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The Redemption of America or Rebirth of a Nation


Spirituality and Higher Education
A National Symposium
November 18-19, 2005
Huston-Tillotson University
Austin, Texas


Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, President, SUNY-Old Westbury and Pastor, Abyssinian Baptist Church, New York

Following are excerpts from the conference’s opening keynote address.

I want to open by doing something I don’t normally do, and that is read a prayer. I’m reading a prayer from a book edited by Herbert Aptheker entitled Prayers for Dark People, and the prayers are all written by W.E.B. DuBois.

“Long days we have sighed for liberty and, lo, Thy freedom O Lord, is now at our doors. We welcome it even as we welcome life. The careless see idleness and emptiness. The thoughtful see the vigorous delight of turning to new scenes, new duties, and new responsibilities. Herein we test the strength, the steadfastness, the depth of our training. If summer freedom means to us license and selfishness and irregularity, then we are not free but prisoners still in ignorance. But if vacation shall mean renewed service to goodness and beauty then we enter the higher broader rest where thy truth shall make us free. Amen.”

In his book Dawn of the Apocalypse Arthur Hansen says something akin to this. He reflects on the fact that there is a rising of profound disenchantment with the values and the structures of our way of life, and at the heart of the matter is the death of the god of the 20th century. That god was called progress.

Progress was a god infused with life by technology’s discoveries and worshiped in anticipation of unlimited material return. Now what we witness in the 21st century is that a generation or more has lived its life under the benefits of the fruits of the god of progress, and those generations look around and they see their parents labor and what it has yielded and they cry, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”

These young men and women have lived in houses surrounded by manicured lawns and traveled across this nation and in the cities and suburbs on belts of concrete. And as they view the benefits of the god of progress they cry, “Vanity!” Often many of them, out of great frustration, wind up self-medicating in order to escape the vanity and frustration created by this god. They are further frustrated that as they look around they don’t see the world in which they live, and in particular the leadership with which they live, dedicating itself to serving the needs of humanity. What they see are men and women who have, in fact, not dedicated themselves to serving the needs of humanity but have, on the other hand, gone lusting after Mother Earth’s goods.

So rather than caring about you or me or those on the rooftops in New Orleans, the great concern is Mother Earth’s goods, like the oil in Iraq. They have betrayed their misdirection by turning the mother, if you pardon this analysis, into a whore. Now we all live on a globe, a sphere, filled with polluted water and stinking air. If you would wonder why many of us are frustrated, why we do cry vanity, why we are so hell-bent on rapid self-destruction, it is because all around us we see the signs that our world, and in particular our nation, is on the downward roll.

We live in a nation also where people are no longer concerned about truth. All we need are statements or representatives of what seems to be credible. The constant search for truth, that had defined so much of our education, seems to have been lost. So is it any wonder that people are disenchanted with our values and the structures of our way of life? It’s almost like the old school rap group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: I think it would be cheaper just to be a street sweeper/Don’t push me because I’m close to the edge, trying not to lose my head/Sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under.

In the midst of all this I hear men and women all over the globe, but particularly in America, crying out, “Is there a word from God?” And what’s my evidence? My evidence is football stadiums filled with men hugging each other and crying in a search for God. A million black men 10 years ago converged on the nation’s capital in what was called the Million Man March, a march for atonement and redemption. A search for God. Young people returning in droves to synagogues and churches and mosques in a search for God.

Of course as a person of African descent I can say that our subtle sense of song has given America its only truly American music and out of that experience comes gospel. And young black men and women will have to admit that the movement of gospel music sweeping the country and the world and all of it is rooted in a search for God.

So why would educational institutions with such a heavy demand and such a heavy need not seek to incorporate spirituality into higher education, for the sake of the redemption of our nation? Education and faith are the Tigris and Euphrates of American liberation, twin rivers at the source of our redemption. If our young men and women who come out of our institutions don’t only have a trained mind but a tuned heart they will go nowhere, and our country will continue the downward spiral into hell.

All of us in the name of something that I’m not quite certain what to call—call it academic freedom–those of us in public institutions don’t want to burden our students with our own particular brand of religious faith. Well, it doesn’t have to be a brand of religious faith. This is the United States of America. There is a plethora of flavors out there we can choose from. The point is that the need for God is evident everywhere. It cannot be escaped, particularly if we are going to redeem our nation.

If you ever go to New York–whether uptown, downtown, or midtown– you see that rat race of men and women running back and forth. Why? Because they want money. The bottom line. Look at the last mayor’s race. I supported Bloomberg, but you know he won because he had a lot of money. I had to think about that, and my mind went back to a Biblical story (it’s funny how spirituality creeps into your thinking).

Some fellas got together and built a tower, and they wanted it to reach up to heaven. You remember that? They got so far God looked down and saw it and thought they were building it to make a name for themselves. God said, “Wait a minute, hold it, if these guys finish this tower there won’t be anything they can’t do. They were able to do it because they spoke the same language. Let’s go down and confound their language.” So the Lord came down and twisted their tongues, and that’s why today it’s called babble. You know that story.

I thought about that in connection with New York, because in New York they did the same thing. They got together and did the same thing, and this was in my lifetime, beloved. They got together and decided to build a little city on the southern end of Manhattan island. That’s what it amounted to, a little city. Nobody had ever seen anything like that before, and instead of one tower they decided to build two. They never said they were building these towers to the glory of humanity, they never said they were building these towers to the glory of God. They never said they were building these towers to improve the lives of those who lived in New York City. They were building these towers, like the one in the Book of Genesis, to make a name for themselves.

Everything I read in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Daily News, the New York Post was talking about how much rent they would get, how much it would cost per square foot, who was going to take credit for it. This was about making a name for themselves, and they were able to do it because they spoke the same language–the language that shouted the virtues of mergers and acquisitions.

I live in New York, but this is probably true here in Austin. Remember when you were in grade school, and they told you to take your vocabulary words home and use them in a sentence? Let’s see if you know the vocabulary words these fellows were using. Some of them are familiar: Enron, Arthur Anderson . . . They had a grammar that celebrated the Masters of the Universe. You read Tom Wolfe. Take millions and millions of dollars traded back and forth, never see a dollar bill—all done on high-speed modems—and they were able to build this city in my lifetime, these two towers stretching up to heaven, because they spoke the same language—and they were doing it to make a name for themselves.

People were rushing to put their money in the stock market, investing and investing. Everybody was having a good time. We were rolling along; bigger and richer was better and best. We were doing everything we wanted to do, producing, and why, because men and women of high intelligence were lacking one thing. And it was a failure, I would argue, in part that should be laid at the doorsteps of our institutions of higher learning.

Because this young man DuBois said education ought to do three things. One, it ought to build your character. Two, it ought to increase your knowledge. And three, it ought to help you to earn a living. But what have we done in America? We turned it upside down, putting number three first in response to market demands. And building character? On the bottom. Is it any wonder why we’re having so much trouble in our nation, when character becomes less important than money?

In America we’re walking around saying, ‘Man I’ve made all this money, I’m president of prosperity, my barns are full, and I think I’ll sit back and take my ease, or tear down my barns and build bigger ones.’ And in the Bible they said you fool, for this night your soul shall be required of you. And I would argue that it wasn’t at night, it was at 8:36 in the morning when flying bombs came out of nowhere and struck at the heart of our material magnificence and military might—and brought three decades of narcissistic psychobabble tumbling to the ground.

And people were then asking, “Is there a word from God?” Why? Because the language was confused. All the intelligence of all American colleges and universities, all the learned men and women everywhere—nobody knew what to say. Because nobody believed it could happen. We had become arrogant in our own sense of self-importance. Behind us was our military might and our material magnificence, and all of a sudden it was brought down in the twinkling of an eye.

Like everyone else, I turned on the six o’clock news to get the news. It was my luck on that day to get Dan Rather. What did that man do? He cried. Why did he cry, arrogant ones, those of you who think this religious, spirituality stuff has no place? Why did he cry? Because he had nothing to say. His language had been confounded. All of the little trite expressions he used to use had been wiped away. He had nothing to say, and neither did anyone else have to offer the American people except almost babble.

Tongue-tied. Is there a word from God? Whenever America gets in trouble like that it falls back on patriotism. My God, did you ever see so many American flags flying? Every car down the street, everybody waving the American flag, trying to cover over our pain with our patriotism. We wanted to revive those time-worn words now, “Duty, honor, and country,” but they wouldn’t work. Why?

Because they had been trampled on by the insane folly of presidents and young girls in the Oval Office, senators and congressmen whose paramours either drowned or disappeared and later turned up dead; priests and little boys in church basements, and athletes whose natural abilities were either enhanced or exhausted by abusive drugs.

It all falls on us because I argue that there ought to be this link between education and faith. I don’t care what you call God. God is found in many houses and called by many names. I happen to cherish in my heart a rabbi who was nailed to a tree; who on the third day rose. Somebody else might say it’s the law of Moses that guides me. I don’t care what you call God, what house you go into, there is this need for God because the language was confounded.

Young people are going amuck, the nation is lying to its people. What else do you have to offer? Intelligent design? Not enough. Physics, reason? Not enough. Because physics and reason cannot always give you what you need to endure the ugliness and horrors of life.

Therefore, I argue that there is a word from God, and God knows we need it because all of the platitudes, all of the appeals to faith seem to have gone down the tubes anyway, particularly when you look and see the people stranded on roofs in New Orleans. Young men and women who are in our educational institutions need to be exposed to that side of faith. We cannot abdicate our faith to those who want to put God in a box. We can’t leave God to the unintelligent musings of hypocrites and idiots.

Very often that’s what we find, parading across our televisions and trying to force down our throats uninformed and unchallenged understandings of faith, whether they be Muslim suicide bombers or Christian evangelists who advocate the assassination of a leader of state.

So where else will it happen? Where else will people see the sterling examples of what we ought to be? You can’t teach what you don’t know. How you gonna teach spirituality when you aren’t spiritual yourself? One thing I’ve learned, now that I have grandchildren, is that children can see right through you. So one of the things that has to be part of any spirituality in higher education is men and women in the classroom teaching who are themselves spiritual. Then you don’t have to proselytize—you don’t have to say, “Will you come to church on Sunday, will you come by the mosque on Wednesday?” You don’t have to say, “Let’s stand on the street corner and chant.” People will understand what you say because of the flavor that you give to your lesson, because of the material that you put before them to study. Because of your own reflective manner.

DuBois was often thought to be an atheist. People said he didn’t have much religion. He had a lot! For the African American in the faith tradition and in the education tradition it’s anathema to separate religion from higher education, because all of our great leaders in terms of academia have been men and women of faith. Mary Bethune, . . . you name them the sterling names of those who really built our institutions were linked to faith.

If we’re going to save America, my God there is a need for God! Not some unintelligible God, but a reflective God that shows him or herself through you. A few years into the 20th century a film came out called “The Klansman or Birth of a Nation.” When that film came out it blamed black people and anybody different from “Christian America” as being the source of all the trouble that America was going through. It gave rise to the exploitation of people of different color, race, religion.

If America is going to revive itself, it’s almost like that young rabbi told a fellow named Nicodemas, ‘You must be born again.’And there’s no better place than in our educational institutions. You can talk about the churches, but religion must never be separated from the discipline and the reflective study of the academy. We must put ourselves in the midst of seething atheism and agnosticism and cynicism and challenge. We must not run from it saying that these people are just infidels and they’re going to hell anyway, and maybe they should have been in New Orleans so the flood could have killed them, too. We must welcome that challenge as a way of refining what it is we believe, and what it is we stand for. We must welcome that challenge as it forces us to interact with each other—Muslim and Christian, Jew and Buddhist and atheist and native faiths.

I was at the UN, and one of my Native American brothers said the sun was our father. We loved the sun. Now the sun gives us cancer. The ice is melting. Of course, you have to understand the prejudices we grew up with, so I’m sitting there listening and he’s got this Indian rhythm of talking, and all of a sudden that rhythm struck fear! Sometimes the heart knows what the head doesn’t. And it let me know that there’s a problem. I knew it, but not from that point of view, from people who had been on the land and had passed on this rich tradition. Do we hear what they’re saying?

He was speaking from a point of view of faith, of spirituality that is not in sync with traditions of, say, the black church, but very much in sync with what we believe about God.

I argue that there is a wealth of literature, men and women who need to be engaged. When I was at Morehouse I fought to take religion out of the requirements that we had to study; tried to lock up the trustees because I didn’t want religion. What a fool I was, because I recognize that without it—or with uninformed faith—you are really jeopardizing the very nature of our society. You can’t have a civil democracy without a well-educated population. And you certainly can’t maintain a civil democracy without men and women of faith who believe in ideals and ideas and powers greater than themselves.

That’s why I believe that the Star Spangled Banner is not the best song for our national anthem. It’s a war song, “bombs bursting in air/But the flag was still there.” Sounds like a Dick Cheney song. I believe—now for those of you who are worried about my political views I just throw that in to be a bit provocative—that a better rendition for our national anthem is America the Beautiful. It’s a hymn. “Spacious skies/Amber waves of grain/God shed His grace on thee.” A prayer for our nation. God mend thy every flaw. No progress; that didn’t work. Because progress is a lesser god.

There is a greater God to be found, and that God resides here in America. It is our responsibility so that we can get character as well as secular knowledge into our students. When I went to Morehouse they tried to make us men and women of character, so that no matter what came our way we would be able to endure. As far as I’m concerned, it worked. I know a lot of stuff, but there are some things where I just have to fall back and lean on God. I’m not arrogant to think I have it all or ever will.

Therefore, beloved, I say to you if we are going to save our nation we have to make sure the young men and women who come through our institutions have their character strengthened with a spirituality that we can give them based on resources that are already available. I gave you two or three, DuBois, Hanson, I would even suggest that you read W.H. Auden. I give you another way to use the Bible, just in reflection. Anything we can do to wrestle our nation out of the hands of the ignorant and the Godless, at least the hypocritical, is worthy if our nation is going to be reborn and truly be a land of the free and the home of the brave. I hope you will reflect on these matters.

I’m at a public institution. When I was inaugurated as president I had a great preacher out of Michigan come. A 100-voice choir, a Muslim imam, a Jewish rabbi, a Catholic priest and others give prayers. Fourteen members of the faculty stood up and turned their backs. Halfway through the message they walked out. Three days later I had a full faculty meeting. I walked into the meeting and immediately they leaped on me. ‘How dare you! This is a state college, and you can’t impose your religion on us. You were proselytizing. It was just awful!”

So I said “Whose inauguration was it, yours or mine? For the time you were there, even though you turned your back, did you enjoy yourself?” “The music was great; the speaker even said some interesting things.” “And have you made your point?” Then they sat down. We’ve been doing fine ever since.

I discovered this: whenever I’ve taken a stand, said something that might be considered borderline, the students, some of the faculty, all of the parents tell me ‘Thank you so much. We appreciate that, because we know where you stand and what you stand for.’ It has proven to be great on our campus, especially because I won’t allow them to drink, because so many of the young men and women feel much more protected. It has given me a greater sense that my role is not so much to help them earn a living as to build their character. If I build their character first, they will always be able to make a life for themselves.

That’s why I believe there needs to be more spirituality in higher education.