posted May 4, 2008

Text of 2008 Commencement Address

Living with Questions (...but are you going to tell us what you really think?)

Dr. Steven D. Hoogerwerf
Associate Professor of Religion

Sunday, May 4, 2008
Holland Municipal Stadium

Members of the Board of Trustees, President Bultman, Provost Boelkins, faculty colleagues, parents, guests, and the very special members of the Hope College Senior Class of 2008: I am both honored and grateful to have been asked to share in this part of the commencement of such a wonderful group of people!

I have a question for you: Education....is it about asking questions....or is it about learning the answers? Or is it about learning which questions are worth struggling to answer? I believe it's important to ask big questions, the kind that get inside you and make you squirm and wonder; the kind that challenge our ways of thinking and interrogate our ways of living in the world.

Much of my teaching over these past 16 years has been focused on questions:

 

- What really matters?
- In a world plagued by atrocities, why is religion sometimes a causal factor?
- What does it mean to be called by God to live out my vocation in the world?
- And, if love is central to the Christian life, what does love really look like in all the contexts of our lives?

You can't hear those questions and say "Oh, who cares?!" I've had about 180 of you in class, and as far as I can tell, you care!

But once answered, questions like these have a way of doubling back on themselves, and questioning the answers we've given. And when that happens, this nagging little voice begins to whisper to us: "Maybe you'll be asking these questions for a lifetime!"

You mean I'm not done??? I'm graduating after all! In just a few minutes they'll be handing me my diploma!

While I was thinking about what to say today, I read these words in a student's paper: "I find that this class does not actually help me find many answers but rather helps me ask more questions. At times this frustrates me, because I want the world to be less complex than it really is. ...But I suppose it is better to ask the questions than to live in ignorance."

So, let's start with a really hard question. Many of you have grappled with a perennial dilemma: We live in a world where God has given us the capacity to be fed and housed, to heal the sick, and to live as neighbors in peace; but in a world where people live in poverty and die in despair, oppress their neighbors, and engage in murderous genocide.

And in response to these realities you have asked the question that poses the classical problem of evil: "In a world governed by the awesome power of a loving God, why do such things take place? So, you don't live in a bubble, do you? You've studied the causes and understand some of the depth and complexity of social and natural events that lead to human suffering. You have become wise and caring and have encountered the stories of others that have now become part of your own stories...and sometimes they make your hearts break!

The most common explanation I have heard to this challenging mystery is this:

"Everything happens for a reason." And I suppose it does. But the reasons are often not good. The problem with this answer is its implication that everything is somehow okay, and we can relax, even if we cannot explain. But things are not the way they are supposed to be, and responses that provide justifications or counsel passivity in the face of tragedy and evil only serve to give us a dangerous sense of complacency.

If a question gets us to that place, we might need a better question. In the early pages of Elie Wiesel's Night, Elie's teacher tells him "I pray to the God within me that he will give me the strength to ask the right questions." (Wiesel, Night) And philosopher Nikolai Berdyev points me in the direction of a better question when he says: "The paradox of suffering and evil is resolved in the experience of compassion and love." Well, if that's true, then I must ask a more personally engaging question: In a world where God's goodness and human tragedy are all mixed up in ways that don't make much sense, how can I respond in a way that is somehow true to the way things are supposed to be?

- How can I respond to broken personal relationships or racial and ethnic hatred and violence; to disease or to the destructive behaviors that destroy people's lives?

- How can I respond to a world where things are not the way they are supposed to be?

That question does not ask for an explanation, but for an active response that we can live.

Love has been a theme in my teaching since my first year at Hope, when I was assigned to teach a course that students had already signed up for - expecting another professor - and using a mysterious combination of books that he had already ordered. (You probably don't want to hear about how that went.)

What is the most difficult and challenging question about love? Here are a few examples from questions that some of you have asked:

"How can I forgive someone who treated me with such disrespect that I started to treat myself the same way....or how can I forgive someone who is supposed to love me, but keeps on hurting me - over and over again?"

"Or, in a time of war, how can I follow Jesus' command to love my enemies, when my nation tells me they're a threat, teaches me to be afraid, and justifies killing them?"

In Tuesdays with Morrie, Morrie answers a question with this line: "Love wins...Love always wins!" But do we really believe that love is powerful enough to overcome the wrongs and bitterness and painful memories? Is love powerful enough to defeat tyrants and deliver us from evil? It doesn't always look that powerful, does it? I have heard some of you wonder aloud whether it's "realistic" to depend on love in a world of bullies, and power politics, and big guns.

Does love really win? I hope it does. I believe when relationships of any magnitude are broken, that love is the only thing that builds real community. I believe that even though we make ourselves vulnerable and risk deep hurt when we love anything or anyone, it's worth living our lives as if love always wins. Perhaps it's easier to say that if you believe that in Jesus, love redeems the world, even though it doesn't always look that way.

It's a confession of faith. And sometimes, when questions are really hard,

that's the only way to approach them: to live hopefully, as if it's true, even if we cannot always see how.

There are two remaining questions at the forefront of the minds of many graduating seniors. As I move on to the next phase of my life, what really matters? And from among all the responses that I could give to that question, what is it that I am called to do?

Some of us made a list recently of some of the things that really matter:

Honesty
Generosity
Joy
Patience
Respect
Responsibility
Cooperation
Trust
Courage
Hospitality
Wisdom
Humility
Hope
Self Control
Balance
Integrity
Peace
Justice
Love
Family
Friends
Faith
Food
Laughter
Community
Forgiveness
Education
Health
Freedom
Creativity
Truth...
and Rest

Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych tells the story of a man who lived doing what "people of the highest standing considered correct," living [a] ... proper, and respectable life. (paraphrased). But when Ivan faces an early death, he comes face-to-face with a very hard question. He asks, "What if I have not lived as I should?" "What if my entire conscious life was not the real thing, and the things that people of high rank considered good, the things that everyone is 'supposed to do' were not what mattered ?"

Ivan Ilych asked those questions too late, and the story ends on a despairing note. But we can start to ask the question now: What really matters? Maybe you should all make such a list! It could be your last assignment....just a list of the five or ten things that really matter to you. What do you want to devote your life to, spend your time on, nurture and care for?

And then, what am I called to do?

A leading cause of senior anxiety, based on my conversations with many of you, is the fact that you have so many choices! East Coast, West Coast, Heartland, Africa? Graduate school, career track, volunteer service? It makes your head spin! You are so lucky. Or should we say blessed. Or perhaps privileged would be more accurate.

Yes, perhaps privileged, because we know that not everyone is plagued with too many choices. On the Pine Ridge Reservation last May, some of us met people beaten down by seven generations of enforced dependence, by poverty, poor education and poor health care - a once proud and independent people whose land had been stolen through a series of broken promises, whose culture was systematically destroyed, and whose plight was not choice, but despair.

So here's a question: When we are trying to figure out what to do with our lives, does this position of privilege leave us with a greater burden and a heavier sense of responsibility? Should we be doing more because we've been given more?

For the past eight years I have invited students to read Jerry Sittser's The Will of God as a Way of Life. Like Sittser, I believe that discovering what God wants us to do with our lives is an exciting journey of discovery and freedom, and not the kind of shell game that leaves us guessing which path God has pre-ordained us to take.

Some of you have felt like it's a shell game. Or to use a more modern image, it's as if God has a web-site with all the answers to the big life-choices already listed: who to marry, what career to pursue, what dreams to follow.

Don't you sometimes wish you could just look up the answer, instead of having to agonize over those decisions and never really know for sure whether you're picking the right one? And some of you probably think there is such a heavenly web-site. But the problem is, it's password protected, and you don't have the password! So all you can do is guess.

There's another way to think about this. It doesn't eliminate the task of careful, thoughtful discernment, but it does change the answer on the website: the answer is: It's up to you. Whether you are responding to a voice within you, or to a need in the world that beckons you, or to a sense of divine direction, where to go from here is not a mystery. It's a question, and a decision.

Sittser makes the claim this way: "If we seek God's kingdom and righteousness...then whatever choices we make concerning the future become the will of God for our lives." Or I tend to say it this way: If we love God and neighbor and honor God in all we do, we are answering God's call. If we discern how our privileges can be shaped into a life of service and meaning and purpose, then we are answering the call that binds our deep joy to the world's deep need.

"Are you going to tell us what you really think?"

I think my colleagues would agree with me that education is not really about what WE think....it's about gaining the information, the tools, and the experiences that you need to learn to think for yourselves. On the other hand, many of our commitments are transparent, aren't they? They even show up in the kinds of questions we invite you ask.

Maybe the scariest thing about being a graduating senior is that the people over here, who have invested four years in your lives, now believe that you are ready to answer those questions on your own. I hope you realize how much of a compliment it is when we send you off with this confidence.

You are a treasure that we have been entrusted to nurture and care for - and then, just as we come to admire your competence and to learn from your own emerging wisdom, and to care about you deeply, we open the treasure chest and pour it all out - we send you out into an unknown future with the confidence that you will live the answer to all of the questions and that you will live it in a way that makes everyone here proud of who you are becoming, and that honors God and the world God loves.

So...live the questions. And as you figure out how to live your answers, you can come back and tell us what you think.

May God bless you on the journey.