All Community Forum August 22, 2007

Alas we are entering upon inevitable move to winter, the shortening of days, the sudden cooling few days on end.  Yesterday I went on the Web at looked at the weather.    I saw bands of successively cooler temperatures moving north, until I reached Alert, NE Ellesmere Island (7° from North Pole) -- where temperature has bounced around freezing for last week, but will never venture above it for next week and snow is expected every day.

I have been thinking a lot about the forces of nature:

  • massive earthquake week ago on central coast of  Peru - release into space of heat of earth's mantle & core -- such devastating consequences for people living along fault line, yet part of a system that makes all life possible on this planet  
  • protracted experiences of drought / flooding - part of great cycle of climate systems so deeply affected today by human actions
  • mine disaster in Huntington, UT followed by seismic jolts causing "mountain collapsing in slow motion" over rescuers tunneling to lost miners (IHT 8/17/07)
  • accounts of divers searching for bodies amidst the jagged debris in the Mississippi R. in the great chasm over which for 40 years the 35 W bridge stood in Mpls:  a place of unremitting darkness; where there's so much sediment that light just reflects back on the diver, all the while, with current rushing forward at about 1,350 cubic ft/sec, akin to the force of 1,350 basketballs flying forward at a foot per second.   (NYT 8/04/07)

I want to understand the earth --  its geology and meteorology, its oceans and soil, the operation of all the physical and chemical processes that make life possible.

I want to understand the impact of human striving on the earth - the pull and tug of economics and politics, society and culture - the avowed goals and unintended consequences, over long swatches of time and right before our eyes.

I want to understand the meaning of human life - explored in psychology, celebrated in poetry and art, music and ritual, pondered in philosophy and theology - the meaning of  life, ever more mysterious, more precious as I grow older.

Every year or so I find occasion to quote a few lines from Fr. Virgil Michel, great SJ professor, dean and monk who wrote over 80 yrs ago that "...none of the fundamental problems of our life are today 'settled,' ... there are problems for us everywhere, problems that enter into the very foundation of our existence, that reach into the very structure of human society, and into the relations of [persons] to God."  It is worth going a little further in the text: "... all the big problems of life have returned ... because we in our own day have more than ever arisen out of the smug comfort we felt either in a denial of the problems, or in an answer that was taken for granted."

As we near the beginning of this new academic year, I want to use Virgil Michel's words to remind us all about the importance of turning away from smugness, facing problems head on, questioning answers long taken for granted.  These are the core activities of the liberal arts education so long prized by CSB and SJU. These are the activities we want to animate this next year for the 4,000 students who soon will fill our campuses.  I want to make three simple points that can stand us in good stead if we dwell on them with some intentionality at the beginning of the academic year.

1.     The Catholic intellectual tradition in which Saint John's and Saint Ben's were founded and draw their inspiration is deeply concerned with thinking seriously about the world and its workings, about human culture and its dynamics - attending with great respect to ideas that originate within a Christian context and outside of it.  As Professor Gerald Schlabach, a professor at the University of St. Thomas (and father of a 2007 Saint John's graduate) has recently written: "Thomas Aquinas achieved the church's greatest theological synthesis ..., yet even he did not flatten out the conversation or turn it into a monologue; every article of his Summa proceeds in conversation with the most salient rival positions known at the time.  Inadequate positions and outright heresies remain on the record, functioning like dissenting opinions in a Supreme Court judgment, and thus living on for future consideration." The liberal arts, facing problems head on, questioning answers long taken for granted, are at the core of our mission as Benedictine and Catholic institutions.

2.    As American institutions of higher education, Saint Ben's and Saint John's are experiments in what Professor Joseph Fetherstone of Michigan State University calls "democratic politics"  -- "a battleground [for] contending ideas and political values," meant to pulse with disagreement  about fundamental issues,  divergent views, over means and ends, with the result that those truly engage in learning grow strong and are "able to band together to act with other citizens [of varying perspectives and commitments] and then to reshape culture itself in order to grow and develop." Facing problems head on, questioning answers long taken for granted, are at the heart of shaping a democratic culture. SJ and SB are fiercely committed to that goal.

3.    As institutions of higher education in American, perhaps the greatest challenge facing Saint Ben's and Saint John's is to come to deeper and more resilient understanding of the diversity of peoples who constitute the world in which we live.  The growth of intercultural competence on these campuses is extraordinarily important - a necessary precondition for the success of students from under-represented populations and one of the surest solvents of the smugness that can so easily thrive amidst majority populations, many of whose members come from comfortable backgrounds in this the world's wealthiest and most powerful  nation.  Helping our students move outside their comfort zone to communicate with persons of different cultural backgrounds and understand the world through their eyes however briefly, being willing to do that ourselves if we would truly be educators, is one of the great moral challenges of our time - worth the highest priority if we would be true to our liberal arts, Benedictine and Catholic character and our democratic aspirations. 

These perspectives are worth calling to mind at the beginning of this academic year and in all the contributions we make this year to our students learning.  I have learned this from the life of these educational communities, from the passionate engagement that brings each of us together on the eve of the new academic year.  I welcome you to this new academic year and I thank you for the inspiration and encouragement that you give to me, to our students and one another at every turn.

 Utopia rediviva" in Spaeth, Liberal Education, 24.

Commonweal, 6/01/07, 15.

 "A Note on Liberal Learning," Colloquy, Fall 1988, MSU passim.  Christian A. Johnson Leadership Seminar, 2000.