Good morning, everyone. For those of you who do not know me, I am Will Nifong. As the husband of your Music Director, I am sometimes a gently coerced member of the choir on special occasions and an always-happy celebrant at the Pet Blessing and other special moments at All Saints. Most recently, I enjoyed creating stories with a number of parishioners in the very fine storytelling workshops that All Saints sponsored. Indeed, I have been amongst you often enough to marvel at what a warm and welcoming place this is, and I am so happy to be here with you today.
The reason, I surmise, for the invitation to speak with you on this Backpack Blessing Sunday – when we celebrate the return of youngsters and their teachers, counselors, nurses, coaches, social workers, and so many others to school — is that I have some experience with backpacks myself – specifically, spending some decade and a half now with high school students who have come under my tutelage in a varying mix of English, World History, Humanities, and Latin classes. These days, and in recent years, it is Latin only…..five full classes down the road at a CPS high school called Northside College Prep.
So here we are. Eheu! (As we say in Latin.) Alas. The 2020-21 school year has begun like no other school year before it. Except for a few private and parochial schools that can manage social distancing, schools in our immediate vicinity are teaching remotely – over the ether, I say. I must greet my charges in a Brady Bunch grid filled with a few smiling faces but even more silly, lifeless avatars. As much as I love my discipline and my students, I confess that this is sometimes a gloomy affair – especially when our communities are reeling from both fear and the real, deeply personal losses of this pandemic, the loss of lives and of livelihoods; when we are simultaneously agitating for critical social change, for civil rights, and also managing the concomitant social unrest; when we see fires ravaging one part of our country whilst other parts are battered repeatedly by an unprecedented season of hurricanes; when the political climate in our nation is as toxic and volatile as it could possibly be. Is there a better illustration of dystopia? Through all of this, we are largely unable to come together in the customary ways to support one another. Thus, I am reminded more than ever of the essential role our schools play in providing security, dependability, community, and, yes, sanctuary for so many. I can assure you that I and my colleagues understand that responsibility; we own it. Each day – when we broadcast from the school or from our homes – we set out not only to teach necessary content but also to give our students the security and support that they so desperately need. If we are honest, we acknowledge that, in these days, the latter is significantly more important.
To be sure, when every aspect of pedagogy is so much more difficult, one cannot help but ask yet again, “Why are we here? What is our core mission?” Colin also had an idea. He suggested I reflect on the Latin motto Quaecumque sunt vera (Whatsoever things are true). That one is special to us, as it’s the motto of Colin’s alma mater, St. Francis Xavier in Antogonish, NS, as well as the motto of one of my almae matres, Northwestern University. “Whatsoever things are true.” That particular phrase is not derived from Latin literature but rather from the Bible, as many of you know: St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, Chapter 4, verse 8.
As I began to reflect on that bit of inspiration, I recalled that the motto of another of the universities I attended has a motto focusing on truth: Artes Scientia Veritas(Arts, Knowledge, Truth), the motto of the University of Michigan. So, too, does Yale’s motto (Lux et Veritas (Light and Truth)) and Harvard’s (just Veritas (or Truth) alone). Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, now the academic home of one All Saints’ own, also shares that word: Veritas Virtusque (Truth and Virtue).
But what is truth? Whose truth? And how the heck do we find it?
Every American remembers the story of GEORGE WASHINGTON AND THE CHERRY TREE, yes? “I cannot tell a lie.” One of our greatest stories about the importance of the truth…. Well, it’s a lie! What a maddening irony, to be sure, that a foundational story about truth is itself entirely a fabrication, penned by a certain Mason Locke Weems, the earliest biographer of Washington and an itinerant minister of all things. He made it up out of whole cloth.
This truth-seeking is gonna be hard….it always is.
In one of my advanced Latin classes last week, we were creating some context for a discussion about statues: their symbolism and their place in society. The famed classicist Mary Beard of Cambridge had been asked by an associate of the British Museum to identify her favorite artifact within the museum’s vast collections. She chose the so-called Meroe head of Augustus, a fragment of a statue of Rome’s first emperor that had been erected in the Roman province of Egypt but, at some later time, had been pinched by brave invaders from the Meroitic Kingdom to the south. You see where this was headed, of course. I wanted the youngsters to hear Prof. Beard’s sage remarks about statues generally so that we could apply our understanding of the ancient to the contemporary – specifically, the raging, important debate about the place of statues in our own country: statues of Confederate generals, politicians, and soldiers, statues of Christopher Columbus, even statues of the founders of the nation.
In order to sort the chronology of all this, I wanted my students to recall the battle between Octavian – not yet the first emperor Augustus – and the forces of the legendary Marc Antony and his mistress, Cleopatra, the enchanting queen of Egypt. The battle took place at sea in 31 B.C., near the Greek city of Actium. The retreat and subsequent suicides of Antony and Cleopatra turned the tide of history in Rome and in much of the western hemisphere for centuries to come, at least that’s what Octavian (soon to be Augustus) wanted us to think. Statues went up everywhere to glorify Augustus, as well as to proclaim the awesome power of Rome. Art, yes; truth, yes; propaganda, also YES.
When I noted that a significant number of classical historians questioned whether, or at least to what extent, this Battle of Actium really happened, or whether Antony and Cleopatra simply threw in the towel, one of my students proclaimed, “Fake news!” Everyone laughed knowingly…
This truth-seeking was hard in the ancient world….it still is.
Not all truth-seeking is the same, of course, nor should all such quests be equally challenging for us.
(1) Empirical science shouldn’t be so hard. Let’s think for a moment about the devastating forest fires now burning on the west coast. Earlier this week, the president finally visited California and had this to say about the cause of the fires: “Well, I think this is more of a management situation. You know, if you look at other countries — you go to other countries in Europe — Austria and Finland and numerous countries — and I talk to the heads. They’re — they’re forest nations. They’re in forests. And they don’t have problems like this. And they have very explosive trees, but they don’t have problems like this.”
My students, be they only 15 to 18 years of age, heard these words, and they were not only incredulous but speechless. Explosive trees? While the vast majority of scientists in the world have concluded not only that human activity is driving climate change and exacerbating these wildfires and so many other catastrophes on the planet, we hear nonsensical ramblings about “explosive trees.”
Scientific truth shouldn’t be so hard, especially after we grow comfortable with it. We all accept fundamental principles: gravity, the basic structure of the atom, the heliocentric orientation of our solar system. But human beings can be damnably stubborn, especially when science conflicts with deeply held beliefs. Galileo, we recall, may have survived an inquisition only because he recanted his theory that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around. (And it took the Catholic Church until 1992 to concede officially that he was right.)
I get that sometimes the truth is too hard. How do we cope with climate change? How can we fight an invisible enemy, radically change our way of life, and survive economic disaster, all at the same time? The mind can hardly comprehend it. Isn’t it easier just to believe that it’s all a hoax? That it’s all fake news?
What is far worse, today in the United States of America – out of some misguided and dangerous notion of anti-elitism – scientists and experts are not to be believed or trusted. Everyone can have an opinion about the existence and causes of climate change; everyone’s assessment of the risk and virulence of an illness carries equal weight. Deference to expertise seems to be a thing of the past.
For the first time in its 175-year history the venerable publication Scientific American has endorsed a candidate in the presidential election – SIMPLY BECAUSE its editors recognize that the respect for science and its proper and critical use in our society are in such jeopardy.
This truth-seeking is hard, but that is why our society trains specialists, who dedicate their lives to uncovering the answers, crafting solutions, and guiding public policy. In a functioning society, we train our youngsters sufficiently in science and the scientific method so that, even if they never become climatologists or epidemiologists, they know enough to recognize and respect the expertise of their fellow citizens who do and to rely on their guidance.
(2) When it comes to the truth of historical assessment – and certainly to socio-political realities – truth-seeking admittedly gets tougher. In recent days, I saw notice of the publication of a new book by Ariel Sabar called Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. The book focuses on Karen King, a celebrated scholar of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School. Professor King, a professedly devout believer, had dedicated her career to illuminating the role of women, especially Mary Magdalene, in the early church. Back in 2012, Prof. King believed she had found what was, for her, the Holy Grail. She stood triumphantly in front of a crowd of reporters in Rome and announced to the world the discovery of a papyrus fragment that she had titled “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” Her career and her life were about to take a most disappointing turn. The papyrus, which contained the words “my wife” and declared, “She will be able to be my disciple,” seemed to vindicate Prof. King’s body of work and promised to turn the male dominance of certain Christian churches’ clergy, as well as the requirement of celibacy, on its head. Can you imagine the joy of putting hands on apparent proof of a cherished theory, a theory that could precipitate changes in the church that many had sought for centuries? What joy! What providence! Unfortunately, to make a long and painful story short, Prof. King so passionately wanted (nay, needed) to believe in the authenticity of this text that she failed to conduct adequate background research into its provenance, research that would have revealed the truth – that, in fact, the piece of papyrus itself was medieval and the text a modern forgery. Prof. King acknowledged her missteps only in 2016, after Mr. Sabar had concluded the painstaking research that she had not.
Yes, my friends, this truth-seeking is hard, especially when our evidence is imperfect, and our hearts and our dreams and our prejudices and our biases can cloud our judgment. That, too, is why our children MUST read history and literature. It is why they must learn to assess critically, to debate intelligently with each other, and if not always to reach consensus, to respect the process and one another’s informed opinions. That is the liberal ideal. That is the highest goal of education. That is the most vital element of a functioning democracy. That is the truth.
Quaecumque Sunt Vera
My former students will probably tell you that Mr. Nifong becomes agitated whenever anyone asks, “Well, what will studying this or that get me?” “How can I make money with that?” They also will tell you that I resolutely maintain that, as an educator, I am not in the business of career training. The truth is, I am in the truth business, whether we are analyzing the hero in a Latin epic or wrestling with remarkably hard, sometimes painful questions about the symbolism and desirability of statues in the ancient world, as well as in our own. As educators, our highest calling is not to impart truths but rather to share the tools and joy and faith in the truth-seeking process itself. St. Paul has called us to it.
Truth-seeking is hard, but ultimately it is the only thing that matters. Let’s get to it!
Sunday, September 20, 2020–preached by Will Nifong, Latin Teacher
Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost- The Backpack Blessing