Being and Dartmouthness
Richard R. Crocker
October 20, 2011
As most of you know, the theme at chapel this term is “The Bible and the Newspaper”, which builds upon the words of Karl Barth, one of the 20th century’s most distinguished theologians, who reportedly said that one must preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
This week, I have chosen to preach from the Bible and The Dartmouth (Dartmouth College newspaper). - more particularly from the passage in John, in which Jesus calls his disciples his friends, and a column in last Friday’s Dartmouth by Kip Dooley, a senior, called Being and Dartmouthness – a title which I have borrowed from him with his permission, and which he obviously borrowed from Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. The scripture passage, as I said, deals with the notion of friendship, especially the friendship offered by Jesus to those who would follow him, a friendship not of casual acquaintance but of deep commitment. The newspaper column is really about what I consider the deep dark secret of Dartmouth life: Social anxiety – a secret which becomes most prominent at this time of year, when sophomores are undergoing the ritual of rush and experiencing either the elation of acceptance, to be followed quickly by the hazing of pledge term, or the despair of rejection, which can be a life-long wound.
So this is really a sermon – a meditation – about friendship and loneliness, about acceptance and rejection, about elation and despair, framed by the Bible on the one hand, and Kip Dooley’s column on the other.
First: the Bible: Jesus commands his disciples to love one another. He calls them his friends, and gives them this commandment. He tells them, foreshadowing his death, that there is no greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. This is a vision of friendship and love which stands at the center of Christian life, even though Christian practice often falls far short of it. For Christians, Jesus is Lord, yes; but Jesus is also friend. The vision of friendship here is serious. It is deep. It has to do with devoting one’s life to a purpose, and that purpose is the redemption of the world. It is based upon something given to us – not something we have earned. It stands at the center of our lives.
Kip’s column describes his experience on fraternity row during his first week as at Dartmouth, when he went to several fraternity houses, seeking, one supposes, friendship. When he revealed at a “cool” house that he had just been at an “Uncool coed fraternity”, a brother disdainfully poured beer on his head. No big deal, Kip Says. Really? I quote: “It wasn’t the end of the world – a little beer in the hair never killed anyone. – but it was part of a greater negative shift in my life. Instead of spending my free time outside, which was one of the reasons I came to Dartmouth, I hunkered down in basements four nights a week to make sure I was in the right places at the right times and acting the right way. Even when all I wanted to do (was) read a book and fall asleep.”
There is a tendency at many colleges, but perhaps especially at a college like Dartmouth – relatively small, insular, in a small town in a remote area – for people to live in what they call a bubble. We like to think that these environments produce great friendships. Perhaps this is true for some, but certainly not for all. As I know from many conversations Dartmouth can be a place where students feel alienated, lonely, and frightened – not just occasionally, but often. It is a place where the perceived price for social acceptance is adherence to a social code that is in many ways destructive and unhealthy. Resistance to that code is certainly possible, but it is not easy. President Kim is fond of repeating what he heard about Dartmouth students, from a visiting professor, I believe: “They respect each other so much.” I wish that this were always the case. Respect and acceptance are what we all crave, but they are not always what we experience, is it? Tell me if I am wrong.
The Christian vision of friendship, prized and named most highly among the Quakers, who call themselves the Society of Friends, is an alternative vision of acceptance and respect. It lies at the center of our faith, even when it falters in our practice. Because Christ has chosen us, that is, has offered himself to us in friendship, we are commanded, expected, and even enabled, to love even our enemies.
Acceptance, rejection. The game begins, doesn’t it, with college: we are accepted or rejected. And we, we all were accepted. But eight times more people were rejected. We hope they got in somewhere else good. But here, the winnowing continues: those who get into the right social group, or are rejected; those who get internships, or are rejected; those who get prized fellowships, or are rejected; those who get the prized jobs on Wall Street, or are rejected. All told, there seems to be a lot more rejection than acceptance in this world we inhabit, doesn’t there? Even at the Tucker Foundation, which is surely Dartmouth’s most accepting institution, some people are not accepted for fellowships or internships or alternative spring breaks or even certain service opportunities. We learn, through all of this, to deal with failure; life is not an unending series of successes. We learn that disappointment is not the same thing as destruction. And here, in this chapel, I hope we experience the gracious acceptance of God, whose purpose for our lives is to be trusted, even when we are rejected. You may remember these words from the prophet Isaiah, which Christians see supremely as a description of Jesus (Isaiah 53:1-5):
“Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”
I close again with Kip Dooley’s words, his final reflections on that hurtful night: “We often become trapped by our notions of how things should be, stuck in the pernicious “not” as opposed to the liberated “is”. In a beer soaked shirt on a September night three years ago, I convinced myself that I was at a crossroad of great importance. Amidst the mental clamor of wrangling over what I should be and what Dartmouth should be, I missed the girl sitting on the bench outside Fahey, was deaf to the calm rustling of trees shaking off their summer leaves, was blind to the possibility of spending a restful night with my neighboring hallmates. I descended further and further into a place behind walls, and Dartmouth went on existing – living, shifting growing, waiting for us to step outside.”
I am not sure that Dartmouth is – or will be – always waiting, forgiving, accepting - but I believe that God is.