This morning, I was privileged to be the guest speaker for morning chapel at St Olaf College here in Northfield, Minnesota. I spoke to 50-100 students, faculty and staff assembled in the magnificent Boe Memorial Chapel. Here is a link to the archived video stream, and the text of my talk appears below.
Sisters and brothers, our business here is learning.
In these historic buildings of Minnesota limestone, the liberal arts are heaped in healthy measure, a smorgasbord of intellectual delights. Will you fill your plate to overflowing? Will you dare a second helping?
Tevia is the main character in the musical play, A Fiddler on the Roof. This Jewish farmer in pre-Revolutionary Russia exhibits a vibrant faith and a willingness to engage God in discussion, even argument. In one of the opening songs, Tevia wonders why he was made poor and not rich, and he fantasizes–“if I were a rich man”. After considering various possibilities, he concludes:
If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack
To sit in the synagogue and pray.
And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall.
And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day.
That would be the sweetest thing of all.
Serious study in dialogue with learned folks. The sweetest thing of all.
It is the hallmark of a liberal arts education that we learn how to think rather than being taught what to think, and this premise permeates the biology lab, the recital hall, the library and classrooms, and even here in Boe Chapel. The scholastic Thomas Aquinas spoke of faith seeking understanding. University professor Martin Luther argued that conscience must be informed by Scripture and reason.
Like many of you, perhaps most, I am a Lutheran but I pursued graduate theological studies with the Benedictine monks of St John’s Abbey and University, where I was treated with great hospitality. One day, one of the professors, a brilliant monk with theological degrees from Harvard and Yale, asked if my Lutheran confessional background inhibited free thinking. Confessional, in this sense, implies that Lutherans subscribe to a certain set of dogmatic beliefs, a confession of faith that defines who we are as Lutherans according to certain creedal statements. Our Sunday liturgies often include a statement such as “let us confess our Christian faith in the words of the apostles’ creed”. So, yes, we Lutherans come from a confessional tradition.
Was the monk right, does that preclude imaginative, outside-the-box thinking? Or, as others suggest, is confessionalism an inherently exclusive, boundary building exercise that elevates dogma over grace, a species of works righteousness in which we achieve our standing before God by believing the right doctrines?
You will note that the two Scripture readings today are questions: probing, open-ended, and deeply theological. “What is your name?” Moses dares ask of the God of the burning bush. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus queries his disciples, and his question resonates through the centuries and challenges still. Don’t jump too quickly to the answers of Peter and the disciples. Linger for awhile with the questions. Wrestle with them. Hear these questions as a call to dialogue, an invitation to join the journey, encouragement to embrace the wonder and mystery.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote these words over fifty years ago:
Wisdom comes from awe rather than shrewdness. It is evoked not in moments of calculation but in moments of being in rapport with the mystery of reality. The greatest insights happen to us in moments of awe. A moment of awe is a moment of self-consecration. They who sense the wonder share in the wonder.
This is not confirmation class. This is not rote learning or memorization. This is not a test. Allow the questions to seep inside you, to absorb you, to rile you up. Be unsettled. Let the spirit blow where it will. Hear Heschel’s call to sense the wonder in order to share in the wonder. Ask hard questions of your faith and allow your faith to ask hard questions of you. Don’t accept the confession of faith that has been handed down without question, without scrutiny, but let this wisdom of the ages be the starting point, a sounding board, the schoolmaster who stirs your imagination. Be a dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants. Let the giants lift you up, but dare to see what you see.
It is the start of interim term. According to the college website, Interim “is a time when unique teaching and learning styles can be utilized in rather traditional courses or when unique subjects can be studied in some international or off-campus domestic location.” Non-traditional subjects or non-traditional methods may result in an epiphany of understanding.
Some who aren’t here today have journeyed to a far place, some of you may journey across the Cannon River to Carleton College this month, and I hope all gathered here appreciate the sense of journey and adventure as you embark on a month of outside-the-box learning. Let this be your dessert from your smorgasbord of Liberal Arts.
Along with the start of interim term, this is also epiphany week in the church calendar. The secular world has borrowed this term, “epiphany”, to mean “a sudden, intuitive perception of, or insight into, the reality or essential meaning of something”. Intuitive perception. Insight. Reality or essential meaning. The term comes to us from the Greek of the New Testament meaning appearance or manifestation and especially the self-revelation of God in Jesus the Christ.
During the festival of epiphany, it has become church tradition to read the Biblical story of the magi. Three wise men on a journey. Three seekers. Three who wondered. Three who sought the presence of the incarnate God, Immanuel, God with us.
And this is our prayer, that as learners in various disciplines, our journey will lead to new insights and understandings and as religious seekers, we will encounter a near and present God along the way.
Sisters and brothers, our business here is learning.