Dartmouth College Baccalaureate 2003
Fanaticism, Faith and a Third Way
by Fleming Rutledge
I am wondering what your expectations of this baccalaureate service might be. Religion sits uneasily in academia these days. Religion can be an object for disinterested study, but the idea that it might be the organizing principle of one’s entire life makes most of the intellectual elite very nervous. Indeed, in many circles, the rejection of religion is considered a necessary rite of passage from dependency to maturity, from superstition to rationality, from darkness to light.
A few weeks ago I was at a dinner party with a group of secular Jewish friends. The subject turned to religion. One of them, a noted raconteur, told this story:
A typical Upper West Side couple (Jewish; intellectual; politically left) has a young son who¾also typically¾must be put into a private school. The only school that accepts him is Trinity.
He returns from his first day of classes. The father says, “How was it?”
“What did you learn today?”
“Something wonderful, Dad¾They told us about the Holy Trinity¾God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.”
The father beckons the boy closer, waves his finger at him and says, “Son, I want you always to remember this. There is only one God! And we don’t believe in him!”
The literary critic James Wood has just published an iconoclastic novel called The Book Against God. Wood grew up in the Christian Church but, he said, he tore himself away from a belief in God. However, he has dedicated his book, sincerely and without irony, to his deeply religious parents. He said, “I am grateful to my parents for giving me something to rebel against.”
Therefore, as a final salute to this class as you complete your liberal education at Dartmouth College, I am here (in loco parentis as it were) to give you something to rebel against, a God not to believe in.
In today’s overheated climate, religion makes a lot of people uneasy. Many believe that if we could only get rid of religion the world would become sane. Shortly after the attacks on September 11, I was with another group of friends and one said, with considerable anger, “All these people doing things in the name of God¾it drives me crazy.” To my surprise, another man took him on. He said, “I’m not religious myself, but the greatest crimes and genocides of the 20th century were carried out by men who were completely secular¾Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot.” There was silence around the table. I’m not sure that anyone had really focused on that before.
When Milan Kundera received the Jerusalem Prize for Literature, he delivered an address on the subject of the role of the novelist in telling the truth to the state and to the culture. He illustrated this by saying that Flaubert had discovered stupidity. Kundera continued, “I daresay that that is the greatest discovery of a century so proud of its academic thought…In [Flaubert’s] novels, stupidity is an inescapable dimension of human existence…the most remarkable thing about his vision of stupidity is that [it] does not give way to science, technology, modernity, progress¾on the contrary, [stupidity] progresses right along with progress.”
In the Christian tradition, that is called original sin. We would be greatly helped in our twenty-first century pilgrimage if we were to recover a robust understanding of original sin, one of the most misunderstood of all theological doctrines. The tendency in American civil discourse today is often described (and deplored) as Manichaean¾ dividing the world neatly into good and evil. This brings Augustine of Hippo into view, the great Christian thinker who was a Manichaean in his youth and then, having thought better of it, wrote a [if not the] classic definition of original sin. Augustine erred in connecting it too closely to sexual sin, but we should not make the mistake of ignoring or misinterpreting the larger contours of his indispensable definition. We need Augustine today. We need his view of human nature to balance our ideas of American perfectibility. We need the Augustinian insights of people like Adam Michnik, the philosopher-king of the Solidarity movement, Václav Havel of the Czech Republic, Desmond Tutu of South Africa; each of these men wrote from the very midst of their historic struggles to warn their supporters of the dangers of becoming no better than the opposition. We need also the insight of David Grossman, the author of a book published this month called Death as a Way of Life. Defying the overwhelming trend in human nature toward self-righteousness in one’s own cause, he appeals to the best in the Israelis precisely by identifying the temptation to become the worst: “The Palestinians began an Intifada in 1987 and won, because they forced us to realize what we were doing to them, but the truth is that we did not lose, because, finally, the Intifada opened the way for us to save ourselves from what the occupation had done to us.”
We can call the universal human tendency toward embracing the worst in ourselves stupidity or we can call it original sin, but whatever we call it, the future of the world will depend upon those who are able to see beyond purblind allegiance to their own supposed virtue and its corresponding opposite, the irredeemable wickedness of the perceived enemy. Obsessive rectitude, wherever it is found, is typical of religious fanaticism and it is on the rise around the world. Fanaticism, however, can appear anywhere. It is a great mistake to assign the category of fanaticism exclusively to Muslims and the Christian right. There is a type of obsession on the left as well, a focus on ideology to the exclusion of all else, an inability or unwillingness to see individuals instead of groups that have been deemed imperialist or oppressive, and a corresponding fixation on one’s own pristine position. Rethinking the received certainties on both the right and the left is surely what a liberal arts education trains students to do.
Former president Freedman of this college is waging a noble battle for this tradition of the liberal arts. He is fighting for the forming of young minds to see nuance and subtlety, to discern stupidity and, shall we say, sin. Here’s a test case, Freedman notes with dismay that more than half of America’s undergraduates are studying business instead of liberal arts. Last month Forbes magazine had the following headlines on its cover:
Dealing with Despots:
Saddam is History.
Now Oil Companies Have To Work With A New Gang of Global Bad Guys.
If you laughed at that, your liberal arts education is working. You have read Flaubert.
But here is another, more challenging illustration. When the Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph was captured in North Carolina last week, much was written about how he had become an Appalachian folk hero. The New York Times reporter (we hope he was actually filing from North Carolina) wrote, “Today, even after his capture, many people here still identified with him. ‘Rudolph’s a Christian and I’m a Christian and he dedicated his life to fighting abortion,’ said Crystal Davis, a mother of four. ‘Those are our values…I don’t see what he did as a terrorist act.’”
This brings us at last to the real subject of this baccalaureate address, which is God. Beyond fanaticism, beyond fundamentalism, beyond liberalism and conservatism, beyond revisionism and syncretism and all the other “isms” there is God¾the God who stands over against them all, who is called in the Jewish and Christian scriptures the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the one whose name cannot be pronounced by humans but only by himself, the God who says I AM WHO I AM..
You have heard a reading from the prophet Isaiah. This reading is taken from the same section of Isaiah as the Dartmouth motto: Vox clamantis in deserto….“A voice crying in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” This portion of Isaiah, chapters 40-55, is the longest sustained piece of prophetic poetry in the Bible. The “Unknown Prophet of the Exile” that we call Second Isaiah speaks from the bottom of Israel’s worldly fortunes, but his work is the Mount Everest of the Hebrew scriptures, and what he sees and proclaims is one of the most universal visions of God and of human destiny in all of religious history:
The Lord said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified,,,[but] it is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:3, 6)
This universalism, which predominates in the work of Second Isaiah, has its germ in the unconditional promise given by the Lord to Abraham in the book of Genesis:
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great…by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
In other words, the election of Israel to be God’s possession is not for Israel’s own sake, but for the sake of the entire human family. And to this day, three thousand years later, Judaism in its most authentic manifestations continues to embody this promise, with its characteristic commitment to the outcast and the oppressed of the earth.
The unconditional promise to Abraham is embedded in the Hebrew Scriptures at the very deepest level, and the prophet Isaiah is working at that very deepest level when he foresees God’s future as if it were already happening. The “voice crying in the wilderness” sees the approaching deliverance of the entire created order according to the promise and purpose of the God of Israel. The New Testament takes this vision and makes it even more radical and explicit. The messenger in the New Testament is the apostle Paul, who announces the inclusion of the Gentiles in the promise made to Abraham. Contrary to earlier interpretations, Paul does not envision the Church displacing Israel. His message allows Jews to remain Jews while¾and here is the breathtaking new thing¾embracing Gentiles as well, apart from strict Torah observance, an action of pure grace on the part of the living God. It is the most sweeping vision of human redemption and inclusion that the world has ever seen. In spite of the sins of the Christian Church over the ensuing centuries, this message remains more urgent than ever.
And so, to the Dartmouth class of 2003:
You know who you are¾the best of the best, the proud graduating seniors of one of our premier institutions of what is called the higher learning. You have remained focused for four years and you have succeeded. What I want most to emphasize at this penultimate moment is the way in which this liberal arts institution has prepared your mind to grapple, if you will, with the idea of human sinfulness and a God who is much bigger than you thought. Beyond fanaticism and fundamentalism there is a third way, which has been called “subversive orthodoxy”¾the way of the living God who is proclaimed in the Bible. I ask you to consider the claims of this God of the Bible upon your life. This is not a god who waits passively in the distant empyrean for you to find your way to him. This is the God whose voice shakes the foundations of the world. It would be better for you to reject the God of the Bible than to believe in a lesser god, one of the many gods who, as Isaiah repeatedly says, have been fashioned by human beings, who have no power and indeed no independent existence at all.
Today I am asking you to consider a third way. Not fanaticism, not blind and irrational faith, but the way of the God whom Isaiah names as the Holy One of Israel, called in the New Testament the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Most of all today I am asking you to consider the subversive universality of the gospel message. Over against our habit of dividing up the world into good and evil stands the most radical sentence in all religion. In his crucial chapters about the Jews in Romans, Paul wrote this: “God has consigned all human beings to disobedience in order that he may have mercy upon all.”
If you think you don’t understand what that means, take heart, for undoubtedly Paul did not entirely understand it himself. But at the least it means this:
The world is filled with colossal human stupidity and criminality, most of it carried out by people who mean to do good. Moreover, there is real evil at work in the world and it has the capacity to penetrate into the heart of people and societies that consider themselves virtuous. The design of God is not the granting of privileges to the virtuous, for the fault line in creation does not lie between one person and another; the fault line lodges within each one of us. The best antidote is therefore not more and more attention to self-improvement. The best antidote is the service of the living God who is the author of all human good and who is already at work among you for your good whether you know it or not.
It is the easiest thing in the world to stand here on this privileged campus and heap scorn upon the woman in North Carolina who does not think Eric Rudolph did anything wrong. The difficult thing is to imagine ourselves into her head and understand why she feels as she does. Many of you, I have learned, are going out from Dartmouth to serve in unfamiliar cultures here and abroad. That is a sign of the presence of God in your life. We need your very best efforts. Your best ally is a vision of the God who has said it is too light a thing to raise up the righteous, the like-minded and the ideologically correct. It does not take a God to do that. The God of the Bible does the impossible¾he makes peace with the ungodly, the stupid, the unlike-minded, the incorrect (Romans 5:6). That is why the Christian gospel is the most inclusive message ever proclaimed. “He is our peace,” the apostle writes, “who has…broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new human being in place of the two…reconciling us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end” (Ephesians 2:14-15).
As God did this most fully and finally through Jesus Christ, so now he does it through the signifying actions of his human instruments. You are those instruments. Go in peace, and may many of you find wisdom, courage and hope in the vision of Isaiah and of Paul that it is too light a thing that you should be a light to the righteous only but also to the whole world; and in that service to the Holy One of Israel you will be amazed that you have well and truly found yourself.
Later I got my secular Jewish friend to dictate this to me word for word, to make sure I got it right. After this address was delivered, however, a Jewish respondent suggested that perhaps a non-Jewish person should take care in repeating this Jewish joke. I accept that suggestion but retain the joke here, since it was my the original text.
Dinitia Smith, “Critic at the Mercy of His Own Kind,” The New York Times 5/24/03.
Milan Kundera, “Man Thinks, God Laughs,” The New York Review of Books, 6/13/85.
An important quotation from Michnik was in my original text but was cut because of length. “I am not afraid of the general’s fire. There is no greatness about them; lies and force are their weapons, their strength stems from their ability to release the darkest and basest instincts in ourselves. I am sure that we shall win. Sooner or later, but I think sooner, we shall leave the prisons and come out of the underground onto the bright square of freedom. But what will we be like then? I am afraid not of what they will do to us, but of what they can make us into….I pray that we do not change from prisoners into prison guards. —”Letter From the Gdansk Prison,” The New York Review of Books, July 18, 1985 (emphasis added). I think this turned out to be an unfortunate cut because the Grossman quotation was thereby isolated and asked to carry too much weight by itself, as though I were singling out the Israelis. That was the opposite of my intention..
I also would have quoted from Havel, if I had had more time, to the effect that the line between those who had collaborated and those who had not was impossible to draw, because “the line ran through each person.”
Review by Richard Eder of Death as a Way of Life by David Grossman (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003)
Interview with James O. Freedman in Valley News, 6/6/03. Dr. Freedman’s new book is Liberal Education and the Public Interest.
Forbes Magazine cover April 28, 2003
A reference to the journalistic scandal at The New York Times which culminated in the resignation of the two top editors three days before this baccalaureate address.
Jeffrey Gettleman with David M. Halbfinger, “Suspect on ’98 Olympic Bombing is Caught,” The New York Times, 6/1/03.
Douglas Harink, Paul Among the Postliberals (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003).
A phrase of Kenneth Leech, Anglican priest-theologian.
And after he says it he breaks into doxology: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!….For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. (Romans 11:33-35)
“We have to recognize a constant temptation of antiwar politics: to pretend that there really isn’t a serious enemy out there.” Michael Walzer, “The Right Way,” The New York Review of Books, March 13, 2003.