Thursday, June 16, 2016

Last Words

Tuesdays in the Chapel
May 10, 2016
From What We Forgot to Tell You
By Peter Gomes

“The first thing you should know is that you will make mistakes , and coming  (to MIT) might be one of your biggest. Neither education nor religion will make you immune to errors and mistakes, and if you think about it, both education and religion exist on the presupposition of the inevitability of mistakes. Education is instruction in the art of distinguishing between truth and falsehood, right and wrong, and we need error in education in order to discern truth. Religion is not simply the way in which we should go, but what we should do when inevitably we don’t go that way. That is what religion is all about; it is not a formula for the perfect but for the imperfect.

Finally, …I would ask you to remember because we didn’t think to tell you much about it, is that the  ultimate goal of life ought not to be victory, nor power, nor riches, nor fame,  although Harvard students get these in abundance. When you read the Fifth Reunion report, … they all have accounts of these things heaped up in abundance, buy the older the report and the shorter the account, the more the emphasis is placed on things like contentment, serenity, inner peace, and satisfaction.   (p. 286-287)

Our time together these past weeks has been focused on what we would like to see the future look like. It has been a smorgasbord of insights and viewpoints. We have been reminded about the denial of death and the challenge of autism; emotions have been often raw and we have been reminded that we do not talk often together about the challenges of our work and lives.  We are after all occasional friends coming together at random enjoying communion over coffee and donut holes.

Today we are here to hear last words. This is the last week of classes and we meet only when class is in session a concession to the hope that students would join us, but that has not happened. And it is probably for the better, as these moments have become important times for those who can make their schedules work.  Whether we gather in the fall will not be my call.

I turned to my late friend Peter Gomes for our reading.  He reminds us of things we do not talked about. The search for meaning is one side of a coin on which the other is the search for truth. Both embrace the notion that we will often make mistakes. The ongoing conversation about the Green Line extension is an unusual public discussion of mistakes made and the effort to not let those failures stop an otherwise needed project.  We have engaged in some similar conversations these last days about our own failures in building housing for our students. But we will still need dormitories and those willing to make commitments to the education that occur in residence. We learn from our mistakes
As case in point is the installation on the grounds formally occupied by Bexley Hall. Sunday afternoon the elaborate and interesting piece blew down and I learned from talking with those who were given the task of figuring out what happened that they would learn far more the failure than they would have learned had all gone well. Architects regard the learning process as shaped by learning from miscalculations. So should we all.

And we are most human when we let the barriers down and talk together about what we have learned in reflection over coffee; I hope those moments continue. We need them. Peter Gomes offers wise counsel when he talks about religious sentiment.
But the key remains our ability to create communities of conversation where we can grow together. It is a simple notion but of profound importance in a place where standards are high, our efforts are flawed and we are tasked with showing the way for the next generation.

And finally, what is it all about? Some of us will settle for the exercise of power. We see that in the political conversation that occupies such a public place in our lives today. Dissatisfaction with our inability to solve problems that have dogged human kind since our origins has boiled over into rhetoric that vents but does not heal.

And all the while we each go about dealing with the daily tasks of caring for the children we bring into this world; drop Stephanie Kloos Smith a note if you have a moment congratulating her on her first Mother’s Day.   Or the children we have inherited as part of our work together. Or the relationships we nourish in our lives beyond MIT.

You think about those things as the clock ticks as careers wind down and you try to measure what you have done in your work. That has been on my mind of late as I move toward retiring. There are so many things I would have done differently so there is comfort in talking about mistakes and reflecting on those things that are most important. 
 And the satisfaction comes with knowing we have done the best we could and that is good enough.

I am grateful to those who have spent Tuesday mornings here. Now let’s talk over coffee!

Robert M Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Graduation Invocation MIT 2016

June 3, 2016

We are of diverse origin.
We have come here from many countries;
We speak many languages and honor diverse communities.
We draw strength from religious traditions as different as
they are influential.
We draw strength from cultures that honor no higher power,
but who aspire to greater good.

Today we invoke the presence of the Gods we know.
And we reach beyond what we know and give thanks for
the beauty of our world and the joy we share as we celebrate
this day of accomplishment.

We give thanks for the bricks of Bexley Hall reminding us of what we do not know.

We give thanks that the universe challenges our sense of wonder and points beyond itself to greater discoveries.

We give thanks for those of our guild who exhibited courage of purpose despite skeptics and nay-sayers
And who heard the still small voice of the cosmos.
May we remember and emulate their courage and patience as we seek to build a better world.

We are grateful for those who have given us strength and encouragement:
 our families who told us we could do it and held up our hands
our teachers  who shared their wisdom and opened our minds
our mentors who cried tears and gave us hearts for service.

We understand that our challenge is to not only give back to those who have given to us but to call into being by our work a world that is whole!

May it be so!

Robert M Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A vocabulary of hope

Prelude: Herzlich tut mich verlangen ~ F. W. Zachau ~ Bart Dahlstrom, organ


Bahá'ì                         Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself.

Christianity                 All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, so ye do to them, for this is the law and the prophets. - Matthew 7:1

Confusianism             Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no resentment against you, either in the family or in the state. - Analects 12:2

Buddhism                   Hurt no other in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. - Udana-Varga 5,1

Hinduism                    This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others what you would not have them do unto you. - Mahabharata 5,1517

Islam                           No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. - Sunnah

Judaism                      What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary. - Talmud, Shabat 3id

Taoism                        Regard your neighbor's gain as your gain, and your neighbor's loss as your own loss. - Tai Shang Kan Yin P'ien

Zoroastrianism           That nature alone is good which refrains from doing another whatsoever is not good for itself. - Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5

Postlude: O Lamm Gotts, unschuldig - BWV 656 ~ J. S. Bach ~ Bart Dahlstrom, organ

This semester we’ve been asked to share our hopes for the coming term.  Thinking about this, I started reflecting on the word “hope.”   In troubled times, that seems like a scarce commodity.   Martin Luther King said that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”  Perhaps we can also say that it’s the language of the hopeless.   So one hope I have for the coming term is to be able to offer a vocabulary of hope.  Hope can be used with many shades of meaning.  But I mean not a naïve expectation that everything will turn out OK, but rather a sense of agency.  It’s a belief in our capacity to act and make a difference.   

To believe this is not to ignore history, but to understand it.  The 20th century, for example, saw the retreat of antiquated world views such as male superiority and white supremacy.  At the beginning of the century in the US, women could not vote, were excluded from many professions, and regarded as an inferior breed – barriers that fell during the course of the century.   In 1900, reconstruction had ended in the South and the nation was headed into a period that marked the low point in the history of race relations.   2008 marked the election of the first black president.   In the wake of two ruinous world wars, the world took its first clumsy steps toward international governance.   Nations voluntarily started creating instruments of governance on an international level that mediate disputes, set standards of international law and human rights, and undertake humanitarian work in the fields of health, education, and economic development. These instruments are clearly flawed, but their historical significance should not be underestimated.  

Yes, there’s still racism, sexism, and violent conflict.   But we’ve crossed a threshold of beginning to recognize the oneness of the human family and beginning to implement this principle in our institutions.   Despite temporary setbacks, there’s no going back.

The 20th century also saw the rise of an interfaith movement, in which followers of historically antagonistic religions were drawn together; by the end of the century interfaith gatherings and services were common, something unthinkable a few decades earlier.   But is there a danger that these efforts become a feel-good exercise that lacks a coherent purpose and spiritual commitment?  Can religion catalyze the kinds of progress I’ve described?  Or will it still be captive to narrow sectarian dogmas that divide and balkanize humanity, suppress the life of the mind, and sow the seeds of hatred and fanaticism?   The goal of interfaith work, as I see it, is to enable the world’s religious communities rise to the challenge of promoting the high aims of ennobling human character, encouraging the investigation of reality, creating authentic relationships, and building a just and progressive civilization.

Last fall, in The Tech, I spoke out in defense of the Muslims on campus, while at the same time calling on the world’s Muslim religious leaders to allow for greater critical inquiry and efforts for reformation.    I also stressed the importance of interfaith work.   I’m happy to report that a group of students have responded to this call, and have begun to conduct a series of dinner gatherings that draw together participants from diverse religions.   My hope is that we can create close friendships, have probing discourse, and do collaborative work on the task of building the world for which we hope.

Speaker: Brian Aull, Bahá'í Chaplain, MIT