HUC-JIR New York
Thursday, May 13, 1999
Many years ago, when I began my theological studies at Harvard Divinity School, I attended the opening convocation of the Divinity School. My classmates and I were eager to sit at the feet of the wise, and grateful to God and Harvard for admitting us. It was, so we thought, no small privilege to listen to the address given that day by the faculty's most senior professor, the Hollis Professor of Divinity. He had just returned as one of the Protestant Observers at Vatican II, and in the fall of 1965 he had much to tell us. We listened intently, as intently as you are now listening to me. And at the end, when it was all over, none of us had understood a word he had said. Were we distressed, alarmed, annoyed? Not at all. We were at Harvard. We expected to understand nothing. We left in wonderment, but grateful that we were after all in the right place. If there was anything wrong with the speech, it was not with the speaker, but with the listener. On occasions such as this one this evening, I try to remind myself and my listeners of that fact.
One thing, however, has survived from that listening experience now so many years ago. I remember the text, an unusual one, drawn from that wisdom literature of the Hebrew people with which Protestant Christians do not know how to deal. I remembered the text because I had never heard it before, and it has intrigued me ever since. I have longed for an occasion to use it, and this, my friends, is that occasion. In the Wisdom of Solomon it is written, "And from generation to generation, passing into holy souls, wisdom maketh us friends of God and prophets." (Wisdom 7:25-26.) I realize that I am nearly the last thing that stands between you and your degrees, and, as Henry VIII said to the first of his many wives, "I won't keep you long," but in the time that you have granted me this evening I want to talk to you about becoming Friends of God and Prophets.
Except in the expression of gratitude for the honor that you do us, I do not presume to speak for my fellow honorands. Dr. Gutmann as an art historian knows that art is superior to words. Evelyn Lauder speaks through her good works, and it is always dangerous to speak in front of the District Attorney without another lawyer present. I shall speak only for myself, but that is in fact the division of labor for this evening: my job is to speak, yours is to listen, and if you finish your job before I finish mine, please have the decency to wait: I will catch up.
If your theological education resembles in any way my experience as a candidate for a theological degree many years ago, you may well be overwhelmed by the opportunity that awaits you. Few people undertake theological education lightly. You have to be driven, compulsive even, to take on this business of theology. And at times, doubtless, you envy your friends who chose to go to law school, for example. We all imagine what the law is, and we all think we know what lawyers do. They may not enjoy high esteem, but the clarity of their image may make up for it. Then, there are your friends who went to collect MBA's and become in Tom Wolfe's sardonic phrase, "Masters of the Universe." As long as the DOW remains enthroned, these people always have a temple in which to work and a "god" whom they may serve.
I often ask my young divinity students what is often thought to be a rude question: I ask them, "what are you going to be when you grow up?" In other words, what are you going to do when you leave here? Most of them do not answer the question: I ask them "what are you going to BE;" they tell me what they are going to DO. And there is a difference. Some say that they are going to set the world's wrongs right. They are going to "do" something about social justice; they are going to "do" something about the iniquities and inequities that plague our society. They are going to "do" what the prophet Micah commands, and that is "To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with thy God." I will not pick a quarrel with the prophet Micah, in this of all places, and I do not in anyway wish to denigrate the doers among you. I should hope with all of these hours you have put in, and with all of these degrees you will shortly collect, that you are capable, collectively and individually, of doing something useful. And I know I am joined in that pious hope by your teachers, your parents, your spouses, partners, and friends.
But in order for you to do something, you must be something, for by the high and holy order of your vocation, you have been called to a new being. When I ask what do you intend to BE when you grow up, may I propose that you might aspire to be "Friends of God, and Prophets." That is not a title or an option on most vocational aptitude instruments, but I cannot think of a better or more comprehensive description to encompass what it means to be a learned and devout woman or man of faith. You have prepared for all of your life to become for the rest of your life friends of God and prophets. And if such an ambition makes you nervous, it should. Friends of God and prophets do not blend easily into the cultural woodwork. With such an ambition you cannot be easily absorbed into the therapeutic main-stream or the service industry. To see yourself as a friend of God and a prophet is to stand certainly not contra mundum, that is against the world, but with equal certainty, apart from the world, for the claim that you acknowledge by your vocation as a friend of God and a prophet places you outside of the arrogance of a contemporary culture which knows only self-interest and loves only itself.
I remember a New Yorker cartoon of a few years ago in which an obviously well-off yuppie couple are seen leaving a Fifth Avenue type church after having just shaken the minister's hand. The woman says to the man, "That was a really good sermon considering how easily offended we are." You have not been trained here to be offensive, although I suspect that for some it would take little training. But by the very nature of your training here you have chosen to be friends with God above all other things, and that friendship is cultivated and nourished by the cultivation of wisdom. Wisdom is meant to remind us that truth does not consist in quotable sound bites, and it is usually not found in the age in which it is needed, which is now. Friendship with God then means being friendly with those who are and have been friendly with God before. A prophet, as we all know, is not one who foresees the future so much as he is one who plumbs the depths of the past for guidance in the present.
To aspire to friendship with God, then, is not a normal vocational choice. I hope you have noticed that wisdom does not here facilitate the knowledge of God, or the analysis of God, or even the power of God. No. Wisdom invokes the soft-focus word of friendship, an almost intimate, lower-case relationship that invariably evokes affection, growth, and strength. To the Calvinist or the ultra-orthodox, the notion of friendship with God may seem a blasphemous intrusion upon the divine nature, a domestication of divine sovereignty. And yet it is the biblical wisdom, not mere psycho babble, that suggests that friendship, that intimate relationship with God, is the relationship to which we aspire, and one of the real blessings of wisdom. The wise in every generation have come to know the experience of this truth.
You stand tonight in a splendid succession of preachers and teachers, wise and good and holy people from the time of the prophets onward to yourselves. What your teachers once received they pass on to you, and you in turn will do the same thing. The dynamic quality of this occasion, this succession of wisdom, surely is not lost on you. What you have achieved you have not achieved on your own or by yourself. Your friendship with God is the result of a holy contagion that began by God's action in creation itself: "and from generation to generation," says the text, "passing into holy souls, wisdom maketh us friends of God and prophets."
When you think yourselves alone in the world, not fully appreciated, when you think, as you surely will from time to time, that there are easier ways to make a living, remember this succession in which you stand, unbroken, unintimidated, unconquered. You offer what this world most needs and most neglects: a friendship with its creator which will in turn make us friends of our creation and fellow creatures.
Will you succeed in this high calling? Who knows? I certainly do not; this honorary degree, which I clutch with great affection, does not provide me oracular powers. Some of you will succeed highly, of that I have no doubt. And some of you will be less than your best, and others of you will wish you had gone to law school or medical school. But success is not what this friendship with God in the end is all about, for we are not called to be successful, but to be faithful, and that means learning afresh what it is truly valuable and profitable for us to know. To attempt that is a life's work, and a life worth living.
"And if a man loveth righteousness, the fruits of wisdom's labors are virtues, for wisdom teacheth soberness and understanding, righteousness and courage; and there is nothing in life for us more profitable than these."
For God's sake, and your own, may you become from this night on, friends of God, and prophets.
Most recent update 17 May 1999
Copyright © 1999 Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion