A Few Parting Words from Smith

In the final lecture of his distinguished teaching career, longtime Professor of Religion Jerry Smith waxed eloquent on competence, compassion, and “those damn rocks.”

The full text of Jerry Smith’s final lecture, delivered to a standing-room-only audience on April 27, 2016, at McGriff Alumni House:

One day last year, I was sitting on the porch at Stirling’s with daughter Amber and said to her, “I love those damn rocks.” I was referring to the crude stone borders—the large chunks of sandstone—that we have used to line our roads, curbs, and walkways. Tennessee trash landscaping at its finest/worst. The only other places I am familiar with that use sandstone this way are the access roads of stripmines. Amber said back to me, “What are you talking about?” I told her that I had finally made my peace with these sandstone borders I have been trying to get removed for two decades. They are not going away. And in that moment in the sun on Stirling’s porch, I made my peace. I decided not to fight that battle anymore and that I would see those stones all over campus as tokens of a deeper truth about Sewanee, about the world—and about my relation to it. As I sat with Amber, I recalled Robert Frost’s poem “Hyla Brook”—a beautiful poem about a tiny and insignificant rivulet of a stream that bordered his New Hampshire farm. After describing the seasons of this tiny stream, which Frost admits is not much of a stream, he confesses, “We love the things we love for what they are.” I return in my mind to this poem, this line, often: “We love the things we love for what they are.” Not for what they will be when we have hammered them into shape, not for what they will be when we finish renovating, not for what they will be when the new design study is complete and we have the funding for a total makeover of our buildings and lands. No. “We love the things we love for what they are.”

I have made a similar peace with potholes in roads, with Facebook’s recommending dead people to me for friends, with the perpetually understocked inventories in Walmart, with the now hundreds of misshelved books in duPont, with the Sirius system that can never get my account right. I have made peace with the disorder, the entropy, of the world. It has been the now clichéd punditry of innumerable professors (including myself), deans, college presidents, and especially commencement speakers to tell you some version of “We expect you to change the world.” We sort you out for admission and then educate you to be agents of change—to use your education to solve problems, to make the world better, to be the vanguard of an army of informed warriors against poverty, ignorance, disease, sickness—and against corruption, bureaucracy, and corporate privilege. And some of you will do these things and do them well. That is fine and I am not trying to make you doubt your best instincts or be unfaithful to your dreams.

Increasingly, however, and of late I have been thinking about all this in a different way. “Those damn rocks” changed my view of what I think we should be about. As I am beginning to see it, our task is not so much to change the world as it is to understand it: to understand some very fundamental aspects of the world that invalidate the agendas of change that are so dear to us. First, we need to understand that every physical system of the world and every derivative or overlaid social/cultural system is tainted at its core by entropy. Closed systems dissipate heat. Component parts fall apart and resolve into randomly arrayed lowest common denominators. Systems always fail, and, in the end, every system requires more energy to keep it running or to fix its failures than the system or those failures are worth. Walmart cannot—at its scale of distribution—overcome the inherent dysfunctionality of its inventory maintenance and distribution mechanisms: Walmart stores will always be out of something, even while Walmart has plenty of that something in a warehouse somewhere. With all the power of the U.S. government, FEMA could not put bottles of water in the hands of thirsty people during Katrina. The life expectancy of a paved road is shorter than the legislative/bureaucratic cycle required to approve, fund, and build a new road: Roads will always be in bad condition. Like the poor, “those damn rocks” will always be with us. I think I was verging upon this truth about Sewanee many years ago when I wrote a lecture that I entitled “Sewanee as a Seussian System: Where Everything Is Connected but Nothing Works.”

There is a second aspect of the world I think we need to understand. This applies to social and cultural systems especially: One of my first students said something to me in answer to my lament about why the human community could not do a better job of managing its affairs. He—Chip Burson—said, “What you are forgetting Dr. Smith, is people are no damn good.” Chip was voicing the ancient scriptural wisdom of the Garden and the Fall: We are fallen beings in a fallen world. It is this wisdom St. Paul expressed when he wrote, “That that I would do, that I do not and that that I would not do, that I do.” The 1928 Book of Common Prayer puts it this way in the General Confession: “Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.” Good as we are, hard as we try, human beings bring to the table a permanent deficiency of ability. It is very hard to get it right when the deck is stacked against you from before the womb. It is not that we become bad because we do bad things—it is rather that even when we are trying to do good things and thinking that we are doing good, we do not have the ability to manage our affairs against their inherent disorder. Look at yourselves and your classmates: You are the best of the best—and still you cannot manage to break your embrace of tobacco, cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol. If, by will, you cannot rise above these things, how on earth do you think lesser people will live up to the idealistic mandates we have cast over them for saving the planet? In theology this failure falls under the heading of Original Sin—not some ancient set of actions the cumulative effects of which are persistent. That for sure, but that is not the point. Original Sin means that we are missing something. We are like a new toy taken out of the box with a part missing: We come into this world, and we live collectively lacking the full ability to take the measure of ourselves or to ameliorate our condition by our own hands.

I am, despite what I have just said and often to the discomfiture of my students, a great believer in technology. I like to fix things. I like machines. I like inventions—especially transformative inventions the effects of which do in fact change the world. The cultural history of the periodic table, the steam engine, the electric motor, the transistor, the computer chip, and mundane inventions such as double-­entry bookkeeping, census lists, and topographic maps fascinate me. I believe we have the power to discover and to know, to analyze and to solve problems, to make and to produce those things we need in the human community. I believe we can cure cancer, that we have the capacity to feed every person in the world, that we can eliminate malaria and HIV in Africa. When it comes to problem solving, I am a true believer in the capacity of the human mind to analyze problems, solve them, and to design the technological systems that can make the world a better place. I am a passionate and perpetual advocate of competence: of our ability to do things and to do them well. We must ever, ever, ever strive for competence. Technology in almost all of its forms is good and many of our problems can and will be solved by technology.

But alongside competence, I think we must strive for something else. We must strive for compassion. In the end, when our technologies fail, when entropy overtakes every system as it inevitably will, when our favored solutions turn out—despite our best intentions—to be curses instead of blessings, in the end when we realize that we cannot fix everything—we can still embrace our common life in acts of kindness, decency, charity, mercy, and mature justice. “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8) Biblical prophecy is a sustained counter­point to our optimism and as well to our hubris. The failure of our systems and the realization that we will not be able to solve the biggest problems confronting the planet reminds us that we must rely upon other “solutions” than those provided by our technologies or our passion to do good. The Buddha reminded the monks long ago that the world, our minds, are on fire: with the fires of birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, and despair. Right now, for instance, we are passionate to distraction to solve the problem of global climate change and we are bending every resource of science, technology, industry, and political systems to “change the world and alter the course of human history”—“before it is too late.” It is already too late. Global temperatures despite our best efforts will rise two degrees celsius or more and our best efforts will be tweaks and tinkers in the face of a permanently insolvable problem. Human population in your lifetimes will pass eight billion people and may approach 10 billion. In the next 35 years, the population of the United States will rise above 400 million people. Not one item on the precious agendas of the environmentalists will survive the onslaught of populations. Scare yourself: Google the map of Mexico City and zoom in and then traverse it side to side. Do the same for Calcutta, Mumbai. That is the future already present. The question for us will not be how to reverse global warming but to find, to embrace, the forms of human community that will allow us to survive and even to flourish in a world where these conditions have become permanent and people are everywhere. We must ever strive for competence, but we must strive all the more for compassion.

I am today giving my last lecture looking back at a career here that spans 47 years. My life in Sewanee has been sustained by three blessings: by my first students who taught me how to teach, by the old guard of my first faculty colleagues (Charles Harrison, Red Lancaster, Steve Puckette, George Ramseur, Harry Yeatman, Mac Owen, Bayley Turlington, Ned McCrady, Jim Brettman, Arthur Dugan, and Gil Gilchrist) who protected, nurtured, and mentored me, and by the people of Sewanee who grounded my life in this place. Teaching at Sewanee—teaching all of the thousands of students represented in this moment by you—has been the great joy of my life. It has been in the biblical sense grace and blessing. I have been blessed to have been called to do the work of God in this place and among students like you. I could not have asked for more or for it to have been any different. Sewanee has been for me, in the words of Isaac Watt’s wonderful old hymn, “sweet fields of living green and a river of delight.” But in the end, this day, this is not about Smith.

One of Harold Fisk’s 1944 maps of the meanders of the Mississippi River.

Last year, I conducted an independent study with Elise Harrigan and Kate Hargrove. Our project was to write a cultural ecology of a water system—in this case of the stream by Stirling’s that runs from the Bishop’s Common and eventually into Lost Cove. One of the themes I emphasized with them—as I have emphasized it in this class—is the dynamic nature of stream systems and especially the feature of streams and rivers that we call ‘meanders.’ It came to me that ‘meander’ is an apt metaphor not only for understanding the folded nature of liberal arts education but especially for understanding my life and career in this place. Meanders are dynamic bends of a river system by which the river makes itself long enough to handle the volume of water it must carry. Riverbanks are not static but are shifting, moving, eroding, rebuilding millennium after millennium. While I was working with Elise and Kate, I happened to discover Harold Fisk’s maps of the meanders of the Mississippi River. Fisk made this series of maps in 1944 and they are not only powerful scientific tools but are beautiful works of art. I have one of them in full color framed at the door to my office in my house. It is a daily reminder of a deep truth about rivers—and about life: the river flows on, leaving the meanders aside.

T.S. Eliot reminds us that, “In my beginning is my end,” and I think I was already anticipating this closure in my career 25 years ago when I wrote, “It has been as natural to my meandering mind as the familiar curves of rivers to feel at home at Sewanee and to think of her traditions as a river, a river in touch with, derived from, all that has gone before it, but living, neither dead nor static, and carrying us along toward those good things to come: things that we shall move toward, then through, and even beyond, as Sewanee completes its tradition by transforming itself into its future.” That was from a book introduction I wrote and it anticipates all of what I am saying here. Sewanee is a river flowing along and leaving in its curves the meanders of its history. Meanders become oxbow lakes and are cut off from the main channel. In time the oxbows become swamps or bogs and eventually fill in and disappear as active parts of the main river. The river bends again and flows elsewhere even while the meanders and oxbows remain as the braided history of sedimentation—or in the case of this analogy—remain as the textured history of old classes and old professors which have now been overlaid and supplanted by the new life of the flowing river of learning. Smith is a meander. I was a full professor here before half the current faculty were born. The river is moving on, folding what I have done into the life, memory, and then in time, into the forgetfulness of this place. It was never about me. It was and is only about Sewanee.

You must know that you are students of the greatest university in this country. Not greatest in wealth or endowment, not greatest in age or in size. Those things have never measured what we are about. Our intrinsic nature is our own. We are different and different because of a vision that is greater than, that goes beyond, any one of us. My teaching has only been about Sewanee and how good things can be when we live out and up to the best that we are. The world will remain broken, fallen, forever. That is the world’s own self nature. Sewanee’s task—our task—is to be the agents of vision, of competency, and of compassion in a world we can tweak but cannot fix. It is a truism of the most banal sort that people are more important than things. Banal or not, it remains true and it remains our task to remind ourselves and the world that this is so. People are more important than things, more important than systems, more important than organizations, more important than rules and regulations. The poet Rilke wrote once, “We set the world in order. It breaks. We set it in order again and break down ourselves.” Solutions always become problems for the solver. We must find ways to live beyond the solutions, to live in an uncertain future relying not upon our ability to systematize and account for all our variables—or to make a rule for every behavior—but to live relying upon our deepest instinct that people are more important than things. When a quibbler tried to trap Jesus by asking him which was the most important of the Biblical commandments, he replied, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment and the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:36­40)

The answer is not to fix the world. The answer—the embodied meaning of your liberal education at Sewanee—is to embrace a broken world with all of its rocks and potholes and to begin the work—every day—of building the community of redemption—the love of neighbor—that is the only city that can rise above the ruins of the world. Student poet Gardiner Tucker said more than a century ago that Sewanee is, “A towered city set within a wood, Far from the world upon a mountain crest.” The point, I think, in Tucker’s poem is not the pastoral isolation of a hidden place but of a place of civic sensibility: a city embodying the virtues of learning, peace, and wisdom. The interpretation of this poem in the service of a pastoral and hermetic life is wholly wrong. Tucker’s generation of students went from here to become servants to the world around them. We live here what we would model for the world: a way of being together, a way of being together that, in fact, arose from the most broken of places, that arose from the literal ashes and ruins of war. We built upon the brokenness. Fairbanks took the burned timbers of Polk’s house and made them his own. Underlying Fairbanks’ dining room were the melted glass fragments of Polk’s own dinner glasses. Time and again out of fire and ruin, Sewanee has raised up building after building, never failing its dream to become a light to the nation, to the world. Only when the fires had gone out did the light of compassion begin to shine. Sewanee students have gone from here to serve presidents; to struggle against yellow fever and malaria; to fight against tyranny in two great wars; to challenge the system of child labor in America; to serve “God and mankind” in uncounted ways. Sewanee alums have raised up a never-­failing succession of benefactors to this nation and in every place they went. They came to the city on the hill and then they went forth into the world. When we know the truth that Sewanee is, when we can embrace this vision of Sewanee as a compassionate servant to the nations, the world will rise up with us and say not only “Yea, Sewanee’s Right,” but will say as well, “Behold How Good.” The community of redemption, the City of God, begins here: with you.