Saturday, May 11, 2013

My Meditation at the Union College Board of Trustees Meeting, Spring 2013

David Miller
Union College Board of Trustees, Spring 2013

In 1986 (I think), Union held a Methodist Heritage Day in the chapel.  President Phillips spoke a bit about our Methodist heritage.  The District Superintendent was here, and he had a few words.  There was music and a performance by Dr. Pettys’s Oral Interpretation class.  I was a member of that class, and we presented a group oral interpretation of James Weldon Johnson’s poem “The Creation,” which ends in this way:

Then God sat down –
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!
Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in his own image;
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen. Amen.

The passage of Scripture from which Johnson took his inspiration contains the two creation myths found in Genesis.  Dr. Eric Elnes, who will be our Staley Lecturer in the Fall, explains the message of Genesis 1 & 2 in relation to another, influential creation myth existing at the time the biblical story was being told, written, and edited.  He says that Genesis contains creation myths written in conversation with the creation myth of the Babylonians.  He says, if we read only the Bible and not also the Babylonian myth, it’s like hearing one side of a telephone conversation.  We can only make sense of Genesis if we hear the conversation it is having with this other text.  So let’s listen in to both sides of the conversation.

The Babylonian myth says creation is the result of a storm god’s slaying of an ocean goddess, symbol of chaos, in the form of a dragon or sea serpent.  The heavens and earth are created when her body is cut down the middle.  Creation is violent and chaotic.  Genesis replies back, the heavens and the earth are created when God speaks.  Creation is rational and orderly.

The Babylonian myth says only the king is created in the image of the gods.  Genesis responds, all of humanity is created in God's image.  The Babylonian myth says human beings are formed by the gods from the clay of the earth and are infused with the blood of the slain chaos monster.  Genesis says, yes, we are formed from the dust of the earth, but we are filled, not with the blood of a chaos monster, but with the very breath of God.  The Babylonian myth says we are darkness.  Genesis says we are light, so let our light shine!

I think a liberal education functions in a similar way.  I don’t want to make some false equivalency between the Bible and higher education, but I do believe an analogy can be made.  Students are inspired to see themselves as possessing a depth and breadth and height that other voices whispering in their ears would deny. 

Some voices tell students they are no more than consumers.  Service learning says they have the capacity to give.  Marketing tells them they are nothing more than their demographics.  Enlightenment philosophers say they are individuals possessing inexhaustible potential.  Materialism says they are nothing more than biochemical processes.  Performing “The Creation” at a chapel service says they are living souls.  When they read Faulkner or discover their capacity for reason when a professor uses the Socratic Method or excel when no one had believed in them before, these false voices of darkness are revealed to be lies.  Our students are light!  Let our light shine! 

A liberal education reveals to students that they are more than they have been led to believe.  The depth and breadth and height of the human spirit are revealed to students in their studies and other collegiate experiences.

But, as the following stories in Genesis attest, we are fallible human beings, so sometimes our collective voice joins the chorus of the false voices.  This happens when we fail to expect students to fully experience the depth or the breadth or the height that we know they possess or when we treat them as means to an end, perhaps an institutional end—and we know we all sometimes do both of these.  We can also do this when we, whether members of the board, of the administration, the faculty, or the staff treat each other as merely means to institutional ends or to personal agendas—and we know we all sometimes do this too.

Despite this fallibility, an important part of what we are engaged in at Union is the development of the soul, both in the biblical and in the classical sense.  A liberal education inspires students to see themselves in a different light, to bring to light aspects of themselves they never knew existed.

Union College students, staff, faculty, and board members, we are created in the image of God.  Let our light shine!  Amen.

No comments: