The Opening of A New School Year

Michael Aune—September 5, 2001
Chapel of the Cross

A week ago Monday as I listened to Professor Strohl tell about her first day at Gettysburg Seminary—and later, in Chapel Classroom 1, as I listened to the new students introduce themselves, I could not help but remember my first day at Luther Seminary. I was walking between the library and the dormitory and ran into a college classmate who did not greet me with a “Hello, Michael,” but rather with the words, “Aune, what in the hell are you doing here?”

Well, I couldn’t say that I was there because I was absolutely convinced that God had called me or wanted me to be there. In fact, some of my college classmates and I would often joke with one another and ask each other whether God had indeed called the evening before around 10:30 to say, “I want you to go to seminary.” I did not have the luxury of that kind of certainty, and I still don’t. However, on that day at Luther Seminary many years ago now, I did know that because I was a quintessential seeker, I wanted to be in a place where I could ask and pursue questions of Christian faith and life without fear of recrimination—without hearing the words I had heard so often as a boy, “You don’t ask why!”

Now, however, I could ask “why?” And the fundamental reason I had come to seminary was because I had the growing sense that few subjects in the world rivaled theology. My insatiable curiosity about God’s ways with humankind could have free reign—and I could think about, talk about, and learn not only about a triune and holy God who became human in Jesus Christ, but also about what it meant and still means to be a particular kind of person—what it means to live—and what it means to see the world and others in the light of the Spirit of Christ. And, as I would soon learn, the stuff of theology was to be found not only in books but in the experiences of communities of faith that spanned ages and continents —the Hebrew experience of Exodus, Sinai, and Exile—of the experiences of the promises of the merciful God to make all things new—of the New Testament experiences of God’s breakthrough in the flesh of Jesus. I would learn that all of this stuff—this experience—often called for agonizing and lonely reflection in the midst of the insipid, banal, angular, violent, and dehumanizing. And I would find myself wondering whether this was all worth doing. For, you see, my classmates and I were exegeting scriptural passages while the war in southeast Asia continued to escalate. We were arguing about abstract love while real people continued to be locked in hate. We were trying to reformulate the Council of Chalcedon’s formal declaration that Jesus Christ was to be regarded as having two natures, one human and one divine, while he was being crucified all over again.

So, doing theology in this way often meant frustration because there were no easy answers to the hard questions. But we would eventually learn from Martin Luther himself that the correct way of studying theology was not to lead us to blissful communion with God as medieval contemplation would have it. Nor was it to provide us with the glib answer, the slick phrase and hollow moralism. Rather, trying to find the answers to the question of God and to the question of our lives and the lives of others meant, as Luther outlined in “the correct way of studying theology,” oratio, meditatio, and tentatio—prayer, meditation, and spiritual struggle.

As he wrote in the 1539 Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of his works, we were to begin our task by kneeling down in our little rooms and praying to God with real humility and earnestness, that God, through his dear Son might give us the Holy Spirit who would enlighten us, lead us, and give us understanding.

Secondly, we were to meditate—not only in our hearts but also externally, by actually repeating and comparing oral speech and literal words of the book, reading and rereading them with diligent attention and reflection. And, as Luther would note, “And take care that you do not grow weary or think that you have done enough when you have read, heard, and spoken them once or twice, and that you then have complete understanding. You will never be a particularly good theologian if you do that, for you will be like untimely fruit which falls to the ground before it is half-ripe.” In other words, meditation is more than hurriedly skimming a text. It is to engage the heart, as Professor Stortz would say—to have the text read us. Luther had no patience with those who felt that because they had read a text before, they had no need to study it again. Most likely his words are not the kind of encouragement we would like to hear at the beginning of a new school year—words that warn us not to act so high and mighty but to pray, to read, to converse, to meditate, and to struggle with texts and experiences precisely because the Holy Spirit is present in these activities and bestows ever greater light and fervor. And, Luther’s words can also tweak those of us who are teaching theologians—warning us not to become complacent just because we have obtained a doctoral degree. The task incumbent on all of us is to read and study lest we become “half-ripe” as well.

Finally, we come to what is Luther’s most striking innovation in the study of theology—tentatioAnfechtung—suffering. For if we are not struggling with a text, we haven’t been paying attention. Yet this spiritual struggle is not somehow being a masochist for Christ but rather the further working of the Holy Spirit on us. If we are doing our tasks as theological students and theologians, we are being changed in some fundamental way by our engagement with the text. As Luther put it, “In such reading, conversation, and meditation the Holy Spirit is present and bestows ever newer and greater light and fervor.” We do not come away from this experience unchanged.

This emphasis upon tentatio in Luther’s way of studying theology is perhaps the most difficult for us but it can also be the most meaningful. For it is in that struggle that true insight is found. As we share this tentatio, this Anfechtung, we are often opened to deep and prolonged discussion where we wrestle and come to deeper understandings of God, of others, and of ourselves. So, if we pay attention to what Luther is telling us about our struggle within our study walls, we will be compelled to go outside of them—because in so doing, the gospel is conveyed—across a bridge—down the hill—to the world.

The task we are given today is not somber but joyful, because we are sustained by the grace of God and by the gifts of humor and honesty about self and accomplishment. Toward the end of that Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of his works, Luther wrote: “If, however, you feel and are inclined to think you have made it, flattering yourself with your own little books, teaching, or writing, because you have done it beautifully and preached excellently; if you are highly pleased when someone praises you in the presence of others; if you perhaps look for praise, and would sulk or quit what you are doing if you did not get it—if you are of that stripe, dear friend, then take yourself by the ears, and if you do this in the right way you will find a beautiful pair of big, long, shaggy donkey ears. Then do not spare any expense! Decorate them with golden bells, so that people will be able to hear you wherever you go, point their fingers at you, and say, “See, See! There goes that clever beast, who can write such exquisite books and preach so remarkably well.” That very moment you will be blessed and blessed beyond measure in the kingdom of heaven. But, as Luther concludes, the honor is not really ours after all; the honor is God’s alone.

So, to return to the question with which I began—the one addressed so inelegantly to me on that first day of seminary many years ago about what in the hell I was doing there—I can still say that I am the quintessential seeker trying to make Luther’s structure for theological inquiry my own—praying in order to be attentive, receptive—mediating so that questions can be posed and judgments reached—being tested so that those judgments can be made my own.

And, surely this is what our readings for this opening of the school year are telling us as well—that in loving God with all our heart, soul, and might; that in using the gifts of the Spirit given to us to contribute to the upbuilding of the body of Christ in this place; that in holding the word of God in an honest and good heart, we bring forth fruit with patience—fruit that is ripe and ready for harvesting.

At last year’s opening liturgy of the semester, using Simone Weil’s essay, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” I proposed that our corporate and individual life of prayer and study could be seen as a sacrament—and the purpose of sacrament is not to change things like water, bread, and wine, but to change you and me—and as this happens, the God we love and the human persons we love and the world we love become more present to us.