Dean’s charge to the Class of 2011
Charge to the Graduates
Vanderbilt University Divinity School
June 13, 2011
At Commencement, Dean James Hudnut-Beumler charged the Class of 2011 to cultivate doubt as they continue in the cycle of doubt/examination/new beliefs/commitments towards the discovery of wisdom.
One of the real pleasures of this year for me was participating in the exit interviews with most of you. In sessions of about an hour we covered what was best (and worst) about your Divinity School education. We talked about what you would change and what we absolutely must not change about this school. I learned a lot from you about your most memorable experiences and about what books made the biggest impact on you. What I was most struck by was a recurrent theme that went something like this: “I came to the Divinity School to have my beliefs affirmed, and instead I came to question what I believed and to wonder about the things I had always been taught.”
Everyone who said this hastened to explain that they had come to a new, and they thought more profound, set of beliefs. I have heard similar things from Vanderbilt graduates and alumni for over a decade, and I’m here today to say that this is just the beginning of your doubt/ examination/new beliefs/commitments cycle, for in this path lies wisdom. My advice to you upon your graduation this morning is to cultivate doubt.
Now I hasten to add that this is not a prescription for embracing nihilism, but rather a start down the road toward humility about what you know in a world where you—as graduates of this fine Divinity School—will now be looked to as experts. Do you feel like experts? No? Good. Because functioning as a leader in faith matters is like being a guide on a mountain climb—you are leading people partly where you have been, but you will serve them best if you are prepared for surprises on your journey. We have a saying in the mountain climbing community: “There are there are old climbers and there are bold climbers, but there are no old bold climbers.”
The great temptation in preaching, teaching and leading social justice organizations is to always act as if you know everything. In that way lies the way of arrogance and preacher scandals and burnout—for there is nothing worse than saying what you don’t really believe just because people expect you to say it. So, as the baseball great Satchel Paige said, “It's not what you don't know that hurts you. It's what you know that just ain't so.”
The various fundamentalisms of this world have one thing in common. While they all pretend to be preservers of ancient and pure tradition, they are actually the products of modernity’s doubt. Their response to doubt is to shout in the way of someone who doesn’t like what they’re hearing: “I don’t hear you. … I’m not listening. …That’s not true!” But in that last “That’s not true” the shouter gives away the game. Doubts are present.
Whatever your basic orientation—conservative, moderate, progressive—I hope you won’t be a shouter but rather a learned doubter. You’ve met some in your education here: Albert Camus, Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Luther in the garden, Jesus in the Garden, Dorothy Day in radical New York politics, Reinhold Niebuhr in industrial Detroit, Mary Daly and good old Augustine finally ready to give up on his old prayer, “Save me Lord, but not yet.”We revere them for their great beliefs, their commitments and their wisdom, but what it seems to me that they all have in common is that they doubted the received wisdom of their days. The words, “You have heard it said, but I say to unto you,” say it all. If faith is hope in things unseen, then each of us as people of faith needs to be sure we aren’t seeing things that aren’t there.
Wise faith comes from the crucible of doubt. The theologian Christopher Morse says that for every set of beliefs we have there is an important corollary set of disbeliefs—things that we must not believe if we are to be true to our faith commitments. An example would be our belief that God loves everyone. If we really believe that, then we must disbelieve statements about God hating someone, even our enemies.
Our deepest commitments are often oppositional in nature. True civilization is the result of opposition to violence, disease, ignorance, hunger and enmity.
So I say to you cultivate some good doubts. Here’s a list you might start with:
You might doubt that there are some people whom the love of God does not embrace.
You might doubt that our corrections system corrects anything or anyone.
You might doubt that the way we pass along the faith to our children is helping them attain a faith of their own.
You might doubt that there is nothing that can be done about the environmental degradation of creation.
You might doubt that other people’s gods and your God must be different, just because you are different.
You might doubt that scientific materialism explains everything worth knowing in life.
You might doubt that national borders can be seen from space, let alone heaven.
These doubts and the ones that will come your way in lives of service to a cause greater than yourself are the building blocks of new, more faithful ways of being in the world. Let the words “I cannot accept that” become the foundation for the affirmations “This I believe” and “To this I commit my life.”
Please, then, rise and receive my charge to you:
Love what is true, reject what is false and question what you do not understand.
Lead with your hearts, think with your minds and commit your bodies and souls to noble work.
See with the eyes of faith, speak with humility and listen with compassion.
And so, let your lives be a witness and a blessing to others to the glory of God, Amen.
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