our hearts may be “set to obey” God’s commandments.


Gilbert Meilaender is the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Professor of Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.

Copyright © 2019 | Valparaiso University | Privacy Policy