Opening Convocation 2012
Opening Remarks of President Rod Smolla
Good morning everyone. My speech to open the academic year has been inspired by the lives of our honorees this morning, Charles Brewer and Hal Warlick, by the work of our principal speaker, Baxter Wynn, and by the promise exemplified by the extraordinary students we will soon recognize as Furman Fellows.
My thoughts are organized around two books, each of which I read as a college student. I share them with you for what they reveal about my hopes and dreams for our Furman students. The first book, by William James, is entitled The Varieties of Religious Experience.
The second is a novel by Robert Penn Warren, All the Kings Men
William James was a remarkable figure in American intellectual history. He is often called “The Father of American Psychology.” . . . I know that some of you thought that the father of American Psychology was Charles Brewer—but this will set you straight. It was William James.
By any measure, William James was an exceptional figure. First trained as a physician, James migrated to philosophy and psychology, and he (not Charles Brewer) was the first to offer a psychology course at an American university. His brother was the great Henry James, the magnificent ex-patriot American novelist.
I was assigned the book The Varieties of Religious Experience
in a religious studies course. The book in many respects altered the arc of my life. To all of you students in this hall this morning, let me repeat what I just said. A book—a book
—altered the course of my life. And therein resides one of my I hopes for you. May there be books you read here at Furman that will have the capacity to influence you
The book The Varieties of Religious Experience
, first published in 1907, is in large part a field study of the wide array of religious traditions and experiences that comprise the vast world-wide encounter with the ineffable, the mystical, the transcendental, the divine. What was it about this book that so deeply struck me? There were, I think, two things.
First, James argued that our subconscious life, our impulses, our faiths, our needs, our divinations, shapes us more
than our conscious rationalistic life, that loquacious level of formal logic and argument.
This jarred me, with its possibility that the overwhelmingly rationalistic world by which I had been taught to navigate my days and calibrate my achievements—my knowledge, my test scores, my grades, my identity, my whole sense of self-understanding and self-worth—might not be a sufficiently full or accurate account of life. William James seemed to be arguing that the life of the mind and the life of the soul were not as separate as I had believed. I had come to think that in church I prayed, and tended to my soul, and in the classroom I learned, and tended to my mind. William James was now suggesting to me that I possessed, as all humans possess, a deeper consciousness, which existed inside me as a co-equal, if not a subliminal superior, to my logical, rational self. Decades later the great Irish songwriter Van Morrison would capture this in a song lyric describing “the inarticulate speech of the heart.”
There was for me, however, a second, equally powerful insight in the writing of William James. I felt like St. Paul, the saint whose name I had taken upon my confirmation, knocked off a high horse. James wrote that, quote, “in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings” have already reached the same conclusion, and it is through this process, James wrote, quoting again, that the “great world-ruling systems, like that of the Buddhist or of the Catholic philosophy, may grow up.” James was suggesting that, as we contemplate God, as we contemplate the universal, it was as
important to look inward as upward. The book, remember, is entitled The Varieties of Religious Experience
James was inviting us to look, not at the elaborate bodies of theological or philosophical doctrine and principle that the various religions of the world had constructed, but to instead look at how spirituality was experienced
by individuals at moving moments of conversion or prayer or ritual. He was suggesting that, viewed from that inward-looking prism, human beings from quite radically different cultures and faiths had far more in common than I had ever imagined.
On this point, you must understand that I had been raised a rigid and doctrinaire Roman Catholic. Suddenly, here I was, off the parish, off the farm, off the reservation, on a college campus, reading a highly subversive text, a text challenging me to reexamine what had to that point in my life been my cocksure certitude that I was among the fortunate adherents to the one true
faith. I was reading a book that was dangerously suggesting that the Catholic, the Buddhist, and the Baptist might have more in common than their elaborate philosophical or theological superstructures suggested. Oh, and more frightening still, there was for me, implicit in what James was saying, the terrifying possibility that women and men from Eve and Adam on had created God, out of some deep primal psychological need, and not the way I had learned it, not the way I believed it, which was that God had created Adam and Eve, in his image and his likeness.
I suspect that different students in that Religious Studies class from the 1970s reacted to William James differently, and knowing what college is like, then and now, I suspect that there were some who reacted utterly in
differently. And pity them for it.
For me, in the end, for reasons I am still puzzling out, the book did not shatter my faith, but deepened it. The book did not erase my spirituality, but enlarged it. Perhaps the book pushed some student in that class to become an atheist. Another, perhaps, a psychologist. Another, a novelist, or chemist, or anthropologist, a shaman, a rabbi, a priest, or even—a lawyer.
I can only say to you, that for or reasons that even today I do not fully comprehend, this book instilled in me a deeper, happier, more peaceful spiritual sensibility. I felt freed! No longer were Protestants, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or Native Americans religious strangers, spies, or enemies in relation to me. I instead felt the sense of beauty, exhilaration, curiosity, and connection that might come from a genuine and authentic effort to accentuate not the points of ideological and theological division over which the peoples of the world were so often sorely and tragically and violently divided, but rather those common experiences, those quests for identity and purpose and meaning and peace, that were so universally shared.
Now, to my second book of the morning. Robert Penn Warren was among a group of southern intellectuals who shouldered the burden of exploring the “Burden of the South,” with all its complex prejudices and sins, romance and history and mystery. His work, set in the South, was a window on the larger human condition. We know, of course, that great literature may emerge from any location on the globe—though we are still waiting, I think, for a Nobel Prize for literature to emerge from Antarctica. Yet—and let’s be honest here—as many have observed, those cultures of the world that are heavily laden with guilt do seem to have some artistic advantage. There is something in the alchemy of those intensely fired crucibles of guilt that often fires brilliant art. And so it is with the American South, from Mississippi’s William Faulkner to South Carolina’s Pat Conroy.
All the Kings Men
, is an American Masterpiece, and like so much southern storytelling, or all perhaps all great storytelling worldwide, is figuratively based on reality. The book is in some measure a roman à clef—an imaginative riff loosely based on an actual person’s life—Governor Huey Long of Louisiana.
In the novel All the Kings Men
, the fictional Governor has the name Willie Stark. Willie, like many of you students in this room, had come to believe that educational success was his ticket to upward mobility, and in turn, that his ticket to educational success was his success in taking exams. Willie chose to become a lawyer. There is a haunting passage in the book describing his taking the bar exam. Now while this passage is about studying law, it applies to any subject. It might have been a biology or chemistry exam, or even an exam on William James. What matters in this passage is not the educational subject, but the whole approach to education, and the corrosive effects of a narrow and superficial understanding of what education should be all about. But let me let Robert Penn Warren tell the story from here:
[ An old lawyer] helped him, lending him books and answering questions. There had been about three years of that. If he had just been trying to squeeze by . . . with as little as possible, he could have done it a lot sooner, for back in those days, or now for that matter, it didn’t take any master mind to pas the bar examination. “I sure was a fool,” Willie said to me once, talking about those times. “I thought you had really to learn all that stuff. . . . Hell, I got down to that . . . examination and I looked at the questions and I nearly busted out laughing. Me sitting up there bearing down on those books, and then they give me those little crappy questions. . . . I ought to have looked twice at some of the lawyers I’d seen and I’d have known a half-wit could pass it. But oh, no. I was hell-bent on learning me some law.” Then he laughed, stopped laughing, and said with a touch of the grimness which must have belonged to the long nights up there in his room when he bent over the trash-burner or heard the moths batting soft at the screen in the August dark: “Well, I learned me some law. I could wait.” . . . The time came in the end, and he put on his good suit, blue serge and slick in the seat, and caught the train down to the city to take the examination. He had waited, and now he really knew what was in the books. . . . He was a lawyer now. He could hang the overalls on a nail and let them stiffen with the last sweat he had sweated into them. He could rent himself a room over the dry-goods store in Mason City and call it his office, and wait for somebody to come up the stairs where it was so dark you had to feel your way and where it smelled like the inside of an old trunk that’s been in the attic twenty years. . . . He was a lawyer now and it had taken him a long time. . . . But maybe it had taken him too long. If something takes too long, something happens to you. You become all and only the thing you want and nothing else, for you have paid too much for it, too much in wanting and too much in waiting and too much in getting. In the end they just ask you those crappy little questions.
To all members of our faculty. To all of our students. To our trustees. To our administrators. To our staff. To our parents. To our friends. Let us never be guilty of asking those crappy little questions. Let us never surrender to mean ego or blind, soul-less, grasping ambition. Let us never become all and only the things we want and nothing else. Let us never be petty or small. Let us never separate the life of the mind from the life of the spirit.
Let us instead ask and seek answers to the great questions. Let us remember that the great questions are not just about the world external to us, not just about atoms and molecules and planets and plants and poems and business models and economic theories and military strategies and the varieties of political or religious experience. The great questions must be internal as well, the must engage our subconscious, our spirit, our deeper shared humanity.
I am proud that members of our faculty ask these great questions of our students and of each other all the time, in our many varieties of educational experience, in classes, curricular and co-curricular settings that span the campus, throughout the year. Let me hold up for you one exemplar, among many: our Lilly program, which poses three questions, that for me, personally, express with pristine elegance what William James, what Van Morrison, what Robert Penn Warren, challenge us to ask of ourselves, and ask of each other:
Who am I—most authentically?
What do I believe—most deeply?
What does the world need—from me?
In that spirit, I welcome you to the excitement, and the possibility, of a new academic year. Whatever the variety of your religious experience, whatever your faith or absence of faith, whatever your politics, whatever your academic discipline, whatever your present or future calling, may this be a year of growth and discovery, external and internal, in mind and in spirit. Welcome to the start of a new academic year.
See also: Furman celebrates opening convocation; Dr. Charles Brewer awarded honorary degree