Divinity School Opening Convocation
By Nathan O. Hatch
Wait Chapel, Wake Forest University
Let me add my welcome to all of you on this occasion, the formal opening of another academic year at the Wake Forest University Divinity School. We begin a year of thinking, exploring, learning, and creating with an explicit act of worship. This is a powerful reminder of the source of all that we do.
Allow me to offer a special word of welcome to all of you who, like me, are new to the University this fall. We look forward to the many ways that your gifts and talents can strengthen this divinity school and Wake Forest as a whole. In the days and weeks ahead, may you find on this campus an environment that is intellectually challenging and spiritually and personally enriching. I look forward to this new pilgrimage together.
There is much in the contemporary world that counsels us to move faster. Bill Gates’s recent book advises us, as the title suggests, to do “business at the speed of thought.” The faster the better; the more information the better. Another best-selling book, by Kenneth Blanchard, extols the “one minute manager,” who can compress complicated issues into the bat of an eye. Our news comes at warp speed from anywhere on the planet. We grow very impatient with our computers when they don’t access the Internet with lightning quickness. Ours is an age of multiple tasking, using cell phones while we are driving, writing one assignment while listening to another lecture.
This fall, at Wake Forest, a pilot program called “MobileU” brings “ubiquitous computing” to 120 students, who will use PC pocket phones to receive phone, e-mail, Internet, and text messaging services anywhere, anytime. I have one of these devices myself, and I confess that it is wonderful — just like the iPod that allows your whole music library to be accessible in your pocket and the XM or Sirius satellite radio that delivers 200 channels of music, news, sports, or weather information. Literally, the world is at our fingertips.
We enjoy maximal input and maximal choice, but our lives are accelerating at a breathless pace as a result. And, this barrage of information does not point us in a steady direction. Have you ever thought, when channel surfing late at night, how disconnected and conflicting are the images that bombard us? Channels snap from the exercise gizmos to strengthen the abs to grisly bombings in Iraq, from Howard Stern talking trash to Charles Lamb discussing a serious book, from a gospel preacher pleading for repentance, to “Desperate Housewives” scheming for pleasure. Our minds are forced to take reality in bits and pieces, to filter constantly, to live in multiple and often incoherent worlds.
This acceleration of life — the drive to accomplish more and more in less and less time — is rife on a campus such as Wake Forest. The push is on to fill every waking hour with activity: study, service, friends, ministry opportunities, family. All compete relentlessly for your time and keep your life a highway of constant activity.
“The press of busyness is like a charm,” Søren Kierkegaard wrote in Purity of Heart. We are drawn to hurry because it makes us feel important. It keeps the adrenaline pumping. It staves off loneliness.
Yet today, as we enter a new academic year, I want to extol the virtues of being “deliberate” — a word derived from Latin and implying a careful weighing in the mind of important issues, as on a delicate scale. Business and hurry can be the enemy of many things, certainly of love and of one’s own personal development. This morning I want to note that busyness can also be the enemy of two of the primary ends of a divinity education: serious learning and deeper spirituality.
The texts from the Hebrew Bible that we read this morning both remind us that the voice of god often does not thunder above wind, earthquake, and fire. “Be still, and know that I am God,” says the Psalmist against a backdrop of ranting kings and falling kingdoms. Be still, says the Psalmist if you want to understand God and his ways. In his own translation of the Psalms, Eugene H. Peterson paraphrases the text this way: “Step out of the traffic.”
Today, as all of us step onto the treadmill of a new term, I am calling for myself and you to think of ways to step off of it. Intellectual formation requires focus, concentration, and solitude — and sometimes having less input rather than more. Take the case of Abraham Lincoln, who may have achieved such depth of thought because as a young man he read so little. David Herbert Donald notes in his biography that Lincoln grew up with access to very few books: the Bible, Aesop’s Fables (which he virtually memorized), and later the plays of Shakespeare. Lincoln did not merely read such material; he absorbed and mastered it. Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon claimed that “Lincoln read less and thought more than any man in his sphere in America.”
My advice is not necessarily that we read less. But it is that we find occasions to think deeply and grapple at length with texts and issues in the disciplines we study. This takes time; time to allow our minds to become uncluttered; time to focus on an argument long enough to own it, or challenge it, or unpack its relevance; time to relish and to savor the wonder of a scriptural text, a great theologian, a spiritual master, or a great preacher. Wisdom is a fragile flower that will be choked by a cluttered and hurried mind.
There is also another reason we need to practice deliberation. Both in religion and politics, we live in an age of polemics rather than persuasion. In a June 24, 2005, op-ed in the New York Times, Jack Valenti contrasted the contemporary scene with what he remembers of the relationship of Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirkson. “In Washington,”; Valenti begins, “the cords of collegiality that used to bind members of Congress to one another — and the president — haven’t just frayed, they’ve snapped.” By contrast, Valenti describes the respect and trust between President Johnson and Senator Dirkson despite political battles that were ongoing and intense. “They were like two old medieval warriors who had fought a hundred battles against each other. But when night fell, they would sit around a campfire, on neutral ground, and talk.”
In a similar vein, syndicated columnist Matthew Miller suggests that the art of persuasion may be dying: “The signs are not good. Ninety percent of political conversation amounts to dueling ‘talking points.’ Best-selling books reinforce what folks thought when they bought them,” he says. “Talk radio and opinion journals preach to the converted. Let’s face it: the purpose of most political speech is not to persuade but to win.”
I fear that the same might be said of religious life in America today. Pope Benedict XVI worries about a “dictatorship of relativism” that threatens any moral or religious certainty. At the same time, and possibly as a result of such uncertainty, it is also easy to detect a certain “dictatorship of certainty” by which people come to quick conclusions and spend most of their energy elaborating and defending convictions set in stone. My own sense is that both progressive and conservative wings of Christianity are prone to polemics rather than persuasion.
We live in a world that is fraught with complexity. Playwright and former president of the Czech Republic Václav Havel has noted that “the world of our experiences seems chaotic and confusing. Experts can explain anything in the objective world to us, yet we understand our own lives less and less.” And often, like John the Baptist, more questions than answers arise in our hearts about the ways of the Messiah in our own lives and in the world. Even the herald of Christ’s coming faced circumstances that left him distraught and questioning.
To face our own perplexities, we need greater depth of study, reflection, and insight. We need to weigh evidence carefully and to ground ourselves firmly in classic sources of wisdom. We need the patience to be refreshed by what C. S. Lewis called, in The Weight of Glory, “the clean sea-breeze of the centuries” if we hope to gain perspective on “the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and microphone” of our own age.
The Renaissance humanist Francis Bacon put it this way: “Read not to contradict or confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.” Reading, he is saying, is not principally to argue, nor to reinforce existing beliefs, nor to improve communication. Reading, instead, should be an act of deliberation, of weighing. “Some books,” he said, “are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
Today, I challenge you — students and faculty alike — to take the time to chew and digest a few things during the coming term. Unplug the computer now and again, turn off the cell phone, and spend a morning or afternoon reading and thinking about one thing. Plan for a weekend retreat, or at least for one day. Relearn the joy of solitude and reflection. Learning to focus is necessary if we are to develop what Matthew’s Gospel calls “ears to hear.” It will also refresh the mind, soothe the spirit, and lighten your step.