What Should We Think About Glory?
In his book Technopoly (1992), the media scholar Neil Postman described a tendency of “symbol drain” in an age of widespread mechanical reproduction. By symbol drain, Postman referred to the way historical or traditional signifiers were slowly being drained of their value, emptied of whatever authoritative explanatory power they might have once held for people. Among his illustrations were several religious symbols, including both Jesus and Santa Claus, with one memorable example being the way large department stores positioned such symbolism prominently in the holiday season, hoping to boost sales. Postman argued persuasively twenty years ago that this drainage was greatly diminishing the key symbols of our culture.
As we launch the Heithaus Haven in early 2013, I cannot help but notice once again the phrase in the very first line of SLU’s Mission Statement that presents one of the most challenging interpretive tasks for a large and diverse intellectual community like ours: “the greater glory of God.” Throughout the history of the west, glory has been associated with the awe and sublimity of God’s presence; glory invokes the celebratory nature of our response to that presence. The Greek term doxa is often translated as “brightness,” and C. S. Lewis spoke powerfully of the “weight” of God’s glory. Glory evokes a sense of the glow of God’s greatness, goodness, and beauty, and as a result is often symbolized in Medieval and Renaissance art in the halos of saints. The importance of glory is echoed here, in the fact that “the greater glory of God” is quoted directly in the mission statement of this, the Heithaus Haven, at its launching.
Saint Louis University is hardly alone among peer institutions in alluding up front to the basic goal of pursuing God’s glory, by the way. This is common language in many mission statements of both Catholic and Protestant universities (and perhaps, again drawing upon Postman, more reason to think about how, sadly, the phrase has been drained of any significant meaning).
To cite a few prominent examples (all of these taken from the various university websites during the week of Feb. 4-8, 2013): Georgetown “provides excellent undergraduate, graduate and professional education in the Jesuit tradition for the glory of God and the well-being of humankind”; and Marquette University describes its mission as “a Catholic, Jesuit university dedicated to serving God by serving our students and contributing to the advancement of knowledge. . . . All this we pursue for the greater glory of God and the common benefit of the human community.” Others, like Boston College, contain no language particularly about glory, but do offer statements like this: “The mission of Boston College is rooted in this dynamic integrity of the academic and the religious, a coherence of the divine and the human that reaches its fullest expression in Jesus Christ and extends to all forms of human culture and knowledge.”
A striking feature of my fifteen years here at SLU, given these sorts of statements, is how little conversation takes seriously these categories of thought. This omission seems more egregious, given the fact that these words are in the very first sentence of the mission statement. We might ask, is it just a term useful for our PR? Or what DO we mean by glory? As such, it’s a perfect place for us to begin a conversation about what is evidently a purpose or goal of the utmost importance.
But where can we begin such a conversation, in the contemporary, postmodern university? For one thing, SLU comprises faculty, staff, and students from all sorts of faith traditions beyond Christian ones; Jewish and Muslim; Hindu and Buddhist; polytheist, agnostic, and atheist; and of course, as sociologists are beginning to argue, the rapidly expanding cohort of “nones” among the younger generation: those unaffiliated individuals who mark the “none” box under religion or political party, those who find phrases like “the greater glory of God” at best mystifying and at worst completely alienating. How can we realistically include all these diverse folks in our pursuit of glory?
Meanwhile, taking my cue from Postman: the term “glory” has fallen also on hard times in the general culture; and its been largely drained of its deeply sacred original context. A famous sports film about a basketball championship is titled “Glory Road,” and a Civil War epic titled simply “Glory,” suggesting a hard truth: when we do invoke glory, it tends to be in terms of sports or warfare. Most telling is the fact that in “Glory Road,” there is not a single mention of anything religious throughout, to give one instance. Worse, as I alluded to above: glory has been dissipated because it often has the ring of musty old public relations rhetoric: not a thing to be taken seriously, just a thing to be waved like a pennant in front of the affluent parents as they write their checks for tuition.
Despite the evisceration of the concept, I’d like to attempt a recovery of this language of glory and posit a reasonable way to move forward, in good conscience, with this crucial element of the SLU mission statement—a statement that we all ostensibly have signed on to support when we came to work here. My suggestion here is to invoke the concept of shalom, a term used commonly in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Philosopher Cornelius Plantinga invokes the concept, which he defines as “the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight. . . . shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight--a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder . . . .”(1) Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff also provides a similar reading of the concept of shalom: it is the idea of “man dwelling at peace in all his relationships: with God, with himself, with his fellows, with nature. Shalom is a peace which is not merely the absence of hostility, though certainly it is that, but a peace which is at its highest level enjoyment. To dwell in shalom is to enjoy living in nature, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself.”(2) The forming of right relations ultimately brings with it an enjoyment or relishing of existence that cannot be exceeded. It is this vision of social arrangements that constitutes the heart of the Old Testament prophetic tradition, seen most powerfully in Isaiah. And so, as Martin Luther King reminds us many times, drawing upon the Hebrew prophetic tradition, we are to be ever vigilant, nimble, always on the alert for injustice, and thus creatively maladjusted: filled with hope, even though we often find ourselves in a context of fear and darkness.
Shalom, says Plantinga, is best translated as “the way things ought to be.” This sense of the “oughtness” in the world is the basis of all social and cultural criticism, and it also has its own roots in the Hebrew prophetic tradition. Frankly, it’s pretty hard to talk about justice of any kind without appealing to some level of oughtness. Again, the Heithaus Haven was created partly to discover “how our institution’s internal norms, practices, and structures embody (or fail to embody) its core values,” and this kind of goal makes its appeal also to shalom. Just about everyone would agree: lots of things (but of course not everything) “ought” to look a certain way.
In conclusion, I believe every single person at SLU, whatever their religious, spiritual, or philosophical persuasion, can find comfortable and meaningful access to the concept of the glory of God through this byway that I am calling shalom, or the oughtness of God. It makes sense to me, as a Christian, that the glory of God is available throughout all of creation; if I’ve learned anything from teaching Thoreau and Whitman over the years, that’s it. But what if someone is not a Christian, or is either agnostic or opposed to belief in God? Can they embrace in good conscience this element of the very first sentence of the SLU Mission Statement? I would like to suggest that they can embrace some version of glory: they can buy into the idea of shalom. It is my contention here that, to the extent that any institution, community, or gathering of any sort and purpose is able to embody shalom, there is some kind of glory. If glory as a meaningful symbol has been culturally drained, perhaps we can attempt to fill it up again—at least to some degree.
A good beginning at SLU would be in civil relationships among people. As Wolterstorff puts it, we should aim together at “man dwelling at peace in all his relationships.” But peace is the last word I would use to characterize the past months here at SLU: especially in terms of governance and management. Rancor does not glorify anything, and many feel morale at SLU has never been lower. Evidently, we’ve got some work to do.
And so I challenge us all, from the president and board of trustees, on down to the deans and chairs, faculty, staff, and students: SLU should aim to be a university as a university ought to be. We should embrace the goal of creating a landscape filled with hope, brightness, beauty, and goodness. These are the sorts of ideals that just about everyone I know would like to see more of at SLU—and they are glorious ideals indeed.
(1) C. Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed To Be 10.
(2) N. Wolterstorff, Art in Action 79. See also Wolterstorff, When Justice and Peace Embrace 69-72.