This talk was given to Gutenberg’s graduating class on June 14, 2013.
Graduating class of 2013, thank you for asking me to speak to you today. As I thought about what I might say to you, I turned to the rest of the Gutenberg tutors for guidance. I asked them what message, what advice, would they give to this graduating class? As expected, they were no help at all. However, they all agreed on one important point: they were unanimous in praising YOU. All agreed that you were a great class that had done a wonderful job. So about the past there is no question: you should look back on your years at Gutenberg with great satisfaction. You have come a long way, and you have done a great job. That is the very sincere belief of all of your tutors. Congratulations.
But a graduation speaker is supposed to speak not only of the past but the future. You graduates stand at the threshold of many changes and possibilities. What words of advice and encouragement are worthy of the occasion? What should I say to you? That was my quest: to find the message that would be most fitting and helpful for the days ahead. But in my search for a message, I ran into what we might call “the Gutenberg curse.” Let me tell you what I mean.
This year has been the year of Kierkegaard for me. I have had the privilege of working together with the students through several of Kierkegaard’s important works. I believe I have come to a new appreciation and understanding of Kierkegaard’s thinking. And so my hope was to find something in Kierkegaard that would be suitable for a graduation speech. First, I found a text where Kierkegaard spoke about our human desire to have a huge impact and change the world—or as he would put it, a desire to become a “world-historical figure.” Now that is a great theme for a graduation. Graduation speakers are supposed to talk to students about going out and changing the world. Even better, Kierkegaard’s advice had a nice, contrarian flavor to it. Because rather than urging us to change the world, he speaks of it as a temptation to be avoided. The true business of the believer is to work on the inner person. Our business is to pursue what is good and true with inner passion and urgency. Our passion should be for what Kierkegaard calls “the ethical.” Whether we have any impact on the world is not our business; it is an accident of history—or put another way, it is God’s work, not ours. As Kierkegaard put it,
A truly great ethical individuality would consummate his life as follows: he would develop himself to the utmost of his capability; in the process he perhaps would produce a great effect in the external world, but this would not occupy him at all, because he would know that the external is not in his power and therefore means nothing either pro or contra… He would, then, remain in ignorance about [his impact in the external world] through a resolution of the will, and even in death he would will not to know that his life had had any significance other than that of having ethically prepared the development of his soul. Then if the power governing all things would want to dispose circumstances so that he became a world-historical figure—well, that is something he would inquire about jestingly in eternity, for not until then is there time for the light-minded questions of carelessness.
Kierkegaard urges us to have so little thought about our impact in the world that we don’t even think about it. We are too concerned with the development of our soul to worry about our impact on the world. We don’t even get around to asking about the impact we had on the world until after we die. In eternity we will have leisure time to discuss trivialities like whether we turned out to be world-historical figures.
So that was my first thought: this profound warning from Kierkegaard with a slightly untypical graduation message: don’t worry about changing the world; worry about changing yourselves. True, in an earlier Gutenberg graduation speech Jack had sounded a similar theme. But hey, there is no shame in stealing from Jack and Kierkegaard.
But here is where the Gutenberg curse comes in: a first thought is always followed by a second thought. I started thinking about YOU and the pressures you and your generation face. I may be wrong about this, but it seems to me that most of the pressures on your generation are from the other direction. You are not tempted to make too much of yourselves, thinking you are going to change world. Instead, your culture pressures you to think that action is pointless, that you can have no meaningful effect on the world, that it is useless to try. So as profound as Kierkegaard’s warning is, there is a “yes, but” attached to it. On the one hand, it is profoundly true. But on the other hand, it could be misleading. It is a profound warning, but is it the warning YOU need to hear? I had fallen victim to the Gutenberg curse: the deadly danger that we will think ourselves into a corner.
So next I turned my thoughts to the Bible. Kierkegaard warned against a rote biblical orthodoxy. In his culture everyone was a Christian. Everyone knew what the Bible said. Everyone knew the right answers to all the doctrinal questions. Instead, Kierkegaard urged that life is not about having all the right Bible answers; life is about making the personal, passionate, existential choice to follow God. This is so profoundly true that I don’t think it can be emphasized enough. But once again the Gutenberg curse came upon me, and second thoughts kicked in. I may be wrong, but once again it seems to me that the pressures on your generation are from the other direction. Your generation is less inclined to fall into a dead orthodoxy. But your culture seems to pressure you to doubt that the Bible can be understood at all. You are not pressured to think that being a Christian is about having the right doctrines; you are pressured to think that doctrine is irrelevant because we can’t possibly know. So once again, as profound as Kierkegaard’s warning is, there is a “yes, but” attached to it. On the one hand, it is profoundly true. But on the other hand, it could be misleading. It is a profound warning, but is it the warning YOU need to hear?
So here I was, a poor struggling graduation speaker, left with fuzzy and conflicting ideas. On the one hand, maybe you need to hear X. But on the other hand, maybe you need to hear the opposite of X. The Gutenberg curse was upon me. As the apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14:8, “if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle?” I wanted to sound a clear note for you. I wanted to say something decisive that would cut through the ambiguities, that would resolve the tensions between the “on the one hand” and “on the other hand.”
Fortunately, Kierkegaard came to my rescue. As you graduates know, Kierkegaard was a fierce opponent of what he called “speculative thought.” For our purposes here, it doesn’t matter what he meant by that. But at one point in his work Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard points out that those who follow speculative thought are fooling themselves. For Kierkegaard, life is about decision. Each of us as individuals must make the personal, subjective decision as to how we are going to respond to God. However, those who pursue speculative thought only think they are making an important personal decision. But they are kidding themselves; it is only a fake, pretend decision they are making. And to Kierkegaard, this shows the absurdity of their position. Why? Because facing the true decisions concerning the faith requires that we stop kidding ourselves about things. The true decisions of the faith require that we abandon self-delusion. And so we come to the statement that I wanted to bring you today. Kierkegaard warns us against self-delusion by saying, “decision is the eternal protest against fictions.” Let me say that again: “decision is the eternal protest against fictions.” That is, making a deep and meaningful decision to follow God requires that we be ever vigilant to reject fictions, falsehoods, seductive lies. (At least, I think that is what Kierkegaard means by it; at any rate, that is what I mean by it.)
And so this is my message, this is my clarion call to you today: commit your life to the eternal protest against fictions. Do not let your culture tell you false but comforting stories. Do not tell yourselves false but comforting stories. If we commit ourselves to the eternal protest against fictions, we can resolve the tensions I discussed earlier. We can find our way through the “yes, buts.” We can work our way out of the corner that the Gutenberg curse had put me in. We can confront the “on the one hands” and the “on the other hands” to find the truth contained in both hands.
So concerning the issue of our impact on the world: on the one hand, it is a fiction to think that changing the world is more important than tending to our souls; and yet on the other hand, it is a fiction to think that we are not called to act, that there is no point in fighting back against the evil in the world. To cultivate love in our own souls goes hand in hand with acting lovingly in the world. It is a fiction to think that we can do without either one.
Likewise concerning our relationship with the Bible: on the one hand, it is a fiction to think that life is merely about having the right doctrines, about having accurate knowledge of what the Bible teaches. It is a fiction to think that any of us has perfect doctrinal understanding. And yet on the other hand, it is a fiction to think that we cannot make progress in understanding the Bible. It is a fiction to think doctrine is unknowable and has no importance. A heart with a passion for God will not accept the fiction that it has all the right doctrinal answers, but neither will it accept the fiction that it can slack off and ignore the word of God. The eternal protest against fictions produces a humility in our knowledge but a hunger to know more.
You and I studied through the Gospel of John together. Perhaps then you will understand me when I say that Jesus Himself portrayed faith as “the eternal protest against fictions.” In John we saw all the reasons why people refused to believe in Jesus. They clung to the fiction that physical bread, material wealth, was more important than eternal life. They clung to the fiction that they were good people, that they did not need to repent and be forgiven. They clung to the fiction that what other people thought of them was more important than what God thinks of them. And they clung to the fiction that their doctrinal understanding was so perfect that they had no need to reconsider it. What we saw in John was this: the ones who believed were the ones who abandoned these fictions, the ones who faced the truth about themselves and God.
Graduates, here is what I believe about the lives you have ahead of you. The world is going to tell you some stories, some fictions, like these: Your choices don’t matter. Life has no ultimate point. There is no God. Or, we can’t really know anything about God. Or, there is a God but you don’t really need to do anything about Him. Life is about self-gratification rather than self-control. And so on. Even worse, you will be tempted to tell yourself some stories, some fictions, like these: It is always the other person’s fault, not mine. As long as I have a community of good friends, I have all that I need. My biggest problems can be solved through marriage and a good career. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with me. Or the worst fiction of all: I can live in limbo; I don’t have to finally and decisively choose whether to follow God or not.
There is a road that leads to life, and every single person on that road is committed to the eternal protest against fictions. So I am asking you to join the crusade: commit yourselves to the eternal protest against fictions. Don’t listen to lies, even when you yourselves are the liars. Now, ultimately I am optimistic. I am deeply encouraged by the choices you graduates have made in your years at Gutenberg. Each of you have faced some hard truths and taken them on with integrity. I don’t think you want to let fictions rule your lives. I think that you will join the eternal protest against fictions. I hope you will.
Copyright July 2013 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.