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Three pursuits for a thoughtful professor

Joel Okamoto fills new roles to help lead Concordia Seminary into the future

Left to right: Dr. Gerhard Bode, Dr. Timothy Saleska, Dr. David Peter, and Dr. Joel Okamoto sing with fellow faculty members at the 2013 Opening Service.
Left to right: Dr. Gerhard Bode, Dr. Timothy Saleska, Dr. David Peter, and Dr. Joel Okamoto sing with fellow faculty members at the 2013 Opening Service.

Dr. Joel Okamoto has long been known at Concordia Seminary for his challenging questions and courses. As a professor of systematics, it is his job to teach students to explain God and Scripture in a rational, “systematic” way. But more specifically, it has become his passion to teach students to craft answers to the real questions people are asking about Christianity even when those questions are deep, and complex.

“We used to joke that when he became a pastor, he’d have to become a pastor of the Lutheran Church of Think Really Hard,” said David Lewis, fellow professor and friend since both he and Okamoto were Concordia Seminary students.

“He is very perceptive with regard to the shape of Lutheranism and of Christianity in the 21st century, especially from a cultural, linguistic, and theoretical perspective. But he always tries to link that to the implications for pastoral ministry. He asks theoretical questions, philosophical questions, but always to get at how the church’s life canbe most effectively fulfilled in the present,”said Dr. Kent Burreson, dean of the chapel and fellow professor of systematics.

Okamoto completed his undergraduate degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in materials science, but claims he was not very fond of school until he began studying at the Seminary, where he experienced a good deal of spiritual growth and became very engaged with the material. Sometimes this happened through classroom debates.

“He’s almost always right; I’d never want to have to debate him,” said Lewis, who is grateful that back in school and even now, he and Okamoto agree on most issues. Okamoto recalls these classroom debates as well. In the midst of a particular debate he was winning, he remembers realizing, “Boy, I get this; this is kind of cool!”

Yet Okamoto is clearly not focused on “winning.” His most important goal for his students is that they grow in their capacity to confess Jesus Christ as Lord, and especially to do that consistently in many realms of their lives.

“It is a good thing to have correct answers, but it’s better to have good answers.”

Secondly, he wants them to mature in how they ask and answer questions. “It is a good thing to have correct answers,” he said, “but it’s better to have good answers.” A good answer can be one that has depth of insight. A good answer can also be one that is actually helpful to the real person asking the question. And yet, “answers are only as good as questions.” Sometimes the most important work is learning to ask better questions.

It is no surprise, then, that such a professor would be given three new roles to help lead the Seminary forward in a thoughtful, faithful way. One of these roles allows him to continue and expand what he already does: Okamoto was chosen as the first recipient of the Waldemar and Mary Griesbach Endowed Chair of Systematic Theology. Practically, in addition to affirming his leadership in the systematics department, the endowment is meant to allow him some extra time for study, research, writing, and continuing to respond to major religious questions. This chair has special meaning for Okamoto because the Griesbachs were parishioners of Okamoto’s father, and they gave the endowment in honor of their pastor’s ministry.

Dr. Joel Okamoto sports his trademark red sneakers on the steps outside of Luther Tower.
Dr. Joel Okamoto sports his trademark red sneakers on the steps outside of Luther Tower.

Okamoto also has been asked to oversee the implementation of the Science for Seminaries grant—a grant for which he led the application process. Given to 10 American seminaries by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the grant will help each seminary to incorporate more science into its curriculum and community (see related story on p. 20). The seminaries are given freedom to do this in a way that each feels is faithful and intellectually honest. So far, for Concordia Seminary, this has meant the insertion of new material into a handful of courses, and could include other applications over the grant’s two-year disbursement.

Finally, “no class is safe,” said Okamoto, as chair of the Curriculum Review Committee. Okamoto explained that a comprehensive re-examination of the Seminary’s curriculum has not taken place since the 1950s, and the time is right to undertake such a project.

What changes are coming in the curriculum review? Identifying the desired outcomes is step one, explained Okamoto, and the review is still in that first phase. Anything could happen, even a change to the way something has been done in the past—though he doesn’t feel that is likely. “The toothpaste is out of the tube, as it were,” he said. “He (Okamoto) wants to form the most thoughtful, reflective, constructive theologians possible. This is one of the reasons he was chosen to be in charge of our curriculum review committee,” said Burreson. Burreson explained that Okamoto thinks holistically, seeing how all parts of a whole fit together. Even among the faculty, said Lewis, he is looked to for his clarity of thought, analysis, and discourse. “He’s one of the people to listen to.”

Okamoto takes his work seriously, and he is serious about the right things. What Okamoto likes most about being a part of the Seminary community is that “everyone is serious about Jesus.”

Yes, he is serious, but that quality is backed by fiery passion and joy. When Okamoto talks about opportunities to spark change—change that is meaningful and important—excitement flashes in his eyes and sneaks out through a brief, slight smile.

It also takes a certain joy to become known as the professor who wears red sneakers. While he has long worn comfortable shoes, his red pair garnered attention during the ceremony in which he received the Griesbach Endowed Chair of Systematic Theology. Shortly thereafter, the shoes received a nod from Seminary President Dale A. Meyer, and are now seen much more frequently.

Thus, in red sneakers, Okamoto continues to lead the charge in wrestling with the complex questions and issues that face the Christian church, through new roles and familiar ones. “He’s a great Christian brother, a solid man all the way around,” said Lewis. “It’s a blessing for me and everybody else to work with him here.”