I hesitate to make too much of John Forbes Nash, Jr., but he did win a Nobel Prize, and Sylvia Nasar’s
biography and Ron Howard’s movie (which share the title,
A Beautiful Mind) are all the talk. And I should
acknowledge at the outset that Nasar’s biography of Nash ends on a hopeful note:
He [Nash] may be less than he
was intellectually, he may never achieve another breakthrough, but he has become a good deal more than he ever
was--a  But I have to confess that the images in Ron
Howard’s movie that have stayed with me the longest were those that showed, not
very fine person, as Alicia [his wife] put it once.
A Beautiful Mind, but an
insufferably arrogant one. Remember, for example, the scene when he walks into a calculus class, throws the
textbook in the trash, tells the students that the book would be
a waste of your time, and of infinitely more
importance, a waste of my time. Lest you think Ron Howard was exaggerating for effect, listen to these
descriptions of Nash as a student (from Nasar’s biography):
He . . . seemed to want to establish that he was smarter than anyone else in the place.
He had a way of sayingtrivialto anything you might have regarded as nontrivial.
Nash was very interested that everyone would recognize how smart he was, not because he needed this admiration, but [because] anyone who didn’t recognize it wasn’t on top of things. If anyone wasn’t aware, [Nash] would take a little trouble to make sure he found out.[all p. 67]
And the descriptions of Nash as a faculty member are equally flattering:
Nash found [teaching duties] irksome. . . . He’d advise other instructors,If you’re at MIT, forget about teaching. Just do research.
[139-140]He didn’t care whether the students learned or not, made outrageous demands, and talked about subjects that were either irrelevant or too far advanced.He was a tough grader too.
At times his ideas about the classroom had more to do with playing mind games than pedagogy.
Academia is indeed replete with
inhospitable forces, and it is not uncommon for those forces to be
concentrated in the
brightest, if not necessarily the
best. And to the list of such forces, I would add one more:
cynicism. Academia is an especially effective producer of cynics, and it is not a harvest of which we should be
proud. In the words of Henri Nouwen,
Cynics seek darkness wherever they go. They point always to approaching dangers, impure motives, and hidden schemes. They call trust naïve, care romantic, and forgiveness sentimental. They sneer at enthusiasm, ridicule spiritual fervor, and despise charismatic behavior. They consider themselves realists who see reality for what it truly is and who are not deceived byescapist emotions.But in belittling God’s joy, their darkness only calls forth more darkness. [The Return of the Prodigal Son, 117]
In the face of such inhospitable forces, little wonder that academia--despite all its bravado and
bluster--represents, I think, one of the most fragile of all modern communities. The students, especially the
freshmen, are almost frighteningly fragile. They come, often, brimming with confidence. They were
king of the
queen of the may in high school: 4.0 GPA, all-conference in basketball, and president of the youth group
in church. And when they get that first
B (or worse); when they do not get playing time even in the JV games;
when their philosophical/ideological/religious underpinnings suffer that first, staggering blow; when their naïve
idealism meets with cynical responses; and when mom and dad are not there for support; the fragility can come
dangerously close to fracture.
And if any are more fragile than the students, it just might be the faculty. Why else would Parker Palmer
entitle his book The Courage to Teach? These men and women spend every day
performing in front of classes of
often-unwilling, less-than-eager students. The faculty are expected to
judge those students constantly, knowing
that their decisions will be incessantly and often openly questioned. Judgment breeds judgment. And the faculty are
not only judged from below; they are also judged from above, as administrators suggest that they do things this way
or that. They are judged inside and out--inside by their peers as they stand for tenure and promotion, outside by
And how about the administrators, who, in one sense, represent the one group on campus
walks alone? They make the decisions and often cannot share the reasons; they can
only bear the hostility. They never have the luxury of critique without accountability. They know
what it is to walk into the faculty lounge and stop conversations in mid-sentence. They often go
without the most fundamental necessity of a supportive group of peers.
Indeed, despite all of its positive attributes, academia has an underside that can be nasty and debilitating. The inhospitable forces are both myriad and malignant. How can we--should we--respond as Mennonite college/university/seminary faculty and staff? I want to consider briefly this morning, two 16th century solutions, and then focus more intently on a 6th century solution.
The Karlstadtian Solution
On 23 February 1523, Andreas Rudolf Bodenstein von Karlstadt, dean of the theological faculty of the University of Wittenberg, participated in the promotion of two students to the doctoral degree, and then suddenly announced that henceforth he would not participate in the granting of academic degrees. Martin Luther noted in the dean’s book that Karlstadt on this occasion appealed to Christ’s injunction (in Matthew 23) against calling anyone master or father.
Karlstadt’s reasons were clearer in one of the two treatises published a few weeks later under the inscription,Andreas Karlstadt, a new layman.He confessed that formerly he had studied in order to write well and win disputes. Now, however, he saw that it was very wrong to study scripture for the selfish purpose of knowing it better than another. More directly, he argued that people seek nothing but the praise of men in the universities. They become masters or doctors and give presents for the sake of worldly honor. They arrogantly refuse to sit with those who possess fewer degrees. . . .
Karlstadt preferred to adopt the role of a peasant. Sometime in 1523 he put aside his academic dress, adopted the felt hat and gray garb of the peasants and urged his neighbors to call himbrother Andrew.. . . . Peasants’ clothing [after all, was] more in keeping with Christ’s example than satin, silk and velvet. [Sider, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, 176-178]
Karlstadt, as I suspect most of you are aware, was indisputably one of the Spiritual Fathers of the
Anabaptists (the 16th century forebears of today’s Mennonites). In September of 1524, Conrad Grebel--the first
rebaptizer of Zurich--called Karlstadt one of the
purest proclaimers and preachers of the purest Word of God.
[Harder, ed., The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism, 291] At least one contemporary historian has gone so far as to call
the father (not one of the fathers, but the father) of the [Ana]baptist movements. [Calvin Augustine
Pater, Karlstadt as the Father of the Baptist Movements: The Emergence of Lay Protestantism, 1984]
Every single one of our institutions, I think, has appropriated some aspects of this Karlstadtian approach to the academic enterprise. At least one of our number does not wear academic regalia at commencement. And among the rest of us, there is an element of informality and casualness about matters of dress and forms of address that set us apart from many of our sister institutions. Indeed, some would argue that this suspicion of the pomp and circumstance of academia is deeply ingrained in the Mennonite psyche, and it extends far beyond those groups (like the Amish) that manifest it most clearly. I offer the following true story as evidence:
It happened about 1987; late August or early September. I was speaking with a highly professional, well-educated member of a Mennonite church--about as un-Amish a Mennonite as you are ever likely to meet. A man
who, in fact, had earlier served twelve years on the Bethel College Board of Directors. He asked me how the school
year was going. I said,
Just great. The freshman class is 5% larger than last year, and the average ACT of the class
has increased by more than a full point! I waited expectantly for his anticipated response of enthusiastic
affirmation. I didn’t wait long for the response, but I never did receive the affirmation.
Oh, he grunted,
it’s only a matter of time before you won’t even accept students from this church who are only Indeed,
Mennonites seem to have an almost congenital mistrust of pretension. I happen to think it’s one of our gifts to the
So my point is not that this Karlstadtian tendency, this conviction that ACT scores and degrees are finally of less importance than our fundamental equality as human beings, is a bad thing. In fact, I will argue later that it is one of the factors that may give our colleges a clear competitive edge in the marketplace. My point is that I think the Karlstadtian Solution is finally an inadequate solution for dealing effectively with the inhospitable forces of academia.
It’s inadequate, in the first instance, because I think it’s a bit of a sham. To imply by our
dress or speech that there are absolutely no differences between various members of our
academic communities when in fact there are definite and definable power differences between
the various groups strikes me as a mode of operation that has at least as much potential to be
destructive as to be constructive. It’s a commonplace that parents who try to be
best friends to
their children rather than
parents to their children are likely to be extraordinarily ineffective as
parents. Is the situation between faculty and students so different that the same logic cannot
apply? And just because I can call a professor by her first name, or because a professor wears
flip-flops and a tee-shirt to class, does that automatically imply that said professor is eminently
approachable and will listen with compassion and sympathy to my concern? I don’t think so.
Moreover, to demand that we be called by our first names is, for some students, an inhospitable
act. It forces them to abandon their own cultural mores and adopt ours. At this point the
Karlstadtian approach moves from being a sham to being a destructive sham.
Now please don’t misunderstand me here. I am not arguing that all faculty members
should wear long-sleeved white shirts and ties in the classroom (though if you’d like to, I
wouldn’t object). I am arguing that we dare not assume--as I think we sometimes do--that our
casual approach to the accouterments of academia in and of itself suffices to counteract
the inherently inhospitable forces of academe.
Finally, like all externals, one senses that there may be an element of faddishness about this way of operating. It would appear that there was in Karlstadt’s case. Karlstadt was expelled from Saxony (thereby losing his teaching position at the University of Wittenberg) in August of 1524. He spent the next six years in the frequent company of Anabaptists and proto-Anabaptists. But by 1530, he was in Ulrich Zwingli’s camp in Zurich, and in 1534 he was appointed Professor of Old Testament at the University of Basel, a position he held until his death in 1541. While I do not know this for a certainty, I strongly suspect that he wore his doctoral robe at the commencement ceremonies at Basel U.
The Erasmian Solution
In February of 1516, Desiderius Erasmus, the most widely-read author in all of Europe, sent a letter to Johannes Sapidus, the schoolmaster of Selestat. Erasmus had moved to Basel just two years earlier, where he lived with--and worked for--the most important Basel printer, Johann Froben. In the letter, he described the Sodalitas Basiliensis, that group of humanist scholars, proofreaders, and editors that was centered at the printing establishment of Froben (though it extended to other humanist printing establishments as well)--a group that included the likes of Beatus Rhenanus, Johannes Oecolampadius, Henricus Glareanus, and perhaps even Hans Denck. Erasmus wrote:
They all know Latin, they all know Greek, most of them know Hebrew too; one is an expert historian, another an experienced theologian; one is skilled in mathematics, one a keen antiquary, another a jurist . . . . I certainly have never before had the luck to live in such a gifted company. And to say nothing of that, how open-hearted they are, how gay, how well they get on together! You would say they only had one soul! [Collected Works of Erasmus, 3:244]
Here, I submit, is a solution to the inhospitable forces of academe upon which every single one of our institutions relies. We try to control the point of entry. We hire faculty members and staff members who seem compatible with our institutional vision, as well as with the other members of the faculty and staff. And we have admissions standards--academic and otherwise--for our students. And perhaps if it would truly work, we could indeed all be one happy intellectual family. We would all respect each other, trust each other, support each other, encourage each other. We would all be equally committed to the academic enterprise, all equally prepared for its rigors, all equally poised to share its joys and rewards. You would almost say we had only one soul. So what’s the problem?
You know what the problem is. It is categorically impossible to achieve the requisite level of homogeneity
even in your faculty, much less in your student body. In fact, in this deconstructed, post-modern world in which we
live, one could, I think, argue that the claim that any group
has only one soul is false on its very face. And when
we approximate this level of homogeneity, when it almost applies to a sizable segment of our academic
communities, it has the effect of exacerbating the inhospitable nature of those communities for all of those who
clearly do not fit the mold. Imagine how warm and fuzzy the Sodalitas Basiliensis would have seemed to the poor
sap who spoke only German!
As many of you know, I love the sixteenth century, and I dearly love Erasmus, but this Erasmian Solution, however necessary, simply cannot in and of itself counteract the inhospitable forces of academe. I want to suggest, therefore, that we need to go back even farther--a millennium farther.
The Benedictine Solution
After all that talk about going back to the 6th century of the common era, I want to begin
with a contemporary story, told to me by Rich Gerig, formerly the vice president for enrollment
services at Goshen College. One spring Rich took some time off to travel with his sister, who
teaches organ at Goshen, to test some organs in order to decide which manufacturer to choose to
build and install the organ in Goshen’s new fine arts building. It so happened that one of the
organs she wanted to play was at an Ursuline Convent in Maple Mount, Kentucky. Any of you
who don’t know Rich Gerig should be made aware of the fact that Rich grew up as a Mennonite
preacher’s kid, so he would have grown up repeatedly experiencing
the ultimate in Mennonite
hospitality. But as Rich tells the story, they arrived at the convent late in the evening and were
received by the sisters with a depth of hospitality that Rich had never before experienced in his
life (and, to revert for a moment to the question of the Karlstadtian Solution to our problem, I’m
guessing the sister who received them was not wearing cut-offs and a halter top, nor did she say,
Hi, I’m Sister Margaret, but you can just call me Maggie!). Indeed, it was a depth of
hospitality that Rich found fundamentally indescribable. (He continues, in fact, to communicate
via e-mail with one of the sisters there.) And as he reported this to a meeting of the Gideon
Education Projects Committee some years ago, Rich wondered aloud what impact such a level of
hospitality would have on his own institution, Goshen College. Indeed, what impact would such
a level of hospitality have on all our institutions?
Have we perhaps found here a possible key to dealing with the inhospitable forces of academe? That’s precisely what I am prepared to argue, and, in order to do so, we need to have a clearer understanding of the nature of monastic hospitality. Hear these words from Chapter 53 of the Rule of St. Benedict (written ca. 540 C.E.):
Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for he is going to say,I came as a guest, and you received Me(Matthew 25:35). And to all let due honor be shown, especially to the domestics of the faith and to pilgrims. . . .
In the salutation of all guests, whether arriving or departing, let all humility be shown. Let the head be bowed or the whole body prostrated on the ground in adoration of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons.
After the guests have been received and taken to prayer, let the Superior or someone appointed by him sit with them. Let the divine law be read before the guest for his edification, and then let all kindness be shown him. The Superior shall break his fast for the sake of the guest, unless it happens to be a principal fast day which may not be violated. . . . Let the Abbot give the guests water for their hands; and let both the Abbot and the community wash the feet of all guests. . . .
(How’s that for a welcoming ceremony for our new freshmen? Have the faculty wash their feet!)
In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is especially in them that Christ is received; for as far as the rich are concerned, the very fear which they inspire wins respect for them.
(Don’t you love that last one? Our tendency as academics is to do exactly the opposite.
We pour out our greatest care and solicitude--not to mention our largest scholarships-on the
rich, those with ACTs of 32 and above. Some months ago I read Richard Light’s Making the
Most of College; Students Speak Their Minds. Light is a Harvard professor, and I frankly found
the book rather depressing. He shattered most of my negative stereotypes of the Harvard
professorate. He spoke of Nobel laureates volunteering to advise groups of eager Harvard
freshmen. And then it hit me. Of course . . . . those Harvard freshmen all have ACTs of 32 or
higher. Anyone will pay attention to the best and the brightest students. Even John Nash,
according to Sylvia Nasar,
could be charming to students he regarded as mathematically
talented.  The true test of a professor’s hospitality is not how she treats the 35 ACT, but
how she treats the 15 ACT. And it is here, I think, that our Mennonite mistrust of pretension
could give us a real marketing edge, if only we will let it. But I digress….)
Like many of you, I suspect, it was Kathleen Norris who first
introduced me to
monasticism. One of the things that I appreciate about Norris is her willingness to present a
warts-and-all view of the Benedictine monastery. But if you read The Cloister Walk or
Amazing Grace (and if you haven’t, you simply must), you get the clear impression that
contemporary Benedictines (just like Rich Gerig’s Ursulines) are still doing a pretty good job of
incarnating Chapter 53 of the Benedictine Rule. Norris writes:
In my experience, it is extremely rare for a guest, even one who commits gaffes in choir or elsewhere, to be made to feel unwelcome, let alone like someone who is contaminating the monastic purity of the place. I do sometimes run across spit-and-polish novices, still clinging to romantic notions of the life, who are desperately keen on determining exactly what is monastic and what is not. They are often ill at ease with guests, as if worried by the distractions we bring with us, the worldliness that hovers over us like a cloud. I have come to see this slight resistance to the guest as a healthy thing, a necessary part of a Benedictine’s formation in hospitality. Benedict knew this tension would be there; I believe this is why he so emphatically states in his Rule thatall guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.This leaves the novice little room for maneuvering around the practice of hospitality. And no chance at all to simply ignore the guests who come. . . . . [Amazing Grace, 264-265]
Benedictines often tell me that they receive so much from their guests that they could never repay it, and many guests feel the same way about the hospitality they receive. Benedict knew that hospitality could be life-saving for both monk and guest. I believe he wanted Benedictine men and women to be so deeply grounded in hospitality that it would color everything they do and say. [Amazing Grace, 266]
Can you imagine how our institutions would
feel, to us and to others, if we were
so grounded in
hospitality that it would color everything we do or say, to our colleagues, our students, even our administrators?
Would we then perhaps be living
eloquent lives? I borrow this phrase from Bryant Myers, in his recent book,
Walking With the Poor; Principles and Practices of Transformational Development. In the book, Myers addresses
the issue of how we must encounter persons of different cultures, different nationalities, and particularly different
faiths. And he argues first that we must live
We need to do our work and live our lives in a way
that calls attention to the new Spirit that lives within us. We need to relate to people . . . in ways that create a sense
of wonder. We must seek a spirituality that makes our lives eloquent. 
Live eloquent lives-is that not a
wonderful turn of phrase? Among other things, it reinforces the truth that values are caught, not taught. And if our
lives as educators do not radiate humility and love and tolerance and acceptance, we can preach and teach about
those concepts until we’re blue in the face, but it will not register with our students, because there is no evidence
that it has ever registered with us. Myers (who works for World Vision) is convinced that effective evangelism
happens only in response to authentic questions. And
if people do not ask questions to which the gospel is the
answer, says Myers, rather than cursing them for their hard-heartedness,
we need to get down on our knees and
ask God why our life and our work are so unremarkable that they never result in a question relating to what we
believe and whom we worship. [210-211] I think Norris describes monks, and I think Rich Gerig encountered
nuns, who live eloquent lives.
And in his Rule [Benedict] indicated an acute awareness of the dangers of implosion in the monastic life, the dreadful insularity againstthe world…..He instructs Benedictines not to turn their backs on the world, even as they seek to detach themselves from worldly values. This seems to me the core of Benedictine hospitality. To reject the world is to reject other people. And to reject other people is to reject Christ himself. [Amazing Grace, 264-266]
And that pretty much takes care of the Erasmian Solution to dealing with the inhospitable
forces of academe, doesn’t it? Norris drives the point home:
if [a monastery] regularly exercises
enough hospitality so as to attract guests, it is a monastery. If it doesn’t, it is not. [Ibid., 263] Do
you suppose we could say the same for colleges?
And just in case you needed more ammunition on this one, consider these words from Henri Nouwen:
Hospitality is the virtue which allows us to break though the narrowness of our own fears and to open our houses to the stranger, with the intuition that salvation comes to us in the form of a tired traveler. Hospitality makes anxious disciples into powerful witnesses, makes suspicious owners into generous givers, and makes closed-minded sectarians into interested recipients of new ideas and insights. . . .
makes closed-minded sectarians into interested recipients of new ideas and insights.
. . . Now there’s a thought to conjure with . . .
So, if hospitality is the key to dealing with the inhospitable forces of academe, how do we
develop and nurture an attitude of hospitality? Bryant Myers makes the shocking suggestion that
we will do it, not by developing
beautiful minds, but by developing
crucified minds. Myers
borrows this phrase from Kosuke Koyama of Union Theological Seminary in New York.
--A Missiology of Theologia Crucis, International Review
of Mission, vol. 82, no. 327.] In describing the
Extend Hospitality to Strangers
un-crucified mind, Myers writes of
the temptation to slip into an unspoken attitude of superiority. . . . Sometimes we are sure we know best because we are development professionals. Sometimes it is because we are educated or come from what we feel is a more sophisticated culture. Sometimes we fall into the trap of unknowingly judging another culture as not quite as good as our own . . . . Sometimes it is because we have gotten caught up in the fact that we are Christians [Mennonites?] and the others are not. Whatever the reason, this kind of attitude acts like a corrosive acid, eating away at our effectiveness in transformational development and Christian witness [dare we addsuccessful teaching?].
Instead of an attitude of superiority, Myers calls us to approach these encounters--with Muslims, with other
Christians, with our faculty colleagues, with our students--not with crusading minds, but with the crucified mind of
Christ, that mind of Christ that is so eloquently described in Philippians 2:1-11.
The good news, after all,
ours to feel superior about or to use as a tool or a weapon. It is not our story; it is God’s story. Myers concludes:
The beginning of the crucified mind is the unconditional embrace of the other, just as Jesus unconditionally embraced us. Without regard for history or ethnicity, wisdom or folly, sin or saintliness, Christ embraced us and showed us the way to life. And so we must embrace the poor [our students?], accepting them as God presents them to us. Our professionalism and our faith were gifts to us in order that we might share them with others.This is how God loves every person, and the one who is the messenger about the good news of God’s love cannot limit the love of God. The embrace itself becomes the message.(Motte 1996, 81) [216-217]
There, I submit, is a recipe for hospitality in the deepest and most profound sense. There, I submit, is a recipe for the kind of hospitality that could transform us and the inhospitable forces of academe! But how do we cultivate and nurture hospitality of such radical depth?
The perspicacious among you (and I assume that’s all of you) have seen this one coming since about 9:15
this morning. You’ll recall that Myers indicated that we need to
seek a spirituality that makes our lives eloquent.
Balthasar Hubmaier, that 16th century Anabaptist who makes Baptists proud and Mennonites nervous, wrote in 1524
To promise chastity in the strength of men is nothing other than to promise to fly over the sea without wings.
[Estep, Anabaptist Beginnings, 26] I feel exactly the same way about the hospitality that I have been describing. I
simply do not believe that one can cultivate, nurture, and sustain hospitality of such radical depth without a
profound sense of our human finitude and the transcendent power of God. Norris, in fact, argues that prayer is the
The polarization that characterizes so much of American life is risky business in a church congregation, but especially so in a monastic community. The person you’re quick to label and dismiss as a racist, a homophobe, a queer, an anti-Semite, a misogynist, a bigoted conservative or a bleeding heart liberal is also a person you’re committed to live, work, pray, and dine with for the rest of your life. [Again, so much for the Erasmian Solution to our problem!] Anyone who knows a monastery well knows that it is no exaggeration to say that you find Al Franken and Rush Limbaugh living next door to each other. Mother Angelica and Mary Gordon. Barney Frank and Jesse Helms. Not only living together in close quarters, but working, eating, praying, and enjoying (and sometimes enduring) recreation together, every day, often for fifty years or more. It’s not easy. . . .
How do they do it? They know . . . that their primary ministry is prayer, and that prayer transcends theological differences. . . . They say the Lord’s Prayer together at least three times a day, which is the minimum that St. Benedict sets forth in his rule for monastic life. He says he found this necessary because of thethorns of contentionthat spring up daily when we try to live with other people. Continually asking God to forgive us as we forgive others, Benedict suggests, warns us away from the vice of self-righteousness and also lack of love. [Amazing Grace, 158-159]
Indeed, if you look at that list of inhospitable forces of academe listed in the 10:30 session on your program, I submit that you will not find a single one for which a vibrant, authentic, discipleship-oriented Christian faith is not an effective antidote. Our colleges, universities, and seminaries need to be Christian, need to have a vibrant spirituality about them, not in order to mollify our conservative constituencies or out of loyalty to some hallowed tradition. Our colleges, universities, and seminaries need to be Christian if we are to have a ghost of a chance of dealing successfully and effectively with the inhospitable forces of academe.
Now, if I were smart, I would end here. But I suspect that many--perhaps most--of you are still nagged by some persistent doubts. You may doubt that any college so committed to the Christian agenda can truly be open to those who do not share that agenda. To you I would say that you haven’t truly heard St. Benedict and you haven’t truly heard Bryant Myers. More of you, I suspect, are seeing in all this talk of hospitality and crucified minds the decline of academic standards, the demise of academic excellence. And to you I must add a word or two.
The title of this conference, you’ll recall, is
Beyond Academic Excellence. The planners simply (and
naively, we learned yesterday) assumed that academic excellence is a given. Everything I have tried to argue for is
consonant with and, I would argue, contributing to academic excellence. And the doubters among you want to know
I spoke much earlier of the fragility of the academic environment. Why is academia so fragile? Because it is an enterprise that specializes in critique and judgment. We judge students; we judge faculty; we judge administrators; we judge curriculum; we judge athletes; we judge musicians; we judge social life; we judge religious life; we judge ourselves; we will judge this conference; we are judging this speech right now. And we need not apologize for judging (at least not if we do it thoughtfully and carefully)! Indeed, it is a fundamental part of the enterprise in which we are engaged. How then can we deal with the fragility that is an inevitable byproduct of this activity?
I submit that in any profoundly judgmental environment, the need for transcendence, the need for the openly-acknowledged presence of God, is absolutely crucial. A judgmental environment needs to embrace enthusiastically and unashamedly a context in which all are affirmed, not for what they’ve done, but simply because they are. That’s grace. And real grace comes only with transcendence. It takes a sense of transcendence to allow the most insecure freshman to feel as affirmed as the president of the student body; it takes a sense of transcendence to allow the faculty member just denied tenure to feel as welcome as the chair of the department; it takes a sense of transcendence to allow the athlete who just flunked his math exam to feel comfortable eating lunch sitting next to his math professor. In fact, I think it takes a profound sense of transcendence if we are ever to judge--and be judged--without apology.
I would go so far, in fact, as to suggest that it is in an environment without a sense of transcendence that
academic standards are most likely to plummet. If my only contact with students is in the classroom; if my only
relationship to them is a judger to recipient of judgment, it is natural for me to begin to assume that any student’s
worth as a human being is largely dependent on her performance. Now, if I am an unusually callused person,
(perhaps if I am the early John Nash) I will go on judging without a second thought, blithely watching some swim,
some float, and some drown. But few of us are that callused; indeed, we pride ourselves on our
caring. Most of us,
therefore, will encounter occasionally a few students--perhaps an entire class--who touch us in some special way.
We see them wrapping up their self-worth entirely in terms of the grades we give them. So what do we do? As
sensitive and thoughtful human beings, we give them higher grades than they deserve. It somehow seems inhumane
to do otherwise.
But if, on the other hand, we consistently worship together with those students; if we acknowledge repeatedly, publicly, that in the most basic and profound sense there is no difference between us-we are both made in the image of God, but we are both incredibly frail; we are both committed to doing God’s will, but we both mess up constantly-then we can walk into the classroom (or the dean’s office, or the president’s office) knowing that neither of our self-concepts is totally dependent upon either of our performances. Then I am much more free to give those students’ papers precisely the grades they deserve!
My point? We lose absolutely nothing in terms of academic excellence by being explicitly and enthusiastically Christian colleges. And what is more to our point this morning, we gain immeasurably in our efforts to counteract the inhospitable forces that are endemic to academe.
In one of the early scenes in Ron Howard’s
A Beautiful Mind, John Forbes Nash, Jr., is talking with his
roommate. Nash tells the roommate that one of his elementary school teachers told him that he had
mind he needed and only half the heart. I don’t know if she was right about the former, but I think she was dead on
regarding the latter. The most beautiful minds, I think, are crucified ones, for only crucified minds lead to hospitable
hearts. And hospitable hearts, if they are to sustain themselves over time, absolutely require that we love the Lord
our God with heart and mind, soul and strength, and that we love our neighbor--the one with the 15 ACT as well as
the one with the 35 ACT-as self. There is, after all, no other commandment greater than these. May it be so. Amen.