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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

Transcript Text

d 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