Today is graduation day at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School. Below is the letter I wrote to our 2017 graduates that is published in this year’s yearbook. I suggest that the circumstances in the world remain as daunting as when this reflection was written.
Dear Members of the Class of 2017,
Because of deadlines necessary for publication of our yearbook in a timely fashion, I write this annual message to graduates months before graduation. In fact, I am composing this letter on a peaceful morning on a quiet campus during the Christmas break on one of the last days of 2016. I bring that up because of the many expressions I have seen recently on social media that this year cannot end soon enough. In a sense that is certainly understandable in light of the events of the year: unspeakable violence at home and abroad, an emotionally tumultuous election season, and the deaths of an unusually high number of iconic figures.
2016 will be a memory by the time you read this, and the rest of your lives will await you. Whether or not you were in the “good riddance” segment of the population when 2016 ended, I urge each of you to resist such a temptation going forward no matter the circumstances of any particular year, month, day, or hour. We reject the gift of time at our peril, and- may I suggest in light of our mission statement- at the world’s peril. Especially in light of rather than in spite of the disturbing events in our world, it is all the more important that you embrace our fond hope for you “to lead fruitful lives and to serve a world in need.” We best not reject or attempt to escape a world in need (which will always be the case until the end of time), but rather we do well to serve that world in any way that is true to our best selves.
So I encourage you to continue to move forward and to love and embrace the world. Resist the temptation to disengage in the face of challenges, difficulties, and tragic events. My wish for you is one that Jonathan Swift expressed many years ago:
May you live all the days of your life.
Until next time,
Last week, for the fifth straight year, we hosted a naturalization ceremony at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School, welcoming 30 new US citizens representing 28 different countries of origin. My heart is still filled with joy because of that experience, which I believe epitomized the best of our human- and American- values. That, in turn, put me in the mind of the term civil religion, first coined by the French philosopher Rousseau. I became familiar with the more recent use of that language studying at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley in the 1970s at a time when sociologist Robert Bellah of the University of California had developed a compelling theory of civil religion’s role in American society. His thesis was that there is a unifying non-denominational set of core values that epitomize the essence of the American character. (He further asserted that every society has its own brand of civil religion). Bellah also cautioned against the tendency of some to equate this notion of civil religion too closely with a specific explicit religious tradition.
I have reflected on Bellah’s work and the naturalization ceremony within the context of contemporary society. Many have (rightfully) lamented the decline of civility in our society. And one could also assert some activities presented in the name of religion are neither civil nor religious. One of the reasons that this year’s naturalization ceremony was so inspiring and consoling is that it was both Civil and civil- a specific civic commitment conducted within an atmosphere of civility, hospitality, and acceptance. Similarly, the ceremony was both Religious and religious- hosted by an Episcopal school with multiple references to an inclusive God. As such it served as antidote and encouragement as we in the United States struggle to find a path back to the lofty notion of civil religion so eloquently articulated by Robert Bellah 50 or so years ago.
We prayed for our US citizens that morning that their embrace of the American Dream will strengthen our country in the ways that immigrants who preceded them have done for so many years. May all of us who are US citizens embrace that Dream with renewed commitment and conviction.
Until next time…