Bill Underwood's Message to Graduates, Baylor University Commencement, December 17, 2005

I.

Your years here at Baylor have been years of personal growth. They have been transformational for each of you. They've been transformational for our University as well. Certainly there has been a transformation in the face of the University, with the addition of splendid new facilities like the Sciences building, the Mayborn museum, the North Village and the Umphrey law center. You have witnessed Baylor athletics rise out of the ashes of the Patrick Dennehy tragedy to experience the greatest period of success in the history of the University, including the first two NCAA national championships in Baylor's history in men's tennis the year before last, and then that thrilling national championship by the Lady Bears in basketball earlier this year. You have even witnessed Baylor beat the Texas A&M aggies in football.

II.

Even more significant than new buildings and success in intercollegiate athletics, you have witnessed and perhaps participated in a fascinating conversation about the nature of Christian higher education. A conversation among good people that should occur at a place like Baylor.
  • A conversation about how truth is sought.
  • A conversation about individual freedom of thought, and about responsibility to the community.

You have witnessed a conversation that has captured the attention of much of the Baylor community and even the world of Christian higher education. A conversation about two ideas that throughout history have been in endless antagonism.

III.

Representing one of these ideas, a prominent, provocative and influential theologian at another university recently said: No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America. Let me repeat that: No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America.

This theologian continues:

    I certainly believe that God uses the Scripture to help keep the Church faithful, but I do not believe, in the Church's current circumstance, that each person in the Church is thereby given the right to interpret the Scripture. Such a presumption derives from the corrupt egalitarian politics of democratic regimes, not from the politics of the Church. The latter . . . knows that the right reading of the Scripture depends on having spiritual masters who can help the whole Church stand under the authority of God's word.

Consistent with this view, a colleague here at Baylor has described the idea that individual believers have the freedom to reach their own conclusions regarding the Scriptures as "incoherent or simply a bad idea." Taking this idea from churches to universities, others have suggested that there is no place in a Christian university to advocate contrary to what university authorities choose to declare as orthodox. Taking this idea to an extreme, a prominent Baptist denominational leader has declared that if we say pickles have souls, then our schools "must teach that pickles have souls." Under this idea, we would have spiritual masters to tell us what to teach, what to learn, and what to believe.

IV.

Of course, there is nothing new about this idea. There have always been those who have claimed the status of spiritual master over others those who have taken it upon themselves to decide what others must believe. The scribes and the Pharisees fancied themselves experts on what the Scriptures meant. They set themselves up as the spiritual masters for others. Yet Jesus specifically warned his disciples to "beware" of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Indeed, in what would prove to be the last public sermon of his ministry, Jesus rebuked the spiritual masters of his day in Matthew 23 saying:
    Do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders, for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.

V.

What Jesus taught us in Matthew is fundamental to understanding individual freedom of conscience and self-determination. You see, God has given us intellects. God has given us the gift of reason. And Jesus has commanded us to use our minds to love God with our hearts and our souls but also to love God with our minds. Surely, keeping this greatest of all commandments requires us to think for ourselves and come to our own conclusions. Indeed, when we stand before God on judgment day, it would hardly be a defense to say that we just believed as we were told. You see, we are responsible for our souls. It is this responsibility that requires us to think for ourselves and come to our own conclusions.

This does not mean that there is no objective truth that just anything goes that one person's conclusion is just as valid as that of another, no matter what it might be that we embrace some sort of "radical subjectivity" that we are "cultural relativists," as some have asserted.

There is truth. There is right. There is wrong. And sometimes we are wrong. Sometimes our ideas are lousy and ought to be rejected by others. Our great theologians are sometimes wrong. Our philosophers can be wrong. Even our university presidents are sometimes wrong. We know and acknowledge that no one of us is perfect that no one of us has perfect knowledge. How, then, can any of us be so certain that we have discovered truth that we would discourage others from continuing to inquire, from continuing to question, from perhaps even daring to disagree? How can any of us be so arrogant? At the same time, the fact that we are free to think for ourselves does not mean that we should ignore the thoughts of others. There are many great thinkers among us. And there have been many great thinkers who have gone before. It would be equally arrogant for us to ignore their ideas. Indeed, given what is at stake, it would be foolish.

VI.

Our responsibility to use our intellects, to think for ourselves, to come to our own conclusions has important consequences for Christian higher education. As centers of learning, Christian universities must be committed to the pursuit of truth. This pursuit of truth requires exposing our students to the great thinkers of today and yesterday. Not so that they will blindly accept the conclusions of others. But instead to aid them in their search for truth. Christian universities must also equip our students with the critical thinking skills needed for a lifelong pursuit of truth. This requires encouraging our students to think for themselves and then to test their ideas in free and open discourse with others, even ideas that are controversial even ideas that challenge prevailing viewpoints.

This free exchange of ideas is most likely to lead to the discovery of truth. That's the idea behind the First Amendment. A great thinker named Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. put it best when he wrote that "the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market." Consistent with this metaphor of a free marketplace of ideas, the United States Supreme Court has recognized that our future as a people "depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth out of a multitude of tongues, rather than through any kind of authoritarian selection." If we are to be a great Christian university, we cannot be afraid to pursue the course of truth, wherever that course might lead. Indeed, if our pursuit of truth leads us to question our existing view of God, it may just be that God is trying to tell us something.

VII.

You are entering a world where you will be discouraged sometimes even repressed from thinking for yourself. You will be discouraged from challenging what you see, hear and read in the media. You will be discouraged from challenging political authority. You may well be accused of being unpatriotic if you do. You will be discouraged from challenging ecclesiastical authority. You may well be accused of being a heretic if you do.

Let me suggest that you owe it to yourself not to give in. Your responsibility to yourself demands that you not be discouraged from thinking for yourself. Your responsibility to yourself demands that you exercise your individual freedom of conscience. Let me go further. Let me suggest that your responsibility to others to your community demands that you exercise your freedom of conscience. Just during my lifetime, too few Christians in the South resisted community orthodoxy when it came to segregation of the races. When Baylor refused to admit African-American students on religious grounds as late as the 1960s, what this community desperately needed were more free thinkers who would exercise their individual freedom of conscience free thinkers who would challenge the prevailing orthodoxy free thinkers with the courage to say "this is wrong."

How many other beliefs at one time firmly held as true have been proven false with the passage of time? What so-called "truths" that we hold dear today will the passage of time prove false? And how will we know if we accept what others declared as orthodox without question?

Let me close not just this speech but my term as your president and my tenure on the faculty of this great university by charging you to think for yourselves. Use the intellect that God has given you. Think critically. Have courage. And acknowledge no embrace the right of others to disagree.