My 7 minute Commencement Speech at Samford Graduation

In Defense of Normal*
Samford University Commencement, December 2014
Matthew Kerlin

Thank you Dr. Westmoreland and good morning to you all – trustees, friends, broke parents, proud grandparents, antsy siblings, picture-happy loved-ones, exhausted colleagues, and distinguished graduates. Let me begin by saying that I am honored to be your second choice commencement speaker.* Over 7.1 billion people in the world and I made the top two. Now, I’ve worked in higher education for over 2 decades, and I’ve attended enough graduation ceremonies to know two things: (1) you aren’t here to listen to me, and (2) I am standing in the way of you hearing your graduate’s name called and getting to lunch. So let’s get down to business. Today I want to speak in Defense of Normal.

First, let me cover the obligatory inspirational advice that all commencement speeches should contain. Ok, are you ready? Follow your dreams, change the world, overcome obstacles, be courageous, don’t be afraid to fail, take risks, be creative, be a life-long learner, be yourself, love others, stay true to your faith, stay true to your family, trust yourself, smile, have fun, be positive, work hard, don’t settle, don’t hold grudges, ignore your critics, listen to your critics, go make a difference in the world, give something back, Oh the Places You Will Go, and the world will be better for it. Does that sound familiar?

Actually, some that is good advice, but you already know most of it. The truth is that you can follow all of that advice and still not become anything like the people who typically give you that advice. Most graduation speeches are delivered by people who are famous, or wealthy or influential or highly successful by societal standards, politicians, entertainers, powerful business executives. They are usually the people to speak at graduation precisely because they are exceptional – exceptions to the rule. But I am the rule.

By contrast, I am rather ordinary. I am not rich or famous or powerful. I’m not as smart as most of my colleagues, not even as smart as many of my students, because after all, this is an exceptional place. I’ve been married for 23 years, but I am not a marriage expert. I have three kids and they’ll tell you that I’m not a perfect parent. I’ve taught courses in campus ministry but I work with people who are better ministers than me. I am an atypical graduation speaker because I am just a normal guy. But maybe that makes me the ideal person to speak today In Defense of Normal.

The truth is that most of you are going to be relatively normal. I mean that statistically, most of you are not going to become exceptionally wealthy or famous or powerful. Most of you won’t make a revolutionary discovery, or find a cure for a notorious disease, or write a best-selling novel, or become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And that’s OK. In fact, it’s not just OK. It’s GOOD, because what the world needs is not a few more celebrities trying to fix what is broken while posing for photos. What the world needs is a few billion normal people committed to making the world a better place; a few billion normal people willing to pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth”; a few billion normal people willing to live like Jesus; a few billion normal people willing to fight poverty and disease and racial inequality and violence in all its forms; a few billion normal people who love their families and their neighbors and do their jobs well, day after day after ordinary day. And the sum total of all that normal would indeed be exceptional.

In her poem “To be of use,” Marge Piercy writes this: “The work of the world is common as mud.” In his letter to the Corinthian and Thessalonian churches, Paul wrote this, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God”; and “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders.” In an op-ed piece to the New York Times, Garrison Keillor wrote, “savor this peaceable street and its lawns and driveways, kids’ bikes leaning against the house, the listless cat on the porch, the sheer beauty of ordinariness.”

Today you should feel no pressure to achieve the outlandish, or to live up to the nearly impossible expectations that you may have for yourselves or perceive from those around you. The problem with idolizing greatness is that one day you wake up in your 40s and your life looks relatively ordinary and you think you’ve failed. There is no reason to make that mistake. As a theologian, I would argue that the meaning of life consists not in what you accomplish, but in what God through Christ has already accomplished. This frees you to live with simple gratitude, to be faithful in the small things, to be kind when no one is watching, to be honest when it profits you nothing, and to be hard working when nobody thanks you. Aristotle calls this the virtuous life, the means between the extremes, the normal. So make the virtuous life the normal way that you live.

No, you may not achieve remarkable success according to the standards of our society. But as Samford graduates, you have learned how to live by a higher standard. No, you may not become rich or famous, but as Samford graduates, you WILL change the world. You may not do great or historic or revolutionary or exceptional things. But as Samford graduates, you can do normal things with exceptional love, for the glory of God. And I know that you will.

God bless you and congratulations!

*[The video of this speech can be seen on YouTube here. Dr. Westmoreland’s introduction and my speech can be found between 16:21 to 28:04.]

* [The originally scheduled speaker for commencement had to leave town for a funeral.]

College

The Problem of Pain

If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished.  But the creatures are not happy.  Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.  This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form.

– C. S. Lewis

The problem of pain represents the most serious intellectual challenge to the rationality of Christian faith. Many have rejected or abandoned faith as a result of the failed attempt to reconcile God’s goodness with the realities of evil and suffering. Here I want to outline briefly how Christian theologians have answered this problem and offer a few suggestions for those suffering and those seeking to offer comfort. I make no claim to provide a complete solution to the problem. I do not think such a thing exists. Every answer includes insights and shortcomings. If we examine this issue long enough, we will likely be forced to admit that we have as many questions as answers. Along with the Old Testament character Job, whose suffering is legend, I must eventually confess: “I am of small account, what shall I answer? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.” (Job 40:4) Eventually we should all confess as much, but not before seeking answers as Job did. We may not get all of the answers we seek, but in the process we may get something better.

To begin, it would be helpful to define evil and to distinguish between natural evil and moral evil. Evil is often defined as anything without which the world would be a better place. By implication, some of what we might call evil might make the world a better place. Natural evil (disasters and diseases) results from features of the physical universe that are arguably necessary for survival. Gravity keeps me from floating off into space, but gravity also means that when I trip and fall I may get hurt. The cells in my body regenerate, divide, and mutate in order to keep me alive, but sometimes these characteristics of cells lead to the spread of disease. These examples of so-called natural evil lead to suffering, but the possibility of such suffering is unavoidable in a physical world that operates according to natural laws that keep us alive, making the world better on the whole. Moral evil, by contrast, occurs when people violate divine law, harming themselves and others in the process, rendering the world worse. Of course, there are ways that natural evil and moral evil mingle, such as when drought followed by monsoon rains cause mudslides in communities with substandard housing. Poverty, climate change, unscrupulous builders, and natural weather cycles coalesce to cause suffering. For someone with a biblical worldview, however, both moral evil and natural evil find their ultimate origins in Genesis 3; they result from sin that tainted human society and the natural world.

Now I’d like to review four historically prominent explanations for suffering in Christian history, and show some of their strengths and weaknesses. Theologians sometimes call these ideas theodicy, a term that means “defending the justice of God in light of evil.” These ides have a long history and for the sake of brevity I will avoid attributions, but if you’re curious, feel free to comment. The four ideas are as follows.

Free Will – God created humans with freedom and we may choose to use that freedom for good or ill. Implied in this explanation is a kind of retribution principle – evil behavior is punished, either passively or actively. If I operate an automobile while intoxicated and wreck my car, my injuries are the direct result of my behavior. Whether my suffering is God’s punishment or the result of natural law (or both), I deserve it and few will call it unfair. But what if, in my intoxicated state, I drive my car into a crowd of pedestrians? Free will explains well my pain, but not theirs, or that of their loved ones. Why didn’t God intervene to trump my free will to protect others? Turns out, free will is a helpful explanation for some instances of suffering, but a troubling response to others.

Soul Making – God intends pain to build character, to make our souls more nearly perfect. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, yes? Or as the New Testament epistle of James states, “Consider it joy when you encounter trials of various kinds, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” Indeed, some instances of pain instruct. Who will disagree? The question is whether God could sometimes teach by a less painful pedagogy. In other words, do the ends justify the means? What souls are improved, for example, by the holocaust? Couldn’t the same good be accomplished with less evil? Couldn’t an omnipotent God make it so? Soul making, while helpful in some ways, seems to fail as an explanation for the most horrific evils.

Best Possible World – An all-knowing God would be aware of all possible worlds. A benevolent God would create the best possible world. An all-powerful God is able to create the best world. In other words, our world could be either more evil or less free, either of which would be worse that our current state of affairs. The only way for God to eliminate the possibility of evil altogether would be to eliminate freedom entirely, or not create a world at all. A world without freedom is not a good world, but a morally neutral world, and surely our world is better than no world, or so the argument goes. Of course, someone with cancer might conclude that even if this is the best world possible, it’s still a pretty crappy world. Sometimes we’d all agree.

Divine Suffering – God did not exempt himself from the world’s pain. God suffers with us (in Christ, God feels what we feel). God suffers because of us (moral evil grieves God). And God suffers for us (in Christ, God took suffering upon himself that spares us). Perhaps divine suffering is less of a philosophical explanation for evil and more of a recognition that Christianity situates the solution to evil squarely in Christ. Jesus doesn’t so much explain evil as he experiences it, overcomes it, defeats it, swallows it, and ultimately renders it powerless. Exactly how this happens is a matter for another post; that it happens partially is a matter of experience; that it happens completely in the end is a matter of faith.

So what can Christians offer to a suffering world? Explanations, especially poorly timed ones, can certainly do harm. Theodicy isn’t for funerals. In the middle of Job’s pain God didn’t explain. In response to Job’s questions, God didn’t answer. Instead, God listened. God was present. Job’s final words to God affirm this: “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” The final solution to evil is to see God, and in Christ we see God most clearly and experience God most poignantly. In the final analysis, this is surely better than explanations.

Theology

Who is Going to Hell? Or Heaven?

Around this time of year, religious denominations in the U.S. tend to hold their annual conferences, while I tend to hold my breath, hoping that they do not embarrass themselves, or the Church at large, in the process. The embarrassment often comes in the form of moral pronouncements about cultural trends or paternalistic calls to pray for a particular group of lost or morally reprobate souls. These resolutions often prompt some response from the groups in question who are offended to be considered lost or morally reprobate. This kind of public discourse accomplishes nothing, and I almost never agree with any claim to know who is “in” and who is “out.”  Here’s why.

As a Christian theologian, I recognize that the formulas religious denominations use to make determinations about the salvation of others derive more from Church history and practice than carefully considered biblical interpretation. For example, in some traditions God alone elects those who are saved, while in others, you make a “personal decision.” In some traditions, you participate in a “confirmation” process that may include a particular recited prayer or baptism. Some baptize infants or very young children and some baptize adults.  Some traditions consider any sincere religious adherence to be enough. Others think that no particular religious inclination or behavior is necessary since in the end, all will be included in God’s love.  And here’s an important point – most Christian traditions would cite the Bible as a reason that they think about salvation the way that they do. Each have particular texts that they cite to defend their view of who is on the way to heaven or hell.

Here’s a quick summary of the continuum of viewpoints on the subject, from the widest to the most narrow view of salvation:

  1. Universalism  – everybody goes to heaven.
  2. Pluralism – sincere adherents of other religions go to heaven.
  3. Inclusivism – only follower of Jesus go to heaven, but some may be unconscious or vicarious Christians, meaning that they follow Jesus in spirit if not in actual name. Additionally, some Inclusivists believe in an after-death opportunity to accept the truth of Jesus before the matter is finally settled.
  4. Exclusivism – only those who consciously profess Jesus as the only way to salvation go to heaven. This means that by implication, and based on history and demographics, the majority of the people who have ever lived will go to hell.

Now my point here is not to defend a particular position (maybe I’ll address in another “Theology Thursday” post) but rather to make one simple point. In the final analysis, I personally have no idea who is in heaven and who is in hell. I have opinions and even preferences, but I’ve never been to either place (if it’s even accurate to call either a “place” in time and space) and my knowledge of the hearts and minds of particular individuals is extraordinarily limited. For that matter, my knowledge of myself is limited. I do believe that I can know something about where I stand with God, and I can perhaps make an elementary assessment of what others think of God based on their beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, etc. But to claim that I know the final eternal destiny of another person is short-sighted at best, and arrogant at worst.

So maybe we should avoid all-together claims to know who is in heaven and hell, and who is going where and when, and treat people with the kind of compassion that Christ modeled. I suspect that would do more than religious resolutions to point people toward heaven.

[Footnote: This post was inspired by a conversation with a good friend, Joel Busby, who is a thoughtful theologian and blogger in his own right. Read his blog here.]

Theology