Good morning Chancellor Klein, President King, Faculty, Board, Corporation, and friends. But—closest to my heart on this beautiful May morning—my classmates—fellow members of the largest graduating class in Bryn Athyn College’s long history. And let’s remember that the class of 2011 is actually even bigger and better than it looks today, as our dear friend and classmate, Daniel Van Note will not be walking across the stage with us. Danny, you are sorely missed.
During my years here at Bryn Athyn College, I’ve often been referred to as the “Class Dad.” Now, I don’t know whether it’s because I’m a few years older than most of you, or because I have a few kids of my own, or because I pretend to be someone who has answers to all your problems, but whatever the reason, I take my role as Class Dad very seriously. So, kids, let me begin by telling you how very proud I am of each one of you. And let me be the first tell you all how beautiful—and/or handsome—you look in your caps and gowns. If your mothers and I had more money, then—doggonit—we would have bought you a brand new hybrid to honor your achievement.
But, being a class Dad of painfully limited means, today I’d like take another fatherly prerogative and offer you some unsolicited advice. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Dad, please don’t start talking about the free market in front of our friends!” Okay, it’s true, since freshman year, I’ve talked your ears off about subjects like the rising prices of gold and silver or the pitfalls of home ownership! But just think, since freshman year, the price of gold has more than doubled; the price of silver has more than tripled, and the housing market’s pants have fallen down to it’s ankles.
Clearly I’ve been right about pretty much everything, haven’t I? Haven’t I? I’m your father, answer me when I’m talking to you!
Yes, I’ve been right about everything, and today—I want to stake my reputation on one final prediction...My dear children, the RAPTURE is upon us. Yes, that’s right, in case you haven’t heard, the good folks at Family Radio have spent millions of dollars advertising their prediction that the Rapture—the Apocalypse—the End of Times, is scheduled to happen...Today, May 21st, 2011! Actually, I can do them one better—I, Chad Odhner, hereby predict that the Rapture will happen in exactly 5 minutes.
So let’s see, that gives me…exactly 3 minutes and 55 seconds to finish my speech. I better skip ahead a bit...let’s see...what I can pull out here...I’ll just take this out [sign reading FIRE]...and that can go [sign reading BRIMSTONE...oh and this whole part about being prepared [sign reading GUNS/AMMO]...Ah, okay, I think I can start here:
Good friends, the version of religion being pushed by Family Radio makes faith and spirituality all about hard-core certainty. In other words, if you can’t calculate the end of the world down to the exact day, you’re faith isn’t strong enough. And it’s not just Family Radio; for many religious sects, scripture is not just a path to personal salvation; it’s also an explicit outline for national policy with little room for compromise. Oh, by the way, and if you don’t believe in that religion, you’re probably going to hell.
Now, for many of us, that sort of dogmatic, hard-nosed faith is very off putting. In fact, for those of us who are skeptical by nature, any amount of religious belief is difficult to square up to and embrace—especially when faith is so frequently presented as an all-or-nothing intellectual commitment.
So how does a College that’s founded on supporting and strengthening a particular faith avoid becoming entrenched in dogma and righteous arrogance? The answer, in my humble opinion, is by supporting a faith that holds intellectual humility and rational inquiry as core doctrines. Let me tell you a story to illustrate:
I came to Bryn Athyn College four years ago with serious questions, not just about the religion of my childhood, but about religion and spirituality in general. Are God and heaven real? Or are they just stories invented to comfort or control people? Is there such a thing as absolute truth or is there just human convention? Is there absolute good, or just political power? Is real human connection even possible?
After four years of academics at Bryn Athyn College, these questions remain with me. In fact, Bryn Athyn did little to instill in me any sense of certainty regarding matters of spirituality. In fact, from most of my professors, I received quite the opposite message: “Certainty—has got nothing to do with.” “If you’re looking for proof or dogma, you’re in the wrong place.”
No, instead of peddling certainty, the faculty and staff at Bryn Athyn College invited me, and the rest of you, on an intellectual journey. This was not a journey from point A to point B and there was no roadmap or official directions. Instead, this was an exploration for new territory. Not that there aren’t some well-worn paths. For example, my philosophy and religion teachers went far out of their way to share robust arguments both for and against the existence of God, pointing out the implications as well as weaknesses inherent in each line of argumentation. Other professors suggested that history can be as much about reflecting on my own growth and development as it is about pinning down the hard facts of past events. At Bryn Athyn, the academic focus was on intellectual humility: instead of stubbornly following a single trail, get some perspective—climb to a higher rock and take a look around.
What I learned at Bryn Athyn College is this: when it comes to the adventure of critical thinking and spirituality, certainty is a myth and doubt is a given. Based on a stubborn demand for certainty, you can deny everything from God down to your own free will and rationality, and I promise you, you’ll be right back where you started, wondering whether your system of thought makes any sense.
So graduates, as you set out beyond this academic community, remember this: your doubts are real and they’re legitimate, and you should even nurture a humble and healthy skepticism about your beliefs and ideas—but nurture your curiosity about spiritual things too. God really might be real, and he just might be the Sun that’s lighting our path and giving us the strength to continue on this journey. Also, maybe deep human connection is possible through our jobs, friendships, or marriages; and maybe the way we treat other people while on this journey is just as important as our final destination. Finally, real truth might be available to us—not as some bedrock to chain our intellect to but as a purple mountain far off in the distance—that kind of truth might be available to us if we’re willing to lift our eyes to that mountain and ask for a path to that next rock that is higher than ourselves. We may never get to that pinnacle—I still have my doubts—but with each new summit, we can pause, take in all the beauty that this journey has to offer, and boldly but humbly set out in search of new territory. And to everyone at Bryn Athyn College, and especially my classmates and teachers: I’m forever grateful to all the generous and talented minds I’ve encountered over the last four years; we may be setting out in different directions now, but my prayer today is that our paths will cross again... [looking down at watch] and 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.... Oh well, I guess you can’t ALWAYS be right.