Princeton University Religious Life

On the Unity of Spiritual and Intellectual Life

Christopher L. Eisgruber, Princeton University Provost
Princeton University Chapel
October 7, 2012

“Why am I here?”

We all ask ourselves that question from time to time. And we should ask it.

Understood most generally, the question is profound: “Why am I here?,” in the sense of how should I understand my place and my purpose in the cosmos. “How am I living, and how should I live?”

For the moment, though, I want to ask myself, and I want you to ask along with me, a much more specific, pedestrian and perhaps slightly self-indugent question, which is:

“Why am I, Chris Eisgruber, here, up in this pulpit, speaking to you this morning?”

Because it is in some ways a very odd thing that I am here. Many people would think me spectacularly unqualified to deliver a Sunday sermon.

 Take my fourteen year-old son, for example. I think that he is at least amused, if not baffled, by his father’s presence here today. He says that he describes me to his friends as a Jew and an atheist—which some people might regard as two separate and independently sufficient disqualifications for preaching at a Christian service.

In my opinion, by the way, the “atheist” part is not wholly accurate. These days, atheism seems to connote a sort of hostility toward religion.

For that reason, I prefer to say “non-theist.” I respect and sometimes admire other people’s religious convictions, but I have never found references to supernatural beings helpful in my own ethical and spiritual reflections.

Still, such fine distinctions are somewhat beside the point. Most Americans, I am sure, would think a non-theist wholly unqualified (if not thoroughly disqualified) for the assignment of preaching a Sunday sermon. 

Of course, this chapel and this spiritual community are extraordinary in certain ways. This chapel seeks—and I’m quoting now—“to promote critical investigation into religious and spiritual meaning for all members of the Princeton community.” All members of the Princeton community—even, presumably, non-theistic provosts. 

And the community that gathers here for services on Sunday morning styles itself an ecumenical Christian community—“ecumenical,” derived ultimately from a Greek word that may be translated as “pertaining to the whole world.” 

This interfaith chapel is a relatively new invention. Dean Boden’s predecessor, Dean Frederick Borsch, has chronicled the evolution of Princeton’s religious community from exclusive to inclusive. Yet, as decades have passed, the interfaith chapel has become so familiar to us that we tend to forget how mysterious it is. 

It is mysterious not only because profound mysteries of faith are explored within it, but also because its marvelous inclusivity is itself deeply paradoxical. 

In particular, it is not clear how religious difference can simultaneously both matter and not matter. The old-fashioned position was that if you believed that your religion was true, then you had to believe that other inconsistent religions were false. You might tolerate them, but you would not welcome them into your chapel or worship service.

I suppose one might instead believe that all religions and philosophies are different but imperfect manifestations of a single but not fully knowable God or divine essence. Religions might in this sense be like the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave. Or they might be like three-dimensional images of a higher dimensional object, where the object itself is comprehensible to us only through its partial projections into our more limited spatial domain. 

The interfaith chapel might thus be, among other things, an acknowledgement of the boundaries of human cognition. In the Federalist Papers, Princeton’s own James Madison, while commenting on the imperfect capacity of humankind to understand political things, said that,

“When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.” 

I wish that today’s politicians were comparably modest about their ability to comprehend God’s plan.

In any event, one might believe that the world’s diverse religions are all enigmatic refractions of God’s luminous meaning through the cloudy medium of human thought. If so, then perhaps all faiths and philosophies are at best merely partial paths to divine truth. 

That, however, is itself a rather specific kind of religious belief, a belief about what God is and how God is knowable in the world. Some members of the University’s spiritual community may believe it, or something like it, but many will not.  

So what, if anything, is it that brings together the members of the community that finds its home in this interfaith chapel? That question is difficult to answer, and with the difficulty comes a risk. The risk is that the chapel becomes a sort of spiritual theatre, where people display their religious culture and participate in others: sharing their pageantry, singing their songs, lighting their candles, tasting their foods, and admiring their passion. 

We see an example of this each year at Opening Exercises, when many of the incoming freshmen applaud after the Muslim and Hindu prayers, which are sung by fellow students in foreign languages.

We should forgive this confusion. The prayers are beautiful, and the freshmen are trying to be polite. They do not know how to respond to spiritual utterances that they neither recognize nor understand, so why not applaud? 

I have called this theatrical version of the chapel a risk, but not everyone sees it that way. Indeed, some people seem to regard it as a kind of ideal. 

A well-meaning colleague remarked to me recently that he thought that to benefit fully from Princeton, students needed to set their religious convictions aside, so that they could participate fully in the secular conversations of the university community.

He did not mean that students should be non-religious. He would be happy to help them celebrate their rituals, so long as those rituals did not get in the way of what he regarded as intellectual growth. 

Plato, for one, had a rather different view of what ethical education required. Plato famously expressed his philosophical views exclusively in the form of dialogues. He did so partly because he regarded ethical argument as fundamentally ad hominemad hominem not in the sense of personally insulting, but in the sense of addressed to a particular person. 

Plato thought that for an ethical argument to matter, it had to matter to you. It had to engage your thinking, your values, your heritage, and your questions—questions you ask yourself about what your purpose is and why you are here. 

If Plato was right, then the only way for any of us to benefit fully from a liberal arts education is to allow it to engage every aspect of our identities and to bring every aspect of our identities into engagement with it.

Plato’s insight does not mean that students should feel free to invoke scriptural authorities in the classroom to refute arguments about, say, evolutionary biology or Jeremy Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism. Dogmatism and orthodoxy are indeed the enemies of learning. Students need to find languages and ways of thinking that expose them to the full force of liberal learning while also allowing them to ask, “What does this mean for me?” 

But let’s be clear: finding such a language is not a way of checking one’s spiritual identity at the classroom door, as if such a thing were possible. It is, on the contrary, a way of bringing one’s spiritual identity fully to bear on the classroom and bringing the classroom fully to bear on one’s spiritual identity. 

Last May, the columnist David Brooks published an essay entitled, “The Service Patch” that emphasized the need for all of us to integrate our intellectual and spiritual lives. Brooks wrote: 

“[C]ommunity service has become a patch for morality. Many people today have not been given vocabularies to talk about what virtue is, what character consists of, and in which way excellence lies, so they just talk about community service, figuring that if you are doing the sort of work that Bono celebrates then you must be a good person….. 

and now I’m going to paraphrase Brooks just slightly, because he used an apt but salty Yiddish expression that might be suitable for The New York Times but not a house of worship, no matter how forward-looking or tolerant. I will substitute the word, “jerk”:

It’s worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total [jerk]. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero. Understanding heroism and [jerkishness] requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job. 

Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job. Or Plato and Madison, I would say. I do not think that Brooks means to insist on the particular texts. His essay is not a brief for the Book of Job, or for Dostoyevsky. It is an argument that moral growth requires the unity of spiritual and intellectual life. It is an argument for opening ourselves up to demanding books that test who we are and what purposes we have. 

In Dean Boden’s invitation that brought me here this morning, she described a sermon as “something that moves the hearers intellectually on the way to the ultimate goal of moving them spiritually.” This understanding of the sermon reflects a simple yet profound conviction: that reason and reflection are not threats to spiritual life, but pathways to spiritual growth.

That conviction is, I believe, what both explains the purpose of this interfaith chapel and makes it integral to the life and aspirations of this University. It is certainly why I am here today, and I suspect why we are gathered here together.

Each of us must draw on whatever wellsprings of thought engage us personally. Yet, if we believe that intellectual argument can produce spiritual growth, we have reason to come together in a community of belief that crosses those boundaries and transcends even disagreements about questions as fundamental as, “Does God exist?”

If that is so, then we should treasure the fragile and precious shared conviction that unites us. Let us all be bold enough, let us all be brave enough, let us all be humble enough to expose ourselves to the full force of unsettling arguments and perspectives. Let us all affirm the unity of our spiritual and intellectual lives. And let us all continue to ask, again and again, with energy and passion and without expecting or wanting satisfaction or repose, “What purposes should I serve with my life?” and 

“Why am I here?”


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