The Installation Address by
The Reverend William Sloane Coffin
The Stephen Edward Scarff Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies,
Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin
As all of you know, most churches and colleges in this country were once wed. Then most got divorced, the colleges pleading mental cruelty. But apart, they're not faring well. The religious communities -- Jews, Moslems, Christians -- need the intellectual rigor of the academic community, while many college professors and students are perishing alive for want of spiritual nourishment.
Spirituality to me means living the ordinary life extraordinarily well. But I know it can mean other things, many of them questionable. When, for example, in Louisiana a few years ago David Duke won not only 55percent of the white vote but also 69 percent of white born-again Protestants, you have to ask, "What kind of spirituality is that? Can you be a holy racist? Isn't justice the ethical test of any form of spirituality?"
But "abusus non tollit usum," as Roman Catholics used to say in the old Latin-speaking days, "Misuse does not negate right use"; and I would like to suggest three spiritual benefits which I believe can render more fruitful the life of the mind.
Let me start by reading, in translation, a poem of Czeslaw Milosz, a Pole long exiled who, more years than some of us here have lived, has rowed into the teeth of one gale after another. Yet he writes:
Pure beauty, benediction: you are all I gathered
From a life that was bitter and confused,
In which I learned about evil, my own and not my own.
Wonder kept dazzling me, and I recall only wonder,
The risings of the sun in boundless foliage,
Flowers opening after the night, universe of grasses,
A blue outline of the mountains and a shout of hosanna.
How many times I thought: is this the truth of the Earth?
How can laments and curses be turned into hymns?
Why do I pretend when I know so much?
But the lips praised on their own, the feet on their own were running,
The heart was beating strongly, and the tongue proclaimed adoration.
"Wonder kept dazzling me." Aristotle too thought we should approach life with wonder, failing only to add that we should end it in the same way.
But too many of his descendants approach life with doubt - "Dubito, ergo sum." Not that doubts are unimportant. All of us tend to hold certainty dearer than truth. We want to learn only what we already know; we want to become only what we already are. Too frequently even scholarly minds are biased by what they already know, warped by habits of thought; and doubts, Lord knows, are important for the development of religious faith if, with St. Augustine, you "believe in thinking and wish to think in believing."
But if doubts are important, wonder is all important. None of us scoff at the stars, nor do we sneer at sunsets, and these September days we appreciate no end the fall foliage, in some places so brilliant that Moses would not know at what bush to turn aside. Yet we depreciate so much else it seems almost inevitable that as civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. We forget that both the tree of life and the tree of knowledge are deeply rooted in the soil of mystery. The most incomprehensible fact is the fact that we comprehend at all. (Abraham Joshua Heschel) We forget "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in all your philosophies". We never, never, never get it all!
And wonder is not reserved for beauty and acts alone; it has an ethical dimension, it leads to reverence. And what an irony it is that just as technology frees us to be fully human, not mere survivors of the earth's rigors, but thinking, feeling human beings - how ironic, and savagely so, that soon we may lose the whole planet because we have lost our sense of wonder. For finally only reverence can restrain violence, violence against nature, violence against one another.
We say a little education is dangerous. But a lot is lethal; it takes a Ph.D. to build a nuclear weapon. So for the sake of the planet as for that of honest scholarship, wonder/reverence and knowledge must find each other, re-wed and stay married.
Wouldn't it be marvelous if, upon retirement, professors could say "Wonder kept dazzling me and I recall only wonder" for, "the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder." (Huston Smith)
Moving on. A distinguished Harvard professor wrote: "In order to fight poverty we feed the horses hoping the sparrows will eventually benefit."
When the powerful do as they will and the poor suffer as they must, it's easy to become bitter. In fact, it's comforting to be bitter. But it's not creative, bitterness being such a diminishing emotion. Far more productive is anger, which, if focused, is spiritual nourishment for those perishing alive for want of it.
Too many in the academic world are not easily enough disturbed. Some even call to mind Francis Macomber, of whom Hemingway wrote: "He had a great tolerance about him, which would have been a virtue had it not been so insidious."
By and large the academic world is tolerant. But it tends toward passivity, and tolerance and passivity are a deadly combination. Together they allow us to tolerate the intolerable, to ignore the power of anger in works of love; for if you lessen your anger at the structures of power you lower your love for the victims of power.
I stress anger because the country as a whole is despiritualized by moral lassitude. What we Americans are down-sizing more than anything else is the stringency of moral demands. Having gotten used to genocidal weapons, are we now going to get used to starving children? We should be eliminating poverty as we know it. Instead of their callous advisors, our presidential candidates should be heeding Shakespeare:
Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.
Colleges, like churches, tend to be long on charity, short on justice. Karl Marx saw the difference when, addressing a group of church people, he said: "You Christians have a vested interest in unjust structures which produce victims to whom you then can pour out your hearts in charity."
Of course the insight was Biblical before it was Marxist. Those indignant Biblical prophets sought less to alleviate the effects of poverty than to eliminate the causes of it. I like St. Augustine's observation: "Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are."
But in all this talk of anger, there is a caveat to be entered. We have to hate evil, else we're sentimental. But if we hate evil more than we love the good, we become good haters, and of those the world already has too many. However deep, our anger must always and only measure our love.
And that brings me to the third and most important spiritual benefit. Professors and students are rightly suspicious of religious people. But once again, "misuse does not negate right use." You remember how, with unconscious eloquence, St. Paul wrote: "Now abide faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love." And his very next sentence reads, "Make love your aim."
Too many religious people make faith their aim. They think "the greatest of these" is faith. These are the dogmatic, divisive ones, more concerned with freezing the doctrine than warming the heart. How easily they forget the parable of the good Samaritan in which the man of the wrong faith does the right thing while the two men of the right faith flunk!
If faith can be exclusive, love can only be inclusive.
"Make love your aim." Shouldn't that be an added intentional aim of every college and university? Recognizing that the acquisition of knowledge is second to its use, shouldn't colleges want to encourage students not to make money but to make a difference, not to be "successful" but to be valuable, to seek the common good, not private gain?
And how better to encourage them to do so than by concrete hands-on experiences - values are more caught than taught - followed by rigorous classroom analysis to raise to a conscious level the knowledge inherent in the experiences?
Those who live in safety rarely understand lives steeped in misery. I believe every First World student should have a Third World experience, here in this country or abroad.
In my old age I've become a professor so maybe I'm free as before I wasn't to suggest that "Cogito, ergo sum" - I think, therefore I am - is a bit of surpassing nonsense. "Amo, ergo sum" - I love, therefore I am, is so much truer for "though I have all faith so as to move mountains" and "understand all mysteries and all knowledge but have not love, it profits me nothing."
I believe that. I believe it is better not to live than not to love.
Wonder, anger, love. With that trinity of spiritual benefits you can live an ordinary life extraordinarily well. With that trinity the spiritual and the secular can not only come into closer harmony, they can become dynamically integrated! Wonder, anger, love - they're all that's needed to redeem the academic enterprise. Mr. President, Ripon College, show us the way!