Reflections from President Rev. Dr. R. Guy Erwin

Reflections from President Erwin
September 24, 2021

Week of Pentecost 17

Dear ULS Community:

Dear ULS Community:

This has been another busy week, as we draw more deeply into the semester and a feeling of urgency kicks in—a feeling I get when the days begin to shorten. Somehow I always feel the approach of winter as a time of pressure to get things done—maybe there’s some primordial instinct calling me to prepare for the (literally, not metaphorically) darker, colder days ahead. Living now again in a place with four distinct seasons (in Southern California we just had a brief “green season” and a long “brown season”) I am struck by how short the seasons seem to be and how quickly they change. As a younger person they seemed so much longer, especially summer.

The highlight of this autumnal week was our Fall Convocation. The pandemic, of course, is still with us, and cost us the ease with which we normally would have assembled our alumni and friends on campus. Instead we had another virtual gathering, with Zoom and livestream. Though it was good, it was far from perfect. The longed-for worry-free post-pandemic social gatherings are still in our future. I was honored to be asked to provide some theological/intellectual content for the Convocation, and decided to speak about a topic that has long interested me: the nature of “belonging.” I’d like to expand on that a bit with you today.

It has long seemed to me that in our wresting with “difference” in our communities, and in our strong desire at ULS and in our churches and congregations to recognize and celebrate diversity, advance equity, and promote inclusion, we sometimes need to go back to some more basic building blocks of identity and individual and social self-understanding, and think about what it means truly to “belong.” Our most basic human feelings are feelings of belonging—of love and connection to parents and family, to spouses and partners, and to those with whom we connect ourselves in life through friendship. Beyond that, we live our social lives in networks of belonging as citizens, community members, and neighbors.

Christians, of course, have multiple, simultaneous kinds of belonging: We understand ourselves to be—in our very life and being—creatures of God, part of the God-created and God-sustained order of existence. But we humans also see ourselves as God’s particular creation, and in conscious, ongoing relationship with a God impossible for us to fully understand but always connected to us. These are theological principles, as is the constant human desire to know and love and be connected to our creating, enlivening, protecting God.

If you want to know more about how I have understood belonging in my own life, and how I see its significance now and in our social setting today, you can listen to the Convocation presentations here: they are two talks of about 45 minutes each and followed by some questions. The first talk defines the terms and gives some autobiographical reflection on how I understand belonging as an expression of my own identity as a Christian, a Native American, and a gay man. The second discusses more broadly what I see as a challenge for us to integrate our different kinds of social belonging as we live out our Christian vocation to “belong to each other” ever more fully across the boundaries that divide us.

Questions of belonging are central to the life of any institution: denomination, congregation—even the seminary—require people to feel connected and committed to a common purpose. The alumni convocation seemed to me like a good place to talk about that, and I hope we will keep talking about it. What does it mean to be united across our differences? How do we manage the edges of belonging, and move beyond “inclusion” to a more genuine connection as we do anti-racism work? What does it mean for us manage our belonging, commitment, and mission as a seminary, under the roof of our shared faith in Christ? And above all of this: what does it mean for us to live as people consciously obligated to the (complicated and difficult) love of neighbor?

This week we have kept on doing what a community does and trying to do it more smoothly every week: worshiping together; meeting and planning at every level; teaching and learning; furthering scholarship and engagement in the world; hosting those who come to us to learn. We assemble, we share, and we plan. And then we live together as best we can, united around our common goals and trying our best to respect all our differences. The pandemic has made us a little rusty at the in-person part of that work, and has made us, overall, a little more anxious about everything, but I think we all look forward to better days together.

In this rebuilding, too, “belonging” plays a role: if we are convinced that we belong, we will commit the energy we need to the collective work we need to do. If we can stop doubting that any one of us belongs, and recognize that we all do, we can listen to one another better and learn more from each other. We already belong to God, and to one another through Christ—how then can we keep doubting our connectedness? When we are fully able to gather face to face again, without fear of contagion, we will have to work to restore a sense of “belonging together” that the atomization into our pandemic bubbles, homes, and Zoom boxes has brought about. That will require patience and intention.

The people of ULS will need to keep working at remembering our own varied ways of “belonging” to each other and to the seminary. That is an ongoing challenge for any institution, but for one that represents a consolidation of two strong and important legacies and is challenged to react to a rapidly-changing religious context, it is crucial for us to keep working at it. In fact, we do all belong to ULS; understanding better what that means for each of us—and how we should live it out—will help us immeasurably. We belong to one another; remembering that every day will help us face the future.

On a sunny day after a heavy rain, in the beauty of the early fall, I greet you this week from Seminary Ridge in Gettysburg. God bless you all!

Yours faithfully,

Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary

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