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1981 Commencement Speech: Rev. Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., Theologian

Source: Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries

At Georgetown, where I hang my theological hat, a consensus is growing in graduating classes: commencement calls for a comedian. Not a politician, with a major policy statement; not an educator, brown-nosing private schools; not even an astronaut, invading your inner space. No, a comedian: someone to poke gentle fun at your four-year comedy, and ease your entry into this vale of tears while the corks pop. It calls for Bob Hope thanking Georgetown for his son's education: “He can wire me in five languages asking for money.”

Now even the weirdos among theologians will never rival Garry Trudeau or Woody Allen. In the popular mind, a theologian is a shadowy intellectual who builds an ivory tower, sits there studying dusty tomes or contemplating his navel, and occasionally descends to earth to make abstract pronouncements unconnected with real life, or to emit inflammatory noises that contradict the catechism, confuse the Christian, bait the bishops, and burn a little more of Rome.

What can this kind of character offer you to justify fifteen minutes of your Miller time? Fifty years in the Jesuits doesn't guarantee wisdom, no more than four years at Marquette. I dare to address you because at sixty-six I am passionately in love with life, because outside these walls death stalks so much of life, and because I am convinced that for the rest of this century the choice of life over death will rest in large measure with you and your kind. Let me spell this out in three brief stages.


First, death stalks the earth because minds are closed. That is all too obvious where death is bloody. Hungary and Czechoslovakia lie in chains, Poland lives uneasy, because the colossus that bestrides Eastern Europe is closed to every philosophy save dialectical materialism. Many a Filipino or Salvadoran is rotting in jail because his ideas are at odds with the prevailing structure. One third of the world's Jewish population was gassed by one idea, an Aryan anthropology. In this country, blacks know what it feels like to be pushed into the gutter, to live in filth, to be barred from restaurants and rest rooms, not because they were ignorant, dirty, and penniless – only because they were black, only because of an immovable white idea.

But the death I have in mind is not always bloody; it can be terribly subtle, its effects unnoticed. There is a certain deadening quality, a form of homicide, in any narrow mind. I fear much for the lawyer whose only life is corporate tax, the doctor whose whole existence is someone else's prostate, the business executive whose single responsibility is to his stockholders, the athlete who puts all his eggs in an eighteen-inch basket, the theologian who thinks the world can be saved by theology. I am afraid of men and women who claim there is only one way to God, one morality of the majority, one way to interpret the Bible or the First Amendment, even one way to say Mass–in Latin, because that's the way Jesus said it! It kills marriages and human relations, it deadens feelings and sensitivities, it makes for a society that lives in a thousand and one tunnels, with no communication and no exit.

I don't know how much you've learned at Marquette; I like to think that you exit with an open mind. Not a mind without fixed points, not a mind that accepts everything (Marxism and capitalism, Christianity and atheism) as equally good or bad, absorbs all ideas like a sponge and is just as soft. I mean rather a realization that the life of the mind is incredibly open-ended, if only because reality is a participation in God, a reflection of Him who cannot be imprisoned in a definition.

If you are open-minded, you challenge–challenge fixed ideas, established structures, including your own. You listen–to people in other disciplines, other ways of thinking. You don't impute evil to those with whom you disagree: they must be living in sin! You don't turn cocktail parties into small warrens of the same profession, those who speak the same jargon. You are touchingly humble, because your knowledge, however vast, is a drop in a measureless ocean. You rarely live on either-or: either creation or evolution, body or soul, church or world, liberty or law, sacred or secular, God or man, home or career, Jesus human or divine, Beethoven or Bruce Springstein. Like the Church in its highest tradition, you focus on both-and; for any decent heresy tells us something important to which we have been deaf.

Only if you are open-minded do you choose living over dying; only thus will you bring the excitement of living to a small world that already has too much of death in its bones.


Second, death stalks the earth because hearts are self-centered. A recent survey in Psychology Today brings disturbing news. From your own responses, a central passion between 18 and 25 is money–at times second only to food. In consequence, you are sexually unsatisfied, in worsening health, worried and anxious, discontented with your job, lonely as hell.1

You can justify this passion if you give ear to a distinguished sociologist. Philip Rieff sees a fresh character ideal coming to dominate Western civilization. Over against the old pagan commitment to the polis, to public life, over against the Judeo-Christian commitment to a transcendent God, over against the Enlightenment commitment to the irresistible progress of reason, today's ideal type is “anti-heroic, shrewd, carefully counting his satisfactions and dissatisfactions, studying unprofitable commitments as the sins most to be avoided.”2 The “highest science”? Self-concern.3 Devotion and self-sacrifice? “Constraining ideals” that must be rejected.4 “Spiritual guidance” in the best Freudian sense is “to emancipate man's 'I' from the communal 'we.'”5 Learn Freud's realism: conflict is embedded in human living, expectations are inevitably frustrated, life can have no all-embracing meaning, death is final.

This ideal of human living I call deadly. I'm aware of the seductive arguments. To serve others responsibly, you had better have your own act together, get your head screwed on right. To help the underdeveloped, you must develop your own mature individuality. To give intelligently, you should have something worth giving. Before you give, you must be. Integration before self-donation.

I am moved but not convinced. A world where a billion go to bed hungry and human rights are blasted, where war rages ceaselessly and panic walks the streets, where pope and president can be shot within six weeks and atomic destruction hangs overhead–this world cannot wait for you to get your whole act together.

I am not asking you to man the soup kitchens, to picket the Pentagon, to scatter the slum landlords. I am saying that if Marquette's normal product is a man or woman simply of enlightened self-interest, Marquette's centenary should be its swan song.

I like to think that you exit from Marquette with sensitivity and compassion. For if you do, then the competence and skill that are yours–in law or liberal arts, in business or dentistry, in education or engineering, in journalism or speech, in nursing or physical therapy or medical technology–will touch not only bodies and buildings, teeth and contracts, legislation and the media. The gifts you have honed here will reach out to that before which all knowledge and wisdom pales, that which alone is of everlasting value: the human person.

The paradox is, only in this way can you get your act together: not in isolation only in relation. You will become yourself to the extent that you go out of yourself. You will find your life in the measure that you are ready to risk it. When you can say, to a single person or to an acre of God's world, “Your life is my life,” then you will begin to come alive. And beneath the touch of your love, someone else will come alive.


Third, an outrageous affirmation: our lives are less than full because our spirits lack imagination. I say this with profound embarrassment; for I recall that the master of mythology Joseph Campbell did not think much of us clergy: he said we have no imagination. Part of the reason is our older education: imagination was identified with “bad thoughts,” and bad thoughts were sexual phantasms, and these we confessed. Moreover, as the Carmelite William McNamara has complained, all through school we were taught to abstract; we were not led to contemplation, to immediate communion with the real, to loving admiration, experiential awareness. We were not taught to simply “see.”

By imagination I do not mean the fantastic, the grotesque, the bizarre. I mean the capacity we have “to make the material an image of the immaterial or spiritual.”6 I mean not a “faculty” like intellect or will, but a posture of our whole person towards our experience.7 It is a way of seeing. It is, as with Castaneda, looking for the holes in the world or listening to the space between sounds. It is a breaking through the obvious, the surface, to the reality beneath and beyond. It is the world of intuition and wonder, of amazement and delight, of festivity and play. Concretely, it is the vision and the dream, ritual and symbol, the parable, the allegory, and the myth. It is painting and poetry, sculpture and architecture, music, dancing, and dramatic art. It is the Bible with its vast array of symbols from the creation story in Genesis through the parables of Jesus to the vision of John in the Apocalypse. It is da Vinci and e. e. cummings, Michelangelo's Pieta and Paolo Soleri's futuristic city in the desert, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and the Beatles I Wanna Hold Your Hand. It is David whirling and skipping before the Ark of the Covenant, Markova dancing Giselle. It is Romeo forsaking his very name for Juliet. It is Star Wars.

I am not downgrading abstract thought, conceptual analysis, rational demonstration, scientific experiment. These are basic to liberal education. I am saying that, for your spirit to live supremely, the clear and distinct idea is not enough. Do you remember the reporters who asked Martha Graham, ''What does your dance mean?“ She replied: “Darlings, if I could tell you, I would not have danced it.” The image is more open-ended than the concept, more susceptible of different understandings; there-in lie the risk and the joy.

But if your spirit is to come alive, a seat in the loges is insufficient. Imagination is not simply a spectator sport. The image should evoke imagining, call forth your own creative response I cannot tell you how to do it–show the dentist how to find the cavities in the world, the surgeon how to cut his way to creativity. I can only say that within each of you is a power to reach reality we rarely mine, a capacity to grasp the true, the beautiful, and the good that has no limits. I do not predict that without imagination you will be unhappy or unsuccessful. I do claim that without it you may miss much of the thrill in human living, that you run a greater risk of finding existence unexciting, that x-number of the dead and despairing will not be quickened to life by you, that you may fail to touch in love a living God whose glory challenges not so much our logic as our imagining. For, as metaphysician Jacques Maritain insisted, the culmination of knowledge is not conceptual but experiential: man/woman “feels” God.8

Open minds, compassionate hearts, imaginative spirits—this is my way of reading the threefold ideal that sums up your centennial: knowledge, justice, faith. Knowledge? Why, open minds! Justice? Why, compassionate hearts! Faith? Why, imaginative spirits! This, Marquette graduates of ‘81, is what I would like to read between the lines of your diplomas. For this, I submit, is what our topsy-turvy globe expects of the educated, needs desperately from you. And if these hoary words of mine are too silvered with Geritol to touch you where you live, allow me at least the comfort of Rod McKuen:

I make words for people I've not met,

those who will not turn to follow after me.

It is for me a kind of loving.

A kind of loving, for me.9


1 Cf. Carin Rubinstein, “Money & Self-Esteem, Relationships, Secrecy, Envy, Satisfaction,” Psychology Today 15, no. 5 (May 1981) 29-44; see esp. 40-44.

2 Philip Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1961) 391.

3 Ibid. 390.

4 Ibid. 65.

5 Ibid. 361-62.

6 Urban T. Holmes, III, Ministry and Imagination (New York:Seabury, cl976) 97-98. Here Holmes is admittedly borrowing from Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, n.d.).

7 Cf. Holmes 88.

8 Cf. Jacques Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge (2nd ed.; New York: Scribner, 1938).

9 Rod.McKuen, Listen to the Warm (New York: Random House, 1969) 112.

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