The Rev. Mark Wm. Radecke, D.Min.
Chaplain to the University
Associate Professor of Religion
At one point in the Greek Bible, the apostle Paul recites a litany of challenges and then asks, “What then shall we say about these things?”
It is a question that seems appropriate today: What shall we say about these things?
What shall we say about 130 semester hours of undergraduate study bracketed by Core Perspectives at one end and a capstone project at the other?
What shall we say about successfully completing one or more major fields of study, maybe a minor or two, in addition to an entire core curriculum?
What shall we say about papers due at 8 a.m. that were completed after all-nighters that ended at 7:58 a.m.? (I am reminded of one procrastinating student who said, “I love deadlines and due dates. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”)
What shall we say about the challenges of learning how to lead organizations, plan events, serve on committees, perform in plays and concerts, and play on teams?
What shall we say about
- four years during which “doing the laundry” meant shellacking your jeans with a can of Febreeze;
- four years during which you learned how to Photoshop red sixteen ounce plastic cups out of pictures you e-mailed to your parents; and
- four years of getting random Facebook messages from people you barely know, with invitations like “If I get one million fans, my friend will name her daughter Batman”?
What shall we say about learning how to resolve roommate conflicts, how to deal with complicated romantic situations, and how to understand course syllabi more convoluted than a novel by James Joyce? What shall we say about all these things that are constitutive of earning a bachelor’s degree? We could take our cue from the slogan of a certain national chain of office supply stores and say, (“That was easy!”) But that wouldn’t be true, and it would diminish the substantial energies you expended to reach this great and glorious day. Earning a degree wasn’t easy. It shouldn’t be easy, and we ought not to pretend that it was. You have attained this lofty goal by dint of hard work, and the by grace of God. (How much of each varies, of course, from person to person.)
Here’s one thing we should say, and President Lemons will say it at Commencement in a few hours when he welcomes you, and I quote, “to the company of women and men who have begun to be educated.” Who have begun to be educated. That’s not a veiled insult, intended to humble you at a ceremony in which we laud you—or at this worship service at which we “bacca-laud” you; rather, those words are meant to celebrate the fact that your academic achievement has earned you membership in a community of adults who know they don’t know it all, who know that they have begun to be educated.
We are now ending a year whose academic theme has been “What does it mean to be educated?” And that is one thing it means to be educated: to know that you don’t know it all. The Greek philosopher Socrates went so far as to say, “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” Understanding that crucial fact made him wiser than all those who considered themselves to be wise.
Your education—formal and informal, in classroom and out, on campus and away—has taught you many valuable things. My prayer this day is that it has also taught you how vast is the storehouse of knowledge in the universe, how much of life remains a mystery, and therefore how much all of us have yet to learn.
The Greek and Hebrew Bibles include substantial chunks of material that scholars call “wisdom literature.” You heard selections of this material in the lessons that Will and Kristen read. Some of it might be labeled “conventional wisdom,” the sort of practical advice that aims to help you not only to succeed, but to live what SU’s mission statement calls “productive, creative and reflective lives of achievement, leadership and service.” Included in this category of conventional wisdom are nuggets of insight that range from
- the sublime (“Those who sow the wind will reap the whirlwind.”)
- to the practical (“Even fools who keep silent are considered wise.”)
- to exhortations (“Lay aside immaturity and live, and walk in the way of insight.”)
- to a category that scholars technically refer to as “I never thought of it that way before,” such as this gem from Proverbs: “If a man loudly blesses his neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as cursing.”
Let me add a modern insight to the pool of conventional wisdom from which you may draw: Use technology, but never trust it. Those who have had PowerPoint projects and projectors betray them as they attempted to commence a presentation know exactly what I am talking about. Here’s another example from the world of the church.
A congregation printed the liturgy for funeral services conducted in the church. They had different computerized templates for males and for females so that they didn’t have to change all the pronouns, and they used the “Find and replace” tool to change the names of the deceased. All this worked quite well for a while. Susan passed away, and a few months later, Mary died, so they used the tool to “find Susan and replace with Mary.” And again a few months later, Edith died, so they used the tool to “find Mary and replace with Edith,” and all was well—until, on the day of the funeral, the gathered congregation got to the Apostles’ Creed, at which time they confessed their faith in Jesus Christ, who was “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Edith.” Fortunately, Edith had a quirky sense of humor, and the family thought she would have found the error amusing, so I didn’t get in any trouble. Use technology, but never trust it. That’s conventional wisdom, common sense. Lay in a store of it; it will serve you well.
There’s another kind of wisdom to be found in the Bible, however, as well as in many of the world’s great religions. (It is a characteristic of wisdom literature that it is to be found in diverse communities of faith.) New Testament scholar Marcus Borg calls this kind of wisdom “alternative” or “subversive wisdom.” And it is based on an unsettling insight; namely, that conventional wisdom does not merely reflect the world in which we live; it actually constructs that world, and it defines—and confines—the reality of that world. Life in the world constructed solely by conventional wisdom is life lived in bondage to the prevailing culture. “It is a life of limited vision (says Borg)… in which we see what our culture conditions us to see, and pay attention to what our culture says is worth paying attention to.” And because affluence and appearance and productivity are chief among the virtues it extols, it is a way of life that entails much worry and anxiety and the relentless judging of self and others.
By contrast, alternative wisdom subverts conventional wisdom, turns it on its head. It aims for a larger and more gracious, generous and compassionate vision of life. Its maxims are to be found in many of the world’s great religions.
- Lao Tse, a central figure in Taoism, said, “Be content with what you have…When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”
- Buddha said, “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love.”
- Jesus said, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”
- “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
- “Do not be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.”
- "Judge not, so that you may not be judged.”
- “Forgive as you have been forgiven.”
- And one that shocks us on this second anniversary of the immigration raids in Postville, Iowa, from the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Leviticus: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19: 33-34)
To live a life centered on conventional wisdom is to be conformed to the world as it is. To embrace this alternative and subversive wisdom is to be transformed by a vision of the world as God would have it, a world God invites us to inhabit even now, a world we work for and pray for in joyful and eager anticipation of that day when it arrives in its all its fullness.
What does it mean to be educated? In part, my friends, I think it means to acknowledge that there is
- a way of being that moves beyond conventional wisdom and the world constructed by that wisdom;
- a way of living that moves toward the world as God intends it to be;
- a way of being in which our lives are wonderfully and mysteriously conformed to the life of God, who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” (Psalm 145:8)
Is it easy to live by such alternative and subversive wisdom? Of course not! But the fact that you have arrived this day testifies to your ability to do that which is difficult.
What shall we say to these things? God bless you and keep you, for the journey continues…
“And whether our tomorrows be filled with good or ill,
We’ll triumph through our sorrows, and rise to bless you still,
To marvel at your beauty and glory in your ways,
And make a joyful duty our sacrifice of praise.”