Transcendence and Higher Education

corybeckersite | October 1, 2014

Editor’s note: This lecture was delivered 1 May 1997 at Seattle University and in 1996 at the Skidmore Conference.

It was the first day of the fall semester, and I was the college’s new academic dean. I had arrived at my office well before eight o’clock, there to receive the life and death issues of the academy that would be brought to me for adjudication by teacher and student alike.

At precisely eight o’clock the door to my office was flung open and through it strode the Professor of Religion, bearing his outrage in empty hands. He had just entered his Old Testament classroom to begin the semester’s work and had discovered that the chalk trays were empty! Not a single slender cylinder anywhere to be found.

Incredulous, he had sought out the second-floor maintenance man, who was just having his first coffee of the day in his comfortably appointed closet. In tones of prophetic doom, the biblical scholar demanded an account of the missing chalk. The custodian, after 40 years in that particular academic Sinai, was unruffled by prophetic pretense. “Simple,” he said. “There’s a new policy this year. No more chalk in the chalk trays. Professors have to carry it from class to class in their pockets.”

So the unbelieving pedagog came straight to me. “What sort of penny-wise, pound-foolish idiocy is this?” he demanded to know. “Are faculty to be dared to teach well this year, distracted by administrative tasks like carrying chalk in their pockets, or deprived entirely of the fragile white scepters of their scholarly authority? Are they to be forced to write on dusty boards with tongue-moistened finger?”

He was distraught, and I sought to soothe him in my best decanal manner. I assured him that I shared his distress, that I understood his need, and that I would take action at once against this mischievous, not to say monstrous, assault on academic integrity.

So I went first to the Business Manager and asked whether the policy enunciated by the custodian had originated with him. “First I’ve heard of it,” he said. Then on to the President to see if the rule were his fiat. “Silliest thing I’ve ever heard of,” he assured me.

In the end, it turned out that the new policy had been promulgated by the second-floor maintenance man. Tired of being chalk-boy to the faculty, he had decided to make things easier for himself this year. By nine o’clock there was chalk in all of the trays.

This event, which I call the Great Chalk crisis, was real. It is only slightly embellished in the retelling, and it was an absolute watershed in my academic career. For from it I came vividly to see that the besetting peril of every teacher and administrator is that he shall be nibbled to death by terrible trivialities.

I also concluded that, if only we could solve the small problems, the really important ones might take care of themselves. The one I’m to speak about tonight, however, is not trivial. It is both fundamental and controversial. And there is not the slightest chance that it will take care of itself.

In 1967 Ernest Becker wrote Beyond Alienation: A Philosophy of Education for the Crisis of Democracy. In that work, Becker appealed passionately for an education that would “hold up … the vision of the absolutely serious, the awesome, the mighty, the all transcending, the divine mystery in all its unspeakable magnitude.”(1)


Now, thirty years after Becker published his educational manifesto, the evidence is clear that, in the culture at large, spirituality is “in.” In the introduction to an article on the fortunes of contemporary Judaism, published last summer in the Seattle Weekly, Philip Gold wrote this:

Modern American spirituality is a lot like Interstate 5. Everybody seems to be on it. Nearly everybody’s changing lanes. The road signs are large but not always helpful. Entry and exit can be tricky. If you drive long enough you end up in Canada–decent and pleasant, though not often inspiring. But if you drive long enough the other way, you find yourself in–well, California. (2)

A comprehensive book store, useful at any time as a barometer of the culture at large, now confirms Gold’s observation about a current spiritual vitality, diversity, and potential quirkiness. My own secular university book store, hardly a specialist in religious bibliography, has titles almost beyond counting that treat what are represented as spiritual themes–Native American, Eastern, Roman Catholic, Protestant, New Age, and occult. They range from ancient, anonymous classics like The Cloud of Unknowing, to authors who are very Now, like actress-turned- guru Shirley MacLaine. Titles on the shelves range from the pedestrian–Lonergan and Spirituality is an example–to the shamelessly sensational: Matthew Fox’s Whee! Wee, We all the Way Home: A Guide to Sensual, Prophetic Spirituality.

My own present academic institution–a secular, graduate professional school in a state university–is a further case in point. When I arrived there in 1984, I was an oddity, partly because I was the only faculty member not trained in the profession to which the school is dedicated (and a theologian at that), and also because I was the only faculty member with a clearly visible religious commitment. Six or eight years ago things began to change. Some of the newer, younger and, perhaps not incidentally, ethnically identified members of the faculty were not hesitant in raising, in their teaching, what by some definitions are spiritual issues.

Students too began to find their voices and demand attention to spiritual considerations, arguing that they couldn’t deal adequately with clients’ needs unless they had some way to tap into clients’ spiritual resources, and that they couldn’t survive as professionals without spiritual resources of their own. When, in a lecture to the combined M.S.W. classes on social policy, I talked about love and vocation, some students afterward expressed relief that finally someone had said something publicly in that place about the deep things.

There is obviously a ready market for so extensive a bibliography as is found in the University Book Store. And the social work students mirror a wider phenomenon among persons in many walks who are now finding the possibilities of depth in a culture that has long lived on the materialistic surface of things, and on meaning in professions that have long subsisted primarily on technique.

The spirituality that has come among us is no seamless garment, as Philip Gold hints. To a reasonably objective observer, there seem to be about as many definitions of the “spiritual” as there are seekers. MacLaine and Roman Catholic theologian Bernard Lonergan don’t appear to have much in common. Contemporary shamanism has its purported roots in the Native American spiritual heritage, but it is being appropriated and fashionably espoused by middle-class white men these days. Real Native shamanism has little apparent connection with spiritual healing as it is practiced, say, by Oral Roberts or Benny Hinn. Taro cards, astrology, and seances, as efforts to discern the shape of the future, claim different spiritual origins from Pentecostalism’s reading of the signs of the times. New Age pyramids, crystals, and spiritual convergence-events aren’t quite what Pat Robertson has in mind when he talks about miracles.

At the same time, some of the seeming contrasts may be more apparent than real. However diverse their explanations of what’s going on, I’m not sure there is much practical difference between J. Z. Knight, the channeler of Ramtha, the 35,000-year-old man with his alleged wisdom from the Other Side, and Pat Robertson, who wants us to believe that God said to him, “Pat, I want you to have an RCA transmitter.” For all practical purposes, Robertson is a channeler. With him, no less than with Knight, we are dealing with claims that are dangerous in their capacity both for the self-delusion of their practitioners and for the incidental or deliberate exploitation of the rest of us.

I distrust the spirituality of the New Age movement. I am touched by its evident hunger for transcendence, by its desperate search for meaning. At the same time, I am alarmed by its eager gullibility, its spiritual and intellectual indiscriminacy, its historical shallowness that fails to see supposedly “new” truth for what it is: the bastardization of very ancient wisdom; and therefore its readiness to be victimized by each new prophet or channeler who comes along.

Given all of this, it is incumbent on me to try to say as plainly as I can what I shall mean when I talk about spirituality or transcendence. My bias is that the spiritual is one of four gifts that make us human, the others being intellect, emotion, and bodily presence, all four held in the inseparable unity of being and becoming.

In this paper, I shall understand spirituality to be the awareness of transcendence, the experience of realities that are not bounded by time, sense, and self. Sociologist Peter Berger describes these experiences as “signals of transcendence,” by which he means “phenomena that are to be found within the domain of our ‘natural’, reality but that appear to point beyond that reality.” (3)


Efforts have been made, repeatedly throughout history, to dismiss the spiritual as a distortion of intellect, emotion, or physical presence: to treat it as undisciplined speculation, or as emotion at the end of its tether, or as sensate aberration. But it will not down. The spiritual keeps coming back, as it seems now to be doing, because it is peculiar, irreducible, of the essence, indeed sui generis.

What will colleges and universities do in response to this renewal? Probably very little, given the widespread academic prejudice that holds spiritual considerations to be irrelevant if not actually inimical to the task of helping women and men achieve a liberal education. That, in my view, is the crashing irony to be found at the heart of many collegiate enterprises: the assumption that it is possible to enhance the human and the humane–which is the business especially of a liberal arts college–while excluding from curriculum and teaching an examination of what is most poignantly, most distinctively human, which I take the spiritual to be.

My task in this paper is to make a case for Ernest Becker’s call for an education–especially in institutions of the liberal arts and sciences–that will hold up what he called “the vision of the absolutely serious: the awesome, the mighty, the all transcending, the divine mystery in all its unspeakable magnitude.”

In 1961, Michael Novak–this was the good Michael Novak who was then stretching us all with his radical theological speculation, before he became the American Enterprise institute’s resident theological flack for free enterprise–Novak wrote an article in Harper’s Magazine that has made a permanent contribution to me as a practicing educator. (4) Those were the “God is dead” years, and Novak wondered what peculiar conditions might account for the absence of God from collegiate education, It’s not simply that religion is stifled by an academic culture built on the assumption that “ultimate questions are nonintellectual, personal, and of matters of supreme importance and self-commitment, nevertheless not matters for passionate academic dispute.” (5)While that is true, Novak wrote that the actual situation is really much worse; because even if there were formal courses specifically designed to raise the so-called Big Questions, “genuine religious life would fare hardly better than at present.” (6)

In my own definition, religion is the quest for that meaning which has power to give shape to experience, purpose to existence, and motivation and moral energy to the human enterprise. But questions–spiritual questions, if you will–about meaning, purpose, and moral energy are peculiarly human questions and can scarcely even be framed, let alone answered, if the meaning of what it is to be human is evaded.

So, said Novak, the starting points of profoundly religious inquiry and discourse are to be found in man’s experience of his fragility, of his transitoriness, of his tininess; his consciousness of his uniqueness on the earth, of his endless and restless questioning; his personal choices whose motives and consequences he cannot fully know; his vast ability to be proud and to fail, to be isolated and to love, to be–and yet not to be–the master of his own destiny. (7)

These experiences, said Novak, are “prereligious…barely starting points for full religious life. But they are the only foundation on which anything living can be built.” (8)

Questions about the ultimate cannot even be framed, let alone answered, if the questions about the nature of the proximate are left unasked. So the larger problem is not the absence or limitation of formal courses in theology, but the exclusion of those considerations that are most peculiarly and poignantly human from courses in biology and astronomy, of economics and psychology and history, to say nothing of philosophy, literature, and the arts. A student may seldom hear anything said in those classrooms that speaks to her own location between hope and despair, between freedom and fate, between principle and compromise, between intimation and emptiness. And yet those intensely human locations underlie virtually all of the academic disciplines.

Nor is it only religion that is diminished by the absence of an existential dimension in teaching and learning. The disciplines themselves become trivialized. It is not so much the facts of a subject at which we ought to be aiming in our teaching, as it is an estimate of the significances that accrue in and emerge out of that factual welter. It will do me little good, as a student, to be able to recite with chronological accuracy the succession of the monarchies in Britain and France if, in the process, I have learned nothing about the career of power. It will trivialize the study of genetics if I master the DNA code but come away unawed by its incredible workmanship and mysterious power. It will be dehumanizing if, in the study of psychology and sociology, I learn in detail what manipulations can be achieved by social engineering, without at the same time being given any sense of what ought not be done because of the fragility and value of the human species. And it will be a distortion if I master the techniques of an artistic medium for privatistic purposes, and fail to learn from the painter of Guernica that the true artist is “a social creature, always wide-awake in the face of heart-rending bitter or sweet events of the world and wholly fashioned himself according to their image.”

So, in our teaching, we ought deliberately and regularly and provocatively be uncovering the deeper and broader significances–social, political, moral, religious, which is to say human character– of the subjects we teach, and inviting students to experience and appropriate those significances for themselves.

To repeat: we cannot even entertain the religious if we avoid and evade what Novak called the prereligious. So he wrote,

If religion is to enter the university, it must enter first at the most elementary level: in experience, in awareness, in slow and gradual exploration …. [T]he greatest contribution to the religious life of the university could come from teachers and scholars–formally religious or not–who could lead the student to the profound human experiences lying below the surface of the academic curriculum. (9)

Michael Novak’s final conclusion of the matter was this:

God, if there is a God, is not dead. He will come back to the colleges, when man comes back. (10)

So here is my thesis: Wherever higher education represents, in essence, a distinctive educational strategy for enhancing and enlarging the human and the humane–and that ought at least to describe colleges of the liberal arts and sciences–spiritual competence is one of the unavoidable outcomes by which the adequacy and integrity of that education must be measured. Not sectarian spiritual competence, mind you, and not only in church-related colleges and universities in any case. Competence, rather, for entering fully into those inerradicable dimensions of personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal being which mark us all and can properly be called spiritual.

It is the burden of what follows to identify three of those dimensions and to demonstrate their integral place in any educational institution with a broadly humanistic mission.


The first is faith.

We trivialize faith in thinking of it primarily in terms of doctrinal affirmation. Understood as a profound spiritual reality, faith is far deeper than conscious choice, though it will be fed by our choices. Faith in this deeper sense is fundamental life-orientation, and it is the precondition of that other kind of faith understood as the content or the object of consciously-held belief.

We can approach the deeper meaning of faith if we ask, What persuasion do we need if life is to have savor, if–in spite of persistent problems–life is not to be ultimately problematic? Life would, indeed, be ultimately problematic if we were simply “orphans in an alien universe.” If we are the unintended products of sheer randomness, if the life process has no stake in our existence, if our being has no value for the whole of being, if the goods to which we aspire are accidental and evanescent, if life cannot be seen whole because there is no coherence in it which links each to all–if this is the way life is, then it will seem to us an indifferent business at best.

But indifference, under such conditions, would not be the last word, nor indeed the worst word. “The inscrutable power by which we are is either for us or against us,” wrote H. Richard Niebuhr. “if it is neutral, heedless of the affirmations or denials of the creatures by each other, it is against us, to be distrusted as profoundly as if it were actively inimical. For then it has cast us into being as aliens, as beings that do not fit.” (11)

Put positively, the persuasion we need if our existence is to have point and purpose–the faith we need, if you will–is assurance that life can be trusted. The question of meaning or meaninglessness, the question of faith or unfaith (and there is no middle ground between them), is fundamentally a question of “trust or distrust in being itself,” as Niebuhr insisted. (12)

Nor is this merely the theologian’s special view of what is needed for life to be livable. Psychiatrist Andras Angyal agreed about the importance of life-trust to developing personhood. Every person, he wrote, has a dual pattern of organization: one marked by realistic confidence and hope, the other by diffidence and anxiety. The first is the pattern of health, the second the pattern of neurosis, with the emotional condition of the individual dependent upon which pattern is ascendant. Emotional health, then, depends precisely on our ability to affirm the trustworthiness of life, while neurosis has its source in the belief that life is ultimately problematic. (13)

The philosopher, concerned not so much for emotional integrity as for intellectual integrity, concurs. Says Huston Smith, faith experienced as a fundamental trust in life “does not reside in the cerebral cortex but in the total character structure of the personality.” It “provides that matrix of ultimate confidence toward life which can accommodate the maximum of open-mindedness …. Doctrinal defensiveness and overprotection are unneeded, for security is no longer structured on this brittle level. One has found the secret of inner confidence, and with it the greatest leverage for the open mind which life can afford.” (14)

Faith, as understood by theologian, psychiatrist, and philosopher, ought to be the concern of any college that intends to enhance and enlarge the human and the humane, because faith is the precondition both of psychological and of intellectual integrity.

Niebuhr and Angyal and Smith agree that the source of this basic life-orientation in individuals is essentially mysterious, though early environment probably has great influence. Likely so; but a later environment, like a college or university, will either reinforce and reconfirm faith as trust and confidence, or will complicate and compromise it. indeed, where trust and confidence are palpable institutional realities, that environment may cause those whose basic life-orientation is distrust to have so compelling an experience of trust that they may yearn for a conversion.

All of which means that every aspect of the life of an educational institution–its academic and social policies and the ways they are administered, its classroom and dormitory procedures and the climate they create, the mutual relationship-impacts of students, teachers, administrators, and staff–must continually be tested by whether they help or hinder women and men to confirm or disconfirm, to support or compromise, to celebrate or to create cynicism about, faith in the trustworthiness of the life-process.


A second dimension of the spiritual is ecstasy.

I intend by that term something deeper, more humanly fundamental, than momentary emotional titillation. Ecstasy means literally “the state of being beside oneself.” Such a state is possible only for human beings, because only a self can be “beside itself,” for that is precisely what is required for selfhood. There is no self apart from the capacity for self-transcendence that permits us to become objects to ourselves, to view ourselves as it were from the outside. To the best of our knowledge, selfhood is the unique mark of our species, setting us apart from the rest of being.

But our most ancient human problem is a refusal to exercise that selfhood; an insistence on fortifying ourselves within the confines of self-preoccupation; a refusal to exercise the outreaching power of self-transcendence. The result, understood in secular therapeutic terms, is a sickness of the psyche. So physician and psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl has written that only insofar as a person is capable of ignoring and forgetting himself is he able to recognize anything in the world. Only as he moves to the periphery of his attention can he become properly aware of objects beyond himself. [An eye will] see itself, or something in itself … only where there is a visual defect. The more the eye sees itself, the less the world and its objects are visible to it. The ability of the eye to see is dependent upon its inability to see itself. (15)

In theological terms, self-preoccupation is sickness of the soul, the self-centeredness that is called “original sin.”

In his Gifford lectures, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that “Human personality is so constructed that it must be possessed if it is to escape the prison of self-possession.”(16) That means, in my sense of the term, that the self must become “ec-static” if it is to be cured of its psychic sickness, saved from its sin.

A synonym for ecstasy is love. Love is willing self-transcendence, giving up exclusive self-possession to make room for another. To love is to permit an other to enter deeply, significantly, intimately into my life, and to seek the same entrance into the life of the other. To love–whether it be the romantic kind which is an affirming and self-giving response to one who is experienced as lovely, or that agapaic kind which is an affirming and self-giving response to one who is experienced as unlovely–is to know the miracle that I am able to internalize the experience of the other, and that other is able to internalize my experience; that we may become each other’s intimate without either of us being absorbed by the other, without losing our own essential selves; and that, in result, I become more fully a self in that communion than I could ever become in loneliness.

As Frederick Buechner put it,

To give yourself away in love to somebody else … is to become for the first time yourself fully. To live not just for yourself alone but for another self … is in a new way to become fully alive. Things needn’t have been that way as far as we know, but that is the way things are, that is the way life is, and if you and I are inclined to have any doubts about it, we can always put it to the test. The test, needless to say, is our lives themselves. (17)

Love, to use Reinhold Niebuhr’s language, is the experience of being possessed in such a way that I am freed from the prison of self- possession. That’s what it means to be ecstatic.

But the authors of Habits of the Heart, that important research report on the American character, have told us we are living in a time, not of willing self-transcendence but of that willing self-isolation they called “expressive individualism.”(18) That’s not a new phenomenon; indeed, it is humankind’s most ancient problem. Cain was history’s first “expressive individualist,” the prototype of all who, ever since, have failed to understand that their own destiny is entailed in the destiny of the other; that selfhood is not a closing in but a reaching out.

Habits of the Heart laid responsibility for the pervasiveness of “expressive individualism” heavily at the door of the psychotherapeutic establishment. In my view, it deserves the charge. With notable exceptions, the relational model widely offered by psychotherapy is the primarily self-regarding and asymmetrical one of client to therapist, where one person speaks while the other listens; where one is intimate while the other is detached; where one has an enduring stake in the outcome, while the other has only a temporary investment; where there is no morality that is not of the client’s own choosing; where, indeed, there is no social ethic at all, each individual being accountable for his own life alone.

However useful that model may be for a very limited and specialized therapeutic relationship designed to tease out sources of conflict and resources for change, it is fatally flawed when it is urged or seized upon, as it often is, as the model even for the most intimate of relationships. Who should be surprised when psychotherapy on those terms often falls short of permanent resolution, goes on and on, with clients moving through their lives from one therapist to another in endless quest of fulfillment? Who should be surprised that interpersonal efforts outside of therapy, built on that model, are fragile, temporary, subject to repeated disruption, failing as they do to make place for the other-regard that must complement self-regard if there is to be any openness to real intimacy, and offering no place for the shared meanings that can produce permanent bonds.

But psychotherapy does not bear the whole responsibility for our relational–our essentially spiritual–crisis. Equally culpable are colleges and universities, for at least two reasons. one is that many, perhaps most, teachers find in the detachment of the psychotherapist an attractive model–albeit a sadly flawed model–for their own professional functioning. In my view, the most effective teaching occurs when subject-matter is refracted through the mutually interacting humanity of the teacher and of the learner. On that definition, effective teaching in college and university is an endangered species.

Moreover, culpability for our relational crisis rests in educational institutions because teachers commonly take a detached, a literally denatured, view of the academic task. There is no more basic, no more primordial, no more distinctively human phenomenon than love. It is a pervasive motif in literature and the visual arts, a palpable influence on the shaping of politics and history, a fundamental category for philosophical and religious exploration, a category no less fundamental for psychology and sociology understood as distinctively human sciences rather than as subdivisions of a mechanistic biology. There is literally no discipline in the humanities and the social sciences where an explicit consideration of love not of the essence.

Yet where, in the typical college of arts and sciences, would one go to learn about love, in order to get a firmer grasp not only on one’s own selfhood but on one of history’s major forces? To ask the question is to answer it. We may speculate on the consequences for student growth and maturity when, of all persons in the academy, humanists and social scientists ignore love as a serious subject for study, as they all but universally do; when instead, through silence or cynicism, jest or mawkishness, they reveal their own unresolved ambivalences toward it; and when, as a result, they contribute to love’s obfuscation.

We may further speculate, in this time when more and more men and women have received a college education, on the degree to which the moral confusion and the relational incompetence represented by “expressive individualism” may have resulted from failure to find reliable academic illumination on so fundamentally moral, so inescapably spiritual, a resource as love.


A third aspect of the spiritual is perhaps less predictable than the two preceding and the one that will follow. If there is one dimension linking the proximate and the ultimate more neglected in academic institutions than love, it is suffering.

Love lifts us out of the commonplace into the height of being, where, in the astonishing fullness of meaning, we experience the real presence of the divine. Suffering drives us out of the commonplace into the depth of non-being where, in utter abandonment and the despair of meaninglessness, we experience the real absence of the divine.

I am persuaded that if, in a college, we are to enlarge the human and the humane, we must help out students to become competent sufferers, for suffer they will. It isn’t a question of whether, but with what resources and to what ends. To be a competent sufferer is to be able to return to life, even to gratitude, out of pain and tragedy, and to rise from devastation to strength.

It has become increasingly clear to me that the secret of competent sufferings lies in the meanings to which I have access when misfortune strikes. Pain and suffering are imperialistic. They are by nature obsessive, all-invading, all possessing, all preoccupying, demanding exclusive attention, seeking to crowd out awareness of any other influence, any other reality in my life.

So the more random, the emptier, the more ill-defined my life is, the more ineffective I will be in coping even with modest displacements and discomforts in my life’s course; even worse, the more vulnerable and victim I am to suffering’s destructive imperialism.

The ability to keep my life in reasonable balance in the face of displacements, both lesser and greater, depends on my conscious, deliberate alliance with meanings that are larger than I am; that stretch well beyond my limited reach; that do not fall when I fail, as I regularly do; that provide me with power for change when I no longer have any energy of my own; whose very largeness gives me what I need to keep going in spite of faltering and failure.

So, if I have faith–confidence in the life process–I will know pain, but never devastation. If I have the capacity to be ec-static, pain will be real but its effort at an all-invading imperialism will fail.

Let me give a personal example. Ten years ago, when my wife’ s mother died unexpectedly in her sleep, my wife’s grief was immediate, agonizing, painful. But it was not disabling, as pain wants to be. However agonizing the loss, her agony palled in comparison with the love she had experienced with her mother; so rather than becoming a self-pitying indulgence, her grief became a testimony to what she had been given in that relationship over a span of 42 years. Her willingness to experience that suffering without being overcome by it was, and continues to be, her mother’s most touching and telling memorial.

Such an understanding of suffering does not come easily, as I have personal reason to know; but when it comes, it brings a certain liberation. (Dare I say it: competent suffering is a liberal art!) I am ten years into an unwelcome divorce, after a relationship that, at the time of the divorce, reached back nearly 25 years. Largely because of my wife’s example in relation to her mother’s death, I came to understand my own pain differently from the way I would have understood it a dozen years earlier. I came to understand the meaning of the suffering I experienced. That suffering was the consequence of the gift my wife gave me throughout those years. Her gift was larger than my grief, and I was free to respond, not only with regret at her loss but in gratitude for her gift.

Love, if it is anything, is vulnerability–vulnerability to the loveliness of the other, to be sure, and vulnerability as well to her pain, and to the pain of her loss. So in his novel, Lion Country, Frederick Buechner writes,

When Miriam’s bones were breaking, … if I could have pushed a button that would have stopped not her pain but the pain of her in me, I would not have pushed the button because, to put it quite simply, my pain was because I loved her, and to have wished my pain away would have been somehow to wish my love away as well. I don’t think you can temper with one without somehow doing mischief to the other. (19)

Competent suffering is a matter of our meanings. Suffering that results from abusiveness and brutality is devoid of meaning–is destructive of meaning–and ought not be endured if meaning is ever to be recovered either for the abused or the abuser. Suffering that results from the ravages of disease can be endured only if we have values that are deeper than mere ease. Suffering that comes from principled action can be endured bravely if the cause is large enough. Suffering that results from the loss of genuine love can be accepted, because of the gift we were given in that love–a gift so precious that we can never wish it to have been otherwise.

Does this seem far removed from the realm of higher education? Not so at all! So let me say again, that the secret of competent suffering lies in the meanings, the larger alliances, to which we have access when misfortune strikes.

In recent years, many liberal arts colleges have abandoned their liberal-arts aims by pandering to the demand that they prepare their graduates for the job market. They would have fulfilled the aims of liberal learning if, all along, they have been helping their students to find work to do, which is not the same as preparing them for a job.

The distinction between work and job is not often enough understood. A job, as Arthur Wirth has put it, consists merely of labor, and “includes doing tasks that fail to provide a sense of completion or fulfillment. The labor is separate from the personal purposes of the laborer, and it involves low engagement of the self…. Its goal is merely income for consumption.” Work, on the other hand, is that productive activity which enriches and sustains life “and in which the worker’s purposes and meanings are involved. The quest for work,” said Wirth, “is related to the human quest for potency in which the person may explore his potential, test his limits, and be in touch with his powers, and discover his human dignity and worth.” (20)

And Thomas F. Greene revealed its spiritual significance when he wrote that “work is basically the way that people seek to redeem their lives from futility.” (21)

Work, I want to insist, is self-transcending in two senses: it is located in a willing alliance of the self with meanings and tasks which are larger than the self; and that very location lifts the self above its otherwise self-limited achievements, capacities, and potencies, and invests the self with even greater dignity and worth.

In Walker Percy’s marvelous novel, The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling’s job is stocks and bonds, and it is a more or less indifferent occupation. “It is true,” Binx says, “that my family was somewhat disappointed in my choice of a profession. Once I dreamed of doing something great. But there is much to be said for giving up such great ambitions and living the most ordinary life imaginable … selling stocks and bonds and mutual funds.” (22)

What sustains Binx, gives his life point and purpose, is not his job but his work, though he doesn’t use that term. He calls it his “search.” “To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something,” he says. “Not to be onto something is to be in despair”(23)

The task of educators in the liberal arts and sciences is to see that every woman and man who leaves the college, after one year or four, has work to do; is “onto something” which can free her, can free him, in Binx Bolling’s words, from being “sunk in the everydayness of their own lives.” A college ought to be, for students, a place of conscious alliance with such larger meanings–most especially with faith, which is confidence in the life process, and with love, which is freedom from self-preoccupation; meanings which, in T. F. Green’s phrase, “can redeem their lives from futility.” There is surely no firmer anchorage than faith and love for the suffering that will come inevitably as life is lived. Literary critic Alfred Kazin was clearly talking about work when he said that we need “new loyalties … which can free [our] hearts from their compulsive pessimism.”

Our task in the colleges is to expose students to such loyalties, and to hope for a contagion.


1. Beyond Alienation: A Philosophy of Education for the Crisis of Democracy. George Braziller, 1967, p. 213.

2. Philip Gold, “In Search of Judaism,” Seattle Weekly (June 12, 1996), p. 21.

3. Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural. Doubleday & Co., 1969, pp.65-66.

4. Michael Novak, “God in the Colleges,” in Harper’s Magazine, October, 1961, p. 174.

5. Ibid., p. 176.

6. Ibid., loc. cit.

7. Ibid., loc. cit.

8. Ibid., loc. cit.

9. Ibid., loc. cit.

10. Ibid., p. 178.

11. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self, An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy. Harper & Row, 1963. P. 118.

12. Ibid., loc. cit.

13. Andras Angyal, Neurosis and Treatment: A Holistic Theory, ed. by E. Hanfmann and R. M. Jones. John Wiley & Sons, 1965, p. l00.

14. Huston Smith, “Objectivity vs. Commitment,” in Lloyd J. Averill and William W. Jellema, eds., Colleges and Commitments. Westminster Press, 1971, pp. 47-43.

15. Viktor Frankl, et al., Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy. Washington Square Press, 1958, p. 50.

16. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol II. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943, p. 111.

17. Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember. Harper & Row, 1984, pp. 49-50.

18. Robert Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart: Commitment and Individualism in American Life. Harper & Row, 1985,

19. Frederick Buechner, The Book of Bebb: Lion Country, Open Heart, Love Feast, Treasure Hunt. Atheneum, 1976, p. 128.

20. Arthur G. Wirth, “The Philosophical Split,” in D. W. Vermilye, ed., Relating Work and Education. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1977, p. 13.

21. Thomas F. Green, “Ironies and Paradoxes,” in D. W. Vermilye, ed., op. cit., p. 43.

22. Walker Percy, The Moviegoer. Noonday Press, 1960, p. 9.

23. Ibid., p. 17-18.

24. Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy. Simon Schuster, 1945, p. 828.

25. Max Otto, The Human Enterprise. F. S. Crofts & Co., 1941, p. 342.

26. Blaise Pascal, Pensees, translated by W. F. Trotter (Modern Library, 1941), Fragment 72.

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