It’s a Person
March 17, 2005
I miss the not-even-close-to-highbrow Thursday night "must see TV." Specifically, I miss Friends. I watched every episode for ten years, and I miss it. I miss how absurd it was -- I miss the impossible way these twenty-somethings with absolutely no expendable cash lived in what had to be a zillion-dollar apartment in the Village - I miss the improbable Mozart-opera-esque ways they found to sneak around and do ridiculous things and meet bizarre people - I miss the way every conflict and every trauma was neatly wrapped up at the end of the half-hour, or in some cases, resolved at the beginning of the next season.
So I watch Friends in reruns now, and the title of my remarks today, -- "It's a Person" - comes from a very old episode from the first season. The episode, entitled "The One With the Birth," focuses on the birth of Ross and Carol's son, Ben. It is, of course, also filled with all sorts of silly and ironic little blunders (it is a sit-com, after all), but it finally comes together at the moment of Ben's birth, when, completely overcome with emotion, Ross stammers not "it's a boy," or "it's a girl," but "look…look…it's a person."
Remember, friends, this is Ross we're talking about, so you know that despite his Ph.D. in paleontology, he's not really the sharpest tool in the shed. Still, his proclamation "it's a person" is perhaps the most profound thing he could have said about his son at that moment - a moment filled with all the promise, all the possibilities, all the potential for Ben's life.
What do you think your parents said at your birth? I know you were there, but I suspect you don't remember. If you don't know, ask them. I guarantee they remember. I would hazard a guess that even if they didn't use the same language Ross used - "it's a person" - undoubtedly they were feeling some of the same wonder and amazement and promise of your personhood. Questions, I'm sure, about how you were going to achieve your personhood - how you were going to fulfill that potential for becoming a complete person.
It's outlined in the hymnic piece found in Philippians, chapter 2 - from the Revised Standard Version -- "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus; who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross." Christ as a human person. Wrap your brain around that - Christ as a human person. Do we understand what that means? Christ as a human person, in human form, humbled, and in the likeness of men. This is the whole issue, isn't it?
This leads to my point today: what is a person? What does it mean to be a person? And ultimately, how does one go about becoming a person? I'd like to offer a few ideas - a few elements - that factor in when discussing the notion of person. I suggest that to be a person, one needs emotion, knowledge, inquisitiveness, empathy, and perhaps most importantly, community.
First, a person is about emotion. British novelist Arnold Bennett said, "There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of a truth, yet until we have felt its emotional force, it is not ours." (The Journals of Arnold Bennett, entry for March 18, 1897). Have there been emotional moments during your acquisition of knowledge at OBU? How have these moments contributed to your experience? I absolutely believe you felt some strong emotion when you got that first Nat Sci test back, whether positive or negative…. But were you surprised by this first foray into basic celestial phenomena and how these phenomena were viewed by ancient civilizations? Perhaps the emotional force of your surprise helped you turn this knowledge into your own. Have you felt emotions during the last four years you didn't know you had? Has the truth of the material in some courses been so startling to you that you didn't know what to do? On a more personal note -- Did you fall in love while you were here? Build a friendship and taste happiness? Lose love? Lose a friend? Did your personhood grow through emotion?
In The Idea of A Christian College (Eerdmans, 1975), Arthur Holmes suggests three features essential to the development of a person: He says that first, a person must be a "reflective, thinking being," and argues that this involves an ability to see things in relationship - to "organize ideas into an ordered whole…and to work toward a unified understanding." In your time at OBU you have hopefully learned to organize ideas and information - maybe even ideas and information that made you uncomfortable or uneasy.
However, my colleagues and I have not tried to give you all the information. It just isn't possible for us to teach you everything about everything - erroneously presupposing, of course, that we actually know everything about everything.
Instead, we have tried to teach you to ask questions. Good questions. Relevant questions. Interesting questions. Hard questions. All the questions. In asking the questions, we've confronted you with information that is difficult, and at times, intricate and multifaceted. Some questions you might have faced during your time here: How did the earth begin? When is art good? What does "postmodernism" actually mean? Why does the mouse on a Mac only have one button and a PC mouse has two? Why isn't there any consistency to how one conjugates German verbs? Why is Britney popular? How can I make a contribution? What is my place in the world? What is the nature of God? If you learn to ask the questions, the information will come, and if you ask the questions well, the information will come in a way that helps you continue in your path toward becoming a reflective, thinking person.
The late Dr. James Hurley, former OBU professor of biology, summed up the issue of asking questions this way: "I want to beg you as much as I can to be patient toward all that is unresolved in your hearts, and to try to love the questions themselves... The point is to live the questions now, and perhaps you will then gradually live along someday into the answers."
The epigraph to the fourth movement of Beethoven's F-major string quartet, opus 135, asks one of the composer's favorite questions. He asked it frequently in other venues, but the scribbling in the score of the F-major quartet is perhaps the most famous: "Muss es sein? Es muss sein." Translation -- "Must it be? It must be." Beethoven took nothing for granted, accepted nothing easily, and continued to ask questions all the way to his death in 1827. In fact, the subtitle of the fourth movement of this quartet is, in translation, "The Decision Taken with Difficulty." It could just as easily have been called "The Question Answered with Difficulty."
One of the most complete persons I have had the privilege of knowing - and indeed, one of the great question-askers - passed away recently. Dr. Gary Chancellor, professor of French and German, proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is possible to ask questions and illuminate not only yourself, but others with those questions. A few years ago, when the last Star Wars film was released, my husband and I thought we'd run out to the mall and see an afternoon showing of it. Sitting in the theatre when we arrived was Dr. Chancellor, who had just seen the previous showing. We had a brief, but glorious, illuminating, and thought-provoking conversation about Darth Vader. Dr. Chancellor noted that in the musical score for the film, composer John Williams used the "darth vader theme" we all know so well, but used it in retrograde every time young (and still relatively innocent) Anakin Skywalker was on the screen. I remember very vividly how Dr. Chancellor asked if we knew what our musical themes were - and how those themes would change and evolve over the course of our lives, essentially becoming ever-shifting musical questions.
Asking questions is rarely easy. However, just because your time at OBU has come to an end does not mean you are granted leave to stop asking questions. Indeed, it is quite the opposite. Equipped with your degree, you are now required to continue asking the questions - even to improve at asking questions. Failure to do so diminishes the value of your degree, your university, your community, and your intellectual personhood.
Holmes's second point concerning personhood suggests that a person is a "valuing being." Certainly you have had the opportunity during your study to learn to place value, and in doing so you've investigated the criteria through which value can be placed. French nineteenth century novelist Gustave Flaubert said "Everything depends on the value we give to things. Our values make morality and virtue" (Pensées de Gustave Flaubert, Conard, 1915). What do you value? Ideally you continue to value your faith, and hopefully your classes, colleagues, and faculty members have helped you strengthen that faith and achieve a deeper understanding of it during your time here. But what else do you value? Truth? Social justice? Beauty? Duke Ellington? Gothic architecture? Fact? Words? Coffee? What does your community of persons value? Basketball? Guitars? Excellence? Freedom? Prayer?
Speaking on community values in relationship to the success of the Beatles, in a March, 1966 interview with the Evening Standard John Lennon famously said "We're more popular than Jesus now. I don't know which will go first - rock and roll or Christianity." Although this comment spurred thousands of Americans to burn copies of the Beatles's recordings and to denounce both the band and Lennon personally, certainly he wasn't suggesting that the Beatles should be equated with Christianity - far from it. He was suggesting only that a community's values are visible through its actions, and that given the financial and social realities of the phenomenon we now refer to as "Beatlemania," the Beatles were valued quite highly. What do your actions suggest you value? What aspects of person matter to you?
In his third point, Holmes states that a person is "a responsible agent, accountable ultimately to God, for life, after all, is a stewardship of what God has created." He goes on to suggest that to be a person one must be responsible in all relationships, in all communities, whether with other persons, with our environment, or with God. Relationships and community further communicate personhood.
Ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl talks extensively about the notions of music and person as part of community. He goes so far as to suggest that were it not for community, there would be no music, for composers and songwriters working alone and not in relationship with others are incapable of creating, as music should be largely a collaborative effort, or what he calls "communal creation."
You are no doubt a member of several different communities of persons - your fellow graduates today, your family, your roommates, your friends, other OBU alumni, your church family, Christians, Americans, and humans, to name a few. Are there not songs and musical works associated with each of these communities? Perhaps you and your family plan to sing a few Christmas carols together next week…. Maybe you and your roommates spent late nights during this, your final finals week, dancing around your apartment in your flannel jammie pants singing "Oops, I Did It Again?"
At the end of today's ceremony we will all stand together and sing the OBU Alma Mater - and for some of you this may be the last time you sing it. Certainly the alma mater is an important piece for this community of persons - but why? What's the big deal? Why is it so important? You've heard it -- it's a very simple melody, with regular antecedent/consequent phrases, not a wide range at all, and mostly stepwise, conjunct motion. Usually when we experience it, it's accompanied by only a piano, or maybe even a cappella at "the walk" or at a basketball game. When the Bison Glee Club sings it they do it in parts, which adds something to the texture, but it still is not a terribly avant-garde composition. It's in a traditional key, it uses simple voice-leading - it's not twelve-tone, or a theatre piece, or for electronic media. There's no tape, or minimalistic repetition, or huge orchestra. There's no dance (excuse me, functioning) involved, and no light-show or smoke machines are required to perform it. It's really not on I-Tunes, and you can't even buy a t-shirt from its concert, or download the guitar tab for it.
No, what's compelling about the OBU Alma Mater, and why we all care about it so much is very simple: it sounds like our community of persons. It's important, it's distinctive, and, dare I say it, it's personal. We "get it." Anyone who's walked behind Raley Chapel from Agee to the GC in April (or even this past week) "gets" the line "'neath the wind-swept sky." Anyone who's sat on the steps outside the chapel and watched a sunset "gets" "when the shades of evening fall," and if you've ever walked through the silence on campus after dinner to the library, or to Ford Music Hall, or back to your room before the evening recitals, lectures, UCS concerts, and intramural games kick in, you get the line "Through the hush of fading day." How many of you looked up at the Raley Chapel spire as you processed into the Chapel today? How many of you have seen the spire in a rainstorm? Or at sunrise? If you have, then perhaps you "get" the line "hearts look up to pray." The alma mater is one of the sounds of our collective personhood. It is one of the sounds of this community.
In his 1986 address at his installation as Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Bishop Desmond Tutu said "A person is a person because he recognizes others as persons." Think about that statement for a moment. "A person is a person because he recognizes others as persons." This would suggest that a person be capable not only of understanding, but of appreciating the value of others - their beliefs, their ideas, their struggles - their place as persons. Have you done that? Can you do that? Did you understand Beethoven's deep personal despair at his impending deafness when you heard it manifested in the second movement of the seventh symphony in US 206? When you saw Picasso's 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, did you get the struggles Picasso faced when relating to women? Did you recognize Codi's quest and search for her personhood when she returned home to Arizona in Kingsolver's Animal Dreams when you read it in Civ? Do you recognize others as persons?
My belief is that while you were at OBU you built more personal relationships than you can count. I trust you will take every step you can to ensure that those relationships continue - that you and your roommates will meet up every year at Homecoming, that you will pay attention to what's happening at OBU through the alumni association or the website, and that you will send your favorite humanities professor a postcard the next time you visit an interesting museum. But - my fervent hope is that your relationships are not just with people, but with truth, love, history, beauty, fact, and discovery. Are you friends with Mozart? Do you cherish Bach? Brahms? Wagner and his Brünnhilde? Do you know Bob Dylan? Dave Matthews? Have you met Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger? What about Stravinsky and Bernstein?
In his book The Life of the Mind: A Christian Perspective (Baker Academic, 2002), author Clifford Williams shows his readers Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man and asks them to consider two persons: "Picture two people, one a hermit and the other an explorer. The hermit shuts herself off from contacts with other people and also, let us suppose, from feeling and thinking. She displays few signs of vigor. When she ventures out for supplies, those who encounter her notice her reticence and indifference. She responds to queries with an ambiguous head movement, makes no eye contact, and initiates no conversations. In the privacy of her self-constructed cage, she sits and stares. Hardly anything interests her, and nothing moves her to action except necessities. When she does move, it is with sluggishness. She is a perfect specimen of the living dead.
"The explorer, however, is open to what the hermit has closed off. She has an animated interest in the people she encounters and asks about their hopes and dreams. When she listens, her face lights up. She displays spontaneous delights when making new discoveries. She does not wait for adventure to happen to her, she seeks it out, sometimes with a bit of fear but always with anticipation. No cage can hold her. Perhaps she travels, but she does not need to go far, for she finds treasures everywhere. Her inner life is also rich; she has an extensive array of thoughts and feelings. If Socrates or Kierkegaard had encountered such a person in one of their daily excursions, they would have exclaimed, "Aha! Here is one who is fully alive!"
Realistically, of course, we all have a little bit of the hermit and a little bit of the explorer in us. To quote Dashboard Confessional slightly out of context, "Try to understand there's an old mistake that fools will make -- And I'm the king of them, pushing everything that's good away."
Are you more of the hermit - pushing everything that's good away? Or are you more of the explorer, seeking out adventure, escaping from your cage, and impressing Socrates and Kierkegaard? Which is better? Which is more thoughtful or more educated? Which is a more complete person?
Edited from Winter Commencement (December 17, 2004).