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The Secular and the Sacred in Higher Education with Dr. John Sexton

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Event Name: The Secular and the Sacred in Higher Education with Dr. John Sexton
Transcription Date:Transcription Modified Date: 4/27/2019 10:58:42 AM
Transcript Version: 2

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greatest problems that

we face is the fact that scientism and

this idea that empirical knowledge is

the only true knowledge and the idea

somehow that speculative knowledge

reflective knowledge knowledge that

comes through deductive reasoning with

universals is no longer a valid form of

knowing this comes from august compton

others but and this is a long long

discussion so i can't go into it but

bayer dodge who was the president of the

protestant university in the protestant

University in Beirut brilliant scholar

Bayer dodge wrote a book on medieval

Muslim education and in it he argued

that the Muslim education of the Middle

Ages is rapidly being superseded by

schools and universities which are both

modern and secular the widespread

movement is so recent that it is

impossible to tell how it will affect

the cultural and social life of Islam it

is clear however that in this age of

chaotic change when members of the

rising generation are confused by

bewildering doubts the reformist must

not neglect the basic principles of

medieval education which were a search

of spiritual truth and faith in the

reality of Allah I consider this to be

just an incredibly important statement

by somebody who made the statement over

60 years ago and I think we're now

seeing the results in the Muslim world

of the fact that education has

completely ignored this side and and

you've had reactions that are gross and

and and and actually heinous because of

that the umayyad mosque and College in

Aleppo one of the most beautiful

architectural testimonies is now a

rubble heap because of this forgotten

tradition this is my real belief that

it's something that they've forgotten I

could go into this maybe we can talk a

little bit about this but the importance

of knowledge when we think the the the

the Scholastic's had this idea of what

they called the the theater LaMotta that

that god has these divine intentions and

that that meaning is imprinted on the

human being and that meaning comes

through form and it comes through the

interaction of the mind with form and

and and data is a latin word which means

what's given who gave it to us

fact is from is from factum which is

what is made who made it these are these

are ancient ideas that facts are not

something we we create or make up there

they're discovered by our minds and then

they're organized into knowledge so data

and information which is what much of

our modern education involves

organization of data information becomes

knowledge but knowledge then has to

become understanding and understanding

has to evolve into wisdom how do we use

that knowledge do we use our airplanes

to dwarf great distances or do we use

them to bomb people that have no self

defense how do we how do we use the

incredible knowledge of chemistry that

we have to create napalm or to create

balms and salves that that heal our

bodies I mean these are these are real

problems that we're dealing with today

and and so grammar was that the

knowledge logic was was the idea of the

understanding but then rhetoric was the

wisdom rhetoric was not a bag of tricks

that you learned to to influence people

when friends rhetoric was was the the

way that you expressed the truth of your

knowledge in your understanding this is

a beautiful picture by Botticelli a

young man being introduced to the seven

liberal arts the liberal arts were

always personified as women in the

Western tradition because men were the

students and men pursue women and so

these were the beauties to pursue and

you have who's leading her this young

men in grammar and then over them is

prudential wisdom so you learn these

seven sisters to be presided over by

wisdom but grammar was the entrance into

the liberal arts so to go from the

sublime to the ridiculous

yes Winky yes a winky face is correct

but in ancient times the semicolon was

actually used to separate archaic

written devices known as complete

sentences and if you think that's a joke

you have not taught composition in

college recently ignorance you know and

all I need to conclude because I want

dr. Sexton to have his time

ignorance compound and simple ignorance

I'll just end by saying that I truly

believe that if we don't restore the

vision of the liberal arts tradition to

its proper place at the heart of the

intellectual and spiritual pursuits of

our civilization then the we will

continue to watch as our civilization

declines and Falls the trends and

consequences are clearly evident our

elite further isolate themselves in

distant places our inner cities become

military theaters of engagement our poor

schools remain juvenile halls for

hapless youth while our top tier schools

continue to serve as recruiting centers

for what could really be argue argue Lee

be called sociopathic corporate

enterprises that devastate the global

Commons destroy our oceans and devour

what remains of the great forests and

jungles of the world I think it's

appropriate that I conclude by sharing

something from our nation's history the

very few people are aware of it's an

inspirational story about a woman and

the high school where she served as

principal the scholar and educator is

Anna Julia Cooper a name that should be

known to our children

as well as George Washington or any

other name she was a true liberal artist

a devout Christian an early advocate for

the rights of women and the fourth

african-american woman to receive a PhD

in 1924 from the University of Paris

Sorbonne born a slave on a southern

plantation despite all odds she obtained

what she should have what should have

been her right in education she mastered

the liberal arts

she learned Latin and Greek she wrote

her dissertation in French and went on

to become the principal of America's

first public high school for black

students that was renamed Dunbar High

School in 1906 it produced some of the

greatest african-americans of the 20th

century their sports team which i think

is the best name for a college team ever

was known as the Dunbar poets in a

seminal speech entitled the ethics of

the Negro problem Cooper wrote a

nation's greatness is not dependent upon

the things it makes and uses it's not on

the iPhones and the iPads things without

thoughts are mere vulgarities America

can boast her expansive territory her

gilded domes her paving stones of silver

dollars but the question of deepest

moment in this nation today is its span

of the circle of brotherhood the moral

stature of its men and its women the

elevation at which it receives its

vision into the firmament of eternal

truth thank you


well I want to thank my good friend

serene for being here and Hamzah welcome

to the I almost say the right coast but

I want to make it clear that I mean the

correct coast I think that my visit to

site tuna was a very important one for

me not least because I met this

remarkable man we had shared a wonderful

student important both of our lives who

brought us together and I'm delighted

that that has resulted in part in your

being here

now he's rightly described as the major

religious figure that he is I guess I

can give you an image which will give me

a little bit of religious stature I mean

you're actually very few of you know I

don't know if I've ever said this

publicly at NYU but you are looking at a

major historical figure at the podium

right now

you're looking at the Jackie Robinson of

the B'nai B'rith Little League I was the

first Christian to play in an old Jewish

league so this was a simpler time well

before the vast majority of you in this

room were born perhaps well before some

of your parents were born certainly well

before the two of them were born it was

the 1940s and the 1950s in this place

that gives birth to this accent Brooklyn

New York is the true other center of the

world I must say and it was a simple

time for Irish Catholics like me

working-class Irish Catholics like me I

went to a religious school was a Jesuit

High School it was an enlightened place

there were men teaching us and women and

many of them would go on to lead the

peace movement in the United States and

the civil rights movement name said I

could tell you the history books would

use to conjure and one of the great ones

just died a year ago his name was Daniel

Berrigan he was a leader of the peace

movement here in the 1960s and I will

never forget the word that he wrote on

the blackboard in my sophomore year of

high school

extra ecclesia nulla Salus outside the

church by which he meant the Catholic

Church there is no salvation

I remember going up to this

extraordinary progressive man after

class and saying father Bergen theirs

does that mean my my best friend my

picture I was a catcher

Gerry Epstein can't go to heaven and he

said unless you baptize him he will not

go to heaven now ultimately I was

blessed with persuading the most

extraordinary human being I ever met to

marry me she was Jewish and she doesn't

have a far higher place in the eyes of

God than I do there's something wrong

with God but that was this triumphalism

that we were taught that we had the

truth and no one else did and then as I

began college in 1959 the Vatican

Council began in the Catholic Church and

a great man by the name of John the 23rd

a great Pope what's in the spirit of the

Pope you know Francis taught us a word

and the word was acumen ISM acumen ISM

now some of the students here some of

the alumni here certainly some of the

faculty certainly Holliday knew who to

have heard me refer to NYU which unlike

the universities that hamza described

here in america that did have religious

roots and weiu in 1831 was founded

solely as a secular University from its

beginning but people have heard me

describe and want you as the first

ecumenical University but not ecumenical

in the sense that john xxiii was using

it he taught people with narrow

worldviews like me that we could frankly

understand our own selves in our own

faith better if we entered into genuine

dialogic dialogue not just a

conversation of tolerance but a

conversation where you really emptied

yourself into the being of the other

person and tried to see what that person

seeing through the window that he or she

had been given at birth not just the

window that you'd be given at birth and

to see yourself as they were seeing you

and that dialogic dialog allowed you to

look at the world not through the one

window you were given by birth but

through the many windows of the mansion

and enrich your own view of self never

giving up your own space but enriching

it and then that's what this word acumen

isn't meant theologically for john xxiii

but when when we've used it here at NYU

to refer to a secular university we've

meant it in a more yura sztyc secular

sense okay it's still a heuristic word

it's still a way of looking at the world

but but one doesn't have to take now

we're we're we're here in an event

that's sponsored by a many and that

celebrates the the work of many and and

which is an ecumenical work and we're

here gathered most of us in the room I

would assume like me like them taking

religion as a serious part of our lives

as speaking to the deepest part of our

lives but humanism this this this

heuristic is much broader and can be

seen simply as a way of looking at

diversity in the world and it's in that

sense we began to use it here at NYU a

secular University how does this play

into what we see going on around us in

the world the large trends of the world

we are the three of us theologians so we

don't think even election cycle to

election cycle let alone debate to

debate we think in centuries the large

arc of history that we hope is as Martin

Luther King says bending towards justice

we're certainly hopeful of that we we're

inherently optimistic

about the future because we believe in

the inner worthiness of human beings so

what are the large trends that are

relevant to universities today first

undeniably the world is miniature rising

all of the constraints of that bed that

separated us physically from each other

are disappearing we each are in each

other's lives the matter how remote we

are from each other

so how do we react to this some people

react with feein some people choose fear

and and they they they there's kind of

that latent triumphalism that was

captured in that phrase extra ecclesiam

nulla Salus outside my group there is no

worthiness there is no salvation and we

attempted out of theá--

nativism if you want to call it that

which is a deep strain in america we

attempt to to get ourselves off gaining

strategies whether they be gated

neighborhoods or as some would suggest

gated Nations the second reaction is the

reaction of embrace to delight in the

fact in the spirit of John the 23rd in

the spirit of a human ism that that that

someone who sees the world and me

differently from the way I do what a

delight that is how much I can learn

from that now in a way the the theory of

our University here at NYU captured in

an of many's agenda but permeating I

hope the entire university is is the

second of those reactions it's it's it's

affirming the power of community yes I

have an identity but but at NYU that

identity isn't found in some overarching

notion of homogeneity and community its

we don't gather in big stadia or arenas

wearing the same colors with

cheerleaders having us chant in unison

pretending to be the same tell us that

seems very old very kind of 1950's it

belongs back in that small classroom in

Brooklyn where even a great man thought

small about the word community we give

you here at NYU hard community it's hard

to find community at NYU unless you look

for it and work at it and and and and we

would we would rather assert the complex

community that can be the joy of an

ecumenical world a community of

communities where we all become parts of

micro communities within the overarching

entity and then we interlock the way of

many has us interlocking we interlock

creating a whole that's greater than the

sum of the parts creating and something

like a watch where the elements are

still identifiable but where there's

something greater that's come out of the

aggregation of thee of the elements so

that's the first broad trend and I think

the way we as a university and

universities generally could react to it

but there's another broad trend and I

hope you'll see here a connection both

to the first and to Hamas's remarkably

wise talk where we're on the verge of

seeing the death of the

but the death of thought certainly the

Trivium maybe also the quadrivium

because we some would say we're moving

into a post factual a post factual

period but certainly you've seen and I

first wrote about this you go my website

and see a piece I wrote over a decade

ago through 12 years ago after the 2004

election I began to worry that America

was developing what I call been an

allergy to nuance and complexity we we

we wanted very simple answers best of

all we wanted a ranking give us a

ranking I remember discussing with an

NYU trustee you owned a magazine that

provided extensive rankings of colleges

and universities and it was the first

time I'd met him I was a relatively new

Dean and he came up to me and said Dana

I understand that you're against

rankings and I said they're an

abomination and he said to me why would

it why should the consumer have less

information on the purchase of an

education that on the purchase of a

toaster and I said why does NYU have a

trustee who thinks in education is like

a toast

and I said what are you gonna do next

what are you gonna do next rank

religions give us a nice ranking to let

us know who's best you know or at least

who this week is best but this this

allergy to nuance and complexity which

is of course what thought is we do new

ones in complexity at universities

inevitably leads to a world where the

the corollary lack of trust develops

because we engage with each other

through conversation in an in a trusting

way you know we have to develop common

ground and of course the next step is

the devaluation about which harms the

worried of the spiritual there are some

here tonight who have been kind enough

to tell me you've read my book baseball

as a road to God it's interesting if you

read baseball as a road to God which I

could only write after Lisa's death

because I could only be public about my

spirituality then you'll see that it's

really not a book about baseball and

it's really not a book about God it's

it's a book about and the word I use in

the book is a word that hums are you

scientism and the danger of scientism

the danger of making science into a

religion that is the only true religion

the triumphalism now has all told us

that there is the known and we impart

that hopefully to our students we have

experts here on what is known and and

what we have cognitively and we should

give every bit of that that we have to

our students and then because we are a

research university there is the

knowable but not yet known the knowable

but not yet known and that's of course

what a research university does it

discovers the next generation of

knowledge and and that becomes part of

the virtuous cycle of them of an party

but then and and this was at the S

of what hamza said i think then there is

a third category which is neither known

or knowable and but not yet known if we

mean by known known in our cognitive

terms that's where scientism comes in if

you end the block there if it's all

capable of knowledge through science

then you've left out perhaps the most

important and that is those things that

are ineffable ineffable beyond our

putting into words they're so deep like

love love the meaning of life the fact

that there is a dimension called the

spiritual the fact that that there is a

God not necessarily an anthropomorphic

or interventionist God although perhaps

even that but something that goes beyond

our capacity for words that all the

great religions describe as God and we

need as we approach that to approach

that third category that goes beyond

science with deep humility and and and

never with the triumphalism of extra

ecclesiam nulla Salus because that

displays a pride which is the Greek

tragedy floor of hubris taken to its

extreme so it is that it brings great

pleasure to me every time I walk into my

new office on the fifth floor of the

Student Center here

I always enter through or most of the

time I enter through the spiritual life

center because it's wonderful for me to

see the activity there it's wonderful

for me to see the the affirmation of the

spirit that's true and the work of the

Islamic sent there in the Brompton

Center and everything else and I'll just

close with a story

of my first week here at NYU as

president I I had been named president

it was made 2001 so it was before 9/11

and the students in the Brahmin Center

were the first to invite me to come

visit with them and it was a Friday

night and they all gather for Shabbat

dinner on Friday night and then and then

they go back to the Brompton Center and

they asked me to come over after Shabbat

dinner and I I left Lisa we usually

tried to have time together at home on

Friday night I left her about 8:30 I

think to go over and I said honey I'll

be back in about an hour and when I

walked in shortly before midnight

my beloved understanding wife looked at

me and I said to her because I'd come

from the law school where we built a

little community everybody knew

everybody's name and I said to her you

know honey I think there's a chance I

think that my message of community got

through these students tonight and I

can't I'm sorry I'm late I'm sorry we

missed our Friday night but I was on

such a roll with them persuading them of

the importance of community and she

looked at me and she said honey where

did you go tonight

and I said to the Brockman senton I

remember she's Jewish and she said I

said Friday night and she said where

they bent

I said Shabbat dinner and she said and

you think you taught them about


you see that's the wonder of an eye

though love affair right because an ID a

love affair allows you to to understand

the context in love the way this person

is saying to you this is the way you

look to the world how absurd of you to

think and how absurd of me to think

every time the elevator opens does that

go up to the fifth floor and I see the

students the Muslim students gathered

for prayer I just said my heart leaps

for joy every time that elevator happens

or I see it happening and that's the

wonderful work that's being done here we

have to avoid the pride that I was

taught in Brooklyn in the 1950s if we do

if we embrace the ecumenical mission of

our faiths at their best of this place

at its best of our universities as they

fight against simplicity and advance

truth or this miniaturized world can be

a world of much great joy and not fear

and don't listen to anybody that tries

to scare you

about people that are different from you



so let me first begin by thanking both

of you for your reflections for your

combination of story and abstraction if

you will which often sits at the heart

of what makes the sacred tick I don't

quite know where to begin in terms of

opening up the conversation between you

but the scholar in me wants to ask right

here at the beginning as we've been

using this language of the sacred and

the secular like as you were reflecting

on your remarks do those terms actually

mean anything anymore

what what are they referring to what is

the difference between the secular and

the sacred what's the difference with

the sacred and the religious or the

secular and the state but what are we

playing with when we're playing with

this big distinction that underlies both

of your thoughts well one of the

beautiful words in our language is

sacrifice and one of the religious

aspects of baseball is the sacrifice

bunt the word the word sacrifice is the

Latin root is to make sacred and so at

the root of sacredness is really the

idea of sacrificing things for greater

things and whenever you have that

whether it's from a secular person or a

religious person you have something

sacred and in my estimation

I read a an op-ed in the Los Angeles

Times about It's a Wonderful Life which

in when I was growing up that was an

American ritual I think to watch that

around Thanksgiving and

Jimmy Stewart I was just actually at

Princeton where he went

Jimmy Stewart plays a character who

keeps sacrificing his dreams for other

people's dreams and and he's got a lot

of resentment he's a bit of a

passive-aggressive in the film but by

the end of it he realizes what an

incredible life he's had and what what

deep meaning was in those sacrifices but

the article was arguing what a horrible

movie it was and how terrible a

philosophy that was because why should

we give up our dreams for other people's

dreams and and I thought that was just

such a testimony to the secular so first

of all I want to join brother Hobbes his

opinion this is what we lawyers do I'll

join but I'll write a concurring opinion

with a slightly said no dissent yet no

dissent here at all says so for me the

dimension of which we're talking in

which every human tries to touch whether

it be in love or through spirituality or

whatever is in this ineffable space and

just as it's ineffable that means that

all the architecture of doctor in an

organization and so forth serves the

wonderful role of carrying on the

tradition on the one hand but has the

danger of sapping all of the energy out

of the tradition on the other and when

that sapping occurs by people who want

only to maintain their power

that's when religion can become very

dangerous so for me you know the word

sacred and profane or sacred and secular

are completely circular words if you try

to make an explanation of them in other

words they there is no explanation

beyond the experience of the person who

is experiencing the higher Offaly of the

sacred the sacred shining throat and and

and and so so I I can't convince you

my sacred or vice versa any more than I

can convince you of the existence of God

or I could convince Lisa by a syllogism

that we were in love I mean these things

are not touchable bye-bye

the first two of the three categories I

spent so just very quickly and then I'll

toss it back to you so one example I use

for my students is you know suppose I

were as could have been a Catholic

priest and the heart of the Liturgy of

my religion is is the Eucharist where

the bread and wine are transformed

sacramentally into the spirit and body

of the Savior that's my belief now I'm

walking through the outback in Australia

with a native Australian guide and and

the great vast flatness of the outback

suddenly arises uh LaRue ul you are you

google it you'll know you'll recognize

it this tremendous orange mound that to

the native Australian that's with me and

his one hundred thousand year olds

culture of welcoming and love represents

the connection of this world to the next

and we stopped because he's in awe in

the religious sense of it and I'm in awe

of it as a beautiful beautiful piece of

nature that has caused me to travel

around the world to see it and I'm so

moved I take out the bread and wine that

I have with me and I consecrate them


for me the deepest spiritual act I'm

looking at a wonder of nature not Axis

Mundi he's seeing me eat my lunch

right I mean this is what's sacred and

what's profane what's sacred and what's

secular it's it's it depends upon the

experience and how it calls you but we

know there is this category that calls

us okay and each of us so many of us at

least in this room are called deeply to

that plane of existence which is the

most fulfilling and joyful of all planes

it's the plane of love and I think one

of the most interesting phenomenon

that's happening right now in the u.s.

not outside of the US but in the u.s. is

precisely the rise of this category sort

of like the sacred was called the realm

of the spiritual and it's the rise of a

whole generation of people who are

spiritual but not religious who who

claimed exactly to feel that common

human yearning for the ineffable and

that that thing that we reach for which

is beyond and yet it's it's not

connected to any kind of religious

practice or deep religious tradition and

it is in many ways calling into question

what we mean by secular or sacred

anymore and my question is is what is

the future of the category the reality

of this thing called religion which is

about not the ineffable but about

oftentimes practices and doctrines and

borders and boundaries and determining

mechanisms and related to identity and

not about sacrifice and the giving away

of oneself I mean that's almost the

opposite of the dogmatic and religion is

not about the reaching it's often about

the the defining that stops the reach so

if you could both just reflect on that

the the future of religion well one of

the things I mean obviously what's

called organized

aegeon has put off a lot of people I

always tell them become a Muslim or the

most disorganized religion on the planet

but there there is there is a real you

know disdain now for organized religion

for me personally one of the things that

I love about the the the pre-modern

world is is the discipline of the

pre-modern world if you wanted to dance

you had to learn how to dance I grew up

my my mother was half Greek so we had to

learn how to Greek dance and one things

about the Greek dancers is somebody who

really masters the the steps and becomes

a great Greek dancer is allowed to

improvise and a great musician has to go

through all these scales and learning

all these these the circle fists and all

these this music theory but at a certain

point they become free to play the piano

and this is essentially what the liberal

arts is about it's about the discipline

of becoming free one of the things most

people think that they think freely but

there are many shackles of the mind and

and and we have natural prejudices that

were often very unaware of like

generalization people come to New York

they have a bad experience with a taxi

driver and they're convinced that all

New York taxi drivers are cheats that's

a very common hasty generalization and

and this is why traditionally learning

how to to think clearly and to think

effectively it was a discipline that

actually took a great deal of time and

so I think that religious practice one

of the things that I've found because we

have a very specific practice of praying

five times a day and I Muslims always

tell me you know I pray and and I'm not

really feeling anything and for me I

think we tend to forget that this is a

spiritual experience consciousness

itself is a spiritual experience and and

what practice is meant to do if it's

done right is to actually free you

to have that experience and this is why

they say to live in wonder the the child

who is is still in that that world of

the sacred you know little children are

there already there they don't need to

be anywhere else but as they come into

adulthood and and and they they come

into their bodies and have their their I

mean you can't even use this word

anymore but they're sinful experiences

and and they and they become tainted

with the world religion is there to

remove that taint and and to

re-establish that purity of children and

and somebody one of my favorite quotes

of Confucius is when I was 15 my heart

was set on learning when I was thirty I

remained firm when I was forty I no

longer had doubts when I was fifty I

knew the Mandate of Heaven when I was

sixty my ear was obedient and I was when

I was seventy I could fulfill my heart's

desires without deviating that's a

spiritual path and that's practice and

that's the purpose of practice so you

can be spiritual without a practice but

where is it going to take you


so I would I would say picking up

exactly on what you said Hamza that the

future of religion depends in large part

on how we use it and how those to whom

we've given it as stewards in my church

the hierarchy uses it I'll take the

spirituality as a good start even if

it's not inside organized religion if

you find it at a baseball game because

of the intense attention to detail a

baseball game requires fine that's why I

say bass boys a road to God because it

cultivates the intense hard work of

noticing and paying attention if you

find it in the Grand Canyon you know in

the wonder of nature or in Leroux that's

a good start but Hamza is completely

right that that there are truths I mean

to to affirm the importance of the

ineffable is not to deny the importance

of what we can know and what is knowable

and we should come to know this is not

an argument against science it's an

argument against scientism that we're

making it's making science into a

religion and saying it has all knowledge

that's the argument I think both of us

are making so so yes we should try in in

in the great liturgical stories of the

great faiths to return to them because

they have an ability to convey the

ineffable and and and doctrine is

important because it shines a light but

if doctrine becomes an instrument of

power you know if I'm told by