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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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my church

the Church of life I the father of an in

vitro child and the grandfather of three

in-vitro grandchildren am told that that

is a sin then doctrines gone

there's something wrong if the Church of

life is telling me that my daughter and

three grand doing is and there they're

being brought into the world through in

vitro was sinful

now there's something so that's a misuse

and and depending on now in my church

Francis gives me hope after a bad 30 or

40 years since John the 23rd Francis

gives me hope and makes me believe maybe

the Spirit is so indomitable that even

those that we've charged with the

stewardship of the great organized

institutional faiths will be overcome

ultimately by the goodness that's in

people I realized these questions I'm

asking aren't leading directly back to

the role of the sacred and the secular

in the liberal arts but and John you

mentioned this at the very end of your

previous comment and you mentioned it at

the end of your talk but historically

the space of a sacred has also been the

space where we reflect deeply in

practice on what it means to love love

very difficult topic but also the

reality of profound human suffering and

how we keep going in the face of it and

particularly in this day and age the

events of last week the events of the

year before and the century before these

questions of how do we learn to love and

how do we engage and stop and respond to

the profound reality of human suffering

how do those relate to the sacred well I

think the abrahamic face in the

pre-modern world certainly suffering was

never questioned in in I mean obviously

the story of job which is a very

important story in the Bible and job is

a good man

and gods making him suffer and his

friends say he must have done something

wrong you know he's being punished for

something he did wrong but he's a good

man and that story is also mentioned in

the Quran suffering is certainly part of

the world and we will all suffer just by

being human in fact this is the first

truth of the Buddha is is Thanh had the

nature of the world is it is is is the

nature of suffering because the world

this world is not conclusion to put it

in Emily Dickinson's

words the the idea somehow that the

temporal in the presence of the infinite

could could could really exact from us I

think any crises of faith for for

somebody who has deep and profound faith

for me personally I don't know I I know

that I've seen great suffering I've

experienced we've all had levels of

suffering but I've seen great suffering

with incredible fortitude and faith and

it's always just overwhelmed me to see

that it's incredibly inspiring but we

know that there today so many people are

perplexed by the amount of suffering on

the world and by what some have referred

to as the silence of God the absence of

God very often people ask where is God

from our tradition the question is not

where is God where are we to alleviate

that suffering one of the benefits of

tribulation and suffering and and I

actually translated a work called the 17

benefits of tribulation and one of them

was that the suffering of others enables

you to be a vehicle of alleviating that

suffering and certainly our religious

traditions have a profound understanding

of suffering that in fact say nor see

one of the great Turkish saints and

scholars said that sometimes God will

give you tribulations just to make you

uncomfortable in the world because he

wants to

give you a continual reminder that this

is not an abode of comfort for you it's

it's the yearning for the next world and

I think all religious traditions grapple

with this issue but I think profound

faith is is what enables people to

withstand great suffering and I've seen

this I think you know people say that

that religion is the opiate of the

masses but it was there to numb the pain

of the world right it was the heart of a

heartless world and and now I think we

replaced real opium with religion so we

have a crises of opioids in America

because now people numb that suffering I

mean with with drugs and wanting to just

get out of the world ex stasis you know

to experience some out of state

experience from that but as somebody who

knows chronic pain I I always just try

to remind myself that it could be much


so I'm tempted to say nothing because

that was so beautiful

if I add anything and I think I will

it's it's it's dangerous because I'm

going to go to a very personal

illustration of what Holmes was just

talking about so if you've not read and

I have to warn you it's it's it's very

Catholic but in the spirit about many

and acumen ism I would welcome you to

read it if you've not read CS Lewis's

book a grief observed which is his

wrestling through the silence of God and

whether he can continue to believe in

God after the death of his wife whom he

married knowing she was dying a Tony

award-winning will be called Shadowland

which was made about their love for each

other and I will just give personal

testimony to affirm what hamza said I

mean the deepest existential suffering

that I've had was to find my wife who

was younger than me and it was not ill

ten years younger than me and it was not

ill suddenly dead a half an hour after

I'd been speaking to her but what that

transformed was my understanding of our

love into something that was greater and

I've lived every day of the last ten

years trying to be worthy of

representing her in this world and in

the belief unprovable that our love

continues to exist and that she is

conscious of my continuing love as we

will be together and that could not have

come to me and I couldn't have known the

fullness of my love for her cause in

that moment when I found her in that

sudden moment every bit part of my being

cried out to such

dude for her and although I would have

said those words I knew in that moment

that that was true and that was a

spiritual ecstasy that I've lived with

now for the rest of my life so I'm sorry

if that makes people uncomfortable then

I went to that place but it's a it's a

perfect illustration I think I'm sort of

what you said I you know I just lost

both of my parents in the last few

months and my mother who lived with me

the last four years of her life was

suffering from cancer and my mother had

taken her vows of the Bodhisattva about

20 years ago and she was she was

practicing actively what are called the

six perfections and despite the fact

that we knew she was in great pain she

always had a smile on her face and she

never complained and I actually put up

online on on on my website a letter that

her doctor her oncologist had written

and he said in his two decades of

practicing cancer he'd never met a

cancer patient that confronted cancer

the way she did because he said her

symptoms were joy happiness and smiling

and he said he realized that he was the

patient and and she was his doctor and I

think that that was certainly I know it

was her faith and it was a conscious

thing that she she was practicing

this past week at Union Theological

Seminary we welcomed a leading legal

scholar in the United States Michelle

Alexander who wrote the new Jim Crow on

mass incarceration and which she says is

the great moral issue of our day that

that we put people in cages and that

there's a social consensus that this is

allowable and she left the law to come

to a seminary because she said in the

spaces of the law

she found that you couldn't actually

address the deep spiritual needs which

undergird the policy issues that lawyers

are concerned about that the practice of

the law can't get you there so she's

come to a seminary what's so interesting

to me about that is also taking the

register of a way to engage suffering

and including the personal suffering and

how we manage it

putting starkly in front of us

our complicit role in the suffering of

those in our own communities and how

from a secular or sacred or the circle

of them as you describe it John we touch

that place so in my own context we have

a Center for Islamic studies which is

called the Center for Islam

inter-religious engagement and social

justice and we have a Buddhist Center

for Buddhism inter-religious engagement

and social justice to talk about that

social justice part of the reason it's

constructed this way is because

the sacred in the work that we're doing

we believe cannot be undone from the

public work of social justice so and you

spoke of that near the end and John you

have as well but step into that space

with this question of the sacred and the

secular for me well I think one of the I

think the facts of life on Earth is that

there is a great deal of injustice there

always has been I think there's a great

utopian fantasy about creating a world

without justice part of the reason why

sin is in the world is that we're meant

to stand up oppose it within ourselves

and attempt to help others remove it

from themselves I think one of the

things about dr. King and my family is

heavily involved in that movement my

sister actually marched across the

bridge in Selma I marched as a

seven-year-old with my mother on the on

Selma with the theological Union in in

Marin County so one of the things that

was very clear and and I've heard this

from people that were actively involved

in that movement is in fact somebody's

who struggled with my mother and the

civil rights said at her funeral that

that we were motivated by a sense of

hope a sense of righteousness and

indignation about these things but she

said but there wasn't the kind of anger

that you're seeing today in a lot of

people and I think that's because of the

absence of the sacred I think that one

of our prophetic traditions from the

Prophet Muhammad is he said help your

brother the oppressor and the oppressed

and and and they asked him how do we

help the our brother the oppressor in

other words because they knew his

teaching so what do we oppress with him

and he said by stopping him from his

oppression and Albert memy wrote a very

important book called the colonized

the colonized which is he was a Jewish

Tunisian who was looking at the

colonization of Tunisia and as an

outsider as a Jewish outsider within the

Tunisian community he could see this

horrible cycle and the wonderful poet

Blake talks about the the purple tyrants

the hand of vengeance found the purple

tyrants bed and and smashes the purple

tyrants head and then becomes a tyrant

in his stead that this is the cycle of

justice the desire for justice by

becoming unjust the something Nietzsche

warned us in fighting the monster don't

become a monster and this is very often

what happens in these movements I mean

one of the tragedies now of seeing a lot

of reverse racism and I'm seeing a lot

of this now just in in in a lot of the

the just from the black lives movement

which has emerged which which is

addressing a very important issue but

when it's very tragic for me to see a

society that there is I don't think

there's any society and I've been all

over this world I don't think there's

any society that is actively trying to

overcome the historical wrongs of the

past like this society and I really

believe that I we the

anti-discrimination laws that have been

enacted in this country are are

unprecedented and they're imitated in

other places but many places don't have

them if you want to see real racism and

I've lived in Africa I've lived in the

Middle East and and I've been to Asia

you you will find racism that has no

redress to those wrongs and I think that

the fact that there were so many white

people involved in the civil rights

movement that we're trying to overcome

those wrongs and and I get and I


the real problems that a lot of white

people have about white privilege and

all these things I understand that but

we need to help people overcome within

themselves not from a place of anger but

a place centered and rooted in a

spiritual desire for not only helping

ourselves but helping others overcome

these tribulations and I truly believe

that it is the sacred voice that enables

this I don't think the secular voice has

that capacity because I think the second

voice too easily falls into the demands

of justice and not recognizing that not

only do we need social justice we need

social mercy and I and I really believe

we need a social mercy movement the

history of righteous anger


remember anger ethically should be

directed to the right object in the

right degree for with the right amount

at the right time and for the right


and so when you're just angry which a

lot of people are we call it road rage

where I come from I mean there's just

people that are they're pissed off and

they're walking around angry and they're

looking for anybody to explore their

anger with and and that's a spiritual

disease anger is a mortal sin not

because it's an activity of an event or

two events or three events it's a state

of being IRA it is a state of being and

when you fall into that state of being

whether it's righteous anger because

every angry person is going to justify

their anger but if you don't see it for

what it is our Prophet was asked once by

a man he said give me some advice and he

said talk about don't get angry and he

said give me some advice and he said in

other words I know I don't want that if

I give me some real advice and the

Prophet said let's talk about don't get

angry and he said a third time give me

some advice he said don't get angry

so I'll just I'll just loop back to say

that there is so much suffering in the

world I mean now in I'm back on the

faculty at NYU but but in my work

outside of NYU I'm trying to bring

education to the kids in the world that

that are being neglected I mean really

neglected 85 million 85 million primary

and secondary aged kids in the world

today who if we don't change things will

never once in their lives meet a teacher

ok never once not one nobody's even

pretending to educate them another 260

million that I'll never get past the

fourth grade so 350 million kids that

had just been written off and some other

were in urban slums and some of them in

remote areas and we just don't care

because they don't have a disease that

we might catch okay there's a lot of

suffering out there and if if we can

touch the religious space the sacred

space that we've been talking about then

we understand that sacrifice for others

is is the natural extension of love of

self it's really the only way to love

yourself and to see real love is to

extend it so so the social justice

movement is intrinsically in my view

tied up with the spirituality that comes

with the elevation of what it means to

be human and the universal that that's

getting back to not dividing up into you

know oh I'm on the winning team but but

you know it's very interesting from this

stage Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrestled one

night in a major lecture with the

question what does it mean to be the


people and he said much in the same

words that hamza has said here tonight

chosen for special obligation I've

chosen for special privilege and that's

what connects all of this with me so

we're getting near the end of our time

and I can't avoid asking you both a

question about this conversation in the

context of the election so you knew it

was coming

no conversation can happen in this

country right now that lasts more than

five minutes without it turning to this

topic what is being revealed to us from

your positions as theologians who engage

the public square in this election it's

the end of time

somebody said it's like one of those

television series or soap operas where

at the end they just start getting so

outrageous in their scenarios but I have

just a one of the benefits of learning

logic one of my close associates and

dear friends is a ER doctor down in

Florida she's teaching her

thirteen-year-old logic she did formal

logic with her now she's doing material

logic so they watched the debates last

night and she said she's 13 years old

she's saying oh my god mom dad that's an

ad populum oh that's an ad hominem

attack and so she was picking up on all

the on all the fallacies going on in the

debate so that was one of the benefits

you know we forget that logic was

actually taught in all the high schools

in the United States even even 60 or 70

years ago which helped a lot for people

to see these my great-grandmother

studied Bains logic in black Falls

Wisconsin and I actually have her book I

know she had a toothache on December

23rd 1882 because she wrote it in her

book but they have there's a chapter on

on the emotions because that's part of

learning rhetoric is dealing with the

emotions and probably the most

interesting section in Aristotle's book

on rhetoric is his section on the

emotions and explaining the emotions but

one of the things that in in Bane's book

is that fear is often used by demagogues

and a population should always be

vigilant when they see a politician or a

demagogue using fear to scare people

because people will override their

rational impulses and and move towards

irrational responses when the emotion of

fear begins to motivate them and so I

think the thing that troubles me most

about this current environment is the

environment of fear and I think there's

a lot of unsettled aspects that are

happening but the other thing that that


voules me is I just I watched once great

speeches with my wife and we watched the

inaugural address of Kennedy and and you

know in Kennedy was no saint and I'm not

in any way sentimental about that but I

just after watching this speech I turned

and my wife had tears coming down her

eyes and she just looked at me and she

says what happened you know how do we go

from that to to to what we've got now

and I would argue that it's a loss of

liberal arts education


so this might be the first point of

disagreement of the night I didn't

expect that we would go here but I'm

very happy to be here and it only might

be and I won't I will push it except to

say the following it could be the end of

time but notice the difference ok I'm

not making a declarative statement it is

the end of time I I took that as being a

bit facetious it was ok it's it's always

the end of yeah

but but but I'm gonna use the difference

you're playing baseball I'm gonna use

the differentiated language for a

purpose because I spent a lot of time in

the world of logic and I agree with you

about it and I'm gonna say that this is

a very very tough moment as I said for

thought and for trust and if we reward

the absence of thought and if we allow

20 years at least of the building of a

Colosseum society where 85% of Americans

say in polls they don't trust their

neighbors forget about the institution's

there's just no trust we we have a

trustee named Evan chess Allah

Evan chess Allah grew up as a tailor's

son up in the Grand Congress I may have

a factor too long because I'm I'm

reaching back to when we installed him

in this building as a trustee in a

ceremony about 2002

and he said that he grew up on the Grand

Concourse and and he was the only one in

his family that went to high school and

the only one that read the newspaper and

he would come home from high school and

he would say to his father at the dinner

table dad what about this what about

that and Evans father would always say

don't worry Evan they're taking care of

it and he said I always wondered who

they were and tonight as I become a

trustee of NYU this is 2002 I realize

I'm part of they with the responsibility

to take care of it right and I said to

him last night I said you know Evan no

father is saying that to his son in the

United States today

no one believes they're taking care of

it but there is a reason for that ladies

and gentlemen in 1995 I was the head of

the Association of American law schools

and I wrote a pastoral letter to all my

constituents all the professors and

educators in the country because I been

given a copy of an internal memo by a

man named Frank Luntz two candidates for

office saying if you want to win attack

law and lawyers there is nothing too

negative you can say about them and I

remember writing at that time this is a

nation that was built on law on de

Tocqueville's notion of the Jeffersonian

law and if we start attacking law and

lawyers and then idea there's got to be

just as corrosive build-up and there is

no equivalency between the two

participants in that debate last night

and I I don't care how you bohtan I'm

gonna tell you how I'm voting and I'm

with her okay and the fact of the matter

is the fact of the matter is that if

that man is the representative of this

country to the world and to our children

not only will we all be embarrassed by


but we will have rewarded a 40 years

baseless attack on a strong woman

and we will have put another nail in the

coffin of thought so yes do I think that

she's a panacea or perfect no do I think

that on January 21st the campaign of

2020 will begin and that it will require

leadership beyond my capacity and

perhaps beyond hers to restore trust in

this country and so forth because the

pummeling will begin of course I believe

it's going to start then but make no

mistake about it I'm not going to leave

this stage with any any doubt that I

think there was an equivalency or is an

equivalency in terms of where this

should be

and that's not so much a political

endorsement as is an endorsement of

liberal arts education period end of

case I certainly wasn't making any

equivalency I always looked look for

good grammar that's just a hallmark I've

always found that on the Internet

invariably all the stupid statements of

trolls are poorly written so last last

question John earlier you brought up

Abraham Joshua Heschel amazing intellect

who fifty years ago last spring wrote a

remarkable essay no religion is an

island in which he made the claim the

very radical claim that actually a

religious person actually only comes to

know themself truly through their

encounter with another religion and not

just an encounter but one in which they

are willing to be vulnerable and less

than their own hold upon the claim

of their own religion that that is in

fact the most sacred moment when your

own hold is loosening as you encounter

the other so could we end with each of

you giving a description of a moment in

your own life when that was in fact

manifest that's your own sense of your

own tradition was jarred loose by an

encounter with another in another

religious tradition well for me

personally I once worked as a cardiac

nurse and I had a patient who had just

had a heart attack he was a Sikh and yet

his turban on and he was he was opening

up his heart to me about what was

happening to him and the turban the Sikh

turban disappeared and that other nurse

completely dissipated and I just saw

another human being in front of me

confronting his mortality and reaching

out to me for solace and I think we just

we very often I've never been a person I

went through a period just after being

brainwashed for a little while

dogmatically probably that was

troublesome for me but I wasn't raised

like that so I it didn't last very long

and and I think a lot of religious

converts to other religions often very

they very often in fact mama Gandhi said

about Marmaduke Pickthall that he was

that rare individual that convert could

convert to another religion without

becoming a fanatic and so I think I've

never looked at people with religious

hats on or religious personas I've

looked them I try to look at them I mean

I I look at

John sex and I see a very distinguished

man of character and that I respect and

I'm not gonna let his Catholicism which

I respect deeply because I I grew up in

the Catholic tradition and and um in

some ways an armchair Catholic

theologian but and the same is true for

any other religious faith I and even

secular people I'm not I'm not going to

allow the secularity to blind me from

their goodness one of the things that

the Quran says is Leia dear Amanda come

Shanna and no commonality recorded taqwa

it says do not let the hatred of another

people prevent you from being just and

so even when people hate you it should

not prevent you from being just with

them let alone merciful and

compassionate for those that don't hate

you and so the word in Arabic Shannon is

a specific type of hatred that blinds

you of the goodness of the of the object

of your hate and that's the worst form

of hatred where you can't even see the

the goodness in the other and so I think

ultimately that's my attempt and that's

why my mother was in the world she I

once said to my brother that she didn't

see color and he said no I totally

disagree with you

she saw colors and she loved it she

relished it



so for me it would be too easy to refer

to the fact that everybody in my family

my children my wife my grandchildren are

all Jewish and the Seder is is is always

an experience that takes me out of

myself every time I go to NYU Abu Dhabi

I'm take it out of myself by the wonder

that I see in the evidence spirituality

of some of the people I encounter there

I can't give I can't give an example as

deep as Hamza just did I wouldn't try to

touch the space that he just touched but

if I were you know in a life that tries

always to see things through the the

ecumenical lens that I described earlier

I think perhaps some of my deepest

ecstatic experiences you know where I've

looked back on my own experience I said

boy I've been taken out by another's

religion have occurred in very remote

areas of the world where I encounter

extraordinary spirituality in villages

or huts and Laos and Cambodia and you

just there's this sense of the ancestors

and the spirits that we don't associate

with modern dogmatic religion it's it's

it's it's almost pre temporal or

prehistorical at least but I've been in

the presence of people who manifest such

a deep spirituality and and a

blessedness and a goodness and a

happiness that comes out in both Laos

and Cambodia and then undergone najara

of listening to their stories about how

they would blind themselves in one eye

to prevent going into the military

service tour

the war the American war is they call it

and I think every time I'll just come

back this is maybe being too

intellectual but every time that we

enter into what I called early a

dialogic dialogue not just a dialogue

but where you're listening to each other

in exchanging views and so forth but

will you really try to put yourself in

the place of the other being and

understand where he or she is and then

face back that's been a habit of life

that was inculcated in me by a great man

who used to teach her at NYU he was my

mentor at Fordham named Hugh and cousins

who when I met him in 1963 was the

world's leading expert on a single

medieval theologian of the Christian

faith and by 1983 when I was beginning

my career here at NYU there was a

conference at the United Nations that I

intended to celebrate the publication of

his 60 volume work on world spirituality

which had 25 faith traditions in their

spiritual ineffable strain because all

the organized religions have that

spiritual ineffable strain that's the

greatest migration I ever saw and I've

just tried to expose myself as much as I

can to it well I ask all of you to join

me in thanking


these two theologians these two

defenders and inspires of the liberal

arts tradition and two very deep public

intellectuals and I feel privileged to

have been here tonight I want to thank

the people who organized this at NYU and

all the good work that's going on here

and walk away from this with lots to

think about and lots to do thank you all