2008 Gutenberg College Commencement Address

by Craig Doerksen


Mr. Doerksen gave this address at the Gutenberg College commencement ceremony on June 13, 2008.

***

During college, I spent my summers, and some springs, in a kitchen in British Columbia, cooking for 500 guests on the edge of one mountain inlet cut out by glaciers, and at the mouth of another. There were no roads within miles, so no cars, no phone, no television, no Internet, and no news except what trickled through by word of mouth or week-old magazines on the weekly boat that brought both guests and the food supplies we would convert into meals for them.

We were, and I will draw attention to the word, removed, from the world. One week, I remember a boy who came running off the boat declaring “Kuwait is gone! Kuwait is gone!”; by which we learned with suspect detail that Iraq had invaded Kuwait earlier that week. I learned about OJ Simpson’s arrest, the Oklahoma City bombing, and other more innocuous news the same way: word of mouth. But when I heard them, they never seemed quite ‘real’ or relevant; at times I felt guilty of that, but still other matters were more important: like whether the boat had more people on it than we had prepared dinner for, or whether the bread dough was rising fast enough to make a second batch before we served the next meal. When, each fall, I returned to ‘the world’ I was struck anew by the significance or insignificance of perceptions and beliefs; by things I had missed, and things I hadn’t missed; by the views that had changed, and those that hadn’t.

I covet those days and weeks in that cramped, sloped floored kitchen: the days spend coaxing old equipment to cook another meal, sweating through the summer days with 12 other volunteers—the whole staff—on day after demanding long day: it was a strangely beautiful and complete time. At lunches, after serving our guests, the kitchen crew would sit outside somewhere with a view, which was easy there, where all views looked on wilderness and water, and we ate together. We would relax a bit, sharing stories about ourselves, asking one another questions, wrestling with life, and praying together. And when we could, we would watch eagles.

I think if Jesus had been born up there, had been Jesus of Sechelt, he would have told parables about eagles.

Perhaps he would have said, “The kingdom of God is like an eagle fishing. After catching a fish, a number of seagulls chased it, hoping it would drop it. When one seagull drew too close, the eagle released the fish from its talons, seized the seagull in mid-flight, and continued flying alone to its nest.”

Or maybe: “The kingdom of God is like an eagle hunting ducks in a tidal fjord. When the ducks dove below the surface to avoid it, the eagle did not leave, but with laboring wings feathering the surface of the waters (Jesus would have been a bit more literary if he’d lived up there) it hung in the air, until suddenly it crashed into the water, risking drowning itself, holding itself afloat with outstretched wings. With great labor, as anxious ducks emerged from the dark waters below, the eagle splashed forward by the power of its water-soaked wings, until it dragged itself—and the duck it held fast in its talons—onto a rock.”

I admit, Jesus’ parables would have been a bit more violent if they had been about eagles—but rich and troubling, nonetheless.

I share with you these stories of this strange removed place, because you are about to leave a place that I think is in many important ways, similarly removed. I want to spend some time discussing that remove, so that you may consider what that means for you now.

Gutenberg provided you a different sort of education. Not primarily different because of her size, though that does make it unique. Nor primarily different because of her method, though that too, is a strength. Not even primarily different because of her curriculum, though it is foundational. No, Gutenberg is primarily different because of the space she creates.

I came across Gutenberg when I was a student at Oregon and Gutenberg was simply the McKenzie Study Center, and its staff taught to whomever showed up in a lecture room on Tuesday nights and to a slightly different audience at the Willakenzie Grange on Sunday nights. Though its institution was different then, I found what I perceive you have found: a place, a setting, for dialogue and inquiry that is a place removed, not geographically, but conceptually and culturally from what I knew.

I want to consider this place you have spent the last four years not as something new, but as something quite old—ancient, even—to shed some light on what it will mean for you to leave it. If it has indeed been the kind of place for you that I believe it has, leaving it—wherever you may go—will not be easy.

Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish thinker I know you have spent some days with, wrote in his journal in 1847: “There is no doubt that the present time, and Protestantism always, needs the monastery again, or that it should exist. ‘The monastery’ is an essential dialectical fact in Christianity, and we need to have it there like a lighthouse, in order to gauge where we are.”

This is the category—the monastery—into which I want to place Gutenberg.

Monasteries are, in any tradition, be it Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or even Buddhist, removed from, and so protected from the society and cultures in which they sit. Of course it does not logically follow that all groups removed from society are therefore better—insularity, irrelevance, or worse may result. But if it is a place committed to honest inquiry, it becomes a buffer not only against the frenzy of the market, but also against the contemporary fashion of consensus—a situation that allows monasteries—and those in them—a unique perspective on how its contemporaries consider life.

In 1847 in Denmark, to be Danish was to be a Christian. It required no more personal commitment than it does you to be an American—it simply required that you go about life in the customary way. In this situation, Christianity’s need for ‘the monastery’ makes sense: There is otherwise little contrast to ‘the customary ways’. Even those in the world committed to pursuing wisdom and understanding will likely accept as self-evident, that which is only common sense because it is commonly held, not because it is plain sense. What can we set in contrast to the prevailing ways—what can we juxtapose to common cultural ways of doing and thinking, and so bring light to what is ‘essential’, or ‘inessential’, if we have no place of remove?

My experience in Canada was in hindsight, at least personally monastic: for three to five months out of the year, I lived a simple life that threw the rest of my experiences into stark relief: it gave me a vantage point from which to examine my values and assumptions about my own existence.

I want us to approach this category of ‘the monastery’—and the unlikely and ironic proposition that Gutenberg can be thought in these terms—through a passage in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. At the beginning, Alyosha, the youngest brother and ‘unlikely hero’ of the novel, has chosen to enter a monastery and the narrator feels compelled to justify the decision:

…He set out upon this path only because at the time it alone struck him and presented him all at once with the whole ideal way out for his soul struggling from darkness to light. Add to this that he was partly a young man of our time—that is, honest by nature, demanding the truth, seeking it and believing in it, and in that belief demanding immediate participation in it with all the strength of his soul…

There is a lot here, but I want to draw attention only to two things: First, the monastery, for Alyosha, was “the ideal way out for the soul.” Monasteries are not, though experience within them is no more or less real than experience without, a place sought by utilitarian ‘realists’. Those who go there, be it as a monk or nun or simply as a visitor seeking to learn, meditate, or reflect, do so within the context—however they articulate it—of their “soul struggling from darkness to light.” I went north each summer to cook. But I also went to engage in that struggle.

The other thing I want to point out is this peculiar description of the young men of his time: “he was partly a young man of our time—that is, honest by nature, demanding the truth, seeking it and believing in it.” How far we are, from a place where to be a “man or woman of the time” means to demand, seek, and believe the truth. We are not nineteenth century Denmark, but we’re certainly not nineteenth century Russia either. Today the narrator would likely say something like this: “Alyosha was a queer fellow, unlike other youth of our time, because he demanded the truth, sought it—and even actually believed in it.” But before I too quickly dismiss our contemporary category, let me remind you of something: you too are “partly young men and women of our time.” Unless you were raised by wolves, you cannot help but be so. Much is made in thinking Christian circles of the threat of a sophisticated postmodernism—the philosophies of Hume, Nietzsche, and Derrida—which I know you have spent time with. But though their writings be the intellectual foundation of radical relativism, do not too quickly assume that, by disagreeing with them, you are thus immune to the spirit of the age: none of us are.

But being a young man of his time, Alyosha went to the monastery, seeking the ideal way out—and so have you. We tend to think of monasteries as places of high commitment to pieties and spiritual disciplines, but they were also—and are also—places of teaching and learning, and simple living. In this sense I want to suggest that Gutenberg is, conceptually, rather monastic—though in a thoroughly (may I say radically) Protestant spirit! Its remove is not physical—it sits in the middle of a city, on the edge of a large university and its faculty make no vows of celibacy—but it is nonetheless, removed from our contemporary moment. I’m not referring to Jack Crabtree’s tendency to 70s slang like ‘groovy’ and ‘far out’ or the fact that you don’t have a football team or a mascot, though I think a ‘Gutenberg Moveable Type Setter’ wielding a metal punch would be a fierce one.

But you have found a ‘space’ removed. In one of John’s letters, he exhorts us to be in the world and not of it. Scandalous as the statement appears at first: I think Gutenberg creates a space neither in it nor of it.

Of course we’re all in the world in one sense—I was when cooking in the Canadian wilderness, and so is all at Gutenberg, faculty and student alike—and we are products of it as well, likely more than we ought. But the space I am considering that, conceptually, Gutenberg creates, is not. This is not a fault, nor something against John’s message, for this space is not one in which to live, but one for another purpose:

Gutenberg’s culture regarding the pursuit of truth and knowledge is unique on this one crucial point: there is here a deep trust of the human mind’s ability to know what it knows and to know what it doesn’t know. This is no small thing: in a culture rife with a latent fear that no one can know anything for sure, we all tend to fall back on seeking arguments and modes of communication that really only aim to score points—arguments and study that re-convince ourselves of our own beliefs, but which do not delve into the heart of things themselves. We see this in our discourse in politics, on science, on theology, and of course—any Internet message boards.

In this climate, though, Gutenberg has managed to foster and sustain a delicate commitment to engage with the tension between the order of thought and logic and the confounding mess of raw experience—and to do so with and through the ancient biblical text. It has created a place where one can set everything ‘on the table’ so to speak—all doctrines, prejudices, orthodoxies, ideals, ideologies, preconceptions, beliefs, and heretofore non-negotiable convictions. Each can have its day on the surgeon’s table here, subject to the knives of individual and collective intelligence, reason, and examination. Such surgery is harrowing, even in the most safe and secure environments. And it takes a great commitment, for a Christian; it takes a wholehearted faith that Simone Weil was right when she said, “Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”

To pursue truth like that is perilous. For when we place ‘everything on the examination table’, my analogy to modern surgery breaks down. Any surgery ought be executed only in the most sterile settings, lest bacteria and germs lead to infection and death. But in the parallel of inquiry, there is no comparable disinfectant to cleanse the instruments of the examination. Each question, each suggestion, each scalpel is infected with the fecund bacteria of desire, of yearning, of fears, anxieties, and hopes for myself and for others. We cannot—and of course should not—cleanse our pursuit of understanding from these things, for to do so would be to deny our humanity—and to delude ourselves. But it makes the surgery all the more difficult—and dangerous: we can never pretend that we have succeeded in ‘pure inquiry’ at any point, and we need able, kind, and humble examples and mentors as we proceed.

This Gutenberg has given you in your pursuit of truth, trusting in your ability to know what you know, and what you don’t know. This climate, the safety of this place, is unique. I won’t claim that it is singularly unique—but any other place that is similar is thus also very important for our society generally, and Christianity specifically. If Kierkegaard is correct, this place serves a larger purpose.

But I am not here to praise Gutenberg College, but to send you on your way from it.

For now it is time for you to leave. I mentioned Alyosha Karamazov, and remember that though he committed to enter the monastery and become a monk, the Elder Zosima surprised (and hurt) Alyosha when he sent him away from it. Requiring that he leave the monastery upon the Elder’s own imminent death, he sent him to undertake “a great obedience in the world.” He also said, for immediate direction: “go to your brother, he needs you.”

You too, now, are being sent out by your elders, and the charge is similar: remain obedient to the commitments you forged here. You have received an ideal education; now take it into what the cynical call ‘the real world.’ And, let me too add for clarity: “go to your brother, he needs you.”

You have learned much, and though some would say your ‘ideal’ education has not prepared you for the ‘real’ world, you know this is not so: you have learned to think, to write, to communicate, and have drawn closer to discerning what is important, and what is not.

But do not forget. This do not forget: you have done so in an ‘ideal’ setting. In a removed setting. Your task after today—to remain obedient to the commitments you forged here—will look very different than it did here.

In James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus emerges from his own chrysalis, his education (partly at the hands of rigorous Jesuits, no less) ready to soar: He has worked through the demands of family, religion, and nation, and developed a sense of his purpose: the final words of the novel are his: “I go for the millionth time to the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

So he leaves Ireland.

And then he returns. A bit of a mess. At the beginning of Ulysses, Joyce picks up Stephen’s story, and his brilliant and lucid mind is frustrated and confounded by the conditions in the reality of experience. We follow his mind as he walks along a beach, running through various compelling philosophical and aesthetic theories and ideas, but neither he nor we cannot ignore that he is walking nowhere, and speaking with no one.

The likelihood is that leaving here, you will find your feet drawn to one of two paths, neither which you should take.

The first is that which tempts Dedalus: despairing to ‘fit’ into the world that seems indifferent to the things you care about. Finding that to be the case, you may seek to prolong the Gutenberg experience, or find it in other relationships or settings. There is good in this—the desire to remain obedient to the commitments you forged here—but also a danger. What is ‘good’ for a time may not be ‘good’ in the future, for this space is not in this world, where you and I must live.

Your time is coming to an end: you must leave it.

But the second path you may find yourself on is the path of the Ents. In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the Ents, the great tree-herders brought to life by the Elves, were drawn to the sublime mountains and woods, the Entwives to the pretty meadows and brooks and flowers. Each spent time in the places they loved until one day, the Ents realized they could no longer find the Entwives, their true love. They missed them deeply, singing wistful songs about them, but they knew them no more, and eventually they stopped actively looking for them. So too may develop your relationship to the commitments you forged here. Our world is an incredibly distracting place, sometimes wonderfully so. It will be easy to grow accustomed to it—to read less, or less difficult matter. To converse about more banal things. To occupy yourself with distraction. I know because it is the world where I live, and I find myself often ‘looking up’ and realizing I had lost sight of the commitments I have forged.

Alyosha was drawn to the monastery because he saw it as “the ideal way out for his soul struggling from darkness to light.” My friends, I believe his Elder Zosima sent him out from the monastery because he knew that Alyosha was wrong. Though it seemed the ‘ideal’ way, it was not the real way: for that, he needed to leave the ideal space and enter the reality of experience—he needed to go to his brother.

Gutenberg is dear to you. But whether you stay here in this community or go elsewhere, whether or not you have the privilege and responsibility to participate in it, or in a similar undertaking, ‘the way out’ for any of us, for each of us, is not retreat into the ideal, but rather the integration of the ideal and the real—the living for the millionth time in the reality of experience. This is part of the commitment I hope you forged here.

I would that you will now step more fully into the world, and seek, here, to live according to the understanding of the truth you now have. That you would continue to pursue it—through the reading and wrestling of worthy books and through your attitudes and actions towards others. I would that you will ‘go’ engage our culture and society through the light of your understanding. And adding a personal challenge: I would recommend that you go, for a time, and live in another country—Texas counts by the way!—and discover which modes of thinking that you now understand as human, are in fact American, Oregonian, or even Gutenbergian.

There is, of course, only one possible outcome to this attempt, if you are honest: you will fail.

The inevitability of this is played out symbolically in The Brothers Karamazov, when less than a day after the Elder Zosima died, his body begins to rot, and an odor of corruption scandalizes the monastery that venerated or resented the old man’s apparent piety. But the foul odor of the corruption of the Elder Zosima is sweet, in Dostoevsky’s telling, because it is true: to have placed him on a pedestal—to have claimed that his righteousness smelled sweet up to heaven and made even his flesh incorruptible was a horrible, vicious crime, because it is a lie: in the words of the Elder himself, “Each of us is guilty… and I most of all.” Even the most holy are in the end, not just corruptible, but corrupt. Failure is woven into the fabric of our existence. It is an outside force, what Simone Weil calls the gravity defying power of grace, that lifts our foul to fair.

We fear failure, of any kind, and go to great length to avoid its pain. A friend of mine in Ireland made an observation to me, about the difference between American and Irish responses to failure. His example was of two men who tried to start a business that consequently failed. The Irishman, he said, would mourn the failure, lament it deeply and forever, and would rally the lads about him, regularly reliving the story in the pub, raising a pint “to whot might ‘ave bin’—aye, it shoulda!”, transforming the failure into a glorious tragedy that only failed because “the Man,” and bad luck, assailed him. The American, on the other hand, he said, would take a different approach. He would, matter-of-factly, close shop and file for bankruptcy. He would find another partner, another idea, and reincorporate the business under a new name. He would secure a bank loan, and have the new venture up before the end of the year. And if it failed, he would do it again.

Regardless of what we make of either response—the latter is good for the economy, but the former has its beauty—we can see in both that we do not want to face personal failure, existentially, no matter what the context: we may mask it by putting on an optimistic face or shroud it in noble, if tragicomic glory. Perhaps our most successful way to avoid it: our ability to transform our weaknesses and failings into principles we live by, justifying our failures with false authority.

My exhortation to you is to seek another way. Go, for the millionth time to the reality of experience, attempting to live obedient to the commitments you forged here. Rather than deny or draw attention away from your failings, be, like the seagull, or the duck of the tidal fjord, the humble example, not the authority, of the truth ‘that is troubled’.

I want to end with a few lines from T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets:

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly.
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

Go, acquire that wisdom.

Copyright June 2008 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Craig Doerksen