A commencement address delievered at Wittenberg University on June 6, 1960
Once upon a time—and a very good time it was—being an intellectual meant being a Christian. These words, with apologies to James Joyce, describe a situation that exists no longer. By the judgment of many, being an intellectual today means being anything but a Christian—a judgment in which, for strange reasons, the fanatical secularist and the fanatical sectarian concur. We have met here this morning because we believe that this judgment is wrong. This university strives for academic excellence because of, not in spite of, its loyalty to the Christian faith. The church and the university need each other, for neither without the other can fulfill its high vocation. Indeed, I suspect that neither without the other can be trusted, and therefore I pledge my allegiance to both. An institution that is pledged to both, to Academe and to the Cross, must give special attention to the dilemma of the Christian intellectual, the not-so-simple believer, the child of God who has left the kindergarten. When the gimmick replaces the Geist, even on the campus; when piety is identified with sentiment and the ethic of the kingdom of God with conformity—then it is time to paint the portrait of the Christian intellectual for all to see.
"Each generation," said G. K. Chesterton, "seeks its saint by instinct; and he is not what the people want, but rather what the people need." What the people want today is not the Christian intellectual, whom both the church and the world repudiate; but that may well be what the people need. For without the cultivation of the life of the mind, the church betrays its own great tradition, the very tradition in whose name the church often suspects the life of the mind. The task of the Christian university is, therefore, to call the church back to its tradition. On this Whitmonday, standing between the feast of Pentecost and the feast of the Holy Trinity, I want to summarize three principal features of that tradition. In keeping with the celebration of Trinity Sunday, I shall call these features: a passion for being; a reverence for language; and an enthusiasm for history. This Trinitarian portrait characterizes the Christian intellectual and the education in which he participates.
A Passion for Being
The Christian intellectual has a passion for being. He believes that by the power of the God who has created and goes on creating all things new every day, all things have an essential goodness, impervious to any destructive force. Sometimes, I fear, our preoccupation with sin, guilt, and forgiveness has obscured this passion for being in Christian thought. We have so emphasized the corruption of all creation through the Fall that its continuing derivation from God and dependence upon God could no longer be recognized. For centuries, until Petrarca climbed the mountain, Christian thought neglected the goodness of all created being; although John Calvin lived in Geneva for more than half his life, he rarely if ever mentions the Alps in his sermons and books. But if we really mean it when we confess in the Credo that God is "Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible," then we need to remember the struggle of the early church to assert and defend this confession against those who identified sin with the material world. The trouble with the world, so they maintained, is that it is made of stuff, which is intrinsically evil. In opposition to this the Christian faith declares that the material world is intrinsically good, encrusted though it may be with the scabs of sin and evil. Because it is intrinsically good, we ought to love it as God's good creation. As a Christian doxology confessed almost a century ago:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod? Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs— Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
The first quality of the Christian intellectual, then, is such a passion for being. Perhaps the greatest Christian intellectual of them all, St. Augustine, said (if you will pardon a little Latin) that esse qua esse bonum est, "being is good simply because it is being." The material world, because it is God's good world, is invested with His holiness and is the object of His continuing love. Fallen and bent it is, but there is still "the dearest freshness deep down things." More even than his fellow-believers, the Christian intellectual is one who recognizes this freshness and loves the stuff of the universe not as a substitute for, but as a corollary of, his love for God. This passion for being has become, if not any easier, then certainly more profound in our time because of the achievements and discoveries of the natural sciences. Since we are still recalling the centennial of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, the embarrassment of many Christian intellectuals with the natural sciences deserves mention. They have found themselves and their faith threatened by the picture of the universe that came from telescope and microscope. In part at least, the cause of this embarrassment was the extravagance of some natural scientists, who strayed into theology as often as the theologians strayed into science.
Today the chastening of the past century has produced greater sobriety on all sides; and on campuses like this one Christian thought is beginning to reappraise its picture of creation and to discover that the size and the age of the world are no threat to a mature Christian worship of the Ancient of Days. With this reappraisal is beginning to come a deeper and more passionate love of the created universe, not as the object of man's exploitation but as the bearer and arena of God's grace. Certainly there is in the Christian view of creation an imperative that forbids man to pollute the atmosphere with the garbage of his thermonuclear orgies and thus to change forever the genetics of the beaver and the sea anemone. To love God is to love what God loves, and to love it with passion and zeal. The Christian intellectual is charged with the responsibility of exemplifying this passion for being in his life and thought, so that men may look up from their gadgets and peer beyond their billboards to view the grandeur of God. For if the Christian intellectual neglects this responsibility, God will have to turn, as he has turned so often, to the Nicodemuses in His hidden church, who will do in secret what His disciples are afraid to do in public.
The Reverence For Language
It is, I fear, the Nicodemuses of the hidden church who often preserve the second feature of the Christian intellectual as well, the reverence for language. Yet the Christian cause depends upon language, and without it the life of the church would be impossible. I do not pretend to know why Johnny can't read; but I do know that if enough Johnnies can't read, Christian faith and thought as we know them will end. Pardon me for a personal reference. Today I, a theologian, am becoming a Doctor of Letters of this university. My gratitude for this honor is matched by my conviction that "letters," that is, the careful use and discrimination of language, is one of the theologian's primary responsibilities. In fact, much of the history of theology, which is the special area of my research and writing, is the history of words — the origin of theological words, often outside the Christian tradition; the application of these words to Christian revelation and their consequent refinement and clarification; the distortion of words by popular superstition. Thus the critics of theology are right when they describe it as a conflict over "mere words."
But there is nothing "mere" about words, and it is the task of the Christian intellectual to insist upon this. When the God of the universe, the Lord of heaven and earth, chose to make Himself known to men, He spoke to them through the prophets; and when the early Christians sought to describe what God had done to them and for them through Jesus, they called Jesus the Logos, the Word and Mind of God. The Christian intellectual knows, therefore, that man's capacity for speech lies somewhere near the center of his uniqueness. Both the misery and the grandeur of humanity are bound up with the gift of language. The serpent spoke to Eve in the garden; God spoke to Moses on the mountain. And ever since then the temptations and the revelations of man have come through language. They still do. Hence a reverence for what language can do if it is used properly and a horror of what language can do if it is misused belong to the equipment of the educated man. Hear one educated man, E. B. White, who also incarnates the chastity of English prose style, giving voice to this reverence and horror: "Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose; it is a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded roadsign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram" — and, let the theologian add, betrayal of the faith once handed down to the saints by careless or deliberate ambiguity in the language of theology or devotion.
Unless the books and journals that cross my desk are unrepresentative samples, I fear that this virtue of reverence for language is not important in the moral theology of the American churches. At times I am tempted to paraphrase St. Paul and to say that there are three fundamental virtues—faith, hope, and clarity—and that the greatest of these is clarity. As the church and the school imitate advertising and government in debasing the mother tongue, the church school must be one place of refuge where a reverence for language and a chastity of style still prevail. In the so-called Dark Ages, which were not as dark as the textbooks say but were dark enough, lack of communication brought on the breakdown of language and the impoverishment of culture. In our age, by contrast, the very growth of communication is bringing on the same results. An industry that spawns sights and sounds from 7:00 a.m. to midnight seven days a week is understandably impatient with the nuances of conjunctions or with the discrimination of English synonyms. Recent best-seller lists suggest that the publishing of books in the United States, while growing rapidly, may be becoming a satellite of television, to which one title after another owes its success. Perhaps, like the Irish monasteries of that earlier age, the Christian college may quietly cultivate the humanistic disciplines until their hour strikes again. Perhaps a generation that learns Russian on account of the sputniks may go on to read Dostoevsky in his own language. If we wait long enough, the poignancy of the human situation may persuade someone to take another look at the language of Sophocles, Aeschylus, Plato, and Paul.
But one language at a time, and clarity begins at home. I can think of no service more important for our culture than the growth of a reverence for language. Sins against syntax are often funny, but sometimes they are serious. Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, and Charles de Gaulle all prove that language does not merely describe action; it is action, and sometimes the only action equal to the despair or the glory of the hour. In the beginning was the Word: the capacity for words is still the point at which God contacts man, still the point at which the devil finds man most vulnerable. If you carry away from your courses in literature and language no more than an awe for the fearful potentialities of human speech and a zeal to make that awe a light of your life in home, church, and community, this university has served you well. A Christian intellectual is not necessarily one who has read all the Great Books on the lists compiled at the University of Chicago, though he could do worse in his reading and probably will. But a Christian intellectual is one whose reading and writing, speaking and listening, are informed by a reverence for language as the divine gift for which the ancient hymn for Whitsunday extols the Holy Spirit:
True promise of the Father Thou,
Who dost the tongue with speech endow.
An Enthusiasm for History
To the passion for being and the reverence for language a third feature of the Christian intellectual must be added if our portrait is to be accurate: an enthusiasm for history. The history of philosophy shows that a passion for being has often been accompanied by a horror of becoming. The processes of change have seemed to corrode reality, and the infinite variety among individuals seemed to threaten the unity of all things in God. The Christian interpretation of God's activity in the world has never been satisfied with a passion for being; it has always felt obliged to come to terms with becoming, with change, with process, with variety. And therefore the Christian doctrine of God requires the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, for He is the Agent of change and the Ground of variety. There are many dispensations, but there is only one Spirit. Much of what Jesus was and did in the days of His flesh remained obscure to the disciples until the Spirit came to teach them all things and to bring all things to their remembrance. The Spirit still operates in the history of the people of God, opening up ever new opportunities and creating ever new variety while remaining one and the selfsame Spirit.
To be open to the activity of the Spirit, unpredictable though it is; to be appreciative of the variety of the Spirit, distressing though this often is to our preconceived notions; to be heedful of the leading of the Spirit in the church, novel though this continues to be—that is the enthusiasm for history which marks the Christian intellectual. Here, too, so-called secular studies, those of the social sciences, have made available new insights into the variety and the change in human history. Instead of panicking at these insights and trying to evade them, as much of Christian thought has done, we need to recognize their validity and their limits as guides to human thought and behavior. What if these insights shake our stereotypes of what men are or puncture our clichés about how men act! The activity of the Holy Spirit has proved itself throughout history to be plastic enough for any such insights. An enthusiasm for His activity in its infinite variety and underlying unity permits us to do justice to all that present-day study can tell us about human personality and human society. It gives us the courage to work for improvement in society, and the wisdom to recognize just how limited any such improvement is. It releases us from the anxieties about saving ourselves that poison the minds and lives of so many; and it gives us the serenity to face every change, including our own eventual death, with dignity and faith.
A passion for being; a reverence for language; an enthusiasm for history: by this time you are probably wondering which, if any, of these features can be discerned in your graduation picture, and whether your graduation picture is a portrait of the Christian as a young intellectual. It is, I hope, even though (please pardon the pun) it may still be undeveloped and unenlarged; for the responsibility of this university is only for the exposure. As your parents, professors, and friends pray that the benediction of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, may descend upon you and abide with you, we pray as well that you may grow in the virtues of the Christian intellectual: a passion for being because the Father is the Creator and Source of all being; a reverence for language because Jesus Christ is the Word and Mind of the Father; an enthusiasm for history because the Holy Spirit works through history to produce variety and to unite all men in Himself. To this end may God grant us all His grace.