Wellbeing from the “Inside Out and Outside In”—The Gustavus Way


By Darrell Jodock, Gustavus Adolphus College Religion Professor Emeritus

Let me add my welcome to all of you. Some of you are very familiar with the traditions and core values of Gustavus and others of you are not. I’m going to risk repetition in order that this board can have a common starting point. I invite you to think of the college as a bridge held up by pillars. The deck of the bridge is very spacious - here classes are taught, here coaches work with their teams, here chapel services are held, etc. All the day-to-day interactions of the college take place on the deck of the bridge. But it is held up by pillars and footings. Most of the time those on the deck do not need to pay attention to the footings and pillars, but when it comes time to add something new or the revise something, it is important to take a look at the supports. I invite you on a 20-minute examination tour of those supports.

While we tour, I will summarize a number of ideas basic to Gustavus’ identity. I will seek to do this relatively quickly, because I am eager to hear your questions and comments. In order to do it quickly, I will rely more on a manuscript than I would if time were not so limited.

From its very beginning Gustavus has been dedicated to educating for service to the larger community. For example, its founder, Eric Norelius, insisted that classes be taught in English as well as Swedish. His goal was for graduates to serve American society, not just the immigrant Swedish community. From year one and on, the College was co-educational. Men were not the only ones who could serve that larger society.

If we survey the landscape of private colleges and universities today, I think Gustavus follows what I would call a third path. There are, I think, two default models that influence people’s expectations of private colleges. Often new faculty and new staff, parents, and friends of the College are confused by Gustavus, because it does not seem to fit either of those familiar models.

The first of these is what I would call a “sectarian” model. (Included among those who follow this model are the college that call themselves “Christian Colleges.”) A sectarian college serves a particular faith tradition and expects its faculty, staff, and students to adhere to that tradition. Sometimes they are asked to sign a statement that endorses those religious convictions. In other cases, the expectations are not codified but quite real, nonetheless. It does not need to wrestle with religious diversity, because such diversity is either absent or unacknowledged. The result is a relatively uniform college community, fairly clearly demarcated from the pluralism of American society. The sectarian college is, in effect, a religious enclave. For the most part it is designed to serve the religious community rather than the larger society (though it may, of course, do both). The boundary between it and the surrounding society is quite noticeable. A sectarian college has deep roots but is not inclusive. My intent is not to be critical of the sectarian college; it has many virtues. For example, it can quite readily nurture the faith of students. The centrality of one tradition gives it a coherence that may be absent elsewhere.

The second default model is a non-sectarian college. It has abandoned its religious ties, if it ever had them. It tends to mirror the religious profile of the surrounding society, so it is easy to move across the boundaries. It defines its identity in terms of contemporary cultural norms. It seeks not only to be inclusive but to also to look outward. It is, we can say, inclusive but not deeply rooted. It too does not need to wrestle with religious diversity, because it follows patterns worked out in the larger society and because it asks participants to check their religious identity at the door. That is, the only way any group’s religious identity can be practiced is for it to be a smaller enclave-tolerated but not engaged by the school as a whole. The non-sectarian college is, in effect, a microcosm of the larger society. Again, my intent is not to criticize. This model also has advantages. For example, it is easy for a person to cross the line into and out of the college. It may seem hospitable to persons injured by a religious institution or the behavior of its members

Gustavus has chosen to follow a third path - to value and sustain its religious roots while at the same time welcoming others into its midst. Its primary purpose is to serve the larger society rather than the church - though, again, it may often do both. It believes it has something valuable to offer the larger society that is distinctive. It seeks to be both rooted and inclusive. I mean by “inclusive” not only allowing for diversity in its midst but also having a vision that extends to the whole. Such a college understands its religious tradition as a valuable source of ongoing insight that nourishes both its academic work and its co-curricular endeavors. Those insights provide the basis upon which it can critique some aspects of the surrounding society while at the same time endorsing others. It seeks to serve the larger community. Rather than an enclave or a microcosm, it is a well dug deep to nourish the entire society. In a college that follows a third path, religious differences are taken seriously as occasions for dialogue. Thus religious diversity is an issue that needs ongoing attention. Moreover, there is no default position to follow, so the college community is always seeking to work out and explain its identity. It enjoys no ready-made images or vocabulary upon which it can draw. It endeavors to articulate its core values in ways that are accessible to people who share the tradition and people who do not.

It is important to note that the third path is possible only when a college’s religious roots support that option. Some understandings of religion may demand a sectarian approach. It therefore seems important to explore some relevant aspects of the Lutheran tradition that Gustavus affirms. In other words, we can ask, if Gustavus follows a third path, what priorities does it draw from its religious tradition? Let me begin by observing that the Lutheran tradition originated in a university, led by a man who was not only a friar and a priest but also a university professor. Its birth day is usually considered to be October 31, 1517. On that day, Professor Luther called for an academic debate on the topic of indulgences. His call for debate was, unfortunately, met with efforts to silence him, but there was too much pent-up dissatisfaction in 16th century Germany for his questions to be stifled. They spread rapidly and could not be put back in the box.

Having begun in a university, the tradition does nothing to question the value of learning. Faith and learning done in service to others are perfectly compatible. This religious tradition puts no limits on academic freedom. Any topic may be investigated, including the religious tradition itself. Rather than appeal to an authority, it prizes public discourse on all matters.

For this tradition the purpose of education goes beyond learning. Its purpose is to enhance wisdom. And what I mean by wisdom is a two-fold capacity - the capacity to understand humans and what they need to live a rich, full life, and the capacity to understand the dynamics of a healthy community. I can learn on my own, but wisdom comes from the give and take found within a community of discourse. Only as one relates to others can one understand how the topic affects them. And only then can one hope to fathom the complexity of human beings and human communities.

To repeat, at Gustavus, the overarching purpose of education is to enhance wisdom for the sake of service to the larger community. I want to let this last sentence sit for a moment and step back to approach the idea from another angle.

Unlike the prevailing ethos of American society that is highly individualistic, that expects humans to be able to operate and flourish in isolation, the Lutheran tradition understands humans to be inherently relational and communal. Healthy communities create healthy humans and healthy humans foster healthy communities. Any effort to foster wellbeing has to pay attention to relationships - including the divine-human relationship, the quality of human-to-human relations, and the relationship of divine and humans to nature.

Because humans are inherently relational, this tradition does not expect do-it-yourself projects to work. It is not possible to achieve wholeness on one’s own, because our fundamental flaw is that each of us is curved in upon ourselves. We do not want to acknowledge our creatureliness; we want to be God. No amount of advice, no amount of rules, no amount of austerity or of license will overcome that. Everything gets swept into the vortex of self-service. It can only be overcome when we are loved by another - loved so deeply and unconditionally that we can begin to trust, we can begin to listen, we can be drawn outside ourselves into relationship. Not only do we need to be loved, we need to acknowledge the centrality of that love. We need to acknowledge our giftedness - even our birth and life itself was a gift given to us by others. (Note that the giftedness comes first; the acknowledgment tags along afterwards.) And acknowledging our giftedness flies in the face of our society’s tendency to foster a sense of entitlement, which is the opposite stance toward life. Lutherans understand the fundamental religious message to be this: God is the ultimate source of that loving, and God never acts alone. The love and gifts of God always come through other humans - through parents, through teachers, through coaches, through mentors, through counselors, through friends - in fact sometimes in the most surprising circumstances from surprising sources - gifts may be received even amid profound struggle and grief and suffering.

To the degree we receive and acknowledge this love - we are set free - free from being enslaved to the self and free to channel this love and concern to others. Such channeling the tradition calls vocation. Vocation is the call to serve the neighbor and the community, or, if parsed a little more, vocation is simultaneously a recognition that one’s self is not an isolated unit but is nested in relationships, and it is a sense that one’s overall purpose and meaning comes from serving others and nourishing healthy communities. This two-fold recognition undergirds an ethic dedicated to the wellbeing of others. For the tradition neighbor and the community. If the community needs a mayor, Luther said, become a mayor. If it needs schools, as he thought it did, build schools. If it needs to provide for beggars, as he thought it did, organize a community chest. This is very much an ethic of civic engagement.

Vocation is not a matter of following rules. It is a matter of knowing what the other needs and creatively discovering ways to provide it. So we return to what I said earlier, the purpose of education is to enhance wisdom. The purpose of education is to cultivate the understanding of people and communities that we need in order to figure out what to do with our freedom - how to use it to benefit others. And, of course, what we do with our freedom affects every area of life - what we do in our families, where and how we work, what we do in our neighborhoods, etc.

In a college that follows the third path, dedication to the discovery of truth is not an abstract or aesthetic principle. Understanding or not understanding how things work affects other people. A bad idea (e.g. racism) brings harm. A solid, well-supported idea benefits others. It matters whether we get things right - so excellence (one of the core values) is also an important aspect of educating for service.

The priority of relationships and of service suggests another idea that the Lutheran tradition supports - namely, that humans, even educated humans, need to live with unanswered questions. What undergirds a person’s identity is solid relationships, not an infallible system of thought. It is better to acknowledge that we do not know than to perpetuate an inadequate or incomplete ideology.

Steve and I decided to title these remarks, inside out and outside in, because the tradition of this college sees a dual action at work in wholeness. On the one hand, the self needs to be transformed in order to serve others. A transformed self is an inner development that influences a person’s behavior. (As we have said, however, even here this transformation is not self-generated but comes from others.) On the other hand, humans are called out of themselves by the needs of others and by the needs of the community. Vocation is not just identifying one’s gifts and not just finding ways to express oneself (as important as these may be). A sense of vocation comes when I am so moved by the plight of others that I have to find a way to help. If one is religious, one sees in this the calling of God, but, even if one is not, human need provides the calling that draws one out of oneself into relationship and into community. Now, I do not want to be overly dramatic here. The “need” that calls for action may be hunger or illness or poverty or oppression. But it may also be a need for artistic beauty, music, or literature or the need for good government, well designed roads, and the like. It does not have to be a dire need in order to be the kind to which a person with a lively sense of vocation devotes his or her attention.

There is another tendency in our society with which Lutherans are out of step. That is the tendency to divide the world into good guys and bad guys. (One hears this so clearly from opponents to gun regulations - who seem overly confident that some people are “good guys” and incapable of doing harm, while others are “bad guys” and the only ones to misuse guns. The Lutheran outlook is skeptical of this neat division.) Lutherans regard everything human - every person, every law, every proposal - to be ambiguous or mixed - to have the potential for some good effects and some destructive consequences.

Wisdom understands the mixture - and figures out ways to act to the benefit of others even so - that is, it is not paralyzed by the complexity of being human. Doing some good is better than doing no good at all - even if the results are not perfect. (Note the sign on an office well in the capital of PA intended as an antidote to the paralysis of perfectionism - “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.”) The Lutheran tradition regards all humans and all human institutions and all human communities to be flawed. None of us is whole. Everyone needs to be transformed - both from the inside out and from the outside in - and everyone is worth transforming.

In addition to the importance of wisdom, in addition to the priority of being gifted by others, in addition to the resulting freedom, and in addition to the centrality of vocation, let me add one other priority that a Lutheran college embraces: the fancy word is incarnational - namely that everything divine and everything important is embodied - but let me call it earthiness. This earthiness affects our understanding, first of all, of humans. They are not divided into parts but whole creatures, whose wellbeing involves bodily health, emotional health, mental stability and resilience, relational wholeness, spiritual health, and vocational purpose. The earthiness also affects our understanding of the created world - because wholeness includes a healthy, symbiotic relationship with nature. And this earthiness affects even our understanding of God. God is not up there, above it all, but down here, coming to us where we are, working through other creatures and through human beings, through politics, through economics, through international relations, and every other aspect of life, to foster wholeness for all. The biblical word for this wholeness is shalom, and it is clear there that shalom is God’s overarching goal.

So, this earthiness suggests an all-encompassing understanding of wellbeing.

My claim is not that the Gustavus tradition is totally unique—only that it has a distinctive perspective that undergirds educational efforts to cultivate a lively sense of vocation, to foster the skills of servant leadership, and to nourish an encompassing sense of wellbeing. The wellness program at Gustavus is grounded in these inter-related and overlapping endeavors.