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Home » Theology & Philosophy » The Body and the Soul of Learning

The Body and the Soul of Learning

Delivered as the Commencement Address, 
Meadville/Lombard Theological School, Chicago, June 13, 1976

We celebrate the formal affiliation fifty years ago of Meadville Theological School with the University of Chicago, the University having been founded eighty-five years ago and Meadville 132 years ago in the wilderness of western Pennsylvania. In these events we see ample evidence that the enterprises of religion and of learning require an institutional body, and that without an institutional body neither religion nor learning can have a soul, indeed can scarcely continue to exist.

It is a striking fact, however, that we live in a time when there has been widespread disenchantment with institutions. In some measure radical skepticism has issued from the Watergate scandals, but something deeper than this experience provides explanation not only for skepticism but also for the lack of a positive conception of the indispensability of institutions for meaningful human existence. There are long-standing types of thought and feeling and action which militate against taking seriously an enduring and costing commitment to institutional structures and responsibilities, even though most people gain their livelihood from participation in institutions.

It was perhaps Erasmus who said that humanity is like a drunken sailor on horseback, riding the shaky nag of history, at one jog bouncing in the air and coming down to fall almost in the mud on the one side, and at the next jog bouncing and coming down almost into the hedge on the other side. Sometimes one gets the impression that this sailor lives on the principle that nothing succeeds like excess.

But the excesses are not necessarily forms of deviant, unhuman behavior; they often represent a striving for authentic living. Let me illustrate.

I recall a conversation of several years ago with John Courtney Murray, the Jesuit scholar of Woodstock Seminary, who exercised a major influence on Vatican Council II. In this conversation Father Murray said that among the novitiates in training for entry into the Society of Jesus, the word institution was pronounced with scorn. The novitiates wanted personal intimacy most of all, to sit together enjoying directly and simply each other’s company. He said in a tone of almost despair that he and his colleagues on the Faculty agreed that the novitiates would probably not be satisfied even if every member of the Faculty were in turn and around the clock to hold one or other student in his lap. To the novitiates it seemed that the preferable sphere of grace is interpersonal, affectional communion. Who would deny the crucial importance of interpersonal communion? But obviously, it cannot take the place of the pursuit of the social purpose of the Order.

Plato had this principle in mind when he said that the family is the enemy of justice, meaning apparently that family loyalty can ignore and even threaten embracing public purposes.

You may rightly say that it is not surprising that this reversal of ethos should appear among the Jesuits, a monastic order renowned for ascetic and almost military discipline, the militia Christi. We recall that in certain monastic orders, close, one-to-one friendship was on principle discouraged and even prevented. Close personal friendship was viewed as disruptive and destructive; it was viewed as engendering horizontal loyalty inimical to the vertical loyalty to the hierarchy of the order and the church. Overweening personal friendship, it was held, could become the occasion and the means of dissent or subversion. It has been observed by the sociologists that the vertical organization of the twentieth-century Communist cell to protect against deviation in ideology or strategy was modeled on the vertical organization and loyalty of the monastery. To be sure, these dimensions, vertical and horizontal, need not be articulated in such contrasting, dichotomous fashion. Indeed, these dimensions have been brought into more humane integration in many of the monastic orders, especially since Vatican Council II.

An analogous form of anti-institutional ethos may be observed in an idea equally admirable with that of personal intimacy, the idea that authentic religion is equivalent to inwardness, to inner purity of disposition or motive, a recurrent emphasis in the history of religion in East or West. In the nineteenth century this idea was attributed to Jesus through a mistranslation of a New Testament text: the Kingdom of God is within you. The more accurate translation would be, The Kingdom of God is among you—as a community-forming power. I recall a Sermon from this pulpit some years ago by a visiting German theologian who asserted that the uniqueness of Jesus is to be seen in his stress on inwardness, Innerlichkeit. Again, who would deny that this inwardness is the root of authentic human existence? We may recall, however, that a generation ago here the late Dean Shailer Mathews of the Divinity School, in protest against this enclosing of Jesus into Innerlichkeit, published his book entitled Jesus on Social Institutions, wherein he argued that Jesus’ teaching leads to a unification of the personality in social and institutional relationships. In short, Jesus’ teaching, properly understood, exercises active and responsible impact on institutions, and not only upon religious institutions. The Kingdom of God is bent on social as well as individual purpose.

Let me mention here a third form of hostility to institutions as such, namely a radical critique and rejection for the sake of individual spontaneity and freedom of expression. Professor Amos Wilder and I have served as faculty advisers to a group of students interested in religion and art in the Greater Boston cluster of theological schools, the Boston Theological Union. At the first meeting of the group about half of the members said they wanted to know nothing of the history of religion and art, and nothing of art criticism. These things, they said, would only corrupt their own individual styles. Each student wanted only to do his own thing. At this meeting some of the students countered with such questions as these: If you do simply your own thing without reference to some consensus, how can you expect to communicate? If you wish to operate without recognition of some criterion, how will you know whether or not in doing your own thing you are doing anything having to do with either art or religion? How will you know whether doing your own thing is worth doing? At one point an excited student quoted the judgment of the Athenians on the Melesians: they are not stupid, they only act as if they were.

The problem we confront here is the persistent one of combining order and spontaneity, structure and dynamics, continuity and innovation, and of course also the problem of standards of performance. And sometimes we may have to say, the spirit killeth, the letter giveth life.

I recall that over forty years ago, in a meeting here at Meadville of the Unitarian Commission of Appraisal, we were discussing the problem of dealing with overemphasis on the uniqueness of the individual—what we called devotion to uniquity. Walter Pritchard Eaton, a member of the Commission, and the Yale drama critic, asserted that a literary convention is like a religious institution. It requires time and discipline to achieve significant creativity. He said that before Shakespeare there were scores of playwrights working at the forms of tragedy and comedy. At that moment I recalled a lecture I had heard by John Galsworthy, who said that the history of the English novel might be compared to a spinal column made up chronologically of a series of similar, yet unique, vertebrae.

Most important of all, we may say, institutional framework and institutional discipline are indispensable if critical judgment is to be engendered.

I recall reading during my student days a passage in the writings of Dr. George A. Gordon of Old South Church in Boston which has stayed with me when I have been impatient of institutional requirements or of institutional orthodoxy and narrowness. Dr. Gordon writes that by reason of his inadequate preparation he had been admitted to Harvard College as a special student on probation. During his first year he attended Professor William Goodwin’s class in elementary Greek. When the time came for the midyear examination he appeared in the classroom with his blue book intending to write the examination. Professor Goodwin told him that since he was a special student he need not take the examination. Dr. Gordon says, “My heart sank within me; I felt precisely as an idiot or an insane person might feel in a lucid moment when he makes the discovery that the community takes no account of what he does so long as he is harmless.” Gordon begged for the privilege of being examined, and finally Professor Goodwin assented. “That examination” he says. “I underwent, and it was a turning point in my life. I have come to regard it as the supreme blessing of our life: to live in the presence of high, exacting standards of intellect, of character and behavior, and incessantly to undergo the great testing process of a moral community and a moral world.”

What then, is an institution, and particularly an educational institution? It is a socially contrived means of defining patterns of thought and behavior with regard to the perennial problems and conflicts of human beings in society. These patterns involve a definite normative ordering and regulation, “a regulation upheld by norms and by sanctions that are in principle legitimized by these norms.” This is the ongoing process of learning, the soul of learning the—search for “exacting standards of intellect, of character and behavior.”

But such an institution requires a body, a body not entirely dissimilar to the psychophysical body of the human person with its variety of process and sensitivities. The wife of the former President of the University of Chicago, Mrs. Muriel Beadle, in her memoir of the University, Where Has All the Ivy Gone?, reminds us that in addition to the faculty and the students and the board of trustees, this institution requires a whole series of administrators and employees many of whom have no direct connection with the academic enterprise: the office of personnel records, the public relations office, the fund-raisers, the employment office, the legal department, the bursar, the police force, the building-and-grounds department. All of these, and more, are required to make up the body of the learning enterprise. And in the midst of this welter, the crucial process is that wherein teacher and student in both personal and impersonal association undergo examinations in the sense of testing and being tested and defining the standards—all of this for the achievement of freedom and integrity in the search for truth and for authentic human behavior and responsibility, the while trying to shape the spaces for inwardness, for spontaneity and freedom, for meaningful interpersonal relations in this context and in the context of the web of institutions and conflicting ideals that form the society at large.

It was because of the variety and depth of this enterprise at the University of Chicago that Meadville sought and achieved affiliation. Over half a century before moving to Chicago, Meadville offered courses in the natural and social sciences in addition to the conventional theological disciplines. Meadville, moreover, was the third theological school in the world to promote the systematic study of comparative religion, the first being Geneva, and the second, Harvard. The affiliation was effected toward the end of exposing Meadville to and contributing to the broadest range of disciplines, of scholars and their traditions out of Athens, Sinai and Galilee, indeed also out of Benares and Peking and Cairo. The presupposition is that the unexamined life is not worth living, and as one of our colleagues used to say, the unexamined faith is not worth “faithing.” This, I repeat, signifies the soul of learning and of religion.

The whole process requires a high degree of specialization—which brings dangers with it. The story runs that one day a visitor at the University of Chicago was seeking for the office in Cobb Hall of the first President, William Rainey Harper. Encountering a scrubwoman in the corridor, he asked where to find the President. She replied, ‘I dunno. I jes’ scrub here.’ When the visitor repeated the remark to the President, Harper replied, “We are beginning to specialize, you see.”

Without specialization a university or a theological faculty has not the soul of learning, of the search for reliable knowledge and standard, but with it the participant may get lost and the student even be ignored. Indeed, there is a kind of isolated inwardness of specialization which can develop in a university as in a theological school. There can be a demonic devotion to isolation from public concern and accountability, a devotion that tempts us to say that some specialists are more dangerous for their virtues than for their vices. I recall the day after the atomic bombs were cast upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the atomic physicist Leo Szilard, who with Albert Einstein had persuaded President Roosevelt to sponsor the Manhattan Project, came to me and then to Charles Hartshorne to say that science and religion had too long been separated, that the time had come for them to work together with a new sense of public responsibility for the uses to which their knowledge was put. He acknowledged that he was a little late. We formed an all-University Committee to express protest and penitence. One wonders what might have happened had the cooperation come earlier. As it was, we had traveled what Shakespeare called “the flowery path that leads to the broad gate and the great fire.”

Dr. Christie of Meadville, in a sermon delivered at the Divinity School Chapel some years before the formal affiliation took place, reminds us that the usages of the university are efforts to express and to connect with the routine of life that great supernal spiritual reality which is the mother of us all. The University, he said, is a parable of the church, for the Holy Church has its being in a great purpose and a great memory that lives and throbs in that purpose. It is a divine purpose laying hold of men and women to shape them for the life of the Kingdom of God.

The story is told that in the early days of Meadville when it had established itself in the frontier wilderness and drew into its instruction the men and women of the backwoods, a young Harvard classical scholar concluded the final lecture of the year. A sturdy fellow from the farm came forward to express his appreciation. In vigor of admiration he threw his hand to the shoulder of the slender, callow scholar from the East, causing him almost to lose his balance, and said in a husky voice, “Perfessor, you done noble.”

The learning that has not lost its soul does not alienate itself from such sturdy people or from the scrubwoman. It will not give reason for one to say that we must choose between learning and democracy or between religion and social justice.

In this sense the church and the university, the parable of the church, will strive (as St. Paul says) for the sake of one body and one spirit as we are called for the one hope that belongs to our calling.

[1]From Smoke and Steel by Carl Sandburg. Copyright 1920 by Harcourt, Brace & World; copyright 1948 by Carl Sandburg. Reprinted from Carl Sandburg Complete Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), copyright 1950 by Carl Sandburg. Used by permission.


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