Honors Day Talk
6 May 2005
Thank you, Jim, for that kind and flattering introduction. And thank you, President Thomforde and the members of the Board of Regents for your oversight and leadership, and to all my faculty colleagues, past and present. I have learned much from you through many stimulating conversations over the years. It is certainly an honor for me to be up here this morning, but the real reason we are here is to honor you students. You are the reason the college exists, and this is the day when we take time out to recognize all your efforts and accomplishments. Thank you also to all the donors whose contributions help recognize them.
It was an innocent question. The student was trying to understand the concept of energy and when it is conserved. "In chemistry energy is conserved, but what does it do in physics?", I was asked. Different disciplines, even those as similar as physics and chemistry, use terms in different ways, so perhaps that was what the question was about. Does the term "energy" have the same meaning in physics that it does in chemistry? Of course it does, although we do have disagreements over signs sometimes: is the energy that holds the atoms together in a molecule positive or negative, for example. On the other hand, the question may have indicated that the student thought the two disciplines might make different claims about what nature really does. Chemistry and Physics do make use of different techniques, and concentrate on different types of phenomena, but they both seek to find predictive models for the same natural processes, and would be in real trouble if they came to conflicting conclusions about something as basic as energy.
Each of us has a life that is made up of many separate rooms. For this student chemistry and physics were separate compartments, and the question was an attempt to crack open the door between them to see whether the concept of energy extended through them both. We all find nearly impenetrable barriers between these rooms. Work and play, reason and emotion, mental and physical, logic and faith are pairs of words that define some of these walls. For each of us the arrangement of these rooms is different. We have to carve our own doors through the barriers to make our lives whole.
All of us have many inconsistencies. We may understand that petroleum resources are limited and rapidly running out, yet we buy bigger, more fuel-demanding vehicles and do not think twice about surrounding ourselves with 2-ton SUVs to carry us to places where we could be walking or biking. In order to feed this addiction we support wars in the Middle East that result in deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, including thousands of Americans. We understand that soft drinks are unhealthy to drink, and wasteful of energy to package and ship around, but we still consume them in ever-expanding quantities. We understand that people in many under-developed countries work in near slavery conditions to produce the goods that we don't need, but continue to buy and throw away.
Thomas Jefferson is an icon of America--for authoring the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, instigating the Louisiana Purchase, and commissioning the Lewis and Clark expedition. In addition to being a political philosopher he was a scientist, violinist, and inventor, who studied the mosaic disease of wheat and developed a device for making copies of his correspondence, a more efficient plow, and a threshing machine. As an architect he designed his home at Monticello and as an advocate of education established the University of Virginia. With such diverse accomplishments, he surely had succeeded in opening many doors between the compartments of his life.
Beginning in 1769 Jefferson argued repeatedly in the Virginia House of Burgesses for curtailing the institution of slavery. In his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, he included in the long list of grievances against King George a paragraph charging the monarch with waging "a cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he had prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce, determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold:...." and the quote goes on. That King George did not hold sole responsibility for imposing and maintaining slavery in the colonies is evidenced by the fact that Jefferson's fellow members of Congress did not go along with his opinion. The paragraph did not make it into the final Declaration. My point here is that Jefferson, in spite of his passionate arguments against slavery in general, was never able to free his own slaves. He apparently had some walls between parts of his life too.
According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus repeatedly chastised the religious leaders for their hypocrisy. The 23 chapter of Matthew is a litany of accusations: "The doctors of the law and the Pharisees sit in the chair of Moses; therefore do what they tell you; pay attention to their words. But do not follow their practice; for they say one thing and do another. They make up heavy packs and pile them on men's shoulders, but will not raise a finger to lift the load themselves. Whatever they do is done for show. They go about with broad phylacteries and with large tassels on their robes; they like to have places of honor at feasts and the chief seats in synagogues, to be greeted respectfully in the street, and to be addressed as 'rabbi'.
"Alas, alas for you lawyers and Pharisees, hypocrites that you are! You shut the door of the kingdom of Heaven in men's faces; you do not enter yourselves, and when others are entering, you stop them.
"Alas for you, lawyers and Pharisees, hypocrites! You travel over sea and land to win one convert; and when you have won him you make him twice as fit for hell as you are yourselves."
And on it goes. Jesus leaves no doubt about what he thinks of the inconsistencies of the religious leaders in their lives.
One of my own adventures with one of these walls began in the summer of 1947, when I was just 8 years old. It was the one and only family car trip that we all had together. The six of us: my parents, two sisters and brother and I, packed into our 1940 blue Buick to head northwest from our western Kansas farm on the then still gravel roads of Western Nebraska to see the Black Hills. After a day's delay for the repair of a failing fuel pump, we made it, and were awed by the bison herds, Wind Cave, the Needles, and Mount Rushmore. Coming home by way of Denver, we stopped at the Museum of Natural History, where I saw the skeleton of a dinosaur for the first time, its head towering toward the high ceiling, and its tail stretched across the large hall. I had never heard of science before, but that sight was enough for me to know I wanted to learn more.
Back in my one-room country school to start 4th grade that September, I located a small booklet on the single bookshelf that served as our school library. It introduced me to the Brontosaurus, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, Tyranosaurus, Pterodactyl, and others whose names I diligently committed to memory. That was the first year that I had a textbook called Science, and I was quite disappointed to see that it had nothing about dinosaurs. Then I noticed that it was missing several pages, just where the dinosaurs would have fit in. There was no sign of their having been cut out--it was a new book that my parents had just purchased at the pharmacy in town that served as a book store, and must have been flawed when it was bound. As the only 4th grader in the school, I had no one else I could ask about their copy. It was only much later that I learned that my mother had discussed with her two sisters on their nearby farms whether it would be wrong for us to see the Denver museum. What if we kids were to fall into the trap of accepting Evolution, and lose our Christian faith? I still don't know whether the missing pages in my text were part of a similar attempt to shield me from these subversive ideas, but my suspicion has grown over the years that it was, perhaps even on a state-wide scale. But I must give my mother credit for coming down in favor of education, even at a risk to the faith.
Through the years since then I have continued to be fascinated by the history of life on Earth, and still read the magazine Natural History cover-to-cover each month. Every new discovery supports the fact of evolution, so that there can remain no doubt in my mind that life on Earth has developed over a span of billions of years. Even the late Pope John Paul II found the evidence convincing.
On the other hand, I have not been willing to give up on the church and its long traditions. I love the biblical stories, the music, the worship, the support community, and the absolution of guilt offered by faith. The more I read the Bible, the more convinced I am that its writers would not have shared my mother's concern. Natural processes, even if they could be understood in terms of what we would now call scientific theories, were still regarded as God's work. The God of the Bible is in charge of the "natural" as well as the "supernatural", a distinction that depends on our level of scientific understanding and not on the process itself.
Physicists seek to find mathematical representations of natural processes, that they call "laws of nature", to "understand" in a predictive way, what will happen in different situations. The hymn that we just sang refers to the "laws which never shall be broken", reflecting the 18th Century euphoria over the success of Newtonian physics. We have since recognized that Newton's laws are indeed broken, and superceded by Relativity and quantum mechanics, but that just reminds us that we do not have, and may never have, a complete and final theory of nature. The laws of nature serve to regulate what happens in the same way that the biblical God does. For me, this recognition has opened the door between the rooms of science and faith. God the Creator is the biblical language for what physicists call natural law. Evolution does not mean a rejection of God, but simply provides details about how life came to be what it is now, through the operation of what we may equivalently refer to as the laws of nature or as God the Creator.
The perception of a conflict between science and religion is certainly a common one, for scientists as well as for those who view science as the enemy of religion. Scientific magazines regularly print letters debating the issue, with the majority seemingly either refuting religion entirely, or claiming that science and religion should be completely separate modes of thought. I prefer to open that door rather than keep it closed.
In going through this very personal account of my own experience, I do not want to suggest that others of you will come to the same conclusions. Your rooms are different from mine, and require different doors. I do think that we each need to strive for our own consistency.
But consistency itself is something that depends on us individually. According to the current perception in American politics and the media, a conservative is one who opposes abortion, and supports capital punishment and wars to defend American interests including the current one in Iraq, while a liberal supports permitting abortions, but opposes the death penalty and the Iraq war. Pope John Paul II, on the other hand, opposed abortion, the death penalty, and the war in Iraq, asserting the value of life in all these cases.
St. Olaf is a college of the liberal arts. That means it is dedicated to opening doors between the sciences, humanities, and arts, and between the aspects of mind, body and spirit. Our general education requirements are designed to ensure that St. Olaf graduates will have had at least an exposure to a variety of disciplines and activities. We continue to try to find ways to encourage integrative and interdisciplinary modes of learning. The "global perspective" of our mission statement is often interpreted in the geographical sense, and it surely is important to be aware of the world's different cultures. But it can also be regarded in terms of a stepping back to gain a broad perspective on the different compartments of our lives.
You students whom we honor here today have shown that you are able to bring together the different disciplines of the college curriculum, as well as the many extra-curricular activities that are also important. We faculty tend to concentrate more on our own studies at the expense of broader interests. You students can teach us much about "getting it all together".