2009 Gutenberg College Commencement Address: The Comic Tragedian Simply Speaking

by Toby Johnston


Each year, the graduating class selects a speaker for their commencement ceremony. The Class of 2009 chose Toby Johnston, a 2002 Gutenberg graduate. Toby, a poet who received first-place honors at the 2008 Oregon State Poetry Association Spring Contest in the category “Poetry of Witness,” wrote his commencement address more as poetry than prose.

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I would like to thank the graduating class for giving me this dubious honor. It is so not because of some imperfection found in the privilege of speaking at a Gutenberg graduation. Quite the contrary. It is dubious because of whom you chose to bestow this honor upon. I think you should reconsider. I will not say if you good people are Balaam, but I think there is little doubt about who I am; and yet despite these reservations I thought that I might as well stand up here on this joyous day and remind you all what a shameless son of a bitch I still am.

Thank you, graduating class, and congratulations.

Having gone through this program myself, I know in some small part the challenges you faced academically, the sacrifices you made to excel, and the obstacles you will have to overcome as you now head out into the world, a world that does not give a shit about those things to which you have devoted four years of your life—and perhaps your whole life.

You have spent four years devoted to the history of ideas. You have bent over books for many hours studying and seeking to understand. You learned German. You learned classical Greek (Thank Mr. Booster). You have labored beneath the sciences, philosophy, theology, literature. You have ascribed value to something I think is worth not just an education nor the time you spent acquiring it nor the tuition you paid but is worth a life time; and you go out now to a world where people don’t believe in anything at all and don’t love anything but themselves.

But take comfort, I have found this education useful—not just as a stone can be useful for its weight as a door stop or paper weight—but as a stone that you might throw through a window. The kind of stone you might set up as a marker or monument or even gravestone. I am saying that you are laying a foundation one thought at a time. You are etching out an understating of truth, and this will produce fruit.

Ironically, I was informed this week that the graduate program to which I applied and had been accepted has rescinded its offer of acceptance. I am here to tell you that I do not regret nor I am ashamed of one second I spent here. This place—these men and women and their friendship—has helped me keep my faith. So no, I don’t think you will regret your time here, but I have been wrong before about all sorts of stuff.

Unfortunately I feel the need to reminded you, the soon-graduated, what little you really have to be proud of. Some of you are only in your twenties, and if the accumulation of these four years of effort could be simply represented by the words on a gradation certificate or by test scores, then there is very little remarkable about any of you. (I mean I graduated from Gutenberg as well, so it must not be that hard.)

Consider the fact that young men and women all over the country graduate this week. There are probably kids at Harvard who could be considered smarter than all of us combined, excluding Jonathan. Believe it or not, their schools gave them all caps, and they all got gowns, and they are all forced to listen to some obtuse windbag recite, “Two roads diverged in the woods blah blah blah…” (like Harvard was the road less traveled).

But I digress—

We are all here, after all, to celebrate you grads:
because you can receive instruction (forgetting that so can house pets),
because you have achieved a thing only several other million
students nationwide have achieved. And so today we celebrate you graduates—
the intellectual potty-trained,
the smartest kids in the room,
and tomorrow all the caps and all the gowns go back to the dry cleaner’s and then into boxes for the next long awaited generation of reformers that will change the face of our society.

But you grads must have know all this.
I mean you asked me to talk. Me.
Why would you do such a silly, silly thing?

If the honor of giving this speech was bestowed upon a person of stalwart academic credentials, or even if the person were required to have an elementary comprehension of basic English grammar, I would be disqualified from even attending the graduation. I am a most unlikely candidate for such an honor, but isn’t that already painfully obvious? You grads, you smart, smart grads must have known all this. You must have known there must be something else as well—something other than just intellectual prowess, monetary success, or social respectability—for I have nothing of the sort.

I would like warn you not to listen to me now because I am biased. Of course, a humiliated man will speak on the importance of humility. Of course, a poor preacher will teach on the virtue of charity. The terminally ill are often convinced of a heaven out of the necessity of their situation, and condemned prisoners all believe in a forgiving god or a comfortable hell. So don’t listen to me. I have little to lose by being wrong, and this belief is born of my convenience.

I having nothing about which to brag—nothing that I may point at and say, “Here, here is victory, here is success, here is something for which I can be proud.” I cannot take credit for my friend’s generosity and kindness or my mother’s love and courage or this audience’s patience.

I have attained nothing in life; consequently and without a drop of irony, I allude to the virtues unattainable.

I transverse values like a Nietzsche sheep.
I say clumsy is good.
Poverty and unemployability are profitable.
Wisdom is folly is wise.
And suffering, dear children, dear parents, friends, and grads—suffering is joy.
But all these things are true because of faith.

I will now speak briefly of faith. If anyone else wants to listen in—that is fine by me. Hopefully I will speak in such a way that you might be more frightened of God than you were when I first started speaking, that those of you who believe you understand what faith is might become more confused, and in such a way that those of you who are convinced faith is something in your possession might leave here believing it is something you might never ever attain.

I am not speaking of faithfulness. A dog can be faithful.
Anyone can be faithful to anything.
One can be faithful to one’s employer or one’s spouse or one’s children or one’s alma matter.
Some people are faithful to a political party or to a certain auto maker or to a hair care product.
Some people are faithful to a brand of dish soap.
You can eat the same breakfast for fifty years faithfully.
You can be a faithful student of Kierkegaard or, even worse, Hegel.
But these things cannot ask of you faith.
If all virtue required was faithfulness, then heaven would be filled with Pharisees, Nazi youth, and Jihadists.
Each of these is faithful.

Faith and faithfulness are often confused, mostly because faith begets faithfulness. But faithfulness does not necessarily beget faith.
You can be virtuous and not have faith.
You can mimic goodness but not believe.
You can be nice and hate God
and still go to church every Sunday.
People do it all the time.

If faith and faithfulness have a thing in common it is that they rely upon context for understanding.
What is charity without the discovery of need?
What is courage without the fear of failure?
Grace without sin is meaningless.
And so it is with faith.
We look to the particulars to comprehend the universal.

I will draw upon two contexts in which faith is made manifest—
two contexts that you grads will discover yourselves in.

Grads, I would not presume to tell you how your life will go, but yes I do. I will anyway.

The first context is the most obvious and most disturbing. We start with the father of faith.
God asks you to murder. Will you have faith?
Wait, it gets better.
God asks you to murder a child.
God asks you to murder your child.
God asks you to murder your son or your daughter.
Who here is willing to look at your son or your daughter and say to him or her
right now,
“If God asked me, I would kill you”?
Who here would even think they could say that?

Sons and daughters in this room,
I will tell you that while we imagine Isaac as a child
(because the death of a child pulls harder on the heart)
Josephus, a Jewish historian, speculates that Isaac might have been anywhere from twenty-five to thirty-seven.
Old enough to object and fight back.
Old enough to see through Abraham’s lies:
“We go to the mountain, and God will provide a sacrifice.”
Isaac could have resisted.
Sons and daughters in the room,
if you had faith, you would allow yourself to be bound as Isaac did.
If you truly loved your father and mother,
you would want them to have faith even more than you want your own life.

Do you see how impossible this is?

But what if God asks this of you? It is his right.

This is the faith of trials, of the moment of crisis,
and it is coming.
For some of you, it is already here.

What if God asks you to give up Western comforts to be a missionary in a distant land,
and what if you are to die in that land?
What if God ask you to lie to someone you love?
What if God asks you to accept your child’s wrong choices as right?
Or God asks you to vote for Obama? (It’s weird that I even had to put that in here.)
What if God asks you to be alone for the rest of your life?
Or, heaven forbid, he asks you to die a virgin?
Or God asks you to be a homosexual?
God could ask you
to commit suicide for a historical analogy
so that he can show his love for all people
as he did with Jesus.
or to watch your family be killed in armed conflict
as he asked the prophet Mohammad
or to wander the desert all your life and never set foot in the promised land
as he asked of father Moses.

Where is your faith now?
Can any of us say with the same easy voice we use to sing hymns,
“Yes, I could be faithful in all these things”?

Am I doing OK, grads?

The Bible says that Abraham drew his knife.
But he didn’t have to.
There were infinite opportunities to sidestep.
He could have denied the request completely.
(When God gives you lemons, you find a new god.)

He could have whined like Moses, and God would have had pity and said, “I’m sorry, Abraham. You can keep your son. I didn’t know you would take it so hard. My bad.”

Abraham could have taken the blade and plunged it into his own heart,
said, “This task was too great for me. I give you myself to spare my son.”
And this honorable sacrifice, while a generous act, would not have been faith.

Abraham, in his anger with God, for no doubt Abraham was angry, could have slit the throat of his son just to spite God,
pointed the finger in God’s face
and said, “Look what you made me do. Are you happy now?”
Adam was faithless in this way when he said,
“It was the woman you gave me that led me to eat.”

Abraham, when given his task, could have resigned himself to it.
He could have become nothingness, drained himself of his humanity, and like a robot done the deed thoughtlessly; and as he went through the act of killing his son, he could have been quietly humming a lullaby his mother taught him, distracting himself from the task at hand and the grief and agony. Done the deed with a blindfold. Denied his humanity and ceased to be a father even though he had a son.

But Abraham did what God asked and prepared to mourn his child’s death,
prepared to become a murderer
because he had faith; he existed.

Take comfort, everyone.
None of you is Abraham.
It is not the case that you have been asked to have faith in all these things.
God could call upon to you forgive the unforgivable, but the forgivable is hard enough to forgive.
God has asked some of you to be born into violence and abuse.

and if he hasn’t yet, he will.
God will ask some of you to speak for justice when you would rather remain silent.
Or to be alone for a long time.
But it could be worse—you might have been given the impossible task of running a small Great-Books college.

So, with respect to faith,
Abraham drew his knife.
Your knife and the act of drawing it will be different.
You each will ascend a different sort of cross.

What has been given to me to do has not been asked of you.
The same task was not given to Isaac that was given his father, and God did not make the same promises.
Abraham—with one eye to his child—could have wanted to example faith for Isaac: “This is how it’s done, Son.”
But this would have been foolishness.
For, in fact, Isaac, as he lay awaiting his death, understood no more of his father’s faith than of the surface of Mars.
So particular is God,
so particular is faith,
that Isaac, seeing perfect faith exampled,
would still have had to find his own, would still have needed to wrestle with God himself.

The giver of perfect gifts,
God will prepare you for your trials.
Abraham waited many years before he was given a son,
and then he gave him up,
and then his son was returned when Abraham saw the ram.
The same individuals face the same trials,
complete their understanding of faith.
So take heart.

God is preparing you for your trials, grads.
But your trials are something you will be given.
You don’t get to choose your cross.
Oedipus, if he were to tell you,
he would say
your life is not yours really;
you are the glove
but not the hand.
When in the Bible is God ever heard saying,
“I’ll come back when you are ready”?

The second context in which faith is made manifest is everything else.
This faith demands the opposite of the first in this important way:
It asks that you live as if you might not have to suffer.
It asks you to take part in life,
to enjoy.
It is the faith between the moment of great trials.
Seneca writes that
it takes a whole life to learn to live,
and it takes a whole life to learn how to die.
And I would add that
it takes a whole life to perfect one’s faith.
One’s whole life—the good and bad,
the years of plenty and the years of famine.
One’s whole life.
And you have to live it. You have to be present. You have to show up, be contextual. You have to be subjective.
This is the other great calling of faith.

It is strange that Christianity and humanism are seemingly so incompatible,
for the man of faith is both the most pious and the most human.
Choke on that, Nietzsche.

Grads, have faith in the goodness that God gives you.
If the master has given you four coins,
invest those coin well.
If the master has given you only a single coin,
invest that.
And eagerly wait for the return of your master.

We might be tempted
to nihilism,
to deny our subjectivity.
We might seek to blunt the trials by anticipating them.
Do not do this. This is faithless.
We might hope to fortress our heart against the coming disappointments.
Do not do this. This is faithless.
Do not waste your gifts in fearing that God could ask for their return.
Do not do this.
For suffering and trial are not in themselves any more virtuous than
joy and success,
but it is the heart which determines.

I guess what I am saying is “Be human.”

After the ram was sacrificed,
Abraham became a father again.
He no longer mourned what God asked of him but built a monument to God
and went home with his son.
He became a father again.
His faith was his joy at his son’s return.

It was faith that led the father of the prodigal son to give his son his inheritance early. He could just as easily have withheld it.
But it was also faith that killed the fatted calf when the son came home. It was faith that celebrated his return, for the father did not just know that his son was restored but that he had returned in faith. He had come to his own faith. He could have remained in the pen with the pigs. Many never leave, but he came home.
It is faith that we look to the resurrection of the dead.

The rabbi says
mourn with those who mourn,
pick flowers for the dead, and light candles on the remembering days;
but if you find yourself
in the presence of a keg or two or three,
elbow deep in an ice cooler surrounded by an army of red cups,
or on a dance floor with the DJ playing your song,
then by all means
have faith,
for these have been given to you by God.
Remember, you do not need miracles at weddings
if you already have enough wine.

And if you are at a graduation
and your brother whom you love and his wife
by whom your family has been made better
and their friends
are all dressed up
and graduating;
if you are wearing a gown
and you look to your left and your right and see only friends and family,
if you see pride in the eyes of your professors,
if you see gratitude in the eyes of your student,
and your family is here to be with you—
celebrate this.
Be thankful, take pictures, be joyous, weep but from happiness.
It has been given to you to be happy,
knowing at all times that it is a good God,
a loving God, that gives us this opportunity to be here together,
to reunite with our old friends,
to celebrate their achievements,
and to be with each other.
To enjoy each other. To love each other.

Be faithful with this gift.

And know that faith says
this will not be the last time we are all together.
We will be a community should only two here remain.
We will be a community always.
This is what faith says.

In closing, Grads—

God will test you. So be it.
May God bring you to edge the abyss, test you to the breaking point,
but may you pass.
May you come back from the edge of the abyss
and return to the life you almost had lost
and be glad.
Do not remember the abyss and forget God.
Rather, forget the abyss, but remember God always.

Thank you, graduating class, for this honor. Thank you each. Many of you know how things have gone of late, so your invitation and the dignity it has granted me is something I will never forget. Thank you each. I own you each a debt of gratitude.

Copyright August 2009 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Toby Johnston