Whitworth College Fall 2004 Convocation Address
Sept. 8, 2004
In my years at Whitworth, I've talked a lot about grace and truth. Last year in opening convocation, I expressed my hope that Whitworth would become famous for grace and truth. I said something about longing for the day I would overhear some guy in restaurant argue, "Sure, Gonzaga has a good basketball team, but how about that grace and truth up there at Whitworth?" It hasn't happened yet. It might up the odds if I could get Jeff, over at Bruchi's, to offer the Whitworth Grace-and-Truth Chicken Cheesesteak sandwich.
Anyway, I'm going to keep pounding away at grace and truth. We are first and foremost a community of scholarship. And Whitworth cannot be great if we in any way relax our scholarly pursuit of truth. But the best hope for truth to penetrate our hearts and minds arises when truth is cradled in grace.
As I mentioned last year, the apostle John singled out two characteristics to describe Jesus. "The word became flesh and dwelt among us, and this is what we saw -- grace and truth." I think John saw both grace and truth because one doesn't work without the other. Grace without truth is not grace at all. Failing to warn a friend whose grades spiral downward while he wastes hours playing video games, or worse, is not grace. A wife allowing her husband to hurt her, and to hurt himself, by not declaring the truth of that hurt is not grace. Permitting bad behavior is not grace. But truth without grace tramples that which it seeks to enlighten. It isn't the truth that hurts. It's the cold-hearted way we often proclaim it. Scolding or shaming a person away from some kind of danger might make you feel good, but it do you really think it works? When's the last time you said, "Oh, so if I don't take your warning I'm stupid. That's very helpful. Good call. Thank you. I'll change my ways."? Speak the truth in love. Exude grace. And don't ever confuse truth with your opinion. Truth is, and it can be known, but you have not been appointed as its Northwest distributor. I'll say more about truth in a moment.
Sometimes grace and truth are hard to sort out. Two weeks ago I got a call from our son in Cairo, Egypt. He mentioned reading a book I wrote on leadership as he returned to Egypt this summer. Here's the essence of his grace and truth: "Hey dad, I read your book while I was in Sweden." Although the book came out a couple of years ago, that he read it at all was definitely grace. "Yeah, I would have really liked it...." Now, this is a sure sign that truth is on its way. "I would have really liked it if I were remotely interested in the subject." A little too much truth here. "But it was well written." Definitely grace. "And I liked the parts about me." Definitely truth.
Grace and truth turn out to be a bit easier to talk about than to live. So this morning I'm going to suggest to you a grace-and-truth enabler, a virtue that puts grace and truth within reach. But first I have a few more ideas on truth.
There are many things we call "true." We use the word loosely. We whip it out when talking about things that we can't really prove. We've done it since we were kids: "My dad can take your dad." "Yeah, what makes you think so?" "Because it's true." This truth is not in the same category as, for example, the great Newtonian law that reads, "apples fall downward."
Generally, we think of truth in absolute terms. It used to bother me when people would attach modifiers to the word "true." Absolutes need no modifier. Ironically, we often modify absolutes with the word "absolutely." What's the difference between perfect and absolutely perfect? Perfect is perfect. What's the difference between essential and "absolutely essential?" Essential is essential. So, what do we mean when we use the phrase, "absolutely true?" True is true. Generally, we try to make something extra true when that truth is known through inference rather than through direct observation. To infer is to draw a conclusion on the basis of evidence. To observe is to witness a fact. I observe that the United States basketball team lost three games in the Olympics. I infer the United States basketball team did not have the best players. My inference requires argument, my observation requires only the sports pages.
Other kinds of truth also exist. For example, as student-researchers you pursue those undiscovered natural laws that have not yet been observed or inferred. Einstein's theory of relativity was true before anyone had discovered or inferred its truth. You Core 250 veterans know that Aristotle majored in those observational truths, the empirical ones. And then, of course, Plato taught us that we have truths -- ideals as he called them -- deeply embedded within our rationale, perfect justice, perfect love, "Happy wife, happy life." Truths like that.
It seems to me that the kind of truth in most desperate need of grace is this truth we infer, the truth based more on evidence than on observation or natural law. It is the kind of truth most honestly expressed when introduced by "I believe": I believe my candidate would outperform the other candidate. I believe your silence was because you wanted to hurt me. I believe you are in a bad relationship. I believe that my theology is true.
Grace is needed with this kind of truth because we have a tendency to cheat when we express it. We cheat when we treat these truths based on evidence as if they were facts. For example, the statements, "Kerry isn't committed to fighting terrorism" or "Bush doesn't care about the poor" are inferences, and to try to pass them off as facts is offensive and wrong.
Being honest and filled with grace in these inferential beliefs in no way means that you are clinging to a weak truth. In fact, the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth that the things we can observe are temporal, but eternal truths are not subject to observation.
Here's an example. A young woman named Lauren Winner has written a couple of very interesting books, Girl Meets God and Mudhouse Sabbath. A straight-A student at Columbia and Cambridge, Winner converted from Orthodox Judaism to Christianity. In a recent interview,* she shows how powerful inferred truth can be. Listen to her describe one aspect of her conversion from Judaism to Christianity:
So, how can we become filled with grace as we debate politics, religion and other inferential truths? What is the virtue that enables grace? It is the same virtue that empowers great leaders, drives great scholars, shapes great relationships and unlocks the power of God in our lives. It is humility. Not a sappy, whiney humility that blithers, "Oh, everyone else is great and I stink." But a humility that recognizes that I do not have all the answers, I do not have all the gifts, I am not always charming, I do not have Olympic potential, and I cannot do life by myself.
I wouldn't blame you if right now you are thinking, "I'm 20 years old, I've had self-esteem shoved down my throat since I was five, and I'm bulletproof. Now I'm supposed to be humble?" Yes. You do need to be humble, and it's not easy. I spoke at a conference this summer in which I made the observation that both confidence and humility are needed in leadership. An African-American woman responded to my statement along the lines of "That's easy for you to say, but for a black woman, humility is seen as weakness."
I am sure there is truth to this woman's experience, but so often the perception that humility equals weakness is wrong. In fact, the evidence suggests that humility unlocks the door to strength and greatness. A few years ago, after doing a bunch of reading and writing on leadership, I read what Jim Collins, a 21st century leadership titan, discovered in his research. After sifting through more than 1,500 companies that had appeared on the Fortune 500 over a 30-year period, he found 11 matched pairs that met two sets of criteria. Half the companies had gone from good to great, and half had made no such move. The characteristic Collins cited as most dominant in the leaders of the companies achieving greatness was a blend of extreme personal humility and intense professional will. Humility enabled these leaders to invest in the strength of their teammates, yield their personal desires to the mission of the company, and give rather than grab credit. In two-thirds of the other companies, Collins found leaders with gargantuan egos.
Humility began its rescue mission of Bill Robinson 20+ years ago. About 10 years after we graduated, my best friend from college made a remark that he probably doesn't even remember. In a rather matter-of-fact way, he said, "Your problem is that you think you have to be better than everybody at everything." Ouch! I didn't know anyone had noticed. Proudly, stubbornly and stupidly, I was bankrupting the gifts that I did have while exhausting myself trying to outdo people in areas where I was genetically inept. My immodesty had blinded me. But as I began to make peace with my inadequacies and limits, my eyes began to open. My dad was wrong, my coach was wrong, and Horatio Alger was wrong. I could not do anything I wanted to do or be anything that I wanted to be even if I really put my mind to it. But I could take the gifts that God had given me, work hard to develop them, and grow beyond the limitations imposed by this frenzied and scattered effort to be good at everything, an effort that was diverting me from my strengths and distracting me from God's call. Moreover -- and this was so liberating and live-giving -- accepting my limits allowed me to escape those endless, jealous, self-centered comparisons and to enjoy utterly the achievements of others.
In an intellectual community, the temptation rises to snap our suspenders when we grasp great ideas. But no less a genius than Albert Einstein wrote, "A spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, in the face of which we, with our modest powers, must feel humble."
You will never tap your potential if you lack the humility to listen to those who council, if you lack the humility to learn from those who teach, if you lack the humility to depend on those who support, if you lack the humility to trust in those who care, if you lack the humility to give God the credit for your gifts, and if you lack the humility to find joy in the success of your friends.
I apologize for not having a little more zip in my remarks today. It's hard to make humility come across as inspiring or sexy. But let me close with my top 10 random thoughts on why humility is worth pursuing.
Have a great semester.
*Interview in The Door, July/August, 2004