Visible School Commencement SpeechThe letter to the Hebrews chapter 11 tells us of a pilgrimage to a better city, a better world. It is a mission that all humans should be on. For this mission you have been given a gift - an education. This is a tool to use as you continue on a journey to the ultimate destination - one that will never be fully reached in your lifetime. You enter into a pilgrimage that is a multi-generational one. A pilgrimage that will last through your life and your children’s lives and those of your grandchildren. They are counting on you to do it well.
Challenges, however, lie ahead of you - you face a historic level of social fragmentation - but the world has been here before. Karl Marx speaking of this kind of fragmentation in the middle of the 19th century referred to it as a time where “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.” But, lest I be accused of only quoting from Marx - I quote British conservative philosopher Phillip Blond who in a recent article in The American Conservative stated that today “A vast body of citizens has been stripped of its culture by the Left and its capital by the Right, and in such nakedness they enter the trading floor of life with only their labor to sell.”
We are facing a historic breakdown of the foundations of the fabric of our civil society. This is a rare and historic time for the world you live in. Your society is in a crisis and you are called to help fix it. It is a time of revolutionary change. You are called to live in it but we do not yet see what kind of new world will be born from the wreckage of this old one. You should feel some excitement, however, as this is a time of great opportunity for those of you with the tools of an education, a willingness to continue to learn and a vision for the pilgrimage that you are on, one that looks for a city, a world that has foundations whose author and builder is God.
I like to leave my students at MSU with some final thoughts on the last lecture of the semester.
I speak to them in secular language which I will not need to do with you being that this is a religious college. The general outlines of that talk are as follows. History and culture do not follow nice neat lines. Providence has a plan but we are not always privy to it. There are constant contradictions of truth colliding with truth. We need to learn to let the truth live at peace - Justice and Mercy are intended to be at peace not war. People around you lack self awareness and behave hypocritically without even realizing it. You will do well to learn to be aware of your own tendencies to hypocrisy and then you may humbly take the speck from the eye of the world around you.
You are living in an increasingly Balkanized world. For a classic liberal like myself this is troubling. For a Christian it reminds me that my hope is higher up than the institutions of this world. All around us truth and civility are being murdered by those climbing on the ladder to power. Those around you have come to hate the other side (whomever they may be) so bad it doesn’t matter if they are saying something true. And, on a more earthly plane my deep concern for American society, and also for the world, is the zero sum game that threatens our civil society. This is perhaps the most apparent in the issues that surround faith. There is currently a deep angst and intolerance about religion - matched by the equally intolerant atheist fundamentalism of men like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. The collision of these fundamentalist intolerance-es threatens to do violence to you and the world you are called to care for.
It does violence politically as well. In the past we had conservative liberals and liberal conservatives. There was a sense in which the middle consensus worked, even as it produced conflict. But, even the conflict worked. Today that system is failing - but you can help to fix it.
As you claim to be followers of Christ I hope for better for you. You, followers of a better calling, can help this world by trying to understand why people believe what they believe. To understand their fears, worries, aspirations and bring good news of a better age. One that they can experience in their life, society and culture now.
My hope is that you will go out from Visible School and whether you choose to be political liberals or conservatives, that you will recognize the right of your fellows to exist, to live in peace, and to be free and prosper. That you will understand the power of the love of God, the power of gentleness and the joy of being an agent of reconciliation.
That you will truly make the world safe for God’s kind of diversity. Even diversity that you do not personally like.
If you are to be suspicious of anything I hope you will be suspicious of accrued human power, be it right or left, religious or atheist, government or private enterprise. Only one power can ever be absolute, only one system is without error and that one is presided over by the one who was crucified and now sits upon the throne of God - who will one day come to judge the earth.
Humanity, on the other hand, has a bad history with power.
I hope you will change all this. Resist fundamentalisms wherever they come from. Resist them gently if possible - trying to understand why they are there in the first place.
They are usually a product of the fear of people worried about losing their own place.
If you try to understand perhaps you can persuade your circle of society to do better.Become a good and caring citizen of God’s world.
The book of Revelation shows us a great big multi ethnic crowd - from every nation tongue and tribe all united around the throne of God and the lamb. We have a unity that comes from an obedience to Christ - we have a diversity that comes from the beautiful imagination of our eternal God.
As you go from this place - continue to learn - keep your humility - make the world safe for God’s kind of diversity. In 1952, American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote The Irony of American History. On page 63 of that book he wrote what I think may be some of the most beautiful lines in American literature: "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness."
You are on a journey that only ends when it ends. It’s conclusion is wrapped up in God’s Providence and destiny for your life.
Konstantinos Kavafis a Greek Poet who lived from 1863 - 1933 wrote some beautiful poetry that explored life from the metaphor of Greek mythology. Leonard Cohen drew from his imagery for songs like Alexandra Leaving. He wrote a poem about the journey of life to its ultimate destination using the idea of Homer’s Odyssey. He titled it Ithaka Odysseus destination and it can be a metaphor for the journey God has called you on.
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon-don't be afraid of them:
you'll not find things like that on your way
so long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
so long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon-you won't encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
Hope that your road is long.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with great pleasure and great joy,
you enter harbors that you're seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl, coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind-
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you're destined for.
But don't hurry the journey.
Better that it lasts for years,
so that you're old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you've gained on the way,
no longer expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
For Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
When you arrive she has nothing left to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
You will have become wise, full of experience,
you'll understand by then what these Ithakas mean.
Keep Looking for the City that has foundations. Live gently and wisely in this world. Create a love for the beauty and diversity that God has called you to help him create here. And when you arrive at the Ithaka that God has called you to you will arrive there having grown wise.