The talk below was given at Gutenberg’s commencement ceremony on June 14, 2019.
Gutenberg graduates of 2019, thank you for asking me to speak to you today. Graduating from Gutenberg College is a big deal. You all know, and your tutors know, the hard work it has taken to get to this day. You have accomplished a great thing, and I congratulate you.
Many people might ask you whether a Gutenberg education has prepared you for real life. Of course, right off the bat, you know they have made a mistake. There is no such special category as “real life.” All life is real life, every moment of it. But you know what they are trying to ask you. Has your Gutenberg education prepared you for life after college? The correct answer is, “Of course.” How could it not? Your Gutenberg experience is exactly like all the rest of life. Like Gutenberg, life is educational, difficult, somewhat disorganized, and rewarding. In one sense, life after college is like life in college: the circumstances are different, but the challenges and opportunities will be just as abundant.
There is one thing about life after college, however, that may seem very different. For the last four years, the tutors of Gutenberg College have spent a lot of time telling you what to do. You have done things because we have asked you to do them. You have moved because we have given you assignments that set you in motion. But what is going to set you in motion after today? Many college graduates feel that question deeply. You are going to have to act, to move, to do something. But what is there to do? People tell me—you tell me—that your culture has bequeathed to your generation a terrible legacy: a crisis of agency. You need to act, to do, but what is worth doing? On what basis shall you act? What is going to set you in motion?
At times, it can seem that people are like particles in some big physics experiment, acted upon by external forces. Some things attract; other things repel. And this attraction and repulsion is what gets us moving, if we move at all. We are not so much actors; we are those who are acted upon. We are attracted to people who have made us feel good. In fact, we are attracted to anything that has given us good feelings that we want to feel again. We are repulsed by people who have made us feel bad. In fact, we are repulsed by anything that has given us bad feelings that we never want to feel again. This seems very reasonable—and very human. And yet, something is missing. Where has our agency gone? We are moving, but what has moved us?
You all know what the tutors of Gutenberg believe: the actions you are going to take in the coming years, both internally and externally, are truly significant. You are continuing on in the process of defining yourself. What inspires the motions of your soul? What will move you to act in the world? There is a certain philosopher that we read a lot at Gutenberg. I talk about this author all the time. I told myself that I would not mention him today in this talk. So, I won’t. But if I were to mention him, I would point out what he sees as the highest calling for every human being: we must become a subject.
What does that mean, becoming a subject? The idea starts with grammar. Every encounter you have in your life could be described in a sentence. You encounter a person. You encounter the Bible. You encounter an idea. You encounter Gutenberg College. And of course, the subject of each of these sentences is “you,” and the object is the thing you encounter. So, in one sense, “you” is always the subject. “You” are always the one encountering everything you encounter. But it is all too easy for you not to be the true subject of the sentences that describe your lives. You can fall into letting the real power, the real agency, lie with those things outside yourself, with the objects. Some objects push you away. Other objects pull you in. It is as if they are calling the shots, as if those things outside of you are making your choices. You move, but who is doing the moving? The task of your life is to become a true subject. You must personally, individually, subjectively decide what you are going to do in response to what you encounter. You must be the active agents of your lives.
This need for personal, subjective decision is something you have discussed a lot as Gutenberg students. And as Gutenberg students, you have experienced it. Education is not something that is done to you. Education is something that you do for yourself. When education is working as it should, your tutors are not some external force moving you in a certain direction. They are provocateurs, challenging you to appropriate the ideas you encounter. What is true of college is true of life after college. The challenge in front of you is to continue to become a subject. The challenge is to act, not just react, to act in your soul and act in the world.
But at this point we bump up against another legacy which your culture has bequeathed you: a crisis of confidence. Can you know what is true and worth pursuing? Even if you agree that you must be the active agents, the true subjects of your own lives, how can you know what you should choose? Can you have any confidence that moving in one direction is better than any other?
You all know that Gutenberg is a Christian college, and I myself am a Christian. You know how your tutors would answer the question concerning what is true and worth pursuing. But we are not naïve. There are so many hard questions concerning God and humans and the world. The Bible that I would point you to is often hard to understand, and people have argued about it throughout history. You have heard me say many times that I am not a skeptic, but given the challenges of knowing and choosing what is good, maybe I should be.
As I said before, I have set myself the goal of not referring to Gutenberg’s favorite philosopher. If I were to do so, I would remind you what else he says about being a subject: You must become a subject because God is a subject. In fact, I would say that God is the subject above all subjects. He is the one who acts, above all others who act. He is the one who knows, above all others who know. He is the one who chooses, above all others who choose. In your struggle to know, to choose, to act, you are relating not to an elusive idea but to a person, a person who can make Himself known. God is willing and able to make Himself known to you.
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus makes one of the most profoundly encouraging statements ever made: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). There may be graduation speakers today who are telling graduates, “Go out boldly and knock on the door of opportunity, and it will be opened to you.” That, of course, is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that God is a subject. God is the God who hears and who responds. God is the one on the other side of the door, and He opens it when you knock. If you truly become a subject, if you choose to move toward God, then God moves toward you. If you want to find Him, you cannot fail to do so.
In your Gutenberg education, you have seen how the knowledge of God has preoccupied Western intellectual thought. You have seen how many different answers have been given: God must be known; God can be known; God cannot be known; God is dead; Nothing can be known. It might seem that such an endless debate could never be resolved. And if God were merely an idea, then we might despair of ever understanding that idea in any compelling way. But if God is a subject, then He can make Himself known. Sure, the Bible is filled with things difficult to understand. But I think one thing is clear from beginning to end. God intends to make Himself known, and He will make Himself known to whomever wishes to know Him. God seems to believe that the Bible is capable of getting through to us. And who am I to tell Him it can’t? The Bible can get through to us because HE is capable of getting through to us. In this life, we will never be certain, but we can make progress toward a wisdom rooted in the knowledge of God. In your years as Gutenberg students, you have struggled—struggled with education, struggled with life—as you have made steps toward acquiring that wisdom. In your life after Gutenberg, you can continue to make that move toward wisdom, and I urge you to do it. All of your actions, the actions in your soul and your actions in the world, are either moving away from or toward that wisdom. That is why your lives, and how you choose to live them, are so significant.
In conclusion, well, I resolved not to refer to Gutenberg’s favorite philosopher. If I were to refer to him, I would remind you that he said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” He knows how difficult this is. And, as it happens, I know what his prayer would be for you. He would pray:
Father in heaven! What is a man without you! What is all that he knows, vast accumulation though it be, but a chipped fragment if he does not know you! What is all his striving, could it even encompass a world, but a half-finished work if he does not know you: You the One, who are one thing and who are all! So may you give to the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing; to the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding; to the will, purity that wills only one thing. In prosperity may you grant perseverance to will one thing; amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing; in suffering, patience to will one thing. Oh, you that gives both the beginning and the completion, may you early, at the dawn of day, give to the young man the resolution to will one thing. As the day wanes, may you give to the old man a renewed remembrance of his first resolution, that the first may be like the last, the last like the first, in possession of a life that has willed only one thing. Alas, but this has indeed not come to pass. Something has come in between. The separation of sin lies in between. Each day, and day after day something is being placed in between: delay, blockage, interruption, delusion, corruption. So in this time of repentance may you give the courage once again to will one thing… Oh, you that gives both the beginning and the completion, give victory in the day of need so that what neither a man’s burning wish nor his determined resolution may attain to, may be granted to him in the sorrowing of repentance: to will only one thing.
This is what our philosopher would pray for you. I can only add that this is my prayer for you as well. Thank you again for asking me to speak to you, and once again I congratulate you on your great accomplishment.