February 19, 2021
Week of Ash Wednesday
Dear ULS Community:
On both of our physical campuses, and in the range of most of those on our digital campus, this has been a cold and snowy week. I hope you have been warm and safe. It has not been easy for those parts of the country unused to such weather, and which have seen an extreme form of it in the last few days. I pray for them, that power and clean water be restored and that repairs may be made quickly. Even here in Pennsylvania, we need to be careful; adverse weather on top of pandemic conditions make life even more complicated for everybody.
But it must be said that the snow is beautiful. As one who has spent the last twenty winters mostly in Southern California, where once-a-year early-morning frost on the windshield was as bad as it ever got, this wintery look is enchanting. I do begin to understand it is less attractive on the end of one’s snow shovel, though, and have the stiff muscles to prove it. This week Rob and I are in Gettysburg, getting more settled into Lewars House (the president’s residence) and making it comfortable for us and Echo, our parrot. That takes some doing, because it is a big house, and we have had to rustle up some furniture. (If anyone who reads this has nice furniture—preferably Early American style—that they are trying to re-home, let me know. We could still use a few things.)
One of the romantic ideas we have about seminary education is that it is both a time and a place apart—an experience of communal discernment and formation, lived out in a rarified atmosphere of learning and piety. Our campuses were built with that in mind, as most academic campuses used to be: to be places of apart-ness, dedicated to study and elevated conversation. Parallels to the monastic ideal are not coincidental, as our system of higher education is built on medieval European church-centered models. Though modern American higher education doesn’t look much like it now, that’s the model older institutions like ours always had in mind. In Philadelphia, we have a modified version of the medieval academic quadrangle; in Gettysburg, we have the red brick row of stately buildings, looking down on the town from a hill. Both campuses are in a sense physical witnesses to ways of thinking about theological education—the monastic enclosure and the shining lighthouse.
But our common daily reality right now is on the “third campus”—as we sit at our desks in our homes and work from there, teaching, learning, and carrying on the administrative work of our seminary remotely. Though I am deriving imaginative energy from being on the Gettysburg campus this week, it must be admitted that it is not much different to work from my office or home there as it is to do the same work from another set of rooms in Philadelphia. This won’t last forever—though it will last at least through the summer—but it has changed us. Over a year away from the normal patterns will make them a little less “normal” when we eventually return to them, and I am hoping we won’t—in our relief at being back together—forget to think about what this year of separation is teaching us.
I think there will be lessons from the pandemic about both what we really need (which right now centers around all the aspects of physical togetherness) and what we can learn more to live without. I don’t think this year will turn us in a radical new direction, but I think it will speed up some tendencies that were already unfolding before the pandemic: greater reliance on technology; greater variety and flexibility in how to teach and learn; even more interaction between campuses by videoconferencing—perhaps less emphasis on our physical campuses than before. I don’t know what all the long-term results will be, but I think we need to be open to them and not simply insist on a return to the status quo ante.
ULS is still a young construct, built on two older and deeper foundations. Some of the differences have now been minimized by the pandemic—and I think that is for the most part a good thing—but we still face the reality that our faculty and staff are essentially in two places, two hours apart, and that our student body will still be multi-locational. What we coyly call our “third campus” is of course not just one notional place, but represents a wide spread of locations around the Northeast and beyond, and the students (and a few faculty) in it are not unified within it except so far as their digital experience is parallel. And what is even more significant about that, is that the “apart-ness” as a campus that residential students cherish as a way of building a new togetherness, is doubly hard for the DL students—they not only are not closely connected to each other, they remain embedded in their prior lives and homes. “Going off to seminary” for many now means going only to their desk or their kitchen table. We all “get that” now—we’ve all been in that same boat during the pandemic—and at the very least this difficult three semesters should dispel for us any illusions about the challenges faced by those engaged in distance learning. But I hope it also shows us some of its blessings, like ULS being able to come to people wherever they are.
Where are we, then? Are we on campuses, two physical and one notional? Not really, at least not right now. We are everywhere and anywhere, even if we are in adjacent rooms in Wiedemann or Stuempfle—we’d might as well be in Pittsburgh or Buffalo, or Washington, D.C.—or even San Francisco. We are in all those places, and all of them are ULS because we are there. ULS is with us, among us, wherever we are. It has become a seminary of the heart, carried with us to our many locations. I find this comforting—even as I long to sit beside you in one of our chapels or chat with you in one of our hallways—that we are still ULS wherever we are.
The beginning of Lent this year has made this idea of a “seminary of the heart” especially vivid to me, because I think there are some parallels between Lent-keeping and our current situation. We are each responsible for our own spiritual journey, and to understand that our goal must be God-ward—but at the same time we are not isolated but engaged in it together, for the same set of days, and with some of the same practices and desires. The first two days of our daily faculty devotions on YouTube were enormously reassuring to me: seeing the familiar faces and hearing the comforting voices of Dr. KSG and Dean Sebastian brought ULS right to my breakfast table, and pulled me into a sense of being “seminary” again right then and there. I warmly recommend these short devotions to you.
Though we live always in Easter hope, we still have weeks of Lent ahead of us. This could be a metaphor for the pandemic—hope delayed and distant, but still powerful and motivating. We need that hope to endure this time of loss and struggle in the wilderness, and to draw from it some meaning that we can carry forward with us into days ahead. I want to keep my eyes on that greater hope, but I don’t want to miss the richness of the present moment, difficult though it is in many ways. This Sunday’s gospel lesson of Jesus in the wilderness reminds us that the wilderness is not just an obstacle to be overcome, but an opportunity to learn and even to grow. When we are joined together in the hoped-for future joyful day—either the small one of being together again as a seminary, or the large one of our day before the throne of God—may the scars and bruises of the present moment be another reminder that God is with us in Christ in bad days as in good ones—and perhaps with us especially closely in the hardest days.
I wish you peace and rich reflection in these days of Lent. May God bless you and keep you safe.
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary