Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What does the LORD require of you?

I work for a private liberal arts college. Our honors convocation is coming up, and it's my job to prepare the programs to go to print. We have three big events with a faculty procession in full academic regalia: Opening Convocation, Honors Convocation, and Commencement. At each of these events, the chaplain reads a salutatory and a valedictory. She's chosen a lot of interesting readings over the years that I've been at this college. She's read poems both famous and obscure and excerpts from authors I've never even heard of. Once she even read a passage from The Lord of the Rings (my nerd friends loved that—it was at their commencement ceremony).

This is the first time since I've been here that she has chosen a Biblical text for one of these readings. Our college is not affiliated with any religious organization, and we dropped our "chapel" requirement about 30 years ago. The chaplain is charged with meeting the religious needs of all students, and organizes observances from people of many different faiths. Although she was trained as a UCC pastor, she often comes across more as a Unitarian, very accepting of a wide variety of faiths and religious expression. Because she must nurture the spirituality of many different people of many different faiths, I think she has to be careful not to come across as "too" Christian at the risk of alienating some people. She has a hard job, and she does it remarkably well. That's why I was so surprised that she would pick a Biblical reading in this college that is so secular and diverse.

The reading she chose is Micah 6:6–8. I've copied it below:

With what shall I come before the LORD
       and bow down before the exalted God?
       Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
       with calves a year old?

 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
       with ten thousand rivers of oil?
       Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
       the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

 He has showed you, O man, what is good.
       And what does the LORD require of you?
       To act justly and to love mercy
       and to walk humbly with your God.

I suppose I know why she chose it. The many different religious expressions at this college converge around the worldview of the liberal arts—enlightenment, justice, humility, cooperation, and creativity are promoted in many different ways to every member of the college community. Whether or not we are Christian, everyone at this college is expected to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with no expectation that we can buy our way in life.

Yet, that's only the surface of what this reading is really about. The liberal arts would teach us that we should be just, merciful, and humble because it's good for society in general, and that's true. But who taught us to be altruistic? How did we come to believe that working for the good of everyone was better than selfishly backstabbing and quarreling for our own profit alone? It is very enlightened to be concerned with the good of society, but at my deepest level, my instincts tell me to abandon everyone but my dearest loved ones in order to meet my own needs. I overcome this urge not through an intellect that convinces me that altruism is better and smarter than selfishness but through a heart that loves others too much to turn on them. My altruism comes from God and the lessons he has taught me, not from the wisdom of my own mind. While I think it's good and right that secular institutions teach us to be good and conscientious citizens, I know I need something stronger to serve as a foundation for those lessons so that I carry them on through even the hardest times in my life—I need God.

I endeavor to be a good citizen because that is what God requires of me. I recognize that God requires it because it is good and right, but I'm not sure if I would have known exactly what good and right are if I didn't have God to teach me and help me. I think that intellect is a marvelous tool when put to the service of God (consider Paul), but intellect is no replacement for God. Walking humbly isn't enough for me. I want to walk humbly with my God.

I wonder how many of the listening students and faculty members at Honors Convocation will draw a similar conclusion when they hear these words.

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