Princeton University Religious Life

The Place of Mystery in the Life of the Mind

The Rev. Charles Henderson‘63
Princeton University Chapel
June 2, 2013

It was in May of 1961 that Norman O. Brown, then a professor of classics at Wesleyan University, delivered an epoch making Phi Beta Kappa address, later published in the Atlantic. Its title: “Apocalypse: The Place of Mystery in the Life of the Mind.”  

This address may be as pertinent today as it was more than half a century ago.   Hence my willingness to plagiarize his title.

As he said in 1961:

“It is fifteen years since H.G. Wells said mind was at the end of its tether – there is no way out or around or through, he said. It is the end. Mind at the end of its tether.   The alternative to mind is certainly madness.   Our greatest blessings, says Socrates, come to us by way of madness, provided he adds, that the madness comes from the god. Our real choice is between holy and unholy madness.   Open your eyes and look around you; madness is in the saddle anyhow ….   Dionysus has returned to his native Thebes.   “Blessed is he who has the good fortune to know the mysteries of the gods, who sanctifies his life and initiates his soul [in the holy madness]. We too require the divine fury.”

Brown maintained that universities like this one had sold out to a reductionist view of humanity, that in doing so, they had limited the horizons of consciousness to the narrow limits of science, stripped life of emotion and mystery, suppressed the instincts, and that, as a consequence, there was a backlash brewing.   Clearly he was right about the backlash.   The counter culture of the 1960’s figured prominently at universities such as this.   But far beyond that, the counter culture was mainstreamed until it became, for better or worse, a huge commercial success.

Ironically, today emotion and fury have become the motivating force of the religious and cultural right, rather than the left.   And they have devolved into simple anger. Anger and rage focused upon government, established religion, institutions of higher learning, including colleges and universities such as this.

So perhaps it’s time to take another look at the role of emotion in the life of the mind… as well as in the culture of this country in the second decade of the new millennium.

This isn’t the first time I preached a sermon in this chapel with this title and subject matter.   My first attempt was in the fall of 1969, and it was, in part an effort to engage in conversation with then President Bob Goheen, who had commented in a Baccalaureate Address on this topic:

“What may be the greatest danger facing us today lies neither in the realm of national policy, nor in the many divisions in our country.   It lies rather in the flight from reason, in the tendency to see things in large, sweeping, emotion charged terms, in the rejection of complexity and gradation. The champions of direct feeling as against the exacting work of principled thought are legion, and their number seems to be growing.   Again, the danger facing us today lies in the flight from reason.”

How, could a young, relatively recent, seminary graduate like myself have possibly disagreed with that? Easy, if you are in your mid-twenties and still full of equal parts testosterone and hubris.   On the way out of this chapel that morning, the President instructed me in the classics, suggesting that in Greek mythology the chariot of the soul was driven by two horses, one representing reason, the other emotion.   Without both horses, pulling equally and in tandem, the chariot will crash.

I was in no position to argue the point with the professor of classics who also happened to be my boss.

Sure enough, as scholars, our relationship with emotion is ambiguous.

Insofar as it is our purpose to stand back from reality, to achieve objectivity, to free ourselves from parochial judgments, then emotion is a dangerous.

But this university has traditionally committed itself to a larger task.   We have resolved to train young people who would have an impact upon the world, citizens and leaders who would influence not only the ideas, but also the will of the nation. Princeton in the nation’s service.

And the presence of this chapel represents something even deeper.   It represents the commitment to relate to the whole person, to the emotional and spiritual as well as the intellectual.

Though, as scholars, our relationship to emotion is ambiguous, as religious people, it is direct.

New Testament scholars refer to the Gospels as passion narratives, and clearly the life of Christ radiated with passion, not just in reference to his death.   His life was filled with emotion; he burned with the divine fury.   The intensity of this man was so great, that even his closest disciples could not comprehend him. Direct emotion was not only an element in his life; it also motivated the prophets who went before him and many of the saints who followed. Emotion may even be too weak a word.

Ecstasy comes closer to it.

For religious people it is not sufficient to stand back and reflect about life, not sufficient to study and theorize.   This very building tells the story.  

Look at the figures etched in glass, stone and wood that surround us.   We have come into the presence of angels and the archangels, spirits and powers, prophets and persons of wisdom.   Those who built this chapel reached across the span of time and history, and selected persons who have been of greatest value including artists, writers and poets, not usually memorialized in stained glass: Emily Dickinson, William Blake, T. S. Eliot, to mention only a few.   They speak to us now.

And we hold these figures up, not only because they are worthy of study, but of praise.   They call forth our deepest feelings.   We are surrounded by the mysteries: lives that were full of feeling and emotion as well as wisdom.   A cloud of witnesses.

Those Gothic pillars thrust upwards towards the infinite, toward the stormy heights where the fullness of emotion is gathered in the madness of God’s love.

The architecture of this chapel stands in contrast to that of another prominent building on this campus that was completed in 1969, and served as the perfect setting for Bill Bradley’s basketball heroics of that era.   The Jadwin Gymnasium is a wonderful expression of the functionalism of the late twentieth century.   It is a completely utilitarian structure.   The main auditorium was designed to be useful for a variety of purposes, from basketball games to rock concerts, even, at one time or another, anti-war protest rallies. The building itself says, “I am here.   Use me.”  

It was, in the late 1960’s, a feat of modern engineering.   And it is still a wonderful expression of human exuberance, the equivalent of a school boy who sails off on his new bike, crying, “Look, ma, no hands.”

By contrast, this chapel is a symphony of shadow and light; whether filled with sound or silence,    it echoes the words of the Son of Man: “Creator, into thy hands I commit my spirit.”

This chapel is out of step with our times.   So far out of step that it may be one of the most relevant buildings on campus.   A multi-media, multi-dimensional space that invites contemplation. It encourages exploration of the mystery. It invites us to feel, to press beyond thought and intellect towards both the heights and the depths.   There is something wonderful about sitting in a sanctuary like this one, especially on a partly cloudy day, when the sunlight and shadows dance against these walls and upon these pews, suggesting that, even as we are surrounded by a work of human hands, of stone and glass, here we are in touch with an inner light.

As religious people, we should echo the emotion and mystery represented by this building, not as the enemies of reason, but as reason’s necessary allies.

Toward the end of his address in 1961, Norman O. Brown said this:

“I began with the name Dionysus; let me be permitted to end with the name of Christ. For the power I seek is also Christian.   Nietzsche said the whole question was Dionysus versus Christ, but only the fool will take these as mutually exclusive opposites. There is a Dionysian Christianity, an apocalyptic Christianity, a Christianity of miracles and revelations. And there always have been some Christians for whom the age of miracles is not over; Christians who claim the spirit; enthusiasts ….   God in us; entheos, enthusiasm; this is the essence of the holy madness.   The power I look for is the power of enthusiasm. … We, too, require the divine fury.”

Tragically, today, it appears that the forces of the religious right have responded more effectively to that call, and their fury has been aimed at, among other targets, institutions of higher learning, perhaps even at learning itself.   Rather than a divine fury, we have seen from the right a simplistic anger and rage.   Anger that has no patience for critical thought, subtlety, or nuance of feeling.   Which brings me back to my starting place, at the dawn of the cultural revolution of the late 1960’s.

One beautiful afternoon in the fall of 1969, on my way home from my office in Murray-Dodge Hall, I heard the amplified music of a band playing in Holder archway.   About 300 students were standing in the courtyard below, and drawn to the music, I joined them.   I later learned the name of the band: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.   They were playing, among other songs, a haunting one: Wooden Ships.   It records a conversation between two passengers of mysterious wooden ships afloat at sea.   As their ships pass, they reflect upon the lives they have left behind in their homeland.   They reflect upon a world of war and trouble such as our own, sending their words back to those who remained on the shore, as well as across the decades to us.

“Silver people on the shoreline let us be

Talkin’ about very free and easy. 

Horror grips us as we watch you die.

All we can do is echo your anquished cries,

Stare as all human feelings die.

We are leaving, you don’t need us.


Go take a sister, then, by the hand.

Lead her away from this foreign land,

Far away, where we might laugh again.

We are leaving, you don’t need us.”

You don’t need us?   But, of course, we do. We need everybody, body and soul, mind and emotion.  

It is no less than tragic to realize that our culture is still seen as a place of no feeling, that we in the US are seen as a people without a saving passion.    And more tragically, that we can stand idly by as our world is brought to the brink of environmental catastrophe, and as our drone missiles strike and kill people whom we have never met, the innocent and the guilty alike. Whatever our views on questions of policy underlying such things, it is not our place to be defensive, but to respond creatively to the crisis of the hour.  

We are at a critical juncture.   We need to care now more than ever.   We need to struggle together and forge new ways of making hope real. In the nineteen-thirties theologian, Rhinehold Niebuhr, well described the challenge:

“In the task of redemption, the most effective agents will be people who have sustained some new illusions for the abandoned ones.   The most important of these illusions is that … humankind can achieve justice. It is a very valuable illusion. … For justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its … realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle against the malignant power and spiritual wickedness in high places. The illusion is dangerous because it encourages terrible fanaticisms. It must therefore be brought under the control of reason.   One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done.”

And this is still my hope today, fifty years later, as I look back across the decades since my own graduation, that we, all of us may be so closely connected to the madness of God’s love for the world that we never give up, never lose hope and never stop struggling for its redemption.

Earlier, I contrasted the architecture of this chapel to that of Jadwin Gymnasium.   I now turn to a third architectural image, the one employed by Jesus in this morning’s gospel lesson.   “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts upon them, will be like one who built a house upon the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded upon the rock.”

Note the logic Jesus is employing here. He moves from poetry to action.   “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts upon them ….”  

What good are these sermons in stone if they do not inspire us to take action?   And that is the point where feeling comes into play most decisively in our lives. It is the motivating force that enables us to become agents of change. Without it, we are helpless. Supine in the face of evil’s power.

This is why we need the divine fury, the madness and love that are, and always have been, part of the religious life.   But such emotion can only bear fruit when it becomes the engine of our behavior.

One of the important aspects of a Princeton reunion is the chance to reconnect with classmates and friends, many of whom have contributed greatly to making this world more hospitable to human thriving.   But some of our 50 year classmates, sadly, could not join us for the celebration, for their lives were cut short, whether in the jungle battlefields of Vietnam, or, like one of my roommates, a medical doctor, whose car spun out of control and crashed on an icy road on his way back from visiting his patients in a hospital early one cold winter morning in Pennsylvania.   There are many such stories to be told and remembered, whether etched in stone and glass in sanctuaries like this, or etched in the memories of their loved ones, near and far.

People who were able to convert emotion into action. Human beings who reflected in lives of brilliance the beauty of God’s love.   May it be so for all of us.

May God fill each of us with a divine fury.   May the Great One open each of us to the ecstasy of love. May the Creator fill us with the divine madness out of which our lives are spun whether here and now or in the world to come.

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