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Dr. Donald R. Eastman III
May 17, 2008, 5:00 p.m.
"The Work of a Lifetime"
Traditionally, Baccalaureate is the ceremony in which a Christian college invokes the blessings of the Almighty on its soon-to-be graduates. This ceremony also recognizes that, much as we honor the attainment of knowledge, such attainment is not wisdom; much as we applaud the accomplishments of our new graduates, it is their commencing, their beginning, that we celebrate more than their achievements; and, much as we respect learning, it is nothing without love: for, "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love," says Paul in First Corinthians, "I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal."
As the representative of Eckerd College at this invocation of blessings, I will not offer my evangelical bonafides or testimonials about Christian partisanship - especially at a time in which our country seems to have lost its moorings with respect to the role of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, in the public realm. Eckerd College students know better than to settle for simple bromides about the spiritual dimension of this holy place by the sea. What we celebrate here, what we take as our mission from our Presbyterian beginnings and our continuing covenant, is not an exclusivity of denomination but a celebration of the life of the spirit in whatever form it has been experienced, and a commitment to the service of others.
What Eckerd College stands for, as the readings you just heard make clear, is the creative variety of approaches to the life of the spirit: Our history celebrates this; our curriculum celebrates this; our service this evening enacts this, and I know also that Eckerd students celebrate this diversity of denominational respect - because they tell me so, class after class, year after year. What we take to be self-evident is that all invocations of the spiritual are equal, all deserve respect, and all are ways to glimpse truth.
Our country was founded on the idea of tolerance and respect for the varieties of religious experience: Rejecting any claim of connection between religion and governance is deeply embedded in our national DNA. Thomas Jefferson's 1786 Virginia statute declared that, "Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry." At a time when many of our fellow citizens require a personal Christian testimony from our elected leaders; at a time when so many self-proclaimed Christian leaders make self-important judgments about the fitness of candidates for elective office, we are well-advised to remember James Madison's remonstrance in 1785 that, "The religion of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man." It is evidence of the unease and uncertainty of our country at the present time that so many seem to require of our political candidates - and so many of them seem to require of themselves - Christian self-affirmations the founders of our nation would have found not only unnecessary but abhorrent. We seem to have forgotten how much our country's forefathers sacrificed to be able to include, as Article VI of the United States Constitution, the national credo that "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." From Jeremiah Wright's preening psychobabble and conspiracy rants, to Pat Robertson's arrogant certainties about divine retribution, to those Islamic imams who claim God's approval of violent acts, many of our so-called religious leaders have made a mockery of the life of the spirit.
The world will be a better place with you soon-to-be-graduates as part of the electorate. You will carry, I hope, throughout your lives, regardless of your religious practice, the values of the Christian prophet Matthew, in words you heard from me four years ago, as freshmen at the August Ceremony of Lights that welcomed you into the Eckerd College community: This is Jesus, the Christ, in Matthew's gospel, describing how the righteous will be identified:
Then the King will say Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in;
naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.
Then the righteous will answer Him, Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink?
And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You?
When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?
The King will answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.
As Eckerd graduates, you will, I also hope, carry the values embodied in these words with you not simply because they are part of a religious tradition, but because you have lived them enough to know that they are true.
I am confident that you will carry into a country, and a world, increasingly ignorant of its history and confused about the role of religion and the spirit, a sure understanding of both: At Eckerd College, you have been taught to think for yourselves, to celebrate the spirit where and in whatever form you find it, and to love the Other. These are the values of an educated person of faith, of whatever religious tradition; they are the values extolled in Matthew 25 and they are the values that will redeem the world.
"I caught," says the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins,
"This morning morning's minion,
Kingdom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn
Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! Then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, -- the achieve of, the mastery
Of the thing!"
There, there in that space between what I know and see, and what I feel and hope to see, with no distance at all between the sacred and the secular, is where the spirit resides for me.
I hope your experience at Eckerd College has given you some glimpse of where the spirit resides for you, or at least set you well on the journey - and that journey is for educated people the work of a lifetime - to find that place, that love, in your heart.