Commencement address (as prepared for delivery) by Dr. John D. Roth — a 1981 GC alumnus, professor and historian — at the 124th Goshen College Commencement on Sunday, May 1, 2022.
Colleagues, board members, graduates, parents, friends … it’s a great honor to share with you in the excitement of this day!
In the fall of 1977, my mom dropped me off at High Park Dorm – now a parking lot — as a first-year Goshen College student. Today, nearly 50 years later, I am humbled and delighted to join you in this graduation ceremony, which marks a symbolic transition in our lives – one filled with that strange mix of excitement, anticipation, and even a little sadness as we move forward into a new chapter of life.
You/we have worked hard; we have been transformed by our time at Goshen College, and I hope I can speak for all of us when I say that we are deeply grateful to our Alma Mater.
As you have heard, I am a historian. After 36 years of teaching, I know that my discipline isn’t always greeted with wild enthusiasm. People sometimes think of history as mostly memorizing facts.
Yet, at our best, historians offer maps of the human experience. Of course we never can reproduce the past exactly as it was – map is not territory. But we hope that the picture we offer of the past — which is always an interpretation, always simplified — will help orient ourselves within the complicated world in which we are living.
Those maps can be extremely detailed … or they can step back and ask the really big questions of meaning and purpose in the human experience.
The courses I taught at Goshen College always tried to do both … but my favorite course through the years – a course called “What is the Good Life?” – was strongly oriented to the big view: how, we asked in that class, have human societies answered the question, What does it mean to be human? What do we assume about human nature? the natural world? about justice? Beauty? Truth?
Whether you are conscious about it or not, all of us ask the question: What is the Good Life?
Oddly enough, our answer to that question is often revealed most clearly in moments of frustration … in our awareness of the gap between what IS — life as we experience it — and our sense of what OUGHT to be.
That awareness begins in infancy, with something as elemental as hunger, or discomfort, or loneliness — a baby’s outrage that something is wrong, that the world is not as it should be.
Over time, that sense of frustration becomes more complex. Children have an incredibly refined sense of what is fair; they recognize very early on that the world is full of injustices, large and small. As adults we are keenly aware that the world is out of alignment, of the gap between what IS, and what OUGHT to be.
- the global pandemic has left us with a pervasive sense of disappointment, uncertainty … even outrage by shortened lives, collapsed plans, and restrictions on our mobility;
- we are living in the midst of an impending climate crisis, in which we feel anxious about the future of our planet;
- the Russian invasion of Ukraine reminds us that the outcome of two World Wars still remain unresolved;
- closer to home, our civil discourse is strained; the principles of democracy are challenged; institutions that seem essential for social order – our schools, hospitals, law enforcement – have been called into question;
- Revered religious leaders are revealed as hypocrites;
- the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have laid bare a profound misalignment between basic human decency and the daily reality as it is experienced by far too many women and people of color.
And it touches us even closer: we look in the mirror, and don’t like our bodies; or we lay awake in bed at night and wonder if our life has meaning and purpose.
But here’s the paradox: what sounds like pessimism is actually the beginning point of utopian thought. Indeed, the moment you sense that the world is out of alignment — you are at the same time imagining an alternative future.
Behind every NO — behind every frustration and outrage — is a YES that points to your expectation of how the world should be; frustration is the grain of sand that has the potential of producing a pearl of hope.
Our awareness of the gap between what IS and what OUGHT to be invites us to reflect more intentionally on our assumptions about the GOOD LIFE … to name the yearning that we feel deep inside; to bring into focus the source of our hopes and expectations for the world as it should be.
Four months ago, on Christmas Day, an Ariane 5 rocket blasted off in French Guiana carrying with it the James Webb Space Telescope — the largest, most powerful telescope ever built. More than 20 years in development; built at a cost of $11 billion, with the promise that once it had traveled a million miles and found its way to a gravitational sweet spot between the earth and the sun, it would be capable of capturing light from the most distant part of the universe … in effect, seeing events that happened 13 billion years ago as the first galaxies were being formed.
It was a project of stupendous complexity — 18 hexagonal mirrors . . . three stories high, as wide as a tennis court; all folded twelve times in the payload of the rocket with origami precision. There were 344 points of possible failure in the deployment. Thus far, everything has gone according to plan; the telescope is now in position.
But the last, absolutely essential, step is to align the 18 mirrors so that they are able to function as a single mirror – it requires incredible precision. It can be accomplished only by pointing all the mirrors to one bright, isolated star – a star in the constellation Ursa Major – and then adjusting each mirror in such a way that this star comes into focus as a single image.
If the mirrors are not aligned, the Webb telescope becomes little more than a very expensive piece of technology – junk really — moving without purpose through the vast distances of outer space.
Now each of you is far more complex, I’m happy to say, than the Webb telescope, but you face a similar challenge as you look to the future: what star is going to align the focus of your life? what is the ultimate purpose or meaning — what the Greeks called telos – that will give your future a focus; that will make your choices meaningful rather than impulsive or random?
What understanding of the Good Life will enable you to align your one precious life with what really matters as you seek to close the gap between the world as it IS and the world as you yearn for it to be?
For some, the default mode is the biological imperative of survival, driven ultimately by COERCIVE FORCE. Our sense of the Good Life — either individually or collectively — is ultimately a story of the “survival of the fittest” — clothed in nicer sounding rhetoric no doubt, but you will see many people acting as if what drives the world is coercive POWER.
Others may appeal to REASON as the crucial quality that separates us from the animal kingdom; reason — accessible to all human beings — enables us to rise above instinct and impulse, to close the gap between what IS and what OUGHT to be by planning and organizing. This is the great dream of the Enlightenment and the social sciences.
Now, there is no question but that the biological impulse to survival and the exercise of reason are realities in our world and in your own experience.
But I’d like to suggest today that your education at Goshen College has invited you to consider another way of looking at the world, another way of answering the question: What is the Good Life?
It is a story–rooted in the Christian tradition, but accessible to everyone–that offers you a map for making sense of the world — both as it IS and as it OUGHT to be.
As you leave Goshen College and move into the next exciting chapters of your life, I want to invite you to take this story with you – regardless of whether or not you identify yourself as a Christian.
The story starts with a claim about what it means to be human. Human beings, all of us, are created for relationships; at the core of our being we yearn to live in intimacy, harmony, transparency, vulnerability, trust with God or the divine, with each other, and with the natural world around us. That is our deepest purpose in the world; we were created for LOVE.
And then the story moves to sober-minded recognition of the world as it IS.
We are — all of us — mis-aligned. We are confused about our true purpose; in the Biblical narrative, Adam and Eve hide from God; they recognize that they are naked and clothe themselves — they hide from each other.
Already in Genesis 3, we have an account of violence — they treat each as objects. And they are at odds with Creation itself.
And the rest of the story is an account of human beings trying to figure out what it means to be restored to the purpose for which we were made – trust, intimacy, vulnerability with God, with each other, with Creation.
What does alignment with the world as it OUGHT to be look like? What is the nature of the Good Life that a Goshen College education tries to capture?
Three really simple, but I think, profound considerations for you to take with you:
The first is that you are LOVED, fully and unconditionally.
There are lots of people in our culture who go through life with a deep sense of inadequacy — a paralyzing fear of being rejected, of saying something stupid, of being ignored.
This is not a small matter; all of us know friends who struggle with the haunting voices of inner doubt, or feel trapped in cycles of depression or alcohol and drug abuse.
The story of the Good Life that I hope you heard at Goshen College is that you are a beloved child of God’s, made in God’s very image, loved by God and created for a destiny. You have an inherent dignity.
Those of you who are painfully shy; who wake up every morning feeling timid and afraid … you have been called you “blessed.”
Those of you who find yourself always at the edge of the social circles, unsure about whether you fit in or not … God has welcomed you with open arms.
Those of you who have experienced intense pain in your life—who have been used and abused by others; those of you who are father-less; who feel cut off from your family and the world, who have lost loved ones and are feeling alone … you need to know that you are loved by God!
This is not a sentimental love of romance novels or Hollywood movies; you don’t have to be beautiful or smart or physically fit … or even a “good” person. In fact, God’s love has no conditions at all.
The Christian language for this love is grace, in which we cannot pretend away all of our imperfections, our flaws, our weaknesses, our anger, our self-loathing, our fears, all of the bad things that we’ve done — yet we still are loved.
What is the Good Life? It is the embrace of God’s unconditional love.
A second theme I hope you’ve heard at Goshen College — part of the Good Life — is that the TRUTH will set you free.
That sounds grand, perhaps, but we live in a world filled with illusions. Some of these illusions are foisted on us from the outside: commercials convincing us that we would be happier, healthier, more popular, better off if only we had their product; or the media messages promising you happiness through money or leisure or alcohol or sex or “whatever turns you on.”
But many of these illusions come from within. They are self-created: we can become very skilled at disguising our selfishness, at appearing virtuous or pretending to be righteous, as we cover up our insecurities and weaknesses.
Part of the Good Life, in the Goshen College tradition, is the courage to see beneath appearances to a deeper reality, and to name those realities openly and honestly.
Let me name some of those truths:
- our country spends more than 2 billion dollars every day on armaments; every day, some 25,000 people around the world die of hunger;
- a community that ignores racism or gender inequality in its midst is not a true community;
- there are people all around us – perhaps some of you here today – who are so lonely that the only way to numb the pain is through alcohol, drugs, computer games or perhaps a long string of sexual conquests.
Telling the truth doesn’t always feel like good news; it often challenges our assumptions. It threatens the status quo; it names our deepest fears; it makes our world more complicated.
And sometimes, in our attempt to speak the truth about the world, we forget that God actually loves the world — even in all of its brokenness.
But that’s the message of the 3rd point:
The Good Life offers healing for the wounds of the world.
Because you know that you are loved unconditionally, because you have the freedom to speak the Truth and to live in Truth, you are uniquely equipped to participate in the healing of our broken and fractured world — to bridge the gap between the world as it IS and the world as it OUGHT to be.
You were created for a purpose — to live in wholeness, intimacy, community, communion — a wholeness that has been undone by human selfishness, but waits to be restored.
As graduates of Goshen College you are invited to take your part in the healing of our broken world. “Culture for Service” is simply a recognition that the Good Life calls us into the world to participate in the healing work of reconciliation and peacemaking. Indeed, you can’t fully experience the power of healing in your own life, until you are ready to offer yourself in the healing of others.
Loving enemies, showing compassion, offering forgiveness instead of retaliation — these are not “Mennonite” doctrines: they are the natural and inevitable response of those who have received this same kind of love from God.
At its best, “Culture for Service” is really nothing more than God’s love, truth and healing made visible in the world – it is the Good News of the Gospel extended outward to others.
Whatever form it takes — be it public acts of service or private deeds of charity — may you extend the sacrament of peace when you help to heal some of the world’s brokenness.
Friends, we live in a big world – a vast and complicated world. As you move into the next exciting chapter of your life, may you have the courage to reflect deeply and honestly about your place in that world, to ask big basic questions about the star that will orient your life and your choices.
As you do so, know that you are loved; dare to live a transparent life, ready to speak the Truth; and do your part to heal a world that is divided and broken.
May you find joy in that journey!