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University of Utah 2005 Commencement Address by The Most Reverend George H. Niederauer


First, I must express again my thanks to President Young and the Trustees of the University of Utah, indeed, to the entire University community, for this great honor.

Back when our Western states were being settled, a major means of transportation was the stagecoach. You’ve seen people riding in stagecoaches in many a western movie. However, you might not know that the stagecoach had three different kinds of tickets: first-class, second class and third-class. If you had a first-class ticket, that meant you could remain seated during the entire trip no matter what happened. If the stagecoach got stuck in the mud, or had trouble making it up a steep hill, or even if a wheel fell off, you could remain seated because you had a first class ticket.

If you had a second-class ticket you could remain seated–until there was a problem. In case of a problem, second-class ticket holders would have to get off until the problem was resolved. You could stand off to one side and watch as other people worked. You didn’t have to get your hands dirty. But second-class ticket holders were not allowed to stay on board. When the stagecoach was unstuck, you could get back on and take your seat.

If you had a third-class ticket, you would definitely have to get off if there was a problem. Why? Because, it was your responsibility to help solve the problem. You had to get out and push uphill, or help to fix the broken wheel, or whatever was needed because you only had a third-class ticket.

What does all that have to do with all of us here at this commencement? I want to offer the stagecoach and its three classes of tickets as a metaphor, or image, for the community–indeed the various communities–in which we live, and into which you graduates will move after today. This is what I mean: you have received a first-class education here at the University of Utah. Many people, including your family, friends, and fellow citizens, have supported you in reaching your goals. You will now take your place as an educated, skilled and resourceful member of the community–many communities, actually: your neighborhood, your profession, your city, your church or synagogue or mosque, your state, your country, your blue planet.

However, you need to know that life in these different communities will be much like a trip on one of those stagecoaches. You will find yourself among lots of other people, many of them strangers to you, from backgrounds that are different from, as well as similar to, your own. And it is most important that you remember this: your first-class education here at the University entitles you to only a third-class ticket on any community’s stagecoach. And because yours is a third-class ticket, whenever there’s a problem, you are expected to get out, get down and help solve it.

Why is that? Because on any community’s stagecoach there are only third-class tickets. There are no first- or second-class tickets; there are only some people who behave as though they have first- or second-class tickets. In more contemporary terms, a community has no first-class or business class; in community, everyone travels coach.

Why do so many of us in modern society often behave as if we think we have first- or second-class tickets in life? As if we can sit or stand around while others fix things? Some people who observe social behavior will suggest concepts like entitlement and victimhood. Other suggestions are more old-fashioned, like selfishness, or its popular subdivision, laziness.

The danger, at any rate, is that we, who have had so many advantages, will get locked up in ourselves, weakening our ability to see the heaven-sent possibilities, the good we can do in cooperation with others. If it’s at least partly true, as Robert Hughes has observed, that the self has become the sacred cow in our culture, then it helps a bit to remind ourselves that the smallest package in the world is the human being wrapped up in himself or herself.

This reluctance of some to get involved is deepened by the negativity of so many media images, news flashes and political posturing these days. We hear of violations of trust, abandoning of responsibilities and turf battles. It’s tempting to say, “What’s the use? Why get involved?”

Another challenge to our sense of responsibility and inter connectedness is our increasing reliance on technology to meet our needs, to fill our moments, and to fulfill our responsibilities. Nearly seventy years ago the poet T.S. Eliot warned us about becoming a people “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will have to be good.” Technology doesn’t relieve us of individual responsibility to others; indeed, it often increases it. A small, everyday case in point: cell phone technology improves almost weekly, but, truth to tell, our behavior in using those phones still needs lots of work.

How then should we respond? With, as Abraham Lincoln said, “the better angels of our nature,” but updated for 21st century use. Educated women and men stand on the shoulders of so many others: family, teachers, artists, researchers, writers, moral guides. From that greater vantage point, we need to see the possibilities laid out before us with hope, and to respond with generous hearts and lively minds. If we are riding this stagecoach of community together–and we are–then our question cannot always be “What’s in this for me?” Our question must regularly be, “Where will this lead all of us together?

I realize what I say is highly idealistic. I also realize that we Americans are a very realistic people; we often prefer realism to idealism. But our roots are in idealism. The gospels or sacred books of every religion hold up ideals to strive for. For instance, the Law of Moses protected strangers and aliens in the land, and the New Testament spoke of Samaritans to people who wanted to pretend Samaritans didn’t exist.

The fundamental documents of our country are highly idealistic: the Declaration of Independence and some of the most crucial provisions of our Constitution. The speeches and writings that generations of Americans have committed to memory are profoundly idealistic: “The Gettysburg Address” or “The Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” The assumption undergirding all those statements is the inexpressible value of each human life, the indispensable dignity of each human person.

We need to trust our deeper instincts for ideals, and tap into our potentiality for them. Whatever our specialty, we can examine its potential for good; we can map out ways to make things better for a world we share with others. We can overcome failure, disappointment, suffering, and broken promises through hard work, healing, reconciliation, harmony, and efforts to unite rather than divide.

Let me single out just one aspect of riding along together in the stagecoach of community–the challenge of diversity. In those movies about the old West, the stagecoaches held all sorts of people: young and old, rich and poor, folks at all levels of education, reflecting many social, ethnic and religious differences. That kind of diversity has been a feature of our country for over two hundred years, producing tensions even as it made for a rich cultural mix and great fruitfulness.

The advantages of speaking other languages, visiting other countries, knowing about other times, understanding another religion and experiencing a different discipline help determine the goals and values of education in this or any university.

Alongside this fascination with diversity, however, there runs a yearning within us to create a separate enclave of people who look like us, talk like us, act like us, and think like us, an urge to be with, and perhaps to be only with, our own kind. In some ways this yearning has produced the gated community. Now I’m not attacking a certain kind of real estate development; rather, I’m urging that we not end up with gated minds, gated hearts and gated lives. That would limit the potential within each of us, as well as the potential for all of us together.

We need to avoid the ease of associating only with our own familiar kinds, to seek instead the challenge and even the struggle of knowing and understanding those who are different from ourselves. It’s just healthier and richer to look at life through windows instead of mirrors.

What I’m suggesting isn’t easy. We need to cultivate a willingness to appreciate and seek the well-being of people who are very different from ourselves, including people who disagree with us on important matters. As Richard Mouw has said, civility and openness to those who differ with us, or who are different from us, does not commit us to a relativistic approach. Respecting people and their right to express their basic convictions is not the same as saying they are always right, nor is it the same as saying that their visions of the truth are interchangeable in value with our own visions.

Because of the work I do I am especially aware of one particular kind of diversity we deal with in our communities, a feature of our ride on the stagecoach together: the diversity of religious belief, the differences among believers, and the differences between those who are believers and those who are not. All across the country, and here in our own state, the atmosphere of civil discourse about religious beliefs is more toxic than it was in the past. Across a widening and deepening divide, factions shout at each other: we seem more and more intent on labels, and more and more content with despising and dismissively writing off those with beliefs that differ from our own.

First I want to challenge myself and my fellow believers. Whatever our beliefs, arrogance has no place in authentic religious faith and practice. Just as surgery is dangerous in all but skilled hands, and public funds are in danger in all but honest hands, so religion is dangerous in the hands of proud, manipulative, judgmental, and selfish people. Indeed, religion is a wondrous value only in humble hands.

The sacred texts of the world’s religions, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism among them, teach that principle in one way or another. Drawing on my own faith tradition I want to point out the lesson Jesus Christ taught clearly in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector in Luke’s Gospel. As you may recall, the humble tax-collector prayed, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Meanwhile, the proud Pharisee “with his head unbowed prayed in this fashion: ‘I give you thanks, O God, that I am not like the rest of men- grasping, crooked, adulterous–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I pay tithes on all I possess.'” The Pharisee’s prayer has an obvious “I” problem–it’s all about himself. I’m convinced that Christ is giving us a sentence completion test here. He is asking us, “How would you finish this sentence: ‘I give you thanks, O God, that I am not like . . . ?'” The only correct answer is not to finish the sentence at all.

And now a word to those who are not believers. You deserve my respect when expressing your convictions, and I deserve your respect when expressing mine. I should not try to keep you silent in public discourse on issues in the community, nor should you try to keep me silent. Let me be more specific: I should not claim that your non-belief disqualifies you from active citizenship, nor should you claim that I must keep my religious convictions to myself, behind closed doors, at home where they belong, and certainly out of the public square.

Also, let’s honestly admit the value of some of the “faith-based initiatives” that have mattered greatly in our country’s political history. In the nineteenth century, long before it was a matter for civil war or a constitutional amendment, the abolition of slavery was a faith-based initiative. In the twentieth century, long before it was a matter of federal legislation, the civil rights movement was a faith-based initiative, with deep roots in the churches and religious convictions of our people.

As passengers together on the stagecoach of community all of us have many more common interests and convictions than we are often willing to admit. We know that without a shared commitment to the common good we are all the poorer, and in real danger as well. We need to work together to make a civil world where wisdom, learning, the arts and a healthy environment are valued. Schools, libraries, parks and open spaces, as well as commitment to community services and outreach to our most vulnerable neighbors, are not the exclusive concerns of one group or another, but the common concern of all.

Constantly we need to remember that, on the stagecoach of community, we all have third-class tickets. All of us are obliged to pitch in to solve problems and difficulties together. When necessary we need to get out of our seats and get to work. Moreover, throughout our journey we owe each other respect, and a conversation that involves genuine listening, not merely adjacent monologues.

Again, my congratulations to you graduates on completing your first-class education here at the University of Utah, and earning yourself your third class ticket to community. Welcome aboard the coach.