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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint (Isaiah 40:31).
Welcome students and parents and other relatives and friends of soon-to-be graduates to this 51st Baccalaureate service of Florida Presbyterian/Eckerd College. I mention the founding name of our college in homage to the original meaning of baccalaureate, which is a sermon given to the graduating class.
While Eckerd College continues to celebrate its historical and contemporary relationship to the Presbyterian Church in particular and the Christian tradition in general, we do not compel our students to listen to sermons; nor am I inclined or equipped to give them. But I do want to use this important opportunity to close the loop I opened in my Ceremony of Lights address to most of you four years ago, on the day you entered Eckerd College. (You who are PEL students may have read those remarks; if not, you can read them on the college website.)
As you may remember, one of the key points I tried to make in that address was that it was not our job as a college to provide you with answers to the big questions; rather it was our job to ask, and to get you to ask, the right questions – and to help you learn what thoughtful, sophisticated, nuanced, educated answers would look like. I was obviously at least partly trying to get you to avoid – in our 24/7 sound-byte culture – five-second answers to 5,000-year-old questions.
I also spoke that night about the College’s hope to broaden your lens a bit as you look at the world, using manifold approaches to the same issue; study abroad to help you experience the world through foreign eyes; and surprise and misdirection in the classroom to teach you to be ever alert, ever ready for deception and discovery. You can see in this very service, as we honor the several great religions of the world through our readings, our culture of widening our geographical, intellectual and spiritual lenses.
So I take now this baccalaureate opportunity to ask, on the eve of your last day as an Eckerd student, one last big question, which is this: What do you take, what should you take away from your educational tour of the history and practice and mythologies of the known world, from Plato to Picasso, from Job to Mohammad, about how men and women should live “the good life”? Are all the cultural and religious history and traditions you have studied of equal consequence to your answer? Or must you make choices between those traditions, and are those choices moral commitments?
While I would not presume and our college would not presume to answer this question for you, I will at this last gathering before your graduation reflect with you on how I have considered this question for myself.
I believe that the values of the Christian Church inaugurated a revolution in human moral sensibilities, which for the first time in human history valued every single individual as equal in the eyes of God, and that this became the core belief of the Western world.*
Against the Classical world’s rigidly hierarchal, ancestor-centered, war-worshipping society, enshrined forever in the glorious poetry of Homer and Virgil and so many other poets of the Greco-Roman era, “the Gospels and Paul’s epistles separated nature from culture, presenting a moral world … of equal individuals.” The Christian world-view proclaimed, for the first time in human history, that “master and slave, Jew and Gentile, father and son … [were] individual souls sharing a common fate and endowed with equal moral status.”* This singularly important idea from the New Testament was later taken up by the Talmud and the Koran. The New Testament texts wrestle with the fundamental question of how to be fully human in an inhumane world, and that question is as important now as it was then.
Without this progressive development of Christianity, focused as it came to be on radical egalitarianism – that is to say, on the absolute equality of each and every individual soul, one cannot imagine how Europe would have emerged from the fixed political and social hierarchies of the Middle Ages. Or how the Renaissance would happen. Or the development of capitalism and the rise of the middle class. Or the constitutions of Europe, which give us our modern concepts of individual liberty and justice. Without the equality of all souls as a foundational idea and guiding principle, Thomas Jefferson would never have written, or even have thought, “… all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” What we now believe to be the expected, indisputable rights of man – individual freedom, democracy, economic fair play – were invented by the European Christian Church and no other continent or religion has come close to creating a similar world-view except by inheriting or adopting its principles.
Now there is no doubt that the Christian Church has a very mixed history of performance in this arena. One scholar has characterized that history as “a dismal record of manifesting the principle of equality before God beyond the level of theological platitudes.” This is true, of course, of all religions – but the principle remains supreme nonetheless, and that “mixed history” challenges each of us to work toward a world that manifests with greater integrity the principle of equality.
My primary point here, and the one I hope you will think about as you consider this last big question in the years to come, is that ideas matter; ideas have consequences; and some ideas are more profound, more revolutionary, more essential to the creation of the world as we now know it, than others. In my view, the Christian idea of “equality of souls” is the most profound and powerful concept of the past 2,000 years.
It is true that we are still partly in thrall to the world-view of the Greeks and Romans as we march off to war again and again, banners flying, hearts ablaze, expecting glory. (Indeed, 20 centuries of Christian history have clearly not been enough to convince the people of Georgia and Florida that “Stand Your Ground” is wholly contrary to Jesus’s admonition to "turn the other cheek.") On the other hand, we also honor the uniquely Christian redefinition of heroism as service, sacrifice and even martyrdom. This is a wholly different understanding of virtue.
For me, it is neither Achilles, nor Hector, nor Job, but the Christ of the New Testament who points the way to what I understand to be the virtuous life. These are his words:
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;
I was 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.
The words are, of course, from the Gospel of Matthew – and how radical, how counter-intuitive they were 2,000 years ago. They still are: Except that the words themselves are familiar now; the idea of such radical equality of souls is still hard to believe, hard to live by.
It is of this "Lord," this set of values, that I believe the Hebrew poet Isaiah is also speaking, even though his prophetic proclamations came eight centuries before Matthew.
I believe Isaiah is speaking across the centuries to us, and especially to the young; especially, graduates-to-be, to you. Even as Isaiah is so ancient, it was written in a time and place not so different than ours: politically corrupt, war-torn, greedy, inhumane. Isaiah offers hope for the people of Israel in the midst of profound suffering: at the hands of the Babylonians and Assyrians, to be sure, but also by their own hands. Understand, as I read again the verse I began this talk with, and the verse that precedes it, that the word "wait" means not delay, or hope, but serve, as a waiter or a servant serves, and that "Lord" is the set of values Matthew describes: Matthew is telling us how to live; Isaiah tells us how, by living a life informed by such values, we will then be changed:
Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall:
But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
In my life, it has been so for me. May it also be so for each of you, for all of your lives, for the world to come.
*Collins, Jeffrey. “Equality of Souls.” Rev. of Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, by Larry Siedentop. Times Literary Supplement, 9 Apr. 2014: 7.