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Office of the President
4200 54th Avenue South
St. Petersburg, FL 33711
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Dr. Donald R. Eastman III
May 19, 2007, 5:00 p.m.
It is my privilege to welcome graduating seniors, your families and friends, faculty, staff, and others to the 44th Baccalaureate Service of Eckerd College.
We gather together this evening to speak and pray and sing of ultimate things and, in particular, to speak and pray and sing about the duty of you new graduates to live a meaningful life.
One of the great and hilarious cult movies that I hope you are familiar with is "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life." In a key scene, a huge multinational corporation's senior executives are meeting, and one of them is asked to report on the sixth item on the meeting agenda, which is "The meaning of life."
The eager executive responds:
"Yeah, I've had a team working on this over the past few weeks, and what we've come up with can be reduced to two fundamental concepts. One: People aren't wearing enough hats. Two: Matter is energy. In the universe, there are many energy fields which act upon a person's soul.
However, this 'soul' does not exist ab initio as orthodox Christianity teaches; it has to be brought into existence by a process of guided self-observation.
However, this is rarely achieved owing to a man's unique ability to be distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia."
His colleagues respond: "What was that about hats again?"
So, let us pause briefly this evening from lives saturated by "everyday trivia," pause from the challenges of move-out and transportation hassles and the Florida heat and humidity, pause from wrestling with plans for future jobs and graduate school and the sometimes scary prospect - from both sides - of moving back in with the parents; let us pause long enough to think about "the meaning of life."
This baccalaureate service recognizes and celebrates the grounding of an Eckerd College education in the great moral and religious values of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The service is an opportunity to express, both individually and as a community, our gratitude for a gracious providence that has led you to this happy moment of high achievement; to meditate briefly on the responsibilities of that achievement; and to pray for your success, for all of our sakes.
In this penultimate event of your college experience, the Baccalaureate ceremony emphasizes what you have been taught for four years: that the knowledge and skills the College seeks to impart to its graduates are worthwhile only so long as they are placed in the service of values that ennoble the human condition and contribute to the well-being of others.
This first act of your Commencement exercises is particularly fitting for an institution committed to an education centered on Judeo-Christian values and related by covenant to the Presbyterian Church. You know, as Eckerd College graduates-to-be, what those values are. You have studied them in your Western Heritage classes, in Quest for Meaning, and in the courses of your discipline.
My own favorite expression of those values is from the New Testament of the Christian Bible, Matthew 25: 31-40:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, he will sit in state on his throne, with all the nations gathered before him. He will separate men into two groups, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right hand, "You have my Father's blessing; come, enter and possess the kingdom that has been ready for you since the world was made. For when I was hungry, you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger you took me into your home, when naked you clothed me; when I was ill you came to my help, when in prison you visited me." Then the righteous will reply, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and fed you, or thirsty and gave you drink, a stranger and took you home, or naked and clothed you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and come to visit you?" And the king will answer, "I tell you this: anything you did for least of my brothers here, you did for me."
Three values are the pillars of the American liberal arts college: the primacy of the close relationship between student and teacher; the importance of the residential experience; and the commitment to an educational model, in college and beyond, which places great value on public service.
The last principle is especially significant in a college that has, as we do, its roots in the Christian Church. The fruits of our labor - and yours - in this educational commitment will perhaps be more obvious and certainly more important than any other result of your formal education. Let this ceremony, this final spiritual ritual of your undergraduate education, recommit you - and recommit each of us - to lives of public service: lives that value, even more than worldly success and riches (and we pray you will have plenty of both and share them with the college!), lives that value service to your fellow men and women over all else.
Remember that educated people are susceptible to a particular kind of shortcoming: We tend to criticize and to pass judgment rather than to act. As a corrective, I recommend the words of the 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt:
"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."
Many of you, in fact, probably all of you, have engaged in voluntary service activities in college and in high school to assist "the least of my brothers here." You have gone to Central America to build houses and shelters; worked at soup kitchens in St. Petersburg; and helped at schools, hospitals, hospices, and shelters of all kinds for the poor, the battered, the hungry, the injured, the illiterate and the homeless.
You understand, as graduates of my generation did not, the various ways men and women are imprisoned, at home and abroad, by drugs, by poverty, by ignorance and by slavery - whether in the human trafficking in the rubble of the Soviet Empire or in the citrus and vegetable fields of Florida.
You have seen, in your lifetime, your own country wander into new thickets of moral complexity and ethical challenge. You have witnessed your country start a war in the Middle East, a war now longer than World War II, a war the Secretary General of the United Nations has called "illegal." You have witnessed the incarceration of prisoners by our country without trial or the right to a trial.
You have witnessed the development of the name of an American military base, Guantanamo, into a worldwide symbol for American desecration of human rights. You have witnessed not only the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib by the United States Army but the defense of torture by the Vice President of the United States. You have seen the highest elected leaders in your country engage in apparently routine marital infidelities.
You have witnessed, in our own city, a surprise attack by police on the homeless in a public park. You have seen business leaders, including the sainted Steve Jobs, who created that indispensable aid to modern life, the IPOD, casually backdate their stock options to guarantee their personal profits. In another time, that was simply called stealing. I could, as you know too well, go on.
My point is that you do not have to study the world of Oedipus the King, or that of the Roman Empire, or the murderous intrigues of the sixteenth century to enter the world of moral complexity and ethical challenge. You do not have to go back forty years to Vietnam to find a nation driven by a destructive foreign war that some are calling our last line of defense and others are calling a war of aggression against the men, women and children of a non-western culture. You already live in that world, up to your very neck - and it is up to you whether you will be a force in it for good or for ill.
As Eckerd College graduates, you have work to do - in a world that desperately needs your intelligence, your moral compass, and your sense of service. Because you know the good. This is not a simple thing. You know the good - because you have seen it defined in Western Heritage, seen it practiced in Quest for Meaning, seen it modeled by your teachers and mentors here, felt its power as you listened and were moved by the unparalleled example of Elie Wiesel, seen it honored as Professor Bill Felice, whose professional life is dedicated to the politics of peace, is named Florida's Professor of the Year.
You know the good. You know that it is always a viable option to evil. You have seen its power. You know there is work to do, in the world, in the courts, in the prisons, in the fields, in the study and in the classroom, at home and abroad. You and your classmates did 55,000 hours of volunteer community service last year. You know that you will not be satisfied until, as Martin Luther King liked to say, "justice rolls down like rivers and righteousness like a mighty stream" (Amos 5:24).
Christian and Jew, Muslim and Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic and atheist - you graduate tomorrow to the world of privilege inhabited only by college graduates. With your college loans, your worries about graduate school, success, jobs, and an always unpredictable economy - you may not feel privileged, but you are, and you always will be.
Remember St. Paul's familiar but difficult words - difficult particularly to those of us dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge:
"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing . . . as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away . . . . So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."
In Monty Python's words, without love you are left asking, "What was that about the hats?"
Men and women of Eckerd College: Resolve now always to remember the third principle of your education: Resolve now to remember that you were educated, and you are called, to serve those less fortunate than you, no matter how high you rise in the eyes and estimation of the world. Resolve to remember that such service is called love.
There is indeed (as you heard) a balm in Gilead "to make the wounded whole" and "to heal the sin sick soul": There is a balm - and it is you.