posted August 24, 2008

Text of 2008 Opening Convocation Address

Where Do We Go from Here?

Opening Convocation Address
by Dr. John D. Cox, the DuMez Professor of English
at the Richard and Helen DeVos Fieldhouse, Hope College
Sunday, August 24

President Bultman, with gratitude for that kind and generous introduction; Provost Boelkins; Dean Johnson; my friends and colleagues on the Hope College faculty; and especially the members of the Hope College Class of 2012, your family and friends:  greetings.

I'd like to dedicate my brief comments today to the memory of my friend and fellow teacher, John Quinn.  John died two months ago suddenly and utterly unexpectedly at the age of just 45.  At the time of his death I had already substantially drafted the remarks I'm about to read, and that includes their title, "Where Do We Go from Here?"  Given the sequence of events I didn't conceive of the title as a reference to John's untimely passing or to its effect on this community, but I believe that that reference is somehow unavoidable and I want to acknowledge it.

Let us return now to my prepared remarks, beginning with a familiar story that assumes something we all know, and that is that the New England state of Maine is not a good place in which to get lost. One frustrated driver in Augusta, Maine's capital city, pulled her car to the side of the road to ask directions from two men she saw talking on the sidewalk. When she told them her destination, each of the two had a different version of the route she should take to get there. The more they talked, the more each confused the other in trying to explain his route. Finally, they sputtered into silence. One of them shook his head ruefully at the driver behind the wheel and said, "You just can't get they-ah from hee-ah."

"You can't get there from here." This unhelpful remark is like Yogi Berra's much-quoted sayings - both nonsensical and oddly profound. A person can, of course, get anywhere on earth from anywhere else. You just have to enough time, the means to pay for the journey, and the ability to overcome sometimes imposing political barriers. Yet some objectives do seem impossible to reach at certain times in our lives. Then we indeed feel somehow that we can't get there from here.

Maybe those of you who are just entering Hope have felt that way recently - maybe you've even felt that way in the last couple of days. My guess is that more than one of you has asked the question, "Where do we go from here?" as you looked over the orientation schedule. Hope College plans its get-acquainted program for first-year students and their parents very well, so I doubt if anyone had the feeling they couldn't get to where they wanted to go from where they were in the last couple of days, but I may be mistaken.

If you haven't asked, "Where do we go from here?" recently, I guarantee you will ask it many times during the next four years. In fact, one way to describe a Hope College education is that it is designed to help you ask that question well. "Where do I go from here?" is simple to ask during orientation, because the answer to it is in the printed schedule and the helpful signs on campus and the many people who are there to help you. But the question will get harder to ask. It will get so hard sometimes that you may feel college is more about disorientation than orientation. "The more things change, the more they remain insane," said a joker recently. The changes that await you in the next four years may sometimes make you feel that way. One undergraduate described her experience in college by comparing it to getting a drink from a fire hydrant. There was plenty of water available, she explained, but the pressure was enough to blow her head off. That's her comparison, not mine, but I think you may find that it resonates with you some time during your college career.

My point in emphasizing the question, "Where do we go from here?" is not to scare you but to reassure you. Hope College offers more effective resources for helping you than two confused men on a sidewalk in Maine. To be sure, it may not seem like that to you. For one thing, you may be surprised that your teachers will often disagree with each other. I was teaching St. Augustine's Confessions one time in an English course at the same time a colleague was teaching the same book in a philosophy course. My colleague told me a student who happened to be in both courses had said to him that it didn't seem like we were teaching the same book. I guess you could say we were like those two guys on a sidewalk in Maine arguing about the route from here to there.

Such differences are challenging for students, but they point to something important: no one has the whole truth. "Where there is much desire to learn," writes the seventeenth-century poet, John Milton, author of Paradise Lost - "Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good [minds] is but knowledge in the making." Milton compares the search for truth to the Egyptian myth of two lovers, Isis and Osiris. In the myth, Osiris's enemy tore him apart and scattered his pieces to the four winds. Isis set about the task of finding his mangled body, piece by piece. Isis, says Milton, is like lovers of truth, who search for the whole of it, piece by piece. Analyzing the myth as a Christian, Milton says truth [quote] "came once into the world with her divine Master, and was a perfect shape most glorious to look on." For Milton, in other words, truth was Christ, but after Christ left the earth, the truth was torn apart. We are left to try to reassemble the pieces. "We have not yet found them all," Milton asserts, "nor ever shall do, till her Master's second coming."

Milton learned this point about truth from long reflection on the Bible and the many interpretations it had already acquired by the seventeenth century. He found similar affirmations about truth, for example, made by the prophet Isaiah and the apostle Paul. Isaiah asserts an unbridgeable gap between what God knows and what humans know, even those who love and trust God: "My thoughts are not your thoughts," writes Isaiah, "my ways are not your ways - it is Yahweh who speaks." Paul makes a similar affirmation about truth at the end of his famous hymn to God's love in 1 Corinthians 13: "Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror," he writes, "but then we shall be seeing face to face. The knowledge that I have now is imperfect; but then I shall know fully as I am known."

The resources that Hope College offers you as a student are designed to help you in your own quest to pick up the pieces of truth. The teachers who may disorient you and disagree among themselves are all strongly committed to their own search for truth; they seek it with all their heart, mind, and strength. They have spent many years training to do the task excellently in their respective disciplines. Milton would say those disciplines are critically established ways of finding pieces of the truth. Your teachers see their task not just as finding truth for God's sake and its own sake but for your sake. That's why they're teachers. They are here to help and equip you to undertake the task for yourself. They see their purpose as enabling you to ask the question, "Where do I go from here?" in the best possible way for yourself.

For make no mistake about it: no one can answer the question for you. I have read, as perhaps you have too, Jon Krakauer's book, Into Thin Air. It's a gripping account of the disastrous ascent of Mt. Everest in March, 1996. Eight climbers died on that expedition, some of them the most experienced mountaineers in the world. I learned a lot about climbing mountains from reading that book. Krakauer explains the challenges in specific detail; he illuminates the psychology of competitive mountaineering; he recounts his experiences in climbing other mountains besides Everest; he details the expenses of climbing - monetary, environmental, and human; he analyzes the physiology of mountain climbers and describes the terrible toll that high altitude and severe cold take on the human brain and body. In all of this, Krakauer is a brilliant and fascinating teacher, but my reading and understanding his book do not make me a mountaineer. Until I actually undertake to ascend Mt. Everest for myself, and get down again, I have not done so.

Hope College offers other resources besides your teachers to help you answer the question in the title of my talk. One of them is the curriculum. Hope describes itself as a liberal arts college. What does that mean? "Liberal" here is not about politics or lifestyle. The phrase "liberal arts" originated in the ancient world. It was picked up by teachers in the Middle Ages, when university education as we know it also began. (C. S. Lewis has written the best short introduction to it. It's in his essay on the word "Free" in his book, Studies in Words, recommended to me by my colleague, Curtis Gruenler.) The point of the liberal arts is that they introduce knowledge as something worth learning for its own sake and therefore "free" of any practical use a person might make of it. The difference can be grasped most clearly when we contrast a liberal arts college with a vocational training institute. The first aims to educate a student broadly; the second, to train a student for a particular career. This is not to say that Hope College pays no attention to the practical outcome of your education. On the contrary, Hope has an outstanding reputation for joint student/faculty research. Students at Hope, in other words, have an opportunity to learn how people do research in the real world. Hope also has an outstanding office of career counseling and placement. Hope cares very much about your material wellbeing. It's just that Hope also cares about knowledge that has no practical application. We therefore encourage students - all right, we require students - to study subjects that have no apparent relation to their major discipline. No college or university with a liberal arts curriculum achieves its aims perfectly. Hope was one of the first colleges, however, invited to join the recent Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education. This careful survey concludes that excellent teaching, challenging academic work, and commitment to multicultural diversity are all improving the quality of liberal arts education at Hope. That kind of education in itself is an important resource for students as they pick up pieces of the truth in their attempt to answer the question, "Where do we go from here?"

A crucial complement to a liberal arts education at Hope is implied in the college's offering an education [quote] "in the context of the historic Christian faith." What does that phrase mean? It means, for one thing, that though the truth is in pieces, and though human beings can never know it all, or even know any piece of it with absolute certainty, it nonetheless exists entire in God's view of things. Knowing that, we undertake the quest for truth with respect and humility. "All truth is God's truth," writes Augustine. His affirmation reminds us to attend to every truth claim not with immediate credulity nor with instant doubt, but with critical intelligence, with discernment, and with careful regard. Augustine's affirmation also gives us the confidence that Milton's story is true. Milton used the myth of Isis and Osiris to illustrate his point that the whole truth has a real origin, and that our quest to reassemble the truth is not blind and purposeless but meaningful and worthwhile. "Then we shall see face to face," says the apostle Paul, and in that hope we search for truth, partial and imperfect though our answers necessarily must be.

Undertaking education in the context of the historic Christian faith also means that HopeCollege offers the opportunity for worshipping God together. I call this an "opportunity," rather than an "obligation," because at Hope no one is required to attend worship services. You may have read the statement on the webpage of the Admissions Office. It says: "Hope strives to be a place for students where the Christian faith is perceived as inviting, not imposing." The Admissions webpage goes on to describe students who have arrived at Hope as Christians and who have found their faith deepened by their experience. It describes still others who have become Christians while at Hope, and the webpage describes yet others who have arrived and departed as adherents of other faiths or of no faith. I want to say a little more about that first category - students who find their faith deepened by their college experience. I have found that students sometimes arrive at Hope College as Christian believers and depart as people who no longer affirm the same faith they had when they entered. They may even wonder if they affirm any faith at all. I do not speak for the college in saying this, but my own belief is that if students in this situation have come to their position honestly and thoughtfully, then my job is not to get them back to the place where they started. My job is to respect them as they reassemble pieces of the truth for themselves. I need to appreciate their honesty, and I need to support them as best I can. Periods of doubt and uncertainty often mark the quest for deeper faith. "The opposite of faith," says Ann Lamott, "is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty." "I believe," said a distressed father to Jesus, "help my unbelief."

I have guaranteed that you will ask the question, "Where do I go from here?" many times during your career at Hope College. Let me conclude with another guarantee: you will ask the question many times after you graduate from Hope. Speaking in terms of careers alone, a large number of each year's graduating class are quietly saying to themselves, "Where do I go from here?" Even those who know what they are doing in the next year, or two, or five, are almost certainly asking themselves, "And what then?" By "doing," of course, I mean earning a living. But if we go beyond that basic and important question, we confront another question, one that involves more than earning a living, to ask about living a life. You will not leave Hope College with all your questions answered, for reasons that I have tried to make clear. But the college will have done its job well if you graduate with an ability to ask the question, "Where do I go from here?" with confidence and, yes, with hope, the anchor of the soul, for which Hope College is named.

Thank you.