Responding to the Virginia Tech Tragedy
April 19, 2007
Good evening. I am honored to be invited to address the Delta of Minnesota chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at our college, and I extend my heartiest congratulations to our new members. Your election to Phi Beta Kappa recognizes academic achievement of the highest order at one of America’s leading liberal arts colleges. You should be proud of your accomplishment as are your professors and mentors, your family, and your friends. Election to Phi Beta Kappa recognizes not just good grades but also the qualities and habits of mind that have made you stand out at St. Olaf and that will carry you forward in the years to come—a questioning intellect, a disciplined mind, a catholic range of interests. These gifts will enrich your professional lives and your personal development. Nourish them, for they are the keys to happiness and fulfillment.
I was going to speak this evening about a passage at the beginning of Act V of Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, makes a compelling case for the role of imagination in the life of the mind. But the shootings at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg have changed all that. I don’t want the evening of your Phi Beta Kappa initiation to be depressing, but it seems necessary to acknowledge the violence that has marred the end of the academic year there and on every American campus, wrought sorrow across our nation, and wounded the very imagination about which I had planned to speak. What can be said about lyric poetry, or the motets of Palestrina, or the paintings of Tiepolo, or for that matter, the human genome project, or global warming, or geopolitics or anything else in the face of this cataclysmic instance of human brokenness? More specifically, for the Delta of Minnesota chapter of Phi Beta Kappa—a society devoted to learning at a college of the church—how do we think about what we have experienced in these past few days? How do we repair our wounds? Here are my reflections.
We must grieve. The depth and extent of the pain and suffering felt tonight by the friends and families both of the victims and of the gunman in the Blacksburg shootings surely passes our understanding. How terrible it must feel to be the parent or the friend or the lover of a student or faculty member whose life was so suddenly, so arbitrarily and so violently taken on Monday. How full to bursting with sorrow their hearts must be. In some grim cosmic equation, it appears from history that the human capacity to bear suffering just equals the human capacity to inflict pain, but this is surely an aspect of our existence that we do not understand. There is a sublime majesty visible in the pain of human suffering. We see it portrayed in Greek tragedy, revealed in Scripture, displayed in human history, and—now—experienced in Virginia. But that sublimity and majesty neither explains nor erases the pain of individuals. Their suffering leaves us in awe—speechless, overwhelmed, silent.
We must cultivate the humility that will allow our minds, our hearts, and our imaginations to recover from the wounds of these events. This is particularly important work for the learned, for most of us who have excelled academically are accustomed to praise and deference. But a liberal arts degree does not confer moral stature nor does it guarantee insight. Neither does a law degree, a medical degree, or a Ph.D. The learned are as personally flawed as everyone else, perhaps more so because their training has given them greater ability to inflict pain in argument, and specialization often has the effect of narrowing one’s vision. The truth is that while we can master an academic discipline to a greater or lesser extent we do not fully understand most things. Sin remains a mystery. The sources and manifestations of evil confound us. We cannot explain suffering. We have not plumbed the human heart. We still struggle to understand how disease, pain, suffering and violence comport with our vision of a benevolent and powerful God. An event like the shootings at Virginia Tech lays bare the limitations and shortcomings of our understanding and points us on a path to quiet reflection rather than quick conclusions or pronouncements. This is not a time for punditry.
At the same time, we must act. Humility need not engender quiescence. We may not understand sin or suffering, but neither are we propelled in dark ignorance toward some unknown fate. The robust Lutheran theology of vocation reminds us that each of us has been created for the purpose of doing something and doing it well to the glory of God, not indulging in passivity. Every instance of human evil or error should propel us towards inquiry and reflection. What can we learn from science about the wellsprings of human behavior, from philosophy and theology about pain and suffering and the universe of mind and heart that we occupy? How can history help us navigate our future? How can literature and the arts help us understand our situation, respond to our joys and sorrow, nourish the bonds that hold us in community? Phi Beta Kappa, by promoting liberal learning and by celebrating excellence in scholarship, encourages us to believe that we can make advances in human knowledge, that we can address the ills of our condition, that learning matters. Membership in this society invests us with the responsibility to use our gifts and our energies to good purpose.
We must reach out. Dean of Students Greg Kneser sent an eloquent and deeply felt message to the St. Olaf campus on the morning of the shootings in which he reminded us that “There are no easy answers here. What we do provide is community that expects mutual support of each other, that celebrates daily life, that bears on, and that works to serve as an example of civility and caring . . . . Tomorrow, as every day, we have Chapel. We have each other, and we have our extended families. In each of these, we can find community, comfort and a sense of security that is more lasting than locks and hardware.” This was well said. We are sustained in the midst of suffering and in the knowledge of our limitations by the web of relationships that links us to one another and by the countless interactions we share everyday with family, friends, and colleagues that affirm our interconnectedness, express our love, affection, or regard for others, and that buoy them in their daily journey. Community sustains and heals. The shootings at Virginia Tech should impel us to come together, as we have here tonight, not to despair alone. The strength and resilience of our community distinguishes our college. The hand-hewn structure that houses the memorial wind chimes located in the heart of campus gives presence to our ability to find strength and beauty in the remembrance of pain and sorrow. We must draw strength from our community and seek ways to impart that strength beyond Manitou Heights.
We must believe. St. Olaf College is a community of faith populated by believers who profess their faith in a living God, celebrate that faith in daily worship, and pursue their free academic inquiry in a context shaped by their belief. The faith of this community, like the faith of Christians everywhere, has been tested by pain and suffering before, and it will be again. But our faith gives us strength precisely at times like this when our human powers are simply inadequate to understand our world. The benevolent God who created and sustains this world sustains us in times of grief and wonder with the strength to approach the unanswerable and the endurance to persist in our questioning. It will take all of our faculties—heart, mind, soul, and imagination—to incorporate these shootings into our map of human experience, our understanding of ourselves, and our concept of the divine.
It will also take time. In the coming days we will learn more about the troubled man who brought death to the campus of Virginia Tech, and we will learn about the lives cut short by his actions. Colleges will be asking what they can do differently to protect those who work and study there from violence and how they can better respond should violence occur in their midst. Spring will progress in Minnesota. The academic semester will conclude at St. Olaf, seniors will graduate, and around the country hundreds of members of the class of 2011 will begin to prepare themselves to come to Northfield to begin college. Next year at this time the new inductees to Phi Beta Kappa will hear a very different message from a different speaker. Institutions persevere. Life goes on. But tonight, muted in our celebration, let us remember all those who are suffering because of what happened in Virginia, and let us re-dedicate ourselves to using the gift of intellect to repair our wounded world.
David R. Anderson ’74