Reflections from the Augustana Hochschule

I am back in Neuendettelsau at the Augustana Hochschule, where I studied for a year as an exchange student from Wartburg Seminary during the academic year 1994-1995. Before this trip, I had only been back to Neuendettelsau one time since then, and I hadn’t really spent any time in the Augustana itself. So, it is a great joy to be here for a few days, and actually have time to spend in the chapel, in the Mensa, and in the library. The campus is beautiful (it helps that it was lightly snowing today), and I have such fond memories of my year here. I feel very blessed to be back, especially because today at the coffee break I got to visit with Herr Spieker, who was the faculty member who welcomed me and helped me get settled when I first arrived.

The Augustana is celebrating its 75th anniversary, and in conjunction with the celebratory events, there is an international conference with multiple speakers taking place this weekend as well. I give my presentation tomorrow. I will have more to say about the presentations later—so far, they have all been very interesting, discussing the theme of theological education in the current context from a variety of perspectives and countries.

In this post, however, I want to share a couple things about the history of the Augustana that I learned today, which I think are actually relevant and interesting for thinking about theological education in the US today.

First, a couple details about the founding of the seminary. It was founded in 1947, at a time when permission to start a new seminary had to be granted by the Americans, who occupied this part of Germany after the war. The war itself was one of the main reasons the founders sought to start a new seminary; Germany has a long tradition of having theological faculties set within the context of larger public universities. After the rise of National Socialism and the takeover of the German church, the founders of the Augustana wanted a seminary that would be independent from any university system, and therefore insulated to some degree from the dangers of extreme governmental policies that would threaten the integrity of both the church and society.

It is, then, perhaps no surprise that the founders chose Augustana for the name of this new seminary, the Latin name of the Augsburg Confession.

But, where would they find (male) students to fill the inaugural class? The overwhelming majority of German men of age were either dead or captured and imprisoned. Therefore, they again went to the Americans for permission to go to one of the prisoner of war camps in Italy, where they had heard there was a group of German prisoners who were studying the Bible together. These prisoners became the first class of students, and the first pastors who graduated from the Augustana.

This history invites me to reflect on the relationship between the church and the government/political parties and policies in our own country, and the backgrounds of our own students. Would we accept (or even seek) students from prison?

Finally, I wanted to share what I learned about the cross that stands in the center of the chapel. The artist formed it (and the altar and pulpit) out of metal that was taken from munitions that had been built right here on the grounds of the seminary. And, it was pointed out to us that the cross is not an empty cross, it is a crucifix. This means that it is not only the cross that embodies the power of turning war into peace, aggression into reconciliation; it is Christ himself who takes onto his own body the evils of death, hate, violence and destruction and stretches out his arms in healing, forgiveness and new life. This may well be an “ugly” cross (as many visitors have said), but the message it embodies is both beautiful and hopeful.

So, again, this invites me to reflect on our own chapel cross at Wartburg: what does this particular cross embody for me? How does any one specific physical form of the cross shape and direct one’s prayer life? How should it?

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