Thank you. (loud applause) Thank you all very much. Thank you, Fr. Despereaux. Please, folks (continued applause), please be seated. A little restraint every now & then. . . (laughter).
Seriously, this is quite an honor for me. I can’t say an unexpected honor, as this invitation was in the cards for some time now. And this despite all the non-attention I’ve received from many of your Catholic intellectuals; wasn’t it your own Fr. Cheever in Ancient Near Eastern Studies who said in your student paper that I don’t exist? (laughter). He’s not alone in thinking that, though I take it that after we got to know each other a bit better last night he has a different take on things. Talk about an ashen countenance when I discussed my background! Suffice it to say that he knows a bit more about ancient mythology & sacrifice than he did before we spoke. It really is too bad he can’t be here today, as he’s much in my thoughts, as are all the fine academics at this institution. Much of the work you do is directly responsible for my being here today, & I am much pleased by it.
To honor the graduates of St. Sincerus, I will focus my remarks on the creative gifts God has so richly blessed you all with, as well as on your sacred responsibility to nurture those gifts, despite the heavy costs. As you know, you live in a world in which the majority of people seek to restrain, to control, & even to deny the creativity of the few. Isn’t it a sad irony that such a gift, which can help you to make & remake your world, & which is an expression of God’s image within you, so badly frightens the unimaginative? I believe the patron of this school would be as pleased as I am with your attempts in recent years to use your creativity to produce such a life affirming environment here on campus, & would hope that you continue forward. “Fear not!” I can almost here him saying at this very moment, as he thinks about the work of your administration, faculty, & student organizations to make more people welcome here.
(loud applause from the members of the audience, who rise from their seats; shouts of “SSU! SSU!” break out)
Yes, by all means, celebrate yourselves. Always. . . At any rate, before we all get too carried away (there is a time & place for everything, remember), I wish to address the following in my remarks: the need for creativity & innovation in forming diverse communities, in thinking through your moral lives, & in applying the benefits of scientific discovery to the improvement of life. As you already excel in the first two of these, it’s likely you’ll have some things to tell me; so I’ll reserve my longer remarks for the third.
I think the most visible accomplishment of SSU is your creativity in opening the doors of your community to make a hospitable place for the least of your brothers & sisters. You have indeed taken to heart the words from the gospel, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Remarkable words, these. . . In fact, to acknowledge your openness to the speaker of these words, I think you might consider renaming your fine institution. How does this sound: “St. Sincerus Multiversity”? (audience cheers) For you all know, as is evident in your student organizations, mission statements, diversity statements, statements of respect, & statements of inclusivity, not to mention your 10K Race for Acceptance & your world-class Center for the Understanding of Love & Tolerance, that there is a bewildering array of opinions, viewpoints, perspectives, doctrines, hopes & fears, & experiences out there. C’est la vie! as the French would say. But you have chosen the path of courage by celebrating the diversity that lesser individuals & communities would feel threatened by. This was apparent to me yesterday as I toured your campus, talked with members of the faculty, ate lunch with students in the student union, & listened with fascination as your very own Fr. Despereaux gave the key-note lecture at the conference that ended last night, “Diverse Worshippers, Diverse Ecclesiologies: An Eco-Vegan Critique of Traditional Eucharistic Theology.” Who knew just how scandalous a simple memorial meal could be? I’ll tell you who knew: you did, & you should take pride at standing up to your bishop’s objections to your hosting such a conference. You must be wary of those who sneer at the mere whiff of innovation, as a true multiversity will embrace innovation & be led by it. And the leaders of this multiversity will always ask, “Did God really say that we will perish if we take the high road of conscience & freedom?” Your bishop, & all those like him in seats of power, fear that by your inclusion of the marginalized you will become the true locus of ecclesial authority. For it is love that binds you together & bears the loudest witness to true gospel values. It is love that is the true measure of holiness & thus authority, & the clearest mark of love is the creative attempt to love those different from yourself. Here you must brook no opposition, for true tolerance will beat down those who stand up against it with the violence of love. The hatred of hate, as Fr. Despereaux suggested to your fine school paper, is essential to the Catholic ethos, & must grow ever-stronger & harsher if you are to prevail.
As with your openness to openness in expanding your community, you have also shown remarkable zeal in creatively rethinking the old moral platitudes that continue to restrict so many in your Church, & I don’t think I have to say much here. But let me draw your attention to a phrase I recently heard from an artist discussing his work. We should, he said, learn to “transgress in love.” Savor that for a moment: “Transgress in love.” (Pauses for several moments) Isn’t this precisely what the prophets & apostles did? Would there ever have been a St. Sincerus, or any saint at all, without transgressing the narrow categories of the narrow minded? Acts of transgressive creativity in the service of love stand behind every true revolution, moral or otherwise. I saw something of this last night. Your Phallic Fridays may have brought intense criticism upon your school, but what I witnessed last night, & on into the morning, was nothing less than moral courage. And what creativity! Talk about challenging traditional morality! You folks zealously chased it away, & what remained behind you clubbed into passive submission, which is in itself an act of delicious creativity. I almost blush thinking about your courage. But beyond all the interesting intimacies whispered & pursued, what I witnessed was the fresh air of a new world blowing onto campus. This, I suspect, is what your Church leaders meant by aggiornamento all those years ago, & it was a genuine pleasure to see the spirit of Vatican II, as they sometimes still call it, so vigorously indulged in.
And this leads me to my final topic, which of course is an extension of everything I’ve already said. I refer to the creative rethinking of what human life may become through the application of exciting new technologies to the human subject. The fact that you opened a Center of Bioethics & Biotechnology four years ago, under the direction of a Princeton grad, no less, suggests that you are perhaps already preparing yourselves for the inevitable changes ahead. Let me begin with a rather everyday, even banal, example to lead into my remarks.
(holds up a pair of eyeglasses, seemingly pulled out of the air)
Look at this invention. What genius! Carefully ground glass, placed elegantly in a metal frame. What your gospels suggest, though only in a metaphorical sense, is now possible through the science of optics: “Let the blind see!” What we have here, & what you, sir, (pointing to a student in the 5th row) have in the form of contact lenses, represents a small victory over nature by those cheated out of normal vision. “The least of my brethren” will always include the blind, no? And not just the blind, but those suffering from even worse maladies & mistakes. “In science & in medicine/I was a stranger & you took me in.” That Irish band which often gets under my skin came up with that line, which nicely expresses how so many of your scientists & physicians have understood their task as healers. To overcome the limitations of arbitrary nature, to transgress in love the boundaries fixed by an often senseless & cruel world in service to their Lord: this is the glory & the promise of the science & practice of medicine.
And not just in the restoration of vision. That young lady in the 12th row with the insulin pump attached to her hip; that gentlemen in the 39th row taking medication for his depression; the younger sister of the graduate in the 3rd row, sitting at home scared half to death because she is, as you say, “late”, but who knows that a visit to a woman’s health clinic can save her; & even your own Fr. Cheever, who is, we hope, recovering from the heart attack he suffered last night: these & countless others here this afternoon have reason to celebrate the scientific advances & innovations that make it possible to live a healthy, normal life. But should you settle for normal? For mere restoration?
A few of the faculty members of your Biotechnology program think not, & I’m with them. Two summers ago one of them attended a conference at an another fine institution, Oxford University, on “Bioethics & the Posthuman Future.” What he began to wonder about as he heard papers being read & developments in biotechnology presented, I have always known, that death, your greatest of enemies, need not have the final word. I think it is time for all of you to be excited about how your assault on the limits nature imposes on you has turned in such fruitful directions. Is it not possible, you can now ask in all seriousness, to consider death as a disease? A condition that can be treated, like smallpox, malaria, & countless other forms of illness & disease? Even, perhaps, overcome?
Some may scoff, & attribute such thoughts to the fantastic imaginations of science fiction writers. Yet these fantastic imaginations are directly responsible for insulin pumps, Zoloft, anti-platelet agents, & the humble contact lens, not to mention the world of technology that helps you pay your bills online, send text messages, & safely celebrate your Phallic Fridays. Why not celebrate these imaginations, & encourage them to roam freely in pursuit of humanity’s greatest prize? As those familiar with posthumanism already know, a growing number of scientists, philosophers, & ethicists have been on the cusp of truly revolutionary discoveries. Some suggest that, given the fact that the human brain is very much like a complex supercomputer, there exists the possibility of developing a process by which you, the real you, that is, all the information in your brain, could actually be transferred to a computer. Scanning the synaptic structure of a brain with sufficient resolution & then implementing the same computations in a computer, a process that takes advantage of developments in nanotechnology; or using an electron microscope with automatic image processing to disassemble the brain atom by atom: these are just two of the possible methods by which scientists are thinking their way into the brave new future, one that promises the opportunity of releasing you from your bondage to your bodies, with all their frailties & imperfections. What are your two greatest enemies, according to the sacred text? “The world & the flesh.” The flesh, the body, that which separates you from the heights of the genuine transcendence you all crave. This posthuman hope of moving beyond mere bodily existence is an ancient one, cherished in all cultures, & is at the heart of your own finest spiritual traditions. What is religion, after all, if not a means to achieve spiritual liberation? And what is spiritual liberation if not a release from the prison house of the body? “Death, where is your victory? Where is your sting?” For the first time these words can become more than wishful thinking, but only if you deprive death of that which it feeds on.
There will be those who challenge your courage & vision here. They will claim that you are “tampering with nature” or “trying to play God.” To those concerns I say only this: You, sir, with the eyeglasses, are you not “tampering with nature”? Are you not pleased that others have? And you, young lady with the insulin pump, are you not celebrating the achievements of those who have “played God” in the field of medical research? Nature & its God took away your vision, & stopped your pancreas from producing insulin. Have you not, by the very fact that you see clearly, & that you are alive despite having a defective pancreas, already signaled your rebellion from nature? And those of you who will take a few Advils when you get a headache, or turn on the air conditioning when it gets hot, or take antibiotics when you have a sinus infection, or ask a surgeon to remove a tumor from the body of your child, are you not all “tampering with nature”?
Of course you are. And rightly so, for you know that nature is cruel & merciless, & that your ability to defend yourselves against it is part of God’s greatest gift, your creativity & inventiveness. You have been entrusted with dominion over creation, & bear witness to your faithfulness with every new discovery, every invention that diminishes suffering, every creative use of human skill & freedom. Should you not use this gift of dominion? Should you not, as in the parable, use the talents God gave you to extend this gift? It seems to me that your scriptures teach that you have the responsibility to grab the right fruit this time, that which hangs from the tree of life. While the garden that holds that tree was once declared off-limits, it need no longer be. The angel guarding it has laid down his flaming sword, which represents the human limitations in knowledge & courage that cripple your attempts to take what is rightfully offered you. All that keeps you from it now is fear, & the desire of the weak to control you by dictating what is “natural.” You have shown remarkable courage in resisting those people in the areas I mentioned earlier in my speech. Why not continue forward? Or, rather, why not go back to the garden where you made your original mistake, & make the wiser choice this time?
The final frontier is not just a metaphor from a television series, but a genuine possibility that lies before you, like a land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new. I wonder if you will have the courage to strive for it.
Let me close with a quote from one of my favorite literary passages. As with many such passages, the true meaning becomes apparent only with the passage of time. While the mid-19th century may not have been truly prepared to understand & act upon these words, I suspect the time is ripe for you to actualize the vision announced here:
“Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested, “But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he. I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right. I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways.”
You have in so many ways, St. Sincerus University class of 2012, spoken the rude truth. You have refused the easy paths of conformity & obedience. You have shunned the cliches, the pre-packaged ideas others would force upon you. Platitudes are not for you. No, you go boldly where no one has gone before; you take the road less travelled; you question authority. You challenge the sacredness of all traditions & allow only your own constitution to dictate your way forward. Good for you. When others disagree, as they will, remember the words of Emerson: “if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.”
Good luck to you all.
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