President’s sermon: “Love in the Clouds of Unknowing”

President Brenneman

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Baccalaureate sermon, delivered by Dr. James E. Brenneman, President of Goshen College on Sunday, April 28, 2013 in the Goshen College Church-Chapel


Scripture Reading:  Ephesians 3:16-19


Today, I am full of joy and profoundly grateful. I rejoice with you and all your loved ones that you made it to the finish line of your respective degree programs, be that a bachelors or masters at Goshen College. I am grateful that you have drunk deeply from the well of knowledge and grateful that in the process you have learned something of the height and depth of the love of God.

Knowledge and love, love and knowledge – two sacred values worth pondering by any would-be graduate of any university, but even more so, a Goshen College graduate. And so, I am particularly grateful, that the Senior Class Planning Committee chose for this baccalaureate service the scripture from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians – a prayer that combines love and knowledge, knowledge and love.


“Knowledge is power” so we’re told by the philosophers, social scientists, civil rights activists, educators, infomaniacs, and just about everyone else. Love is power, we’re told. If so, A.J. Jacobs should be one of the mightiest men alive. He’s the editor of Esquire Magazine who wrote the New York Times best-selling book entitled: The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. A.J. spent more than a year reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, all 44 million words, from a-ak, which is an ancient East Asian music, to Zyweic, which is a town in Poland known for its beer.

A.J.’s the same guy who later wrote the bestseller, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible in which “he lets his beard grow so unruly that he’s regularly mistaken for a member of ZZ Top, tends sheep in the Israeli desert, battles idolatry, and worries about stoning an adulterer he knows, and he tells the absolute truth in all situations – much to his wife’s chagrin.” AJ’s wife also hated it when AJ was writing Know-It-All  because he would tend to throw up his new-found knowledge about almost everything into regular dinner party conversation with friends. For example, one cold night upon arrival at a friend’s home, their friend Shannon opened the door with the usual banter, “A little nippy out there.” To which, A.J. responded, “Not quite as cold as Antarctica’s Vostok Station, which reached a record 128 degrees below zero, but it’s still a little cold.”

Another time at a seafood restaurant, he pointed out, just as the abalone was being served – using less delicate language than I am about to – “Do you know how many “be-hinds” the abalone has? For those of you who just have to know, the answer is five. We all know a few “know-it-alls’ don’t we? At times, know-it-alls are insufferable.

And yet, like any college worth its salt and tuition, we at Goshen College have encouraged you, invited you, prodded you to learn everything you could about everything you can all the time and everywhere and to do so for the rest of your lives. We wanted you to know as much as you could within your particular major or minor or double majors or triple minors and everything in-between. We take pride that your degree hails from among the top 10 percent of all colleges and universities among thousands by almost every measurable criterion by almost any comparative lists. We are thrilled that you will go on to earn Ph.D.’s at a rate per number of graduates higher than almost any school in the nation. Haven’t we done our best to create “know-it-alls” of most, if not all, of you?  At the very least we want to make  “know-as-much-as-you-cans” of all of you. And isn’t that a good thing? Well, yes, of course it is, but …

For the most part, the central project of most western colleges and universities has been to gain and dispense knowledge – to help the students become, well, “know-it-alls.” We are constantly testing your knowledge in college, something that we should do. Yet, “love” is seldom a distinct category for which we design curricula. “To love well” is not usually on a typical course syllabus as one of the stated outcomes of a class.

A math professor was asked in a recent survey of thousands of college teachers, whether he thought part of his role was to develop the moral and spiritual formation of students. Likely typical of his profession on this survey, “I only do math, not spiritual development,” he replied. “That is not in my area of competence.” We seem to have become so silo-like in our respective disciplines that the original intent of universities to develop students of character has all but disappeared. By the way, that math professor was not from Goshen College.

So it was absolutely refreshing to me when choosing the scripture lesson for this occasion, you went against the grain of higher education to describe what you thought was a great Goshen College education. After assessing all your hard work, all those long hours of study, all the newly gained skills and many learned accomplishments. After all that! And as great as that may be, when all’s said and done, you did the exceptional thing. You returned to the prayer of St. Paul to summarize your Goshen College experience. For you, the most important take-away was not simply raw, bare-boned “know-it-all-ism.” The most important take-away was to have been, as the Apostle Paul said, “rooted and established in love,” love of God, love for each other, and love for the world.

There it is: love and knowledge, a formidable team. From Socrates to Nietzsche to Levinas and Habermas, western philosophers have debated about the relationship between knowledge and love and power. St. Paul seems to be aware of those links: “I pray that you will have the power,” he writes, I pray you will have the “power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ (of God), and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.”  Now that’s an epistemology worthy of a Ph.D. dissertation, one, I hope, will be written by one of you in this room someday. “To know a love that surpasses knowledge.” Amazing.


In the 14th century, an anonymous English monk wrote a sublime work entitled, “The Cloud of Unknowing.” He wrote it to counsel a young person, a student of his, as to the limits of knowledge, especially in knowing God. For him, if there is to be a breakthrough to God, it would not likely come about by “knowing it all.” Rather, he writes: “… God can well be loved, but God cannot be thought … You must step above thought stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and, whatever happens, do not give up.” Love in the cloud of unknowing is a love that encompasses the best of learning pedagogies, yet surpasses knowledge. Love in the cloud of unknowing is worthy of our life-long pursuit.

A love that surpasses knowledge, in the end, as St. Paul said, is what “endures forever.” A love that surpasses knowledge can bridge differences, profound differences in what we know to be certain for ourselves, even when someone else is certain about his or her perspective. When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” it was not just a nice cliché. He was using a form of moral reasoning typical of rabbinic argumentation: state the extreme instance, such that every lesser instance is more attainable and expected. Jesus sensed that until one learned to love someone who profoundly disagrees with you, you, we, have not truly known love. Indeed, one of the best ways to learn, to grow, to know-it-all, is to wrestle with alternative points of view. To not learn to love difference is to stunt one’s mind and, sadly, one’s heart as well.

I hope that as you leave GC, you have learned to love someone you may have otherwise not known had you not come to GC. I hope you have learned to love someone of a different faith perspective, a different interpretation of Holy Scripture, a different life-orientation. Jesus isn’t asking us to agree. Jesus is asking us to love in the midst of our differences with a “love that surpasses knowledge.”

When I look around, I think you have caught the Spirit of that Love, a love that has aided you in adjusting to college, of missing home, of sorrowful estrangements, and losses. Together we suffered the unfathomable deaths of Professor Jim Miller and fellow student Millicent Morros.  And yes, there were anxieties over tests, of choosing a major, of the unknown future. But through it all, we discovered together that “love surpasses knowledge.”


The same Spirit of love permeated your lives in small and hugely significant ways. I remember the year when most of you arrived on campus (2009-2010), you helped the Athletic department raise enough money in its Leaf Relief Project to dig a fresh-water well at St. Mary’s Mumias Secondary school in Kakamega, Kenya. The following year (2010-2011) some of you travelled to the Mideast to help with summer camp programs at Wi’am, the Palestinian Peace and Reconciliation Center established by Marcelle Zoughbi’s father. During the harsh winter of 2012, you, along with faculty and staff, helped raise $25,000 and build a new Habitat for Humanity house for the family of Eddie Mayorga, a Goshen College Physical Plant staff member. I remember that during the ground breaking, Eddie reached out his hands and said in Spanish, “If I could hug every one of you I would. I thank God … for the support that you have given me.” And then, as if that wasn’t enough, you took-on another house-build for another family this year.

You have volunteered to tutor for the love of kids, you composted waste for the love of the earth, you prayed around the clock for a whole week several different years for the love of God and the world. Your senior class gift is among the top amounts given: given to support Prism programing, SST endowment, and a Community Gardens project.

You have held newborns in Nicaragua, taught English in Cambodia, served the deaf community in Peru, held basketball camps down the street. You have learned to live lives of service and learning on every inhabitable continent on earth. By my estimation, in the four years you were here at Goshen College, all students, along with faculty, staff, and administrators showed God’s love for others with more than 60,000 service hours per year that you were here! You, my dear students, have embodied a “love that surpasses knowledge.”


If as you leave GC, you have more questions than when you arrived; if you are not, in fact, “know-it-alls,” if you have come to the edge of all you know; and yet have learned a bit more about how to love God, love yourself, love others and love creation, then you have received an education of a lifetime.

In the end, though, I believe that to know such love, is less about our capacity to “beat on the thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love,” than it is a simple gift unbidden by us from an all-knowing God, who broke through the clouds of unknowing as the Christ, and continues to do so, to bid us welcome! In the end, in his great epistemological masterpiece on Love (1 Corin.13), St. Paul concludes:  “faith, hope and love, abide, but the greatest of these is love.”

So, graduates of 2013, I pray with St. Paul and all your beloved professors, that more than any diploma presented to you later today, that each of you for the rest of your days may continue to “receive power to know the height and depth and the breadth and the width of the love of God in Christ – a love that surpasses all knowledge.”