Cambridge, MA. One of the bonuses of blogging for America is to read the comments that ensue on any given issue. Not that I agree with all such comments, of course, and it is ok that the flow of debate among commenters sometimes travels far from the original posted piece, as if it were merely an occasion for another debate altogether. Comments on my recent piece on the visit of the Sultan of Sokoto, the spiritual leader of many millions of Nigerian Muslims, form a case in point. He is coming, good — but will he be asked tough questions? What about the plight of Christians and Jews in Nigeria – or even in other Muslim countries far from Nigeria? Are universities just showcases for fancy religious-political events, or will there be a real, honest and fearless searching for truth? How can Father Clooney just claim that it is interesting and good that the Sultan comes to campus?
I will blog again on the Sultan’s visit after he gives the Jodidi Lecture on October 3, but I just want to draw out one issue here — what kind of free inquiry and open-mindedness is appropriate to the Christian community? Should Christians at secular universities such as Harvard be fearless in pushing certain kinds of questions, asking questions no one else will ask?
A very partial answer — having to do with our attitudes in all this — is occasioned by the second reading for this Sunday (October 2), Philippians 4. St. Paul offers a beautiful appeal for a gentle, open, joyful Christian community: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone… Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus… Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4.4-9) This is a simple and straightforward appeal for the better Christian community that we can always become.
But of course, I have left out two very interesting sections. The first omission is the simple statement: “The Lord is near.” These words simply interrupt Paul’s exhortation, and stand alone, simple and powerful, without explanation. The Lord is near – he is right here, he is coming soon – and this fact, it seems, can change how we see life, enabling us to be joyful even in our times of need, even when our prayers have seemed unanswered. We cannot live in harmony with one another, since we imagine God to be somewhere else, or far away, or come long ago, or to come some time in the future. But God is here. Rejoice. Be gentle. You then will have not only “the peace of God” but far more importantly, the “God of peace.”
But there is more, for Paul is also a cultured intellectual. The second omitted section has to do more directly with our attitudes at a university: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” This is an extraordinary passage, for several reasons.
First, according to commentaries (I used Peter O’Brien’s The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text) Paul uses here a whole series of words that appear rarely elsewhere in his letters or even in the New Testament: the true, the honorable, the just, the pure, the pleasing, the commendable, the excellent, the praiseworthy. These are words more common to the wider Greek world, that is, the world of pagan culture, but rarely mentioned, particularly without qualification, in the Bible. These are values and goods that are not exclusive to Christianity. And it is on these that Paul wants us to think deeply, reflect, expend our intelligence. Being a Christian community recognizing that God is near is no reason not to think on such things.
Second, Paul does not qualify his appeal, as if to say, “think on these things only in a Christian way or insofar as improved upon by Christians.” He is asking his audience to learn from the literature, culture, experience, and virtues of those around them, without constricting that learning in advance and in a stingy fashion. If the ideal of a harmonious, gentle community is immeasurably deepened by realizing that God is already present — then it is also liberated and given breathing room by opening our minds to all that is good around us no matter whose good or truth or virtue or beauty it is. Yes, go deep into God who is here, but also go broad into the world God has given us. Use your brains. Fear not what your neighbors have to offer you. Admittedly, none of this resolves important issues raised by those posting comments, about debate in a university, or how public events such as prestigious lectures fit together with our duty to truth and moral concern. Let us agree, again, that no visit by a religious dignitary, be it a Sultan or a Pope, should be merely a PR event where only the dignitary gets to speak, without true interaction and honest questioning. That we know. But if Paul is right, we have nothing to fear, nothing to lose, by listening attentively to a public religious figure, even if she or he is not a Christian, even if we cannot stipulate what she or he talked about.
St. Paul would want us to value listening to a distinguished non-Christian visitor such as the Sultan, and to think deeply on his words. Universities exist in part because they still provide the opportunity for free and honest exchanges, offerings of truth that need not be quickly politicized and contested. God is near, even on secular campuses.
But I will tell you more on what the Sultan actually said, after his speech on October 3.