Father George Coyne SJ speaks at Memorial Chapel on Saturday, May 17. (Photo by Andy Daddio)

Father George Coyne SJ speaks at Memorial Chapel. (Photo by Andy Daddio)

(Note: These are prepared remarks by Father George Coyne SJ, McDevitt Chair of Religious Philosophy at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, for the baccalaureate service held Saturday, May 17, in Memorial Chapel. )

The Liberal Arts: Whence Freedom?

It is said that John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin seriously considered putting an image of Moses on the Great Seal of the United States. Although that never happened, their motivation, it appears, was not that Moses was a great liberator but that he doggedly persisted against all odds at rebuilding a stubborn and recalcitrant people. He led his people not just OUT of slavery but INTO freedom. While he delivered them from unjust and oppressive laws, he had to bring them to the quiet compulsion of living by commonly shared laws. The Exodus of this chosen people was not primarily FROM but TO.

We read in the Book of Deuteronomy (30:15-16):

Moses said to the people:
“Today I have set before you
life and prosperity, death and doom.
If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God,
which I enjoin on you today,
loving him, and walking in his ways,
and keeping his commandments, statutes and decrees,
you will live and grow numerous,
and the LORD, your God,
will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy.”

This age-old story has much to say to us today. At the best of our colleges and universities we preach the value of a liberal arts education. We struggle to keep up with the times by constantly retouching our core curricula but always with a view of liberating the student to realize the fullness of her or his potential as a human being. But to what end? To what end is the freeing of human potential directed?

A careful reading of the Old Testament of the Judaea-Christian tradition reveals a Moses who was far from an epic hero. He was not a Charlton Heston of the big screen. Like many of us he was flawed. He was hesitant, afraid of snakes, a poor speaker. He whined, got angry and depressed. He became a leader of his people not by projecting, as most leaders are wont to do, a pompous master manipulator of human yearnings but as one who by trials and suffering came to exemplify that which makes a human in society truly human. I happened upon a deeply enriching expression of this trait in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times (April 25) – where else would one find such profound scholarship! – when I learned of a new Hebrew expression, ANTIVUT. It is described as “a soft answer to a harsh challenge; silence in the face of abuse; graciousness when receiving honor; dignity in response to humiliation; restraint in the presence of provocation; forbearance and quiet calm when confronted with calumny and carping criticism.”


I would suggest that the freedom to which a liberal arts education leads partakes of that quality of “antivut.” The diversity of the world into which you college graduates are being liberated is immense. And yet that diversity is being constantly diminished by globalization. Moses had but one recalcitrant people to deal with. You have the whole world. How, therefore, does your liberal arts education help you to preserve in this vast global culture that which in diversity serves to liberate all persons? Might we gain an insight into what makes each one of us a citizen with all others in this world by looking with the eyes of scientists at the very nature of the universe?

It is clear from all of the sciences, including geology, molecular biology, paleontology, comparative anatomy, cosmology, etc., that evolution is an intrinsic and proper characteristic of the universe. Neither the universe as a whole nor any of its ingredients can be understood except in terms of evolution. We human beings came to be through evolution, and evolution is a daily happening. As the universe expanded from the Big Bang and evolved, stars were born and stars died. Since stars are born and sustain themselves by creating a thermonuclear furnace whereby light elements are continuously converted into heavier elements, when they die the stars pour out to the universe these heavier elements. And then a second generation of stars is born, not now of pure hydrogen but of the enriched chemistry of the universe. Thus, the universe is being continuously enriched with heavier elements. This process continued through the buildup of ever more complex chemicals the human being came to be.

Our sun is a third-generation star, and we are literally born of stardust. We human beings came to be through evolution, and evolution is a daily happening. We, for instance, are constantly exchanging atoms with the total reservoir of atoms in the universe. Each year 98% of the atoms in our bodies are renewed. Each time we breathe we take in billions and billions of atoms recycled by the rest of breathing organisms during the past few weeks. Nothing in my genes was present a year ago. It is all new, regenerated from the available energy and matter in the universe. My skin is renewed each month, and my liver each six weeks. In brief, human beings are among the most recycled beings in the universe. The evolutionary universe is dynamic. It is not all predetermined.

But what relevance does all of this scientific knowledge have to do with helping us to preserve that which in diversity in a globalized world serves to liberate all persons? To a liberalized person the scientific knowledge of the universe reveals a God who made a universe that is dynamic in its evolution and thus participates in the very creativity of God. In such wise God emptied himself so that he could share his infinite love with his creation. We, in a special way, share in the creativity that God desired the universe to have. The reflections of a liberalized person upon the nature of God and his relationship to the universe brings us undoubtedly to a recognition of our spirituality; in fact, such reflections are themselves an exercise of that spirituality.

We are co-creators, so to speak, in God’s continuous creation of the universe. To liberalize ourselves and this globalized world is, therefore, not a choice taken independently of the world around us; it derives from our very nature in the universe. It cannot be separated from faith, our relationship of love to God, the source of all diversity, of all creativity in the universe. Our identity as liberalized persons is much more than what we do. It is bound intimately to the very nature of the universe that drives us as co-creators to carry out our mission in union with the Creator.

This vision was captured magnificently by Gerard Manley Hopkins when he wrote:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

In this globalized world there still “lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” We have been liberalized through our education to search them out and share them, not now as Moses did amid the people of a single small nation, but to all of our sisters and brothers in this, our global city. Through our liberal education do we have the “antivut,” the compassion, graciousness, and dignity to do that? The challenge is always there awaiting our response.