Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What Should We Think About Glory?

What Should We Think About Glory? 

Harold K. Bush

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.


  1. Hal, thanks for making a primary marker so prominent for us at the beginning of Heithaus Haven. As I remember, part of the glory of heaven, in Lewis's understanding, is the joy of *being noticed* by one whose attention makes all the difference for us. The "glory of God" should imply that God is more "noticed in a significant way" by us too. The sublimity and the transcendence of God silence us, as they should. And yet there is the Word, the Incarnation, which allows God and us to engage each other in a new way.

    Symbol-drain may be a consequence of a rationalized and often scientistic approach to the universe. So one thing to do to prepare the way for the greater glory of God to to "de-mythologize science" for our students. Scientists qua scientists should never expected to do what theologians and philosophers do. Their disciplines and credentials allow them to achieve other ends, often wonderful ends. They can play an important role in leading our students to true wonder at the miraculous quality of the world in which we live. As the Bible cannot be a science text as we understand science today, so no scientific account can ever be a Bible. Learning to appreciate the differences of discourse is vital to our educational project. Those in the scientific disciplines can contribute greatly to the mission by helping to undo the scientistic mythologies of our day.

  2. Thanks, Hal, for this excellent piece. The notion of shalom you explicate captures the sense of mission in which I think we all want to be invested--namely, that education is about human flourishing in the deepest and broadest senses. I think most of us would agree that we are here to do something more than prep students for lucrative careers. Usually, we speak of that "something more" in terms of service or social justice, as well we should. But the notion of shalom you speak of suggests *enjoyment* as what we're really after. Not mere pleasure, but en-joy-ment. I find that idea to be deeply subversive.

    Regarding symbol drain: we speak of service around here a lot, and that's all well and good. But I sometimes wonder if we do so in a way that drains it of its real power. For example, we have "Make a Difference Day," which suggests that there are days for doing nice things and days for getting on with getting ahead. But I think you're speaking about something much richer than that.

    It's important to talk about these things. It seems to me that, in addition to "Glory," the very notion of "Jesuit Mission" is a kind of symbol that's losing its power. That phrase gets recited a lot around here, but I wonder if there is actual widespread agreement on what it means. The further difficulty is that if this nebulous mission is to be carried about, it will have to be carried out by a diverse group of people, many of whom would not necessarily associate glory and God. I no longer make that association, for example. But I think I can still further the mission insofar as my teaching and research (I hope) push students toward that that deep sense of flourishing you articulate here.

  3. I read your eloquent piece abou glory and shalom. The sense of inclusive joy and wonder is surely dominant in the Christian meaning of glory.

    According to my Greek dicionary (and I do not know Greek) doxa also means `belief, opinion, judgment,' what you think more than what you feel. From that meaning comes orthodoxy, having the right ideas. And I imagine that the intellectual dimension, believing, knowing, judging is central to a university. (Naturally I would be coming from Newman rather than Thoreau or Whitman. At any rate there was an intellectual substrate in the word that might be appropriate for a university.

    It seems that the sense of brightness (effulgence, splendor) is dominant in the New Testament. (There is a dictionary of NT Greek, Denker, Donker?) One might also think of Wordsworth for that feeling.

    In Latin the basic meaning seems to be `fame, renown, honor'--with no relation to a sense of order or oughtness. And it also had pejorative meanings like our `vainglorious,' as in `miles gloriosus.'

    Luther (and others no doubt) distinguished between the glory that God has (or is) and the glory which men attribute to God or recognize in God or celebrate in God. (Hence the doxology or Hopkins `Glory be to God for dappled things.’) I imagine Ignatius would have felt both sense in “to the greater glory of God."

    What does Augustine say peace means? The tranquillity of order? That may be too static. At least certainly very pre-Romantic.

    I myself don't get the resonances of `oughtness' you mention, but that may simply be personal limitations. And, of course, you are speaking not specifically about glory but about shalom, about which I know almost nothing. Is if fair to take it as a good equivalent of glory, or having a large overlap with glory?

    These are only random things I thought of as I read your true and heartfelt clarion call for glory and peace among us here.

    Pacem in gloria Christi

    Clarence Miller

    1. Thanks for all the wonderful response I've gotten to this little essay; both here and through private emails. I'm particularly thankful to have the legendary philologist Dr. Clarence Miller right across the hallway from me in Adorjan--and here, to have him take the time to add his further reflections on the term glory and its cognates and roots.

      I also agree with Prof. Lynch, that the term "service" is drained of a lot of its power. I think of my major service as being a servant of students: listening to them and talking to them for long hours, none of which ever really get on my activity report. I try to make myself available in the office above and beyond official "office hours," but I remember being so surprised early in my career, at how unavailable most professors were. They had 3-4 hours per week, often at odd times like 9-10 am when there was virtually no chance of a student coming by; and never to be seen otherwise. Perhaps because they receive no credit??

      In my opinion, the most "glorious" service we ever do is to encourage, inspire, and mentor our students. but it really does not show up on the annual activity report, does it? And so there is little or no incentive to work hard at it....

    2. Dr. Clarence Miller has been in contact to clarify that the Greek dictionary of the New Testament, mentioned in his comment above, is that of William Danker.

    3. By the way; I was very struck with the university announcement this morning in Newslink about SLU & "branding." Is it being too skeptical/ cynical to suggest that this is further evidence of a mechanically-induced and propagated "pseudo-image" of our university, with little or no serious attention to whether SLU is actually living up to these promises about "Higher Purpose. Greater Good."??

      Here's the story:

      Just wondering .... But I found the announcement reminding me of this discussion of "glory".

  4. You're correct to point to this with concern, Hal. Forget about content and meaning and go for the sound bite instead. I worry that words like "Higher Purpose. Greater Good." will come to mean a winning basketball season in people's minds. And what a terrible loss that would be for the whole community.


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