Commencement Address
Eastern Nazarene College
Quincy, MA. May 25, 1998
by Glenn C. Loury
  

 

I.

I am deeply honored by the invitation to speak on this solemn and joyous occasion. It’s a pleasure to be here. A blessing, really. Let me begin by offering my prayerful best wishes to the students who are receiving their degrees today. And, I extend warm congratulations to this assembly of the parents, teacher and friends of those who are graduating. A great deal of discipline and faithfulness has been required to make this day possible.

Now, since my name is not exactly a household word, let me tell you a bit about myself. I am a college teacher who specializes in economics. My research thus involves the study of markets and business firms, the analysis of "buying low and selling high," of maximizing behavior, rational choice, and the like. I believe this to be important work, but I know its limits. For, I am also Christian. As a believer, I know that the analytical perspective, by itself, is not adequate to guide my work, or my life. Indeed, the single-minded focus on benefits and costs that economists often engage in can be a profoundly impoverished way of thinking about how we should live together in society.

There is a lesson here for you newly minted graduates. A university education is a wonderful thing. But, it cannot answer every question. Specifically, for what purpose have you become educated? Science has no answer to that question.

The scientific study of society, of which economics is one branch, sees only a part of the human subject. Our methods reduce the entirety of the person to the deterministic and materialistic considerations that we think we understand. In so doing, the social scientist leaves out that which most makes a person human—we leave out the soul. I thank God that we human beings are not defined by our desires at a point in time. Indeed, I even deny that our fate is determined by our genes. God is not finished with us when he deals us our genetic hand. As spiritual beings, created in His image, what we are in the fullness of our humanity transcends that which can be grasped with the particular vision that an economist, biologist, or psychologist might bring.

Understand that I am not repudiating the life of the intellect. I am simply saying that in order to grasp fully the nature of the human subject, intellectuals must reckon with this transcendent dimension. I am arguing against arrogance, not against the use of our minds. What I reject is the presumption that intellect on its own can do for us what it plainly cannot—namely, tell us the meaning of our lives. No science can resolve the most profound questions at the center of our struggles as individual persons, as families, and as a nation. Who are we? What must we do? How shall we live? What is right? When all the statistics have been collected, and all the analyses rendered, we still must step back and ask such questions. And, without a life in the spirit permitting questions such as these to be meaningfully posed, the rest of our efforts are, in the end, hollow and empty.

II.

I once heard a young man say something that I have never forgotten. He said, "you know, there’s some stuff wrong with us only the Lord can fix." This was a twenty-two year old former gang member, who had been through quite a few scuffles with the law. There is no telling what this particular individual may have done in his life; but he was in church, trying to find his way back to a life of dignity and responsibility. And he said, "there’s some stuff wrong with us (he was talking about his friends, his peers, in the world he had been a part of) that only the Lord can fix." When he said this, it occurred to me that his observation is true at a much more general level. I certainly can attest that its true in my life, and I can say I believe that it’s true for us as a people—us Americans. Reading about children gunning down their parents and their schoolmates, it occurs to me that there’s some stuff wrong with America that only the Lord can fix.

Think of all of the problems facing our society – problems, for example, of racial misunderstanding and tensions. Wherever one turns, there is evidence of conflict, and bitterness, and hatred. Some people in armed militias think a race war is coming in this country; some are up in the hills, preparing themselves for it. You can read what they have to say on the internet. There are areas in the core of some of our big cities that are God-awful places where nobody should have to live. We’ve got kids who are not being educated, and prisons that are filled to overflowing. I could go on in that vein. These problems will not be fixed by tinkering. They will not be solved by a mechanic, even a very smart one.

At MIT, where I studied economics, the mathematics we learned was basically from an engineering curriculum. It was all differential equations and stochastic processes, and what have you. We did ours with respect to taxes, the exchange rate, and the pricing of financial securities. Whatever the economic problem might be—it could be solved with sufficient technical proficiency. There is an inclination to look at society as having a bunch of technical problems: if we’re clever enough we can adjust that capital gains tax, and we will get the investment that we need. If we were smart, and could just get the incentives right, we could solve the problem.

But, I am not nearly as optimistic as I once was about what smart people with computers, and all the data and research assistants, and research grants in the world can do. I seriously doubt that they can win the war on drugs, bring about a reconciliation between the races in America, or solve the problems of crime, welfare dependency, schools that don’t work, and prisons that overflow. I am not trying to say that analysts have nothing to contribute on those problems. I am saying that, ultimately, these problems involve how people conceive of themselves, how they think, if you will, about who and whose they are. They are problems of vision and values and commitment.

Consider that one and a half million abortions occur each year in America. That’s a moral problem. But how do we debate the issue? Again, I want you to understand what I am saying here. I am not trying to campaign for any particular public policy. People in this country disagree about this issue. Maybe even people at this assembly disagree. I’m not here to win you over to my side in the debate, whatever you might think my side is. I want to call your attention to how we discuss this problem—we discuss it as a matter of rights; we discuss it as a matter of constitutional interpretation. People are free to do with their bodies what they like—that is the way that we talk about it. But, what does it means for us, as a people, that we Americans – men and women – live in this way. The "in this way" that I am talking about now is with respect to how we meet our obligations to future generations, with respect to our capacity to take responsibility for the life that we bring into the world. Whatever you may think about Roe v. Wade, and the Supreme Court, and so forth, it strikes me that what is ultimately at stake with this issue is a values/morality/commitment nexus. We’re not going to make progress on such a problem unless we find the capacity to deal with it at its root, to talk and think in terms of the spiritual values that are at stake.

There are too many educated fools in the world today – people who have not answered or even asked the right questions. I urge you graduates, do not add yourselves to this number.

So, yes, I’m skeptical about the latest public policy solutions when those solutions don’t have any place for a consideration of the spirit. I’m skeptical, I can say more broadly, about materialism as the philosophical foundation from which to approach questions in society. The incentive arguments of the economists are materialistic arguments, and you get them on the left and on the right. On the right, people will say, "if we just didn’t promise money to women who had babies, they wouldn’t have the babies—we’ll change the incentives, they’ll change their behavior." As if the most intimate and profound human acts associated with procreation and childbearing were simply to be pushed around in response to a dollar calculation. (Notice that, in order to carry out that policy, you don’t actually have to have a relationship with anyone on welfare.) On the left, people will say, "well, what can I expect of the young man who doesn’t have a job and doesn’t have a prospect. Of course, he’s going to become a criminal." This is a deterministic, materialistic, argument. As if the behavior of a young man who likes the sneakers someone else is wearing, and so takes them at gunpoint, is merely a result of some calculation he has made. In fact, such behavior shows that the young man hasn’t been taught who and whose he is. He doesn’t know what the guy at that church meeting said so well – there’s some stuff wrong with us that only God can fix. But, who will teach him this truth? That is the really important question!

III.

Nor is it only in the realm of public policy that materialism fails us. It also fails in the smaller matters of day-to-day life. As a professor, I go to work every day, use a computer, meet with students, and talk with colleagues. There are budgets to be managed, grant applications to be submitted, and so on. Now, there are a great many ways for me to approach this job. I have to write a certain number of articles, hold office hours, and show up at faculty meetings. But that doesn’t begin to say what it is that I’m supposed to be doing with my time. There are still many, many decisions to be made. In what service shall that discretion be used? What goals shall I be trying to advance as I resolve that indeterminacy? What’s the point? Why am I going to work every day? Sure, I want to feed my family; yes I enjoy the sense of satisfaction from professional accomplishment. But that is not enough to give my life meaning.

You graduates are now grown-ups. It’s your watch, now; our watch. And we are responsible for what happens on our watch. If we have no better answer to the questions, "What’s it for? What’s it all about? Why am I doing it, why am I here, what am I trying to achieve?" than that "I want to get ahead of the next guy, I want to be number one" – if that is the only answer we’ve got, well, I really don’t think that is good enough. There also needs to be a spiritual component, a spiritual focus, at the center of one’s life. Knowing how to resolve the indeterminacy, being able to say what one is focused on, what one is trying to achieve, where one is going in life, requires confronting and answering for oneself the ultimate questions.

IV.

So, too, does maintaining a sense of charity in the face of the terrible problems with which we shall have to deal in the years ahead in this society.

Last summer, I spent some time reading the non-fiction writings of the great 19th century Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy. As you may know, he became an eccentric pacifist and radical Christian critic at the end of his life. I was stunned at the force of some of his arguments. (Although, I must say I was not entirely persuaded, particularly on his point that a true Christian must be celibate!) But, he argues quite provocatively that the core of Christianity lies in the Sermon on the Mount. You see this other fellow committing adultery? Well, have you lusted in your own heart? You will be equally condemned!

This is a teaching quite relevant to our contemporary lives. The point is that, while the behavioral pathologies and cultural threats that we see in society–the moral erosions "out there"–are bad, nevertheless, our crusade against them can take on a pathological dimension of its own. We can become self-righteous, legalistic, ungenerous, stiff-necked, and hypocritical. We become unable to see the mote in our own eye. We can neglect to raise questions of social justice. We can fail to ask, for example, how the moral decay and behavioral pathology of the underclass is related to systematic factors—our private gain driven economy, our culture of endemic materialism, and our vacuous political discourses. We can fail to see that the problems of the underclass are but the excreta at the bottom end of the social spectrum of a much more profound and widespread moral deviance – one that involves us.

When there is breakdown in the moral fabric, it is necessary to ask who has the authority to reconstruct it. And, more important, what is the source of that authority? In my view, there is something about human relationship that is essential to the establishment of this authority. Consequently, the building of authoritative and respectful relationships, where they do not now exist, becomes a basic requirement if we are to be serious about forestalling the corrosive effects of modernity.

This point is of especial importance when thinking about the moral decay of life in the inner city. The fundamental thing that needs to be established and is not yet established in American public discourse about the problems of the inner city is that we are all in this together. Those people are our people – they are us, whether they be black or white, crack-addicted or juvenile felons or worse. And speaking as a Christian, the imperative is love. "God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him." I cry out as a Christian to see in the public political witness of the religious right more of a reflection of that compassionate posture. I know that there are problems here of implementation, of how it is that compassion manifest itself, and of the ways that it can go wrong. But I can make a separation between those problems of implementation, and the spirit that ought to animate our participation in public and political life. It should be a spirit of charity, a spirit of love.

V.

President Clinton has invited us to have a national conversation on race. I would like to close by reflecting on the problem of racial reconciliation in our nation.

In the book of Acts, at Chapter 10, verses 34-35, it says:

"Then Peter opened his mouth and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him."

According to this passage of scripture, Simon Peter, a Jew and an apostle of Jesus Christ, was led to the household of Cornelius who, though a Roman centurion, was also a devout and God-fearing man. Peter had experienced a dream that presaged their meeting. In the dream he had seen "unclean and common" animals descend from heaven. When invited by a heavenly voice to kill and eat of them, contrary to Jewish law, Peter objected. But the voice admonished that he must not call "common" that which God has cleansed. Later, upon entering the house of Cornelius and observing the religious devotion of this Gentile family, Peter perceived God's deeper message: The Gospel had not been given only to the Jews, but to all who could find room for it in their hearts. In modern American parlance we might translate the message as follows: when dispensing His grace God is "color blind"–concerned only about the content of a person's character, not the color of his skin.

Of course, this phrase is now associated in the American civic imagination with the oratory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – with his glorious "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered at the 1963 March on Washington. Dr. King was, I believe, our country’s greatest prophet on the question of racial reconciliation. In our time, with the contentious issue of affirmative action so much in debate, his speech is often quoted out of context – that is, without reference to a life utterly dedicated to the pursuit of justice. Race may be irrelevant in a land where, as a matter of fact, all men live as brothers. But, this is not such a land. Should we desire to make it so, that work well may require that attention be paid to race – if only so that, in the end, racial difference can be transcended.

Martin Luther King was a dreamer. He was also an agitator – a drum major for justice. And, his indictment of segregation in American society rested on the premise that racial identity should have no moral significance. In his new novel about King, entitled simply, Dreamer, the writer Charles Johnson recreates a sermon preached by the soon-to-be martyred prophet, just after he had led a march into the Marquette Park neighborhood of Chicago in the summer of 1966. Those marchers were attacked by a vicious mob of ethnic whites; King himself had been struck in the head with a brick. At the climax of that sermon, according to writer Charles Johnson, Dr. King says this:

After liberating lunch counters, winning court battles and homes in nice neighborhoods, we must in our next campaign free consciousness itself from fear, from what William Blake called 'mind-forg'd manacles.' But to do this we must unlearn many things. We must be quiet and not deluded or deceived by the creations of our own minds. The soil of the soul must be plowed... No man can bring me so low as to make me hate him... because hate is based on fear, and I don't fear losing anything since I willingly gave up everything to the one I love...

That's right, I've got nothing to lose. Nothing to fear because after being in the storm so long I've learned to accept only one problem: What is God? Every night when I get down on my knees to pray or close my eyes in quiet meditation I'm holding a funeral for the self. I'm digging a little grave for the ego. I'm saying, like the lovely Catholic nun I read about who works with the poor in Calcutta, that I will despoil myself of all that is not God; I will strip my heart of every created thing; I will live in poverty and detachment; I will renounce my will, my inclinations, my whims and fancies, and make myself a willing servant of the will of God. As Whitehead might put it, 'I am' is an example of Misplaced Concreteness. And, what's left when you get the I out of the way? Only the others, living and dead, who are already so thoroughly integrated into our lives you can never get rid of them. No, the segregationists lost before they even began. Nothing stands alone.

What a powerful vision – surely a prophetic word. Martin Luther King did in that sermon just what I have been urging upon you graduates this morning – he posed, and answered, a fundamental spiritual question. Am I my brother’s keeper? And, who is my brother? King’s answer: Yes, we are indeed our brothers' keepers, with every man our brother.

But, is this not simply a dreamer talking, a saint who has rooted our mutual obligations in some transcendental selflessness? Who could actually live by such a creed? Would we not be hypocrites to put forward such an impossible ideal, and then – precisely because it is so lofty – do nothing to attain it? Here, then, are some further questions that you might want to ponder.

Thank you, and may God bless you.