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College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

The First Last Lecture

By Dr. Paul Valliere

College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Robertson Chapel, May 4, 1999

I want to thank the Dean for inviting me to be the first last lecturer. As I understand it, I'm supposed to voice the thoughts I would want to leave with you, my colleagues, if this were in fact the last chance I had to address you. I think you'll agree that there's something ominous about this invitation. At the very least it requires me to give you a preview of my retirement speech, an occasion which most of us "fifty something" faculty are not keen to contemplate. As the Igbo say, "An old woman is uneasy when dry bones are mentioned in a proverb."

More darkly still, by commissioning a "last lecture" so close to the end of the millennium, the dean might be thought to be suffering from apocalyptic fevers of one kind or another. In my core course on the Bible the last thing I assign is an overnight write entitled "Last Things," which asks students to discuss the last three chapters of the last book of the Bible. If you've ever read that text, you know that it presents a sensational scenario: the binding of the Devil, that ancient serpent; the thousand-year reign of the Messiah on earth; and the revelation of New Jerusalem. Now I confess I would happily serve as the warm-up act for that scenario. I also feel the lure of the apocalyptic theme because of the legacy of one of my intellectual heroes, the 19th-century Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, who exactly one hundred years ago this week, in May, 1899, began writing the last essay of his life, a great fin de siècle meditation entitled Three Dialogues on War, Progress and the End of Universal History, with a Brief Tale of the Antichrist. Soloviev looked and acted like someone who might actually have something to say about the end of the world. He had a long, forked grey beard like the stereotypical biblical prophet; deep-set eyes that appeared focused somewhere other than on the world around him; and a philosophia, a love of wisdom, so powerful and lively that he claimed, like Boethius, to have been visited on several occasions during his life by Lady Wisdom (Shekinah, Sophia) in person and wrote several poems for her. However, since my departmental colleagues tell me that philosophers don't do that anymore; and since, despite my grey hairs, I cannot conjure the mighty presence of Soloviev into the room and dispel the worldliness of a shrimp reception, I must resist telling you more about Soloviev's ideas concerning the end of the world and instead engage the more familiar horizon suggested by the end of another academic year.

I am reminded today of an end-of-the-year picnic at Butler about fifteen years ago, just a year or two after I came to the university, when a man whom only a few of you will remember, Joe Dunlop of the English Department, was given the clock that Jack Johnson bestowed as a goodbye favor on retiring faculty, and was asked to make a few remarks. The other retirees that evening had been quite loquacious, so everyone was relieved that Joe's speech was exactly one sentence long. "I'd like to thank Butler University," he said, "for giving me a job forty years ago when I really needed it." I remember thinking at the time, "My sentiments exactly!" I still feel that way, and I suspect many of you do, too!

In fact, I know you do, although some of you have more elegant ways of putting it. I remember, again about fifteen years ago, when I recruited Marshall Gregory to teach his first honors course at Butler, on Plato's Republic-- you said to me, Greg, something like "I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing than teaching a course like this in a place like this; we're in a great profession." Dick Miller is someone else I remember being particularly inspired by in my first couple of years at Butler because he had—and still has—such a wonderful way of short-circuiting tiresome discussions about professional identity in academe. One of the first things Dick said to me during our collaboration on the old University College Committee was: "I am a college biology teacher, and that's exactly what I want to be." We are all college teachers; God grant it's what we want to be, and that we recognize this work for what it is—for us at least, the best work in America. And this is what I want to share a couple of thoughts about today—the work we do, or rather, to frame the topic a little more narrowly: the sort of community we are in our work as a company of college teachers.

Those of you who know me well know that I have always had an interest in what we who came of age during the Sixties called "community organization." The phrase referred to something distinct from political organization (although it had important political implications), to an activity that was more intimate, more local, more small-scale, more concerned with ethical and cultural values than with power relations as such. It had much in common with what is today called communitarianism, although the latter, in its contemporary expressions, shows plainly the effects of two decades of radical pluralism and doctrinaire notions about difference, whereas the community organization movement of the Sixties believed in what the American philosopher Josiah Royce called the Beloved Community, a phrase revived at the time by Martin Luther King. That is to say, we believed in an overarching fellowship of some kind, a symphonic whole, a general fraternization of interrelated communities. My interest in community in this sense is always engaged when I hear phrases like "the college community" or the "the Butler community." For me, this sort of language invariably raises the question: What sort of community are we?

One way of getting at the matter is to ask, "What's a college?" The word itself merits attention. Like most of our traditional academic nomenclature--mind you, I'm not talking about names like Enrollment Management, Facilities Management, University Advancement, Campus Impressions, or Information Resources--the word "college" is medieval and ecclesiastical in provenance. The Latin verb that collegium is derived from--Bert Steiner will correct me if I'm wrong—is lego/legare, which means to "send [someone] on a mission," or "make [someone] an ambassador" for your cause, a meaning preserved in the English words legate and legation. A college, in short, is some sort of commissioned body. One of the earliest instances of the word in English, from 1380, is found in John Wyclif, who writes of "Criste and his colage," meaning Jesus and the Twelve Apostles, which sets a fairly high standard and creates certain problems for assessment theory. The commoner meaning of the word in the Middle Ages, and one to which I'm sure you'll agree Butler more closely corresponds, is illustrated by the founding Statute of New College, Oxford (1400), which defines that institution as "a perpetual college of impoverished and indigent scholars."1

My two lexical examples illustrate the abiding tension in academe between the sense of commission or vocation and the scramble for resources and security. In our day, we face challenges on both fronts, though in my opinion the spiritual challenge is the more serious. Stop and ask yourselves: what great commission or vocation do we all or could we all embrace for our college? If Andy Levy and his co-authors in the Introduction to Postmodern American Fiction are right to maintain that ours is increasingly a "dissensus culture" (the only consensus being that consensus is unlikely),2 then I suppose it must appear quixotic to ask the kind of question I have just asked.

Not that there's anything self-authenticating about "dissensus culture," of course! In fact I confess to being rather amazed by the level of enthusiasm shown by many contemporary academics for the fragmentary, the particular, the idiosyncratic, in matters having to do with the human community. Let me reach back for a moment to Vladimir Soloviev and share what I believe to be an apt, if somewhat extreme, parable for our time from his essay of May, 1899. Soloviev describes the belief system of one of the more exotic religious sects that flourished in imperial Russia in his day, a group known as the "hole-worshippers" (dyromoliai, from dyra, hole, crevice, niche). These people, peasants living in small villages in the Altai Mountains of south-central Siberia, had as their sole object of faith a small hole or niche which each one dug into the wall of his hut. Worship consisted of twirling about one's hole, planting kisses on it, and chanting, "Save me, little hut! Save me, little hole!"3 I suggest that the fragmentarians and micro-communitarians of our own day profess a similar faith, albeit in more sophisticated and therefore less spontaneous and credible forms.

Of course if you look at some of the activities our college has initiated in the last decade or so, you can see that the passion for community and "commissioned" collaboration is not as attenuated as some of our theories might lead us to believe. The Visiting Writers Series links us to communities of developed literacy throughout Central Indiana, and even nationally. The Center for Citizenship and Community, directed by our own Margaret Brabant, is engaged in basic community organization in and around our urban neighborhood. And the Seminar on Religion and World Civilization is building continuing relationships between the university and religious communities in Indianapolis. None of these activities is committed in principle to "dissensus culture."

At the same time, I would be the first to admit that human beings are not justified by works, but by faith; that is to say, that the eminently constructive activities I've just enumerated do not excuse us from scrutinizing the sort of community we are among ourselves, in our hearts, intra muros, as living beings working in close proximity to one another. Let me put it this way: we live and work in each other's presence; but how present are we to each other?

The question is not so easy to answer, for our presence to each other has a certain mystery about it which is part of the larger and more general enigma that the French phenomenologist Gabriel Marcel called "le mystère de l'être," the mystery of being.4 Think of it this way: Once you take for granted that we are, you might be able to figure out why we do what we do, although that is not so easy to ascertain. You have a somewhat better chance of figuring out how we do what we do. But if instead of taking our being for granted, you ask what it means to say that we are, then you're faced with a much more difficult problem. You are confronting the mystery of being.

In my own thinking about this kind of problem I've been greatly helped by modern dialogic philosophy. Dialogic philosophy has its roots in German Idealism, specifically in some of the seminal ideas of Schelling in his critique of Hegelian rationalism—a critique that was mostly dismissed in its time but subsequently stimulated important new beginnings: in Russia, the philosophy of Vladimir Solovyov, which is incidentally the ultimate source of Mikhail Bakhtin's dialogic literary theory; and in Germany, the fresh approach to religious philosophy brilliantly inaugurated around the end of World War I by Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber and Paul Tillich. Basically, what dialogic philosophy says (I'm going to use Rosenzweig's terminology) is that the road to reality is not accessible through Denken as such, that is to say, pure thought; nor through Sprechen as such, that is to say, linguistic and semiotic systems, but only through Sprachdenken, a neologism meaning "speechthought," or thinking-and-speaking-together in dialogue with another. That is to say, if we wish to learn something about the things most worth knowing about, namely, God, the world and our fellow human beings, we will find that focusing on any one of these in isolation from the other two leads us away from the reality we seek because lived reality is the web of relations linking these three together. As Rosenzweig puts it: "For in the reality which we uniquely experience, the [split between God, the world and our fellow human beings] is bridged, and everything we experience is [as it were] experiences of such linkages. God himself, if we try to comprehend him, hides himself; [similarly] the human being, our own self, closes itself off, the world becomes a patent riddle. Only in their relations, only in creation, revelation and redemption, do [the three] show themselves."5

Applying the idea of a dialogically accessible reality to the life of a college, I suggest that a college may be construed as a grand and complex sort of conversation, a continual turning-towards each other in attention, addressivity and regard. This is not to say that we need to be talking all the time, or that all our conversations should be marked by an exceptional degree of intimacy. Martin Buber's words on this problem are à propos, even though he was not thinking of an academic community when he wrote:

It is not a matter of intimacy at all; [intimacy] appears when it must, and if it is lacking, that's all there is to it. The question is rather one of openness. A real community need not consist of people who are perpetually together; but it must consist of people who, precisely because they are comrades, have mutual access to one another and are ready for one another.6

Being present to each other, or spiritually "ready for one another," is not so easy, of course; nor does it happen automatically. It takes cultivation and discipline. It also requires a measure of faith, namely faith in the reality and significance of human discourse. In fact it requires faith in a good deal more than that. All the dialogic thinkers I have just named would be happy to explain to you why seriousness about dialogue depends also on faith in the reality and commonality of the world and in a divine ground of being, or God. But for now, to give this faith a name, let's just call it Socratic. Listen again to Martin Buber in a famous passage on Socrates in I and Thou:

How lovely and legitimate the lively and insistent 'I' of Socrates sounds. It is the 'I' of endless dialogue, and the atmosphere of dialogue surrounds it wherever it goes, even in court and in the final hour in prison. This 'I' lived in the relation to human beings which is embodied in dialogue. It believed in the reality of human beings and went out to meet them. So doing it joined them in reality, and reality never abandoned it. Not even in loneliness is it forsaken, for if the human world falls silent [and turns away], [Socrates] still hears the daimonion, the inner voice, saying 'Thou.7

Well, that is the ideal I would put before you this afternoon. Let me say I recognize, as some of you doubtless have, that there is a certain irony about what I've done. For if my philosophical position is that it's dialogue that counts, I've obviously violated it on this occasion by delivering what amounts to a monologue. In fact I do believe that it's dialogue that counts. Hence, what I would really want my "last" lecture at Butler to be is a long-lasting conversation, about the issues that perplex us, the discoveries that delight us, and about the mystery of being.

For example, I'd want my longtime team-teaching partner and intellectual ally Bruce Bigelow to join me up here--we'd stand to the right, and Dave Mason and Paul Hanson to come up here to the left, and we'd treat you all to yet another chapter of our debate about the merits of Soviet and Chinese socialism, or about the merits of socialism as such; though to do that properly, we'd have to get Craig Auchter up here, too, and Dale Hathaway, and Antonio Menendez, and Harry van der Linden, and some other people; at which point Bruce and I would be greatly outnumbered and would have to call in reinforcements, albeit of questionable loyalty to our position: George Geib and Marvin Scott, where are you?

Or I'd want Steve Perrill and Marshall Dixon and others from the physical and biological sciences to join some of us who are trained in theological reflection, and together, as intellectual allies, we would challenge the anthropocentrism and scepticism of the contemporary humanities.

Or I'd want to have a conversation with Susan Neville, and Paula Reiner, and Malcolm Clark, and Sue Kenyon and Joyce Janca about what religion is, and what it isn't.

And I'd want to continue my longstanding conversation with John Beversluis about faith and doubt, Greek irony and Hebraic loving-kindness, about Calvinism and Christianity.

And I'd want to listen, too. I'd want to listen again to John Cornell's great Change and Tradition lecture on Athenian democracy--"trireme democracy." Because of the way our American society is constituted, we regularly find ourselves in the position of having to listen to talk about democracy by people who scarcely suspect what it means, or who don't really believe in it in the first place. It's very special to hear someone talk about the subject with freshness and conviction.

And I'd want to listen to Lynn Franken present her case yet again that the object of literary study is not the social function of literature, or its ideological content, or its ethical or philosophical ideas, but rather the discernment of formal structures; that is to say, that literary study is concerned with beauty.

And I'd want to listen to Linda Willem tell me more, much more, about the so-called Spanish Dickens and Spanish Balzac, so-called because most Americans have never heard of him, much less read him, namely, the greatest Spanish writer of the 19th century, Benito Perez Galdos, about whom Linda knows more than anyone in North America. And I'd want to listen to Bill Watts tell me more about Old English and Middle English literature; and to Aron Aji tell me more about Turkish literature; and Margriet Lacy about Dutch literature; and Jaya Mehta about Indian literature; and Bill Walsh about Shakespeare; and the omnivorous Jim Watt about whatever it was he read last night.

And I wish you could find a way, Kwadwo and Charlotte Anokwa and Bill Neher, to create an LAS South or LAS Abroad campus somewhere near the University of Ghana at Legon, and to take the whole college faculty, all 124 of us, to Charlotte's hometown of Kibi, and up the Kwahu Mountains to Kwadwo's hometown of Obo.

And I'd want our conversation to extend both forward and backward in time. The forward-orientation might be served, Steve, if besides a "last lecture" delivered by a senior faculty person at the end of the year, you commissioned a "first lecture," or perhaps a first panel, at which people who have only recently joined our faculty talked about their work, their hopes, and the challenges they would direct at the rest of us.

As for looking back, I mean acknowledging and cherishing the traditions of our institution, for traditions are dialogic, too; they are the continuing dialogue between the living and the dead. To give just one example, seeing that it's been presented to me on the proverbial silver platter, I'd want us to think about the room in which we sit this afternoon. There's something wrong here, something ruined here. Can you guess what it is? Please don't get me wrong: I am not making a sectarian pitch for the restoration of a Christian chapel. But I am making a pitch for a chapel--though I wish Scott Swanson were here to do it instead, for he's got the best ideas on this subject. In any case, we need a new chapel, a renewed chapel, different surely from the old one, an interfaith chapel dedicated more to conversational than predicatory exercises in religion; although, as you might imagine, I would want to go on calling the place the "chapel," as opposed to, say, the Religious Resource Center. I also feel a strong urge to say a bit about where the word "chapel" comes from in the first place. But the hour grows late; the Dean has spread a fine table for us; and it's surely time for me to pronounce the last words of my "last lecture," which are, as you might guess: Let the conversation begin.

Thank you very much!


1 Both examples are cited in the OED

2 Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology, ed. Paula Geyh, Fred G. Leebron and Andrew Levy (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998), pp. xiii. 

3 Vladimir Sergeevich Solov'ev, Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh (Moscow: "Mysl'," 1988), 2:636-37.

4 Le Mystère de l'être, 2 vols. (Paris: Aubier, 1964).

5 Lernen mit Franz Rosenzweig, ed. Werner Licharz (Frankfurt am Main: Haag und Herchen Verlag, 1984), p. 15. 

6 Paths in Utopia, trans. by R.F.C. Hull, intro. by Ephraim Fischoff (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), pp. 144-45.

7 Ich und Du, in Das dialogische Prinzip (Heidelberg: Verlag Lambert Schneider, 1965), pp. 68-69.