Remarks on Receiving an Honorary Doctorate from Marymount Manhattan College
President Shaver, graduates, families and friends of the graduates, I must begin with a confession. I think it best to make a clean breast of things just to make sure you understand what you are doing by giving me this honorary degree. I do not want you embarrassed by having what I must confess later revealed. I realize what I have to reveal may be particularly offensive for New Yorkers: I am an Atlanta Braves fan. I cannot tell you how painful it is to watch Tommy Glavine pitch for the New York Mets. Of course things could be worse-Tommy could be pitching for the Yankees. At least the Mets are in the National League where baseball is still played. Everyone knows that the designated batter is the end of baseball as we knew it.
Yet I have to acknowledge that the Yankees have had some extraordinary players-in particular, everyone's favorite, Lou Gehrig. Gehrig was not only one of the greatest players to play the game, but in the words of Sam Jones-Sam Jones being a pitcher for Cleveland and Boston who for five years never threw to first base to hold a runner, and when he finally did throw to first base he had the runner out by a mile; but, unfortunately, his first baseman was so surprised he dropped the ball-Jones says Gehrig was "One of the nicest fellows ever lived. He never really got the publicity he deserved. A very serious-minded fellow, very modest and easy to get along with, every inch a gentleman."
Gehrig, moreover, made the greatest speech a baseball player has ever made. Beset by an illness from which he would soon die, when he retired he said simply, "I am the luckiest man alive."
I am not suffering from an illness (as long as we do not count life itself as an illness) that implies my imminent death, but like Gehrig, I believe I am among the luckiest of men. I am extremely fortunate to be honored by you today, but this wonderful acknowledgement by you is not why I think I am so lucky. I also have a wonderful wife and family, but neither are they the reason, at least on this occasion, I think myself so lucky. Rather I think of myself as the luckiest man alive because, like Lou Gehrig, every day I get to do what I love, that is, to be a theologian in the church of Jesus Christ.
I realize some of you may find that rather strange. Baseball is one thing. Theology is quite another. Almost all of us, men and women alike, dream at some time in our lives of being in the major leagues. Indeed, it was only when I was in my late forties and I had injured my rotator cuff that I realized my major league potential was probably lost forever. Few dream of being a theologian. The truth of the matter is I do not ever remember wanting to be a theologian. I began the trek through divinity and graduate school just trying to figure out (Texans "figure out") what all this Christian stuff was about. But somewhere along the way I realized, as strange and weird as it may seem, I had become a theologian. Not only had I become a theologian, but theology was an activity, a good and compelling work, that I could no longer not do.
That anyone can gain that kind of satisfaction from the study of theology can be problematic from a theological point of view. After all, you need to remember that the subject of theology is God. God, moreover, is not your everyday academic subject. If you think that you are beginning to understand something about God, that is an indication that you have probably made a deep mistake. For example, Rowan Greer, in his book Christian Hope and Christian Life, prefaces his remarks concerning the contribution of Gregory of Nyssa to debates surrounding the Trinity with the observation that it is important "to recognize that the people who first clarified the Christian doctrine of the Trinity were committed to the doctrine that God is incomprehensible." Yet Christians believe that this same incomprehensible God refuses to let our sin deter God's determination to befriend us. I hope, therefore, it is not surprising that some of us find a deep satisfaction that the church has called us to be theologians. It is extremely important, however, that those of us so called never forget that the office of theology is one of the minor offices of the church.
Another reason it may seem a bit odd to gain such satisfaction from being a theologian is that doing theology can get you into a lot of trouble. Certainly I have gotten into a lot of trouble. Some think that this has less to do with my being a theologian and more to do with the fact that I am just an "ornery" Texan. It would only be an invitation to self-deception for me to try to separate the one from the other. But I do think, particularly in our day, that it does not take much theological insight to get you in trouble. For example, just think about the reaction to the commonplace theological observation that pride is a sin-including the pride expressed by many, particularly after September 11, in being American.
About the worst thing you can do about pride, especially the pride in "Proud to be an American," is try to will your way out of it. God's alternative to pride is called friendship. By making us friends with one another through the Eucharist, we are un-selfed and we discover that pride of country must be qualified by the deeper unity the church makes possible. It is important that we not forget that Christians had a word to describe what some mean by "globalization" long before that word came along. The Christian word was and remains: "catholic."
I am honored by the honor you have given me this wonderful day, a wonderful day in particular for those of you who are graduating. I congratulate you. I am honored that I have some role in your graduation ceremony. It gives me particular delight to be recognized by a school like Marymount Manhattan College. Whatever good I may have done would not have been possible without the support and formation I have been given by Catholic friends, the Catholic Church, and Catholic institutions.
So to receive this degree from Marymount Manhattan means a great deal to me. But I hope I am able to remember that even as I receive this gift I have already received more than I could ever have desired just to the extent that God somehow, and surely only God can know how, gave me the good work to do called theology.
Stanley Hauerwas cheers the Braves from his post at Duke University Divinity School.