Mary Joan Leith Speech
September 01, 2010
Thank you, Sarah!
And good afternoon to you all - especially the freshmen. I look forward to meeting 41 of you in classes on Wednesday.
The class of 2014 has a special place in my heart and you'll understand why when I tell you that exactly a week ago I dropped my oldest child off at college for the first time. I'm still feeling excited and sad and scared and worried, as I expect he and many of you are, too.
What I want to talk to you about today will, I hope, make you even more "excited and scared", as little Red Riding Hood says in the musical Into the Woods - so I apologize in advance.
I want to talk to you about preconceived notions, by which I mean those things we "know" (air quotes!) are true but which we haven't bothered to think through. Unfortunately, in the United States these days, too many Americans seem to think that it is downright un-American to question one's own beliefs; that it is shameful, dishonorable, to consider someone else's point of view.
Obviously, I disagree. You may not know it, but from the point of view of Stonehill College, each of you has come to Stonehill to become an educated person, someone who, above all, has acquired those habits of personal reflection and critical judgment that are necessary to build a more just and compassionate world.
I want to present you with three challenges to preconceived notions and help you see
• first: that obvious "facts" may not always be factual,
• Second: that paradox is part of life and that sometimes one cannot come up with an absolute answer
• And third, and that honest testing and reflection can only enrich your spiritual life.
A. So, first, there are "FACTS" (in air quotes). I hope the Philosophy department will allow me poach on their territory and call upon John Locke, the seventeenth-century English philosopher for a moment. Locke taught that there are two ways humans know things.
One is through the direct experience of our five senses.
The second way is through reflection on sensory experience, by which Locke meant that by reflecting (which means "using our brain") on our experiences, we compare, we put ideas together, we make judgments, we come up with new ideas. [Jonah Lehrer, the author of How We Decide, the First year Common Reading, explores specifically how and where inside the brain itself that reflection actually happens.]
Anyway, Locke cautions us that, given the way we come to our knowledge, it's awfully easy to get things wrong, and that we should always be prepared to reassess our supposed facts.
Here's an example.
You are someone who has always lived in the tropics; you have no experience or knowledge of other parts of the world. Someone comes up to you and says, "I know for a fact that a person can walk across a river."
What is your reaction, based on your experience? You "know" that this is impossible and anyone who thinks it's possible to walk across a river is an idiot. But of course it's possible to walk across a frozen river, or, at Stonehill, across a frozen pond (please note I didn't say you were ALLOWED to!). Personal experience is crucial to knowledge, but we must be careful not to fall into the ego trap of trusting too much in our own experience.
B. For my second example, PARADOX, I need help from Sarah, Matt, Dean Conboy and President Cregan. Now, Matt, Katie, Mark, please hold hands and form a circle in the middle of the stage.
Now, Raise your arms up, please, so that Sarah can fit under one pair of hands.
(Observe everyone - you're witnessing the Stonehill community - faculty (that's me), students, and administrators all working together for you!).
Now, everyone, please look closely at Sarah. Is she inside the circle? Is she outside the circle? Hmm. She's sort of inside and sort of outside.
Hey! She's in two places at once!
How is that possible? But it is! (Thanks everyone; you can go back and sit down now!). What's the lesson? That an educated person comes to terms with the problem of complexity and paradox. Sometimes the best answer to a question isn't a clear yes or no but "both."
C. Okay; now for my final example having to do with the spiritual life. [I'm in the Religious Studies department, after all.] I am going to read you a short, spooky story that should strike you as something like an encounter with a vampire in the night.
I could do with some mood music: Could the 55 student- musicians in the Stonehill Orchestra help me out?
[TWILIGHT ZONE MUSIC]
That was perfect! Thanks!
Oh, and the story is from the Bible. Genesis chapter 32 verses 22-31. Our hero is Jacob, the son of Abraham. So here goes:
Gen. 32:22 The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok River...
24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck Jacob on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with the man.
26 Then the man said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." (this is the part that makes me think of vampires who shun the daylight) But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me."
27 So the man said to Jacob, "What is your name?" And Jacob said, "Jacob."
28 Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed."
29 Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But the man said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed Jacob.
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved."
31 The sun rose upon Jacob as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
Who is this "man" who attacks Jacob in the dark, wrestles with Jacob, cheats with a dirty wrestling hold, and must get away before the sun comes up?
Well, both the "man" and Jacob tell us. It is God. Jacob exclaims, "I have seen the face of God and lived."
I hope you're surprised by this little bible story. I hope you find yourself asking how come God is behaving in this seemingly ungodly way. Furthermore, this isn't some forbidden or suppressed bible passage. I hope you're curious, if not downright bothered. And I'm not going to explain it here, although those of you in my Gen Ed religion course and those of you who are lucky enough to be in Prof Coogan's classes can ask us later.
However, I want to send you off this afternoon with the sense that all of you first year Stonehill students are in the position to wrestle, like Jacob, with God and with the certainties of your life so far. I hope you will be as tenacious as Jacob, who wouldn't let go. And most of all, I hope that like Jacob, you will emerge from your four-year encounter transformed and blessed.
Thank you very much.
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