Swirls. Of. Thought.

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Clearly I’ve been listening to NPR too much lately, because I have swirls of thought happening this morning . . .

Swirl #1 — Has anyone noticed the number of commencement speakers who have been disinvited to speak by various universities this spring? It’s a Who’s Who List of accomplished people including Condoleezza Rice and Christine LaGarde. Disinvite seems to be happening more and more these days, primarily because a handful of students wind up protesting a speaker’s appearance, and because the speaker doesn’t want to be a wet blanket on an otherwise joyful occasion, he or she moves quietly down the road. Controversy over guest speakers at a university is not new, but what is surprising is how often universities are acquiescing  to the concerns of students. I’m happy to see students protest. I think they should protest certain speakers. It’s public engagement and that’s a good thing. At the same time, I believe university presidents should hold their ground, because that keeps free speech free and free thinking part of the university ethos. If the only people we allow to speak on college campuses are the people with whom we already agree, then we might as well kiss higher education good-bye.

Swirl #2 — There’s been another kind of university controversy brewing lately, and it has to do with warning students that they’re about to see something, read something, or discuss something they might find offensive in the curriculum of the class. “Trigger Warnings” they are called, and it’s a topic roiling university campuses. The idea is that you give the class a trigger warning that something might offend them, and then the student can choose to be exempted from interacting with the material in the class. It could be anything from a film to a book to a Power Point presentation by the teacher. I recognize post-traumatic stress is real, and I would never want to diminish it. My concern, however, is that it opens the door to a pattern of learning that is dangerous to democracy. Only interacting with ideas that make us comfortable doesn’t do anyone any good, and that’s especially true on campuses dedicated to higher learning. I would argue that being uncomfortable is a necessary condition for transformation.

Swirl #3 — This brings me to my third swirl of thought, and it has to do with the nature of religious communities. On the one hand, religious communities — churches, synagogues, mosques — are built around a certain set of convictions and beliefs. Convictions and beliefs are good. But religious communities become their most vibrant, not when they provide all the answers, that is to say, conviction and belief, but when they encourage free thinking, free believing and free exploring on matters life, faith and culture. Just as universities are diminished when they only allow certain viewpoints or perspectives, faith communities are equally diminished when the require agreeable, acceptable and palliative sermons or discussions. Participation in a faith community should make us think, and while entertaining a new thought can sometimes make people feel uncomfortable, it’s the kind of uncomfortable feeling that can lead to a life-changing insight. This means that clergy and congregations alike have to take intellectual and spiritual risks, hopefully without the fear of either being disinvited or shamed.

Take a Breath today, and the next time you read a book, watch a movie or hear a sermon that makes you feel uncomfortable, count your lucky stars, because it might just mean your onto something important.

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