(Note: These are prepared remarks by The Very Reverend Dr. Jane Shaw, dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, for the baccalaureate service held Saturday, May 18, in Memorial Chapel. )
Good afternoon. It is my very great honor and privilege to be speaking to you at this Baccalaureate Ceremony today. It is always a delight to be present at a Commencement weekend such as this. It’s a moment of pride for all of us: for all you graduates, of course, and your families, and for those of you who have taught the graduating class; I hope you are all basking in the glow.
I congratulate all of you graduates, and I also thank, on your behalf, your beloved families and friends who have supported you through this time of study in numerous ways: emotionally, financially, and practically.
So what about this liberal arts education that you have received here at Colgate and your life out there in the world? How does a liberal arts education make us more human?
The early 20th-century collector of modernist art Leo Stein (brother of the more famous Gertrude) wrote in 1927:
Selves have almost unlimited possibilities of development provided that they can continue to assimilate experience. In common practice they do nothing of the kind. They get themselves arrested early in life.
(I suspect he was frustrated by all those people who couldn’t accept the genius of that young turk, Pablo Picasso, whose paintings he so much admired, and collected.)
Class of 2013, you are graduating from Colgate University, one of the finest liberal arts universities, where there is no chance that your ‘self’ has been arrested; where your imagination has been sparked and developed in such a way that you will continue to assimilate experience for the rest of your lives; and where you will have honed your gifts and learnt new skills in preparation for the next stage in your lives.
The education that you have received has prepared you for living a full life – for being what I am calling here ‘more human.’
A liberal arts education combines two important skills for living a rich and engaged life. The first is learning how to exercise rigorous and critical analysis, having the courage to ask hard questions so that we test our assumptions, learn what knowledge to trust, and think for ourselves. All these skills are essential for a functioning democracy and robust public discourse about our common life. The second skill is the capacity to develop, engage and use our imaginations – not simply for the sheer delight of that, though that is important, but in order that we become responsible and contributing citizens, participating in our common life for the common good.
By speaking of “a rich and engaged life” I mean one that is outward-looking; that places us in dialogue and community with others. And to do that we have to begin to walk in another’s shoes, entering imaginatively into another’s life. It’s what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls “being an intelligent reader of [another] person’s story” so that we “understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone [else] might have.” That is what I believe it means to become “more human.” It’s to be more fully alert to our fellow human beings, to have compassion for them, to want to participate in life with them, to create communities that are not self-absorbed.
There are many forces acting against the value – and values – of a liberal arts education today. In many places, the liberal arts curriculum is giving way to the teaching of highly applied and profit-making skills. This is occurring in a context in which – as the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel puts it – market forces have come to govern our lives. This means, says Sandel, that everything can too easily become a commodity, not just learning, but also human relations. The skills we learn in a liberal arts education guards against that dangerous commodification of knowledge and people.
And there also would be those who would argue that we can’t become more human: we are what we are, and that’s that. Resistance to the idea that we can grow and change is found in the modern west in the thought of John Calvin in 16th-century Geneva. He came to believe that everything about our life on this earth is essentially predestined by God, so that nothing we do has ultimate meaning. That can make for rather a miserable, inward-looking life, and many of you will know the joke that Calvinists should never have sex standing up because people might think they are dancing.
By contrast, most religious traditions have a sense that deepening our humanity is at core task of this journey we call our lives, and it always involves reaching out to others.
So, I would say that the first component of this expansion of our humanity is the expansion of our communities, both in our imaginations and in the reality of our daily lives. The education you have received here has given you the capacity for that.
The writer Marilynne Robinson (author of the novels Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home), has recently published a collection of essays with the charming title, When I was a Child I read Books. Having been a bookish child myself, I found that the title leapt out at me when I was browsing in a bookshop recently. I was a child who knew no other children until I went to school and in fact had the odd experience of growing up with 150 people over the age of 65, in a community that had been founded in 1249 (this was in England – you can probably tell from my accent), a beautiful, sprawling complex of medieval, Georgian and Victorian buildings, with its own fifteenth-century chapel and cloisters. I learned to read when I was young and my sense of the ‘bigness’ of the world was fostered both by living in this diverse and expansive group of people, and by the communities I began to imagine beyond it through books. Reading – a solitary activity – in the midst of a community was, perhaps, the very best of childhoods, at least for me.
Marilynne Robinson writes: “Community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly.” In other words, community itself is necessarily a work of the imagination, and “the more generous the scale at which imagination is exerted, the healthier and the more humane the community will be.” For Robinson, books have been her personal “cloud of witnesses to the strangeness and brilliance of human experience.” She talks about seeing a great wall of books, and thinking “One day I could write one of those!” And so she did. For sure, some of you will too, and I look forward to reading them.
And here is Marilynn Robinson’s hymn of praise to a liberal arts education:
“The frontiers of the unsayable, and the avenues of approach to those frontiers, have been opened for me by every book I have ever read that was in any degree ambitious, earnest or imaginative; by every good teacher I have had; by music and painting; by conversation that was in any way interesting, even conversation overheard as it passed between strangers.”
You will have each had moments here of approaching the frontiers of the unsayable – in your classes, through the inspiration of a great teacher or the conversations in a challenging seminar; in making music or listening to it; in watching great theater or acting yourself; in seeing the work of artists in residence on campus; in working on campus towards a more environmentally sustainable future. What each of those moments does is expand our world just a little more – because, really, our world is as big as we make it.
Sometimes at the heart of such a transformative experience is the shock of the new or radical disagreement with another – and that happens because we open our minds and hearts to a strange story or a different experience. A hundred years ago this month, Stravinsky’s ballet the Rite of Spring opened in Paris and caused a riot with its dissonant music, story of pagan sacrifice to the God of spring, and extraordinary choreography – the opposite of the sweetness of Swan Lake which is what ballet meant to audiences in 1913. There were boos and catcalls and people fighting with each other in their seats. Finally the lights had to be brought up and the performance stopped. But enough people were open to the new that night that just a year later Stravinsky was carried through the streets of Paris in triumph. Now we look back and recognize that piece of music as one of the heralds of modernity.
A second thing I would say in praise of the liberal arts education is that it cultivates a capacity within us to open our hearts to other human beings, to be generous and outward looking, because it is only in knowing the other that we know ourselves. To develop this capacity for understanding another, and to participate in life with others by understanding their lives, we need to have empathy, and that is at the core of how we learn as well as what we learn in a liberal arts education. It’s about getting inside the shoes of another.
Many of the major liberal arts colleges and universities in this country were founded with a sense of developing not just the mind but also the heart and soul in this way. Colgate University was created from an early 19th-century merger between a Baptist seminary and the Hamilton school. The chapel is at the heart of campus life here at Colgate, both in the fostering of a religious sensibility across the faiths, and in hosting speakers as diverse as Angela Davis and Newt Gingrich – to enrich our humanity and give us a sense of the sheer scope of the world and the ways in which people imagine and interpret it.
At the core of all the major religious traditions – all represented now on campus life in a way they weren’t and couldn’t be in the days of Colgate’s founders – is this engagement with the other. It’s that opening of ourselves to strangers as well as friends, often manifested in the practice of generosity, in every sense of that term.
I have recently been reading a book of lectures by the Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo, called Reflections on a Mountain Lake: Teachings on Practical Buddhism. There she notes that in the popular mind, Buddhism is primarily associated with meditation, but there are in fact six perfections, or paramitas, transcendental qualities that are needed for making progress towards enlightenment. The very first of these is giving, or generosity, while meditation is only number five of these six qualities. And she writes, really very beautifully. about this practice of generosity:
“Giving is placed first because it is something we can all do right now. We don’t have to be ethically perfect, we don’t have to be great meditators, we don’t have to develop great patience and avoid anger in all circumstances. We can be extremely flawed, extremely problematic people, but still be generous. Giving opens up our heart, which is another reason why it is placed first.”
Giving opens up our heart: we find this emphasis on reaching out to others – with generosity, with charity – at the heart of all three of the main monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, which we heard read this afternoon, in answer to the rich man’s question: what must I do? Jesus turns the question back to the rich man, who answers according to the law: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Very good, says Jesus, you have the answer. But the rich man wants clarification: who is my neighbor? The parable that Jesus tells reminds us that the effort to reach out to another should not be held back by barriers of creed or ethnicity or social group. It’s the Samaritan, the outsider, who reaches out to the man who has been robbed and left for dead on the roadside.
I chose this parable for us to hear this afternoon because it is, at one level, a simple reminder that reaching out to help another, demonstrating love in all that we do, is central to the creation of the common good.
But it was also with some deliberation that I chose a parable, as our New Testament reading this afternoon, interested as I am in narrative, and the ways in which it allows us to enter imaginatively into another’s world and begin to identify with it. Parables create an open and ambiguous imaginative space. It is how Jesus did most of his teaching: not by command but by story.
Parables, by their very nature, can always be retold for our day and our context. An Episcopal bishop told me a sweet story of arriving at a church one Sunday morning where he was to officiate at a confirmation, and he was met by a little boy and his father anxiously waiting for him. The boy was desperate to be confirmed but he hadn’t been to the preparatory classes. The bishop said: “OK, tell me your favorite Bible story, and we’ll see what we can do.” The boy launched into the story of the Good Samaritan. “There was a man walking along and he got mugged and hurt and the muggers ran away, and left him to die in the road. One of his neighbors walked by and didn’t help him. Then the local minister walked by and actually crossed the road. Then a total stranger came along and took him to the Holiday Inn, called a doctor, and left his credit card to pay all the costs.” The boy had entered into the story, got the message that love is important and simply translated it into his own urban American context.
Parables don’t tell us what to think, but rather encourage us to fuse our horizons (to use the philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer’s term) with that of another. Parables open up a way for us to imagine something beyond ourselves. They are multi-layered and open to widely divergent interpretations. What you see isn’t necessarily what you get, and suddenly you find yourself stirred up and thinking, feeling, in a new way.
And this being stirred up to think in a new way, open to the surprise of the different, is a crucial ingredient in resisting the temptation to get arrested in our development. I don’t mean embracing change just for change’s sake, but being open to a change of heart, an a-ha moment, in which we understand someone else, something else, more deeply than we could possibly have imagined.
How does the moment of change, the change of heart, come about? How do the experiences stack up to make us ‘more human’?
In Christian theological language, the moments that allow this are known as grace.
And grace being a gift, we can’t force it. Ariana Huffington, founder and editor of the online newspaper The Huffington Post, talks about how people prepare themselves for these moments of grace through art: “when you do it through poetry and the theater you can get to a part of us that is not as barricaded as if you do it through [newspaper] columns or speeches. You know, people in a dark theater are more vulnerable in a positive way … through the play you get to the consciousness in a way that you can’t do it through, ah, preaching or prose or this or that.”
I agree with Huffington, and I encourage you to embrace the arts, and go on cultivating your imaginations, so that you make yourselves vulnerable to change and open to what the world has to tell you. Do the footwork, because the moment of turning ones heart comes when we least expect it.
Let me make an analogy with the creative process here. All of you graduates know that state of trying to get to an idea, write a good paper, solve an intellectual problem, write a poem or paint a picture. We work hard with the tools of our trade; we read and research and put paint on canvas and do experiments in the lab and we can’t quite get it right. It’s frequently when we put down the pen or paintbrush or leave the lab, that the original idea hits us, the creative breakthrough happens. It is often only after we have stopped working so hard at getting an answer, that the answer comes.
The a-ha moment happens not out of the blue – all the footwork, the slog is necessary (great ideas don’t come out of nowhere); and the a-ha moment is only the beginning of the next stage. But it is in that little space that the solution is found, and we can go on to new things.
These moments of grace shape our life sometimes more than we are aware: that’s all right. The trick is to make sure we are always open to them and therefore to the possibilities of the development of our selves in the communities in which we live and work and love, and, too, beyond those communities – in the embrace of the stranger and the shock of the new.
Graduates, I am keenly aware, that this is a threshold moment for all of you, as you cross from the world of education into the practical working out of your vocations and careers – however and wherever that might be. And that’s a moment of anticipation and excitement, as well as some trepidation and possibly anxiety. Let me reassure you: that jumble of feelings is normal. Change is often what we most desire but it isn’t necessarily easy. But I hope that I have at least reassured you that your fine liberal arts education has prepared you for this moment because it has prepared you to be thinking, compassionate and engaged human beings in the world.
Congratulations, and good luck.