February 23, 2024
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Guest commentary: Doubling down on Lutheran educational values to forge common ground

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By Lori Varlotta

The mid-21st-century world at large, including areas where we live and work, is markedly polarized at this moment in time. Many complex, nuanced issues are boiled down to “sides,” where co-workers, fellow citizens, friends, and family members stake their claims while vehemently opposing those of others. 

Of greatest concern is the propensity of people on all sides to vilify and villainize those with whom they disagree. 

This level of discord breeds dysfunctional communities and organizations: places where people live and work but do not flourish. 

If we desire to create thriving communities, we must learn — in word and deed — how to build them.

 As a life-long educator, I hold out hope that increasing numbers of colleges will help us get there. 

California Lutheran University has set out to build a vibrantly diverse and thriving community. 

As we make our way, we are explicit about the path we are charting. 

It’s a bumpy and winding one where students, faculty, and staff seek to understand and forge the common ground that exists in the messy middle. 

Ongoing effort is required to create common ground. It does not emerge by happenstance or by mandate. And even when it is forged, it is not a permanent state. 

The collective effort is rooted in grace — a recognition of giftedness in each person. 

It is fueled by both generosity — the proclivity to see the best in people — and by curiosity — the willingness to remain open and postpone judgment. The end of this effort is to serve the neighbor so that all may thrive.  

Such Lutheran educational values — grace, generosity, curiosity, inclusion, and service to neighbor — are the deep roots of our calling “to educate leaders for a global society who are strong in character and judgment, confident in their identity and vocation, and committed to service and justice,” reads our Mission Statement.

Rhetoric means little unless it is translated into reality. Here are just a few ways that Cal Lutheran uses these enduring values to clear a common ground and navigate the messy middle.

1. Common Ground is the name for a weekly student-led gathering at the chapel of CalLutheran. It is a place for students to come as they are, to share about their lives and faith, and to encourage one another in their studies, work, and aspirations. 

2. Our DEIJ programs, services, and commitment are shaped by grace, generosity, inclusion, service, and curiosity, not by shame and blame. We do not expect to agree with each other all, or even most, of the time, but we do expect to treat each other with kindness and respect, akin to what Lutherans refer to as generosity.

3. While we firmly acknowledge and celebrate our Lutheran identity, Cal Lutheran is forging a third path between the false dichotomy of sectarianism (which privileges one particular faith community over others) and secularism (which asserts that religious identities are irrelevant or even harmful). We are simultaneously rooted in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (evangelical connotes “the good news” not “fundamentalism”) and open to all. 

Approximately 8% of our students identify as Lutheran. Many more practice Catholicism and other forms of Christianity.  

We welcome religious and lay leaders who practice all types of faith, including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Secular Humanism.  

Importantly, our form of Lutheranism means that we not only welcome diversity in all forms. 

Additionally, we aim to nurture individual strengths and identities so that we can become our best selves in service to others. 

That two high-ranking leaders of the ELCA in California — the bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod and the bishop of Southwest California Synod — are members of the LGBTQ+ community is but one lived example of this commitment.

4. We value intellectual humility that is fueled by curiosity—values that help dismantle echo chambers that exist elsewhere while reminding us that the pursuit of truth is never linear, complete, or fully objective.

As you interact with us at a networking reception, attend any one of our arts and theater performances, or cheer us on at an athletic competition, you will see why Cal Lutheran remains a strong cultural, economic, and social anchor for this entire region and an educational destination for teachers, learners, and friends. 

Now is the time to double down on our efforts to model grace, generosity, service to neighbors, inclusion, and curiosity. We believe these efforts will help us build common ground and mend the fractures, near and far, that separate so many of us.

Lori Varlotta is the president of Cal Lutheran University and is the school’s first woman president as well as the eighth to assume the role.