Seeking Wisdom

A sermon preached by James Hudnut-Beumler, a 1980 graduate of The College of Wooster, the Anne Potter Wilson Distinguished Professor of American Religious History at Vanderbilt University, and former dean of Vanderbilt's divinity school. The occasion was a Sesquicentennial Worship Service in McGaw Chapel hosted by the Office of Interfaith Campus Ministries in partnership with First Presbyterian Church and Westminster Presbyterian Church recognizing the College's historic ties to the Presbyterian Church and honoring and celebrating its multi-faith community. The text for the sermon was Proverbs 4:1-9.

 

Let us begin with a riddle. Just how many Presbyterian ministers and churches (and Quakers and people of other faiths) does it take to properly raise thanks and praise to God for 150 years of the wonderful College of Wooster?

Given our combined congregations and the large cast of characters you may be wondering.

The answer to our riddle is one our forbearers would have known: it is not strictly necessary to gather together for prayers to rise to the creator and giver of all good things. Indeed, I believe the greatest thanks we can give for the college begun on a hilltop of elms 150 years ago are the lives of gratitude its alumni, faculty, and staff have lived—and will live— because they were shaped by its spirit and values. Still, on this Sunday on a weekend when we look backwards over 150 years of history at the college and forwards to a new chapter under the presidency of Sarah Bolton, it is as the Psalmist says, good for friends to gather and say:

How good it is to sing praises to our God;
for the Lord is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.

Who better to sing a song of praise than the whole Wooster family, including the church that gave the college birth, the church that calls campus home, and chaplaincy that invites students of many faiths to make this a common spiritual home?

Those post-Civil War Presbyterians set out to do something grand when they created the University of Wooster: they planned to include, after all, nearly as many schools as the Ohio State University. Fortunately, wisdom prevailed and the college we know and love evolved. And that brings me to the theme of today's sermon: seeking wisdom, and particularly the admonition in Proverbs that we have just heard:

The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom,
and whatever else you get, get insight.

Think about it: every human discovery, advancement in justice, even every faith worth having begins with insight, not indoctrination.

It is my contention that a spirit of seeking wisdom accounts for the college's finest moments, the finest spirit of its representatives, and a worthy aim to guide its next 150 years.

Now, if there are any other parents in the audience this morning, or students who've been through the college admissions process recently, you know that U.S. News & World Report does not rank colleges and universities on whether students attain wisdom and get insight. We are an angst-y culture about education and I can just hear a stereotypical father in the background grousing, "I'm not paying $57,000 a year for you to get wisdom and insight, I'm paying for you to get a job."

Its Finest Moments

So we have our ideas about what a college is for, and 150 years ago when Christian denominations were starting colleges they had their ideas as well. Often these colleges' mottoes preserve a sense of what they were after, speaking as they do of Christian piety, virtue, and knowledge tempered by godliness. Given the prevailing thinking that colleges existed principally to produce Christian gentlemen and gentlewomen, I find it all the more remarkable that Willis Lord, Wooster's first president, decreed that the college's motto would be Scientia et Religio ex Uno Fonte—meaning that all knowledge and religion derived from one source. Furthermore, we know from his explicit words that he had Darwin's theory of evolution and the higher criticism of the Bible in mind. The crisis of faith and science that would break other church related schools was no crisis for Lord, or for Wooster. Wherever wisdom and insight were to be found, students and faculty were encouraged to drink at that font.

Years passed, but the adventurous spirit of Wooster produced scientists, writers, citizens, and even— in President Charles Wishart—a clergyman willing to take on fundamentalism.

In 1923 he was elected moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly, beating out William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was famous for such lovely propositions as "It is more important to know the Rock of Ages than the age of rocks." Wishart, meanwhile, spoke for the ideas of his geologist and biologist faculty members, like Horace Mateer, who calculated the age of the earth in the billions and still faithfully worshipped as a member of Westminster Church on the campus. Wishart and Mateer were not afraid of bullies who had run for president like the Great Commoner (Bryan); not when there was wisdom to be sought.

When Wishart retires comes perhaps the most remarkable moment in Wooster's history: Howard Lowry returns to the college from Princeton as Wooster's president.

While he brings with him Independent Study as a curricular idea from that school, he writes an entire book providing a democratic framework for why it will be An Adventure in Education. Let me quote one remarkable passage:

Independent study is not reserved for the intellectually elite alone, for foreordained members of Phi Beta Kappa...The new program is democratic and aristocratic at once—aristocratic in the sense that it challenges the student to come to his [or her] own best; democratic in that it offers the opportunity and challenge to everyone. Everyone is potentially an honors candidate, allowed the chance to find themselves even after a possibly slow start.

That idea, that I.S. was for everyone, can be religiously understood as a radical commitment to human intellectual curiosity, growth, and potential. Because this college's faculty bought the proposition that all students were worthy of trying original research, all students engaged in original research. Some gained wisdom, all gained insight.

Now in the interests of truth, most Wooster graduates will tell you two things: 1) their I.S.'s could have been better if they knew at the beginning what they knew later; and 2) they still accomplished much more than they imagined possible of themselves when they set foot on campus. To these, I would add the later insight that the learning begun here because we were mentored for it continued long after our graduation robes were returned. Wisdom comes in many forms.

The Finest Spirit of Its Representatives

Let us speak next of the spirit of the college's representatives. My father, who went to a different college, used to say, "You can always tell a Yale man. But you can't tell him much." My apologies to any 1950s Yale grads present. I introduce the jibe by way of comparison, only because in years of running across Wooster grads, faculty, and employees the last word that occurs to me is "arrogant." It is not either, that we all are modest women and men, with much to be modest about. No, there is a grateful spirit that characterizes those touched by this college, and I as your representative would like to give thanks to God for the providence that made this so. If we were to inherit but one trait from our Western Reserve and Scottish heritages, gratefulness is the best to receive.

By way of thanks, let me lift up the people I think enkindled this spirit. Wooster has benefited for all its existence from a staff of people who believe their work is more than a job and students are people to be nurtured. In my era, I watched bad news, break ups, parental deaths, and students' lonely first birthdays away from home all buffered by staff who could teach my ministry students a thing or two. If the Wooster Magazine editor is in the house, you better keep those staff and faculty obituaries in the magazine in the future, for they represent for us alums a death in the family and an opportunity for generations of Woosterites to lift up prayers for lives well lived.

I have already mentioned the beginning of Independent Study, but seven decades later I think most of the faculty who have kept it going. Faithfulness has been described as a long persistence in a single direction. Generations now of Wooster faculty members have spent their entire professional lives dedicated to the proposition that teaching first year students to write and juniors and seniors to investigate questions great and small is the highest and best thing they can do with their lives. What an amazing leap of faith. To you who are or were faculty, some of us alums will always be the naïve, but growing students you encountered in class and in our writing. For those of us who have grown up, in wisdom and insight along with age, we express, our gratitude to and before God that you used your lives in this noble way.

A Worthy Aim

And now to the future. What is the future of a college begun by Presbyterians 150 years ago? Does it have a religious aim worthy of carrying it another 150 years, particularly in the seeming twilight of mainline Protestantism? Yes. I believe it does, because we here drink from wells we did not dig, we live in traditions we did not begin, and we continue quests we did not originate. So will the Wooster of the future.

For the future the aim will be, as always, to begin again each fall, each semester, each class, with each new student and to live in thousands of ways the words of Proverbs 4: "The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever else you get, get insight." The aim is to be the college that never forgets that seeking wisdom is the thing.

And about religion? Interestingly enough, these words from the Christian Bible first appeared — as they still do — in the Hebrew scriptures. If you search very long at all, you will run across a similar saying in every living religion. Coming to terms with the next century and more is a project for all the life affirming, wisdom and insight seeking people and traditions across this earth, starting right here in Wooster, Ohio.

What would Rev. James Reed and Elias Quinby make of the college they helped birth and of the amazing diversity of its current student body? Would it quake their Presbyterian souls? I would like to think not. They belonged to a tradition that taught that God was much greater than human beings could comprehend, that creation was made for glory not tragedy, and that people had an active part to play in the world. Such was Rev. Reed's confidence in God's providence that shortly after helping start the college he took another pulpit in another town.

As for us, we do not know where the next 150 years will take the college, and try as we may, one way or another, we will all, like Rev. Reed, leave town (so to speak). Still, as long as students come and get wisdom, and whatever else they get, get insight, Wooster's deep faithful purposes will be requited by grateful hearts and lives of gratitude, devotion and mercy.

May God bless those who labor, learn, and lead here all the days and years ahead. And may the prayers of the faithful not return empty. Amen.