* The following text is taken from a homily given in Christ Chapel, on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN), on March 14, 2017. Please note that the below manuscript was written with the intention to be heard, not read, thus the various grammatical choices were made with an emphasis on the ear, not the eye.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40).
For some #whygustavus might not mean much of anything. However, for those of us that navigate the complexities and perplexities of modern day social media, the “Why Gustavus” hashtag has become both famous and infamous. Ranging from stunning Sunday morning sunsets to stunning Saturday night secrets (yes, students, please remember that what you share is public!), people from far and wide post online about the amazing beauties and absurdities associated with the Gustavus community. Hashtag Why Gustavus (#whygustavus) is a social media gift that keeps on giving, not only because you never quite know what you are going to get, but at its core is a question that, in many ways, defines the totality of the Gustavus educational experience. The question of, “Why?”
A core question that guides and grounds our collective educational endeavor. Three letters, one syllable, but countless important pathways: W.H.Y. Why.
The question of WHY is one of the most succinct of all inquiries at our linguistic disposal, yet WHY remains one of the most underutilized of questions in our popular public discourse. This is unfortunate, because it is good to ask WHY, not only while enrolled or employed at a liberal arts college, but it is good to consider WHY throughout the totality of a purposeful life.
More specifically, as we reflect upon WHY we are all here today, on this particular campus, we first recognize that when it comes to choosing, attending, and (hopefully!) graduating from a college, we do often consider other questions, such as: WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and HOW. We wonder WHO is going to fill the next incoming class, we wonder WHAT one might study while here, we ponder WHERE it all might lead, and of course, we do wonder about HOW it is all going to be paid for! Yes, we do ask WHO, WHAT, WHERE, AND HOW, but in the midst of it all we must consistently and vigorously ask the most important question of all, the question of “WHY”?
Why. Comma. Gustavus. Question mark.
And so, in light of the Scripture reading this morning from Matthew’s Gospel, we wonder WHY.
Why Gustavus? Why college? Why care about anything at all? Why?
In the 22nd Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is given a number of riddle-like questions by those seeking to trap him in a theological and political knot. First, the Pharisees ask Jesus about WHO should pay taxes to the emperor, and then the Sadducees arrive to inquire about HOW one should respond to a the plight of a widow. And finally, the Pharisees return to ask WHAT commandment is the greatest. To review: First, Jesus receives a question of WHO. Then, a question of HOW. And finally, a question of WHAT. But instead of falling into the “WHO, HOW, WHAT” trap, Jesus offers an answer that points to WHY.
Jesus is approached with defensive-thinking questions yet responds with a critically-thinking answer, and says: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” And flowing from this brief yet bold response, we are pushed past our own “WHO, HOW, and WHAT” traps and are pointed toward WHY we are here at Gustavus Adolphus College: To live and lead in the midst of paradox and ambiguity, to be equipped for vocation, in service to the common good.
For liberal arts higher education in the Lutheran tradition seeking to act on the great challenges of our time, our strong commitment to living and leading in the midst of paradox and ambiguity in service to the common good is a collective and inclusive vocation that derives from Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is an all-encompassing social ethic that continues to reach out across boundaries in order to inspire reconciliation, transformation and empowerment to this day. Of course, this “great commandment” of Jesus is by no means exclusive to Lutheran colleges, but it is authentic to Lutheran colleges, thus as people who participate as partners in this particular college community, it is such roots that provide us with such a reach. When we are at our collective best, we recognize that it is because of these roots that we might dare to widen our reach.
So what does this all mean? For us, here and today, what does this mean? At this point in the semester when many are feeling fatigued and overwhelmed, is is worthwhile to remember our WHY. We must remember our WHY. It is our heart. It is what everything flows through. In doing so we remember that although WHAT is about results and HOW is about the process, WHY is ultimately about the purpose. And people without purpose are blind to their possibility. So before one can develop the discipline of HOW or even the consistently of WHAT, one must seek the clarity of WHY. And I would argue that our call to love our neighbor as ourselves provides all people of good will, regardless of religious or philosophical belief, an idea about WHY we are all here in the first place.
Why do we exist?
Why are we who we say we are?
Why do we do what we do?
Perhaps, as we gather in Christ Chapel at the heart of this campus, we are shown once again that it is about learning to live and lead in the midst of paradox and ambiguity, through a vocational commitment to serving the common good.
At a time when our local and global communities are increasingly connected yet ideologically isolated, diverse yet distant, and filled with hope and optimism yet also panic and aggression and cynicism, we are reminded that our institution may be private and our learning may be personal, but our purpose is most certainly public. How can it not? Because regardless of WHO you are, and regardless of WHERE you come from, and regardless of HOW you got here, and regardless of WHAT you seek to study while here, we are reminded that a WHO, WHAT, and WHERE without a WHY will ultimately lead to wandering in the wilderness. And for such reasons, a college degree from this place is less about being a stepping stone to an entry-level job, but more about being a launching pad to an exceptional life.
And so, to conclude, there is no shortage of great challenges in our time. No shortage at all. 2017 seems to have launched a new age of new threats to the fullness of life. We seem to now be experiencing a coalescing of ideological forces of hatred, sexism, xenophobia, indecency and anti-democratic movements that are throwing overboard the values of decency, pluralism, truth-telling, compassion and simple common sense. And the result of it all is that we now seem to be dwelling in a toxic brew of isolation, ignorance, indifference, and injustice. In our time, extremism and relativism are displacing voices of reason, to the point that, now in the year 2017, even the act of thinking must be considered a revolutionary act.
There is no shortage of challenges in our time. However, before we might seek to clarify WHAT those challenges are, and before we consider HOW to act upon them, or before we even discern WHERE the challenges are and WHO is even up to the task, perhaps, the first, last, and enduring question, is to consider WHY we might dare to care about any of it at all.
Why do we exist?
Why are we who we say we are?
Why do we do what we do?
Yes, Gustavus equips students to lead purposeful lives and to act on the great challenges of our time through an innovated liberal arts education of recognized excellence.
But, why, Gustavus? Why?