Friday, April 15, 2022

Rooted and Open


Rooted and Open


All three of the Abrahamic religions are in the midst of important sacred seasons: Holy Week for the Christians, Passover for the Jews, and Ramadan for the Muslims. These religious traditions share a commitment to humility, supporting those in need, and fundamentally being good neighbors. In their best times, they have borne a commitment to ecumenicalism, and each has a rich history of scholarship and teaching. For centuries, faith and reason have met in the world’s great universities.


Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of sharing a meal with Chaplain Kershner and Guy Erwin, the President of the United Lutheran Seminary and Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair and Professor of Reformation Studies. Rev. Erwin was on campus to discuss the possibility of creating an articulation agreement between Susquehanna and the Seminary in support of our pre-ministry students.


We were founded in 1858 to provide training to young men who wished to become missionaries, but whose families lacked the means to provide them the then traditional education required for this work. Our founder, Benjamin Kurtz, sought a community that would sponsor such an endeavor, and Selinsgrove offered to help if he would also provide a traditional liberal-arts education to their sons and daughter who were not called to the ministry.


The institution and first building were named the Missionary Institute. Pre-missionary students attended free-of-charge, while non-seminarians paid tuition and fees and were educated through the Classical Division and the Female Academy. The institution officially adopted the name Susquehanna University in 1895 and shortly thereafter renamed the building, Selinsgrove Hall, in honor of the community that had supported our founding. In 1933, the Theological Department was suspended, ending our seminary work. [1]


Every president of Susquehanna was a Lutheran minister until 1977. Only 6 or 7% of our students identify as Lutheran today, and we have become a religiously open and pluralistic community. Each year, two or three of our graduates go on to pursue graduate seminary training, many of them are Lutheran, and building a partnership with the United Seminary will enhance their opportunities.


Susquehanna has often been described as Lutheran institution that flourished through Jewish philanthropy. Sigmund and Harry Weis were Jewish Susquehanna students in the very early years of the 20th century. They and successive generations of the Weis family have provided generous philanthropic and leadership support to the university. Harry’s son, Robert, and grandson, Jonathan, served as trustees. Sigmund’s son-in-law, Charles Degenstein, was also a trustee and a philanthropic champion of the university. That support continues in perpetuity through the 1994 Charles B. Degenstein Foundation.


Those relationships were cultivated by Gustave Weber, the last Lutheran pastor to serve as president of SU, and they speak to the developing ecumenical spirit the University was beginning to undertake. That diversity of faith and thought has continued to grow.

Over the past few years, the religious affiliations of the Susquehanna student body[2] and the nation[3] are approximately:










Other Protestant



Eastern or Greek Orthodox

















Spiritual, but not religious











Although our numbers are similar to the nation, they reflect less religious diversity than exists within a 200-mile radius of our campus. This why we strive to create an environment in which all students feel supported in expressing and celebrating their faith tradition, or lack of one. It is also why the Division of Inclusive Excellence includes our Chaplain, Rev. Scott Kershner, and our Director for Jewish Life, Rabbi Nina Mandel.


Alumni most frequently invoke our Lutheran heritage when they disagree with something I have done or when we announce an initiative from which they take discomfort. The latter is almost always around efforts to be more inclusive, and the former is the presidential third-rail of sending out a holiday card rather than an explicitly Christmas card. I realize the disgruntled may have lost their way, but Susquehanna has not.


As a modern liberal-arts university, Susquehanna’s culture has been shaped by its Lutheran Heritage in important ways. The University’s generations-long commitment to service, the enduring ethical core of our curriculum, our beautiful mission statement (We educate students for productive, creative and reflective lives of achievement, leadership and service in a diverse, dynamic and interdependent world.), and the Board of Trustees’ recent Statement on Inclusive and Ethical Living are all monuments to what Professor Emeritus of History, Donald Housely, called our “Goodly Heritage.”


In January 2018, the Network of ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) Colleges and Universities adopted a common calling entitled Rooted and Open. It is a collective acknowledgement that the intellectual foundations of our institutions are rooted in Lutheran traditions and “boldly open” to other traditions, religious and secular.


We are contemporary institutions prepared and committed to serve students from all faith traditions or none, and to do so with the widest array of intellectual resources we can muster. We affirmed that we must be institutions of “radical hospitality, so that all may flourish.”


What is important to recognize and celebrate is that ours is a dynamic heritage that has at its core a commitment to the common good and a recognition of the worth in each member of our community. These are the values of the Abrahamic religions, and they are the values of the liberal arts. We are in the business of making good neighbors, because it is what we are called to do, it is our vocation, and it is the best of our history.


I wish you all meaningful, reflective, and rewarding observances now and always.

[1] Housely, Donald D.: Susquehanna University 1858-2000: A Goodly Heritage. Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 2007.

[2] My rough averaging from recent factbooks.


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