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Faith as a foundation and a commitment

Steve Bahls, president of Augustana College

While being interviewed for the presidency of Augustana College, I was asked what it meant to be a college that is related to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Then, if you had asked 20 different people that question, you’d have gotten 20 different answers.

The question stayed with me through my inauguration and into the first year of my presidency, tugging at my brain. Much has been made of our hyphenated status: church-related. But what does it actually mean? We decided we ought to ask the people whose understanding and experience of Augustana’s identity—Lutheran and otherwise—matter the most: our own community.

So we surveyed that community, part of a year-long study into what kind of relationship we wanted with the ELCA. Historically, dating to the 1950s and 60s, Augustana was a college of Lutherans for Lutherans. Today, only two of our board members are appointed by the church. As a contemporary liberal arts college with an ever-changing demographic of students, we knew this descriptor no longer quite fit us.

The question, in its most basic form, seemed to be this: keep the relationship or jettison it? But we determined that a third course would best allow us to remain true to our core sense of self while still growing and evolving to meet the needs of our students and the traditions of our institution.

Which brings us back to that hyphen. Does it unite Augustana to the church or serve to separate it, keeping us at a distance? What if it did both? Can we be simultaneously proud of our heritage and founders while recognizing that we are not a church institution but rather a church-related institution?

As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Not that these are opposed ideas; on the contrary, as we subsequently envisioned them through the Five Faith Commitments, they are complementary, and bolster our mission.

The culmination of a year’s work, the Five Faith Commitments have become a foundational document of the college. Neither covenant nor agreement with the ELCA, but instead a unilateral statement of purpose and belief, they are intended to promote growth in mind, body, and spirit.

The areas of focus in the Five Faith Commitments, which support our foundation, are:

  1. Interfaith engagement.
    This entails reaching out to those of different religions as well as those of no professed religion. Our responsibility is to meet students where they are and provide opportunities for growth in faith, whatever that may be. We welcome students of the Christian tradition and of world religions to worship on campus and seek out spiritual direction and reflection.

    For College Chaplain Richard Priggie, it’s one of his favorite parts of the job. He leads the Faith Zone Interfaith Ally training, a three-hour training offered three times each academic year that teaches religious literacy of eight major faith traditions; understanding of religious demographics globally; and guided self-reflection on the role of faith and religion (or lack thereof) in each participant’s life.

    “I’m passionate about interfaith understanding,” Priggie says. “We really are serious about offering spiritual growth to all of our students, not just Christians, and this is a tangible way they can live out that faith commitment.”
  2. Social justice.
    For this, we need look no further than Micah 6:8 to know that what is required of us is to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. As a lawyer in my previous life, I believe that justice must be tempered with mercy and an understanding that there but for the grace of God are you. Augustana students regularly engage with the community and with justice issues. Our Upper Mississippi River Center, which has tackled social, economic, and sustainability challenges, including remediation of lead-based paint in the community, is an outstanding example of this commitment.
  3. Spiritual exploration.
    While some institutions have abandoned their campus ministries program, ours remains strong, offering spiritual guidance and worship opportunities as well as an alternative spring break program that takes students to Appalachia to engage with community members and work on housing improvements. Campus ministries supports student groups for Evangelical, Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim students, among others.
  4. Reasoned examination.
    Faith and reason, as cornerstone values, can and should challenge and enrich each other. At Augustana, we embrace the complexity of human spirituality as much as we believe in building citizens of tomorrow. With faith and a reasoned foundation in the liberal arts, our graduates have the tools to create more just communities and societies.  
  5. Vocational discernment.
    In short, we are here to help students discern their calling in life. For some, that includes a religious dimension, an “ah ha” moment during which they hear God’s calling for them; for others, intellectual inquiry leads them to find their “groove.” Theologian Frederick Buechner said that your vocational calling in life is where your passions meet society’s deep needs.

The Five Faith Commitments have been—and will continue to be—one of the most significant and influential document we have in setting the course of Augustana College. It is the light by which we steer, the lodestar that guides us.