What do you believe? This is not a question that we ask each other too often. It is a question that we admittedly shy away from. It carries a weight of intimacy and judgment, interest and criticism. Or at least it does out there. At Concordia University Irvine, we’ve been asked that question since day one. What do you believe?
A Harvard graduate, speaking at his own graduation a few years ago, had a very accurate observation about the state of our society. He said,
“They tell us that it is heresy to suggest the superiority of some value, fantasy to believe in moral argument, slavery to submit to a judgment sounder than your own. The freedom of our day is the freedom to devote ourselves to any value we please, on the mere condition that we do not believe them to be true.”
That is an unfortunate and horrifyingly accurate statement. That cuts to the core of our cultural identity. “You do you.” As long as whatever you choose to do doesn’t affect me. We’re in an intellectual, ideological, and cultural stalemate, and each side sits in their trench, never advancing the line.
But we’ve learned different. When society says it is heresy to believe the superiority of some value, we’ve learned it is inescapable. When society says it is fantasy to believe in moral argument, we’ve learned the concrete benefits of engaging in such an argument. When society says it is slavery to submit to a judgment sounder than your own, we’ve learned that demonstrates humility. When society says you may devote yourself to any value you please on the mere condition that you do not believe it to be true, our only condition is that you are willing to test the truth of your value against alternatives. Our campus is a battleground of ideas.
And yes, what we’ve learned is more difficult. It is not easy to humbly admit you were wrong, and it is not easy to test your values. It is far easier to simply assume they’re true and not bring it up with those you know disagree because that’s uncomfortable, and we don’t like being uncomfortable. To quote Aaron Burr in the musical Hamilton, we’d rather “talk less, smile more.” That is far more comfortable.
But we’ve already shown that we don’t mind being uncomfortable. We wouldn’t be sitting here today if we only wanted to be comfortable. Between 7:30 am classes and those awkward and uneven desk-chair hybrids in half the classrooms on campus, we know what it means to be uncomfortable. Every athlete who had to run to class immediately after practice knows what its like to be uncomfortable. Every member of choir who’s had to stand for an extended period of time during a Concordia Christmas rehearsal, every theatre major who’s had an awkward stage-kiss, every theatre major who’s had to watch an awkward stage kiss, every science major who’s spent hours in the lab, every worship band participant, every survivor of the Around-the-World Semester, knows what it’s like to be uncomfortable.
But these uncomfortabilities, or discomforts, are experienced at almost every university—these are all physical discomforts. Concordia goes the extra mile. Concordia makes you spiritually and intellectually uncomfortable. Whatever you thought you knew when you came here, you had that challenged. And some of us radically changed our beliefs. Some of us have held on to the beliefs we came here with. But all of them were challenged. And that’s intrinsically uncomfortable. Concordia students seem to have an existential crisis at a rate of about twice a semester, or for some of us, twice a week. But through that common discomfort, we’ve grown. We’ve grown from freshman, wide-eyed and somewhat knowledgeable, to graduates, wise and sleep-deprived.
So what was it all for? Why did we put ourselves through four years of discomfort? Why did we go through two years of “Enduring Questions and Ideas?” Just in case any of you didn’t get the memo, the ideas are still enduring, the questions still unanswered. Sometimes I think they only made us read Don Quixote so we would have a narrative to compare our college careers to: unbearably long, complicated, and left with a slight feeling of madness.
But if we leave this hall today with a sound argument for what we believe, we have earned our degree. If we can enter the world and not just take part in the important conversation, but compel others to also do so, we have earned our degree.
There’s a British romantic comedy that’s almost as enduring as anything Plato or Aristotle have written, called Love Actually in which the Prime Minister of England says, “We might be a small country, but we’re a great one too.” (I had to get some sort of reference to England in here somewhere.) I think the same can be said of us: we might be a small graduating class, but we’re a great one too.
As we disperse into the world, we will share what we’ve learned with others. We can show everybody else that you can believe in something. You can devote yourself to a value and hold that value to be true. That’s why it’s a value! You can demonstrate the power of humility when you say to someone, “You know what, I had never thought of that. You are right.” That will really grab people’s attention.
We live in a world where no one is allowed to change their mind. One hundred years ago, in 1918, after years of stalemate, after years of trench warfare where each side had dug into the ground and no progress was made, the first world war was finally won. As graduates of Concordia 2018, let us end this intellectual stalemate—let’s show that we can play football (or “soccer”) with the other side on Christmas Day, and let’s also show that we can fight the tough fights: we can fight inequality, bigotry, racism, and all other forms of discrimination with goodness, truth, and beauty, with faith, hope, and love.
Proverbs 25:15 says that “Patient persistence pierces through indifference; gentle speech breaks down rigid defenses.” Peter writes in his first epistle, “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” Whether you’re a Christian or not, this should still apply. Always be prepared to make a defense for what you believe, for what you value. But do it with gentleness and respect.
My good friends, when we leave here today, let us not become bystanders. Let us not become passive, detached, and hopeless. Let us become the generation that strives for a better society of active engagement, progress, and hope for a better future. Let us believe in something. So, what do you believe?
Anthony Draper delivered this address as the student speaker at Concordia University Irvine’s undergraduate commencement ceremony on May 5, 2018