Delivered by George Moffett, September 2005
I’d like to begin by telling you about a movie I saw a year or two ago. It was a documentary entitled “The Fog of War” that was woven around an extended interview with Robert McNamara. That’s not a name that will be familiar to many of our students, but for several eventful years he served as Secretary of Defense during the administrations of Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, during the 1960s. As Secretary of Defense, he played a key role in two of the most significant events of the post-war era: the Vietnam war and the Cuban missile crisis, that hair-raising 13 days in October of 1962 which brought the world as close as I hope it will ever come to the brink of nuclear war.
Reflecting back on it all, McNamara made an arresting point. He said that the Kennedy team was relatively sure-footed when they were dealing with the Soviet Union during the missile crisis because, thanks to people in the administration who had long experience dealing with the Soviets – people who knew Russian history and the Russian language, who had worked with the Soviet leaders, who understood the Soviet mind-set – they could calibrate their moves during the crisis with considerable deftness. But when it came to Vietnam, McNamara said, the U.S. was operating from a basis of nearly complete ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the region, and, in his estimate, at an avoidably high cost.
Twenty years after the war – in 1995 – he went to Vietnam and met with the Vietnamese foreign minister. When McNamara explained that the U.S. fought in Vietnam to keep Hanoi from joining Moscow and Beijing in a worldwide communist conspiracy against freedom and democracy, the foreign minister was amazed.
“Mr. McNamara, you must never have read a history book,” he said. “If you had, you’d know we weren’t pawns of the Chinese and the Russians. McNamara, didn’t you know that? Didn’t you understand that we’ve been fighting the Chinese for 1,000 years?”
As McNamara says in the film: “In the Cuban missile crisis, we were able to put ourselves into the minds of the Russians. In Vietnam, we didn’t know them well enough to empathize and there was a total misunderstanding as a result.” Lesson number one, he concludes: In this complex global environment, nations have to have the capacity to empathize with other countries – “to put ourselves in their skins,” as he puts it.
To be sure, my object here is not to get into the pros and cons of the Vietnam war but to underscore McNamara’s essential point – that if we’re going to operate successfully in an interdependent world we have to have a sensitive and sympathetic understanding of the world’s conditions and circumstances. Or as one knowledgeable commentator put it recently, regarding our own times: “The problems of [our] era will come from cultures that are little understood in the West. The effort required to understand them and the risks of not doing so are alarmingly great.”1
As someone remarked once, foreign policy would be a lot easier if it weren’t for all those foreign nations. But all those foreign nations are there, and lots more of them than anyone could have imagined half a century ago. At the end of World War II there were barely 50 independent nations on the planet. Today there are close to 200, most of them carved out of the huge colonial empires once controlled by the European powers. Fifty years ago, barely a dozen nations – the U.S. and the European powers, mostly – called all the shots in the international system. Today, for reasons ranging from technology to terrorism, even the smallest nations can have a disproportionate influence on the stability and security of the international system.
What all this means is that the demand for knowledge about and sensitivity towards the rest of the world has never been greater. Such knowledge is no longer a luxury but a requirement to survival. Trying to plot our course in the world without understanding its history and conditions and circumstances is a formula for considerable trouble. As Daniel Boorstin, the great historian and Librarian of Congress, once put it: “Planning for the future without a sense of history is like planting cut flowers.”
But there’s a significant disconnect here. Notwithstanding the fact that we have access to more new information every hour than Aristotle had in a lifetime, we remain remarkably incurious about our world. Notwithstanding the fact that young people spend between 18 and 22 thousand hours in front of a TV before graduating from high school, they are less knowledgeable about the world than their radio-bound grandparents.
One UCLA poll indicates that college students today are more disengaged from and cynical about the world than at any time since the isolationist decade of the 1930s.2 Their isolation is reinforced by the paradoxical fact that in this age of globalization the news media around the nation have cut back dramatically on reporting of foreign news and on their investment in overseas news bureaus. Only about 20 of the nation’s 1,400 daily newspapers now have foreign bureaus. The major TV news organizations, both broadcast and cable, have just a handful of correspondents permanently based overseas. The American Society of Newspaper Editors estimates that newspapers give less than two percent of their news space to foreign stories. Meanwhile, many more people now rely for their news on broadcast rather than print media. Predictions are that within a few years only one in four American families will be subscribing to a daily newspaper.3 As one commentator puts it bluntly: “Whether you are a liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, if your only news source is the boob tube you are simply underinformed….” 4 We also know from various surveys that people who get their news from TV rather than print are not only less informed but far more cynical about the world. In the end, we’ve become so absorbed watching “reality TV” that we’ve lost touch with reality.
And add this to the mix: In an era of globalization, with its appropriate accent on diversity, all but 20 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities – Principia not among them, I’m happy to say – have dropped their foreign language requirement for graduation. It’s hard to know how we can understand the world if we can’t even speak to the world.
I ran across this interesting recent poll of 18-to-24 year-old Americans conducted by the American Council on Education that seems to corroborate the consequences of all these trends:
- 30 percent are unable to identify the countries that border the U.S.
- Only half can name the current prime minister of Britain.
- Only one quarter can identify Vicente Fox.
- Only half know whether the U.S. and Soviet Union were allies or enemies during World War II.
- Only one-third can identify the largest annual recipient of U.S. foreign aid.
- Only 40 percent know that Fidel Castro’s Cuba is a socialist state.5
As one expert put it recently, “We’re sleepwalking through a dangerous passage in history.”
Two hundred years ago Thomas Jefferson got to the heart of the consequences of inattention. People who expect to be ignorant and free, he said, expect what never was and never will be. So what colleges, in particular, urgently need to do now is to instill in students the capacity to engage, the capacity for empathy, a sense of responsibility for a world that shows serious signs of neglect.
So now you know where I’m going with this year’s convocation talk – and why I talk about this subject so often. It’s because there’s a significant problem here, the solution to which is indispensable work for every Christian Scientist.
Mrs. Eddy writes in Science and Health about “the incredible good and evil elements now coming to the surface.”6 There’s no doubt about the good. Just in the past few decades, significant changes in technology, the civil rights and women’s rights movements, the collapse of communism, the spread of democracy around the world, however tenuous in some cases – these are all dramatic indices of progress. But there are also critical problems that we can’t ignore.
Take this for example: The world spends $50 to $60 billion per year on aid and reconstruction. It spends $1,000 billion on armaments and war.7
Or this: A billion people live on less than $1 per day, and 20,000 die each day of extreme poverty.
Or this: That just as Congress faces the urgent need to deal with exploding entitlement costs, which will require unprecedented unity of action among lawmakers, more divisiveness and less civility reign on Capitol Hill than at any time in recent history.
Or take North Korea: Experts say it could launch an attack on South Korea, or sell enriched uranium to terrorists, or collapse under the weight of its own poverty and mismanagement – the last option turning the communist state into what one expert calls “a weapons-of-mass-destruction yard sale for smugglers.”9 Nobody has any idea what to do about North Korea if negotiations fail, for every remaining option entails a high risk of the use of weapons of mass destruction.
Or take the environment: David McCullough, the distinguished Pulitzer prize-winning biographer of John Adams and Harry Truman, was here a couple of years ago. He was asked this simple question: What will historians, writing about our times from the perspective of 50 or 100 years, say about us? What’s the biggest issue they will say policy makers missed or failed to deal with? McCullough’s answer: “The systematic poisoning of the environment. We know we’re doing it. We know the consequences. And yet, we seem incapable of responding. Our great grandchildren will wonder about this.”
Or take terrorism: Most of the adults in this audience grew up under the shadow of the Cold War, that 40-year contest for global supremacy that was waged between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. During all these years, the key to our security lay in convincing a dozen guys in the Kremlin that we had more bombs than they did – or at least in convincing them that if they were tempted to use their nuclear weapons that our response would be so massive that they would be forced to think twice before launching an attack. Under these circumstances, we had the luxury of believing that by human means alone we could ensure our security.
That luxury no longer exists. Today, the threat to American security is completely decentralized, such that any one or few of the 6.5 billion people with whom we share the planet can poison a city water system or disrupt a nation’s energy supplies or fly big airplanes into big buildings.
Here’s what one thoughtful political scientist says: “The spread of the technology of mass destruction represents a potentially massive redistribution of power away from the advanced industrial (and democratic) states towards smaller states that may be less stable and have less of a stake in an orderly world; or more dramatically still, it may represent a redistribution of power away from the state itself and towards individuals, that is to say terrorists or criminals.”10
Now, I’m not citing these examples to frighten or discourage you, merely to underscore the reasons why we need to be paying attention to the world and bringing our best thoughts to it as Christian Scientists. Here’s what I mean, building on the last example:
We can plan for homeland security and try to track down terrorists around the world, but few experts believe these measures will afford airtight protection against future attacks. So what do we do? The simple answer is that we make a virtue of necessity by recognizing that we no longer have adequate human defenses and by turning to spiritual means of protection. No government can speak to the hearts and minds of the world’s citizens, but God can. And here’s where we come in. Our prayers can steadfastly affirm that God is in control. That His law is written in every heart. That spiritual ideas are obedient to the Mind that makes them, as Mrs. Eddy indicates. That man expresses the exact nature of God. That, as the Bible has it, God “fashioneth” the heart of man.11 Let the implications of that sink in for a moment! That God fashions the human heart. That, as Mrs. Eddy says, “…divine Love alone governs man.” Not hatred. Not malice. Not revenge. Not false concepts of religion, but God. And that, governed by God alone, all of His children reflect the sweet amenities of Love – the “true brotherliness, charitableness, and forgiveness” that Mrs. Eddy describes in the Rule for Motives and Acts in the Manual.12 You see, only by knowing this can the human hatred that breeds terrorism be neutralized and destroyed. And that’s why you are so crucially important, because you understand this and because your prayers, invoking these essential truths, are the only thing that, in the end, will ameliorate the animosities that, more than anything else right now, threaten the stability of the international system.
I like what Erwin Canham, a former editor of The Christian Science Monitor, once observed. “The salvation of the human race at this stirring moment in history,” he wrote, “may be said to depend on two factors: a knowledge of the problems to be solved and an awareness of the truth which will solve these problems.”13
Let’s take both of these factors. The first is a knowledge of the problems to be solved. This is one we address at Principia as systematically as any college in the country, by sponsoring abroad programs, welcoming our international students, hosting the nation’s oldest collegiate public affairs conference, bringing important speakers to campus, and providing free daily issues of one of the few good newspapers left in America. This last one is especially important.
I know the Monitor looks a little daunting sitting there in the racks in the Concourse every day. But don’t be daunted. No one ever reads everything in a daily newspaper. But with the investment of 15 or 20 minutes a day you can capitalize on the great worth of this remarkable paper that Mrs. Eddy once described as her most important gift to the world since publishing Science and Health.14 Here are four easy steps to keeping up with the Monitor:
First, pay attention to the front page. Editors are paid to figure out what the most important stories and trends in the world are on any given day, and they put them right up front. So read the front page.
Second, peruse the rest of the paper. Look at the headlines and read at least the first paragraph or two of the several that look most important to you.
Third, sample at least one opinion article each day, on the “op-ed” page, as it’s called, to explore different views – especially views that don’t necessarily coincide with your own. We shouldn’t be reading a newspaper or watching TV news programs to reinforce our views but to inform our views.
And finally, read at least one article each day about something you know nothing about. If you do this every day for four years you’ll be earning the equivalent of a second degree, because your knowledge base will be vastly expanded and you’ll begin to see the patterns and connections between events going on around the world.
What the Monitor does, you see, is to make it impossible for us to, in effect, pass by on the other side, like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan. It forces us to come face-to-face with the world. If we do choose to pass by, we’re not being awake to our duties to mankind. As Canham puts it, ever so delicately, “A Monitor unopened is a symbol of self-centeredness and apathy.”15
You remember Canham says the salvation of the human race depends on two things. The first was the understanding the world’s issues. The second was the understanding of the truth that will solve the world’s problems. That’s where redemption comes in and that’s where you come in, where you can make an especially important contribution, because the ultimate purpose of the Monitor is to enable Christian Scientists to bring to bear on the problems of the world the truth that heals them. It’s in this regard that, in the words of one writer, the paper serves “as an entering wedge of release from mortality, from its errors, agonies, despairs, and failures.”16
There are only two things that can keep the Monitor from serving this purpose. If you make the decision that you don’t have time for the world, then a good part of the great value of Mrs. Eddy’s paper is lost. On the other hand, the real issue may be that you don’t have confidence that your prayers could ever make a dent in the panoply of problems the world is dealing with. If you do hold such doubts, don’t despair. Thousands of Christian Scientists before you have had to overcome similar doubts, and have demonstrated beyond those doubts the power of Truth in addressing world and national issues.
Mrs. Eddy certainly believed the prayers of Christian Scientists ameliorated the problems of her day: imperialism, monopoly, destructive racial attitudes among them. And our prayers regarding the problems of our day can and must have the same effect.
I love the story – I’ve told it often before – about the two Christian Scientists living in North Carolina who were contacted by a Federal agent and asked to pray for President Herbert Hoover, who was scheduled to make a ceremonial visit to South Carolina.17 The request was prompted by a rumor that the President might be the target of an assassination attempt. But as the two women prayed, during the four hours of the President’s visit a week or two later, they both were led to handle metaphysically the great sense of burden they felt the nation’s chief executive to be under. And they did, earnestly. A week later, they read a Washington-dateline story in the local paper that included an interview with President Hoover’s press secretary. Asked by a reporter about the trip to South Carolina, he responded that during his trip, for the first time in his presidency, Hoover felt a lifting of the almost unbearable burden that had fallen on his shoulders the day he took the oath of office. Two women, unknown to the President, praying earnestly for the welfare of the nation. They not only helped the President, but in the process demonstrated a point Mrs. Eddy made over and over, namely, that there is a one-for-one correspondence between the earnest prayers of Christian Scientists and the course of human events. That’s worth remembering.
I know I’ve mentioned a thought that always occurred to me when I made my weekly Wednesday evening drive to church from the White House, where I worked many years ago. I was always aware that I was driving to, and not from, the most important place in Washington. And that was because the place from which I was driving was merely in the business of managing human problems. The place to which I was driving was in the business of solving human problems, by getting to their very roots. That hints at our capabilities and why Mrs. Morgan was so utterly sure that Principia would occupy what she called a “frontline position in the present world conflict of ideals.”18
I’m fond of quoting Adlai Stevenson, a two-time candidate for the U.S. presidency, who said once that you can always judge the size of a man by the size of the things that make him mad. I don’t think he was talking about “mad” in the sense of anger but in the sense of concern. We live in a world obsessed with the trivial. I read the other day that CNN, Fox News, NBC, MSNBC, ABC, and CBS collectively ran 55 times as many stories about Michael Jackson’s trial as they ran about the genocide in Darfur, in Sudan.19 What can I say? With all due respect, Michael Jackson is not more important than the welfare of humanity, nor should our interest in the personal lives of celebrities be so absorbing as to crowd out our attention to the issues that matter most on this small planet of ours.
In a world focused on the trivial, we, of all people, need to be concerned with the big issues. That’s one of the most important ways we should measure ourselves – and one of the most important ways by which we should be measured. And please be clear: There’s no doubt that your concerns – or to be more exact, the prayers they inspire – can and will enrich the human affections. They can end war. They can quell the impulse to terrorism. They can bring justice to the oppressed. They can protect and sustain the environment. They can comfort those laboring under the burden of human want.
When the great second-century Christian martyr Polycarp was strapped to the stake, the torch about to be set, he was heard to say, “Thank you, Father, for making me worthy of this moment.” What an unbelievable thing to say! Well, we need to thank our Father that we are worthy to live in these times.
One of Mrs. Eddy’s early students, Martha Wilcox, whose lifetime extended into the tumultuous years that encompassed two world wars and the Great Depression, said that “perhaps the most important of all Truth for us to understand today is that God has chosen us to live in these very years. Each one of us,” she wrote, “should change himself in order to be prepared for the new age. We are not afraid, but rather do we rejoice that the long night of materialism is fading, and that the dawn of a new spiritual day is at hand.”
Someone asked me recently why I keep giving speeches about being engaged with the world. The question was well meant and I had to confess that I do address this subject with great regularity. I do so for three reasons. I love what one educator said once. He said he wanted his students to be as excited about the world as he was. So do I. That’s one reason. Another is that only Christian Scientists understand how to pray scientifically, how to invoke the extraordinary power of the Christ to heal and redeem the human heart. Unless the human heart is changed, the world won’t change. If you don’t know what it means to pray for the world, you’ve come to the right place. Just ask. Ask a professor. Ask a Resident Counselor. Ask a friend. Ask a practitioner. There are scores of people around here who do know how to do this. One of the greatest advantages of being at a school for Christian Scientists is that we can think about these things together and learn from each other about how to bring prayer to bear on world events and conditions.
The third reason is that this isn’t hard. Mrs. Eddy says that one of the tests of prayer is whether, as a result of it, we love our neighbor more. Our work for the world should be the unlabored outcome of our natural, daily, spiritually scientific mental embrace of mankind.
A year or so ago I ran across a photo in The New York Times that made a deep impression on me. The subject was a youngster, maybe four or five years old, who was photographed in an orphanage in some civil war-torn part of the world. The caption indicated that his parents and siblings had been killed in the conflict, and he was left alone. Behind him were rows of empty beds – none of which had pillows, by the way, because the orphanage couldn’t afford them. I’ve never seen such a haunting picture of loneliness. All he appeared to have to his name was a little Raggedy-Ann doll, which he was placing, ever so tenderly, on his bed. It was as if he were saying, “Well, friend, it’s just you and me now.”
I cut this photo out and put it in one of my files. Once in a while I run across it, and every time I do I’m glad because it puts everything in life in context. This little fellow is a metaphor for so much – for all the sadness and all the deprivation that seems to characterize the lives of so many people around the world. I look at it and I think, if I could have one wish in life – beyond my own spiritual growth – it would be that I could help others understand the urgent need and profound opportunity that comes with being a Christian Scientist just now. It would be that I – together with our devoted faculty and staff – could help awaken in the most promising group of college students in the world the kind of deep compassion that will launch a lifetime of service to humanity.
So much of our conversation at Principia has to do with things like moral standards. I suppose that goes with being a college. But in the context of today’s talk, these issues have a different meaning. The real issue with regard to drinking, for example, isn’t that God will descend from heaven and strike you dead if you do. The real issue is that drinking is a form of self-indulgence that, because it compromises spiritual growth, severely limits our ability to be of help to the millions of people epitomized in the photo I’ve just described. We talk about computer games. There’s nothing wrong with appropriate recreation. But when it consumes scores of hours each week it becomes selfish, because it robs us of the time we need to be there for this little fellow and all that he represents. The same goes for excessive attention to physical fitness, to the size and shape of our bodies. And what does “being there” mean? It means using our time here to grow in character and grace so that we’re prepared to be in the game. It means becoming citizens of the world. It means making earnest efforts to understand the world. It means caring for the world deeply. This is why we make such a big issue out of these things, because we have such extraordinary ambitions for you, as men and women whose lives are of such profound importance to the world. I hope you will never underestimate this point – or your worth.
In 1779, Abigail Adams wrote some eloquent words to her son, John Quincy, who was eventually to follow his father into the White House. They are totally apt. “These are the times,” she wrote, “in which genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life or the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant wake into life and form the character of the hero and statesman.”20 Principia is all about forming the character of heroes.
Mrs. Eddy says, “A small group of wise thinkers is . . . stronger than the might of empires.”21 I’m grateful to be in the company of this group of wise thinkers today. I have no doubt that the spiritual might you are capable of expressing – each one of you – will have the profoundest consequences for humanity.
5 Fred M. Hayward and Laura W. Slaya, Public Experience, Attitudes, and Knowledge: A Report on Two National Surveys About International Education (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, 2001), 27, 28.