Two days ago, I posted a link to an article announcing Dinesh D’Souza as the new president of King’s College in New York. ToTheSource read my mind, sending me his very intelligent and encompassing convocation speech:
Trustees, faculty, parents and new students of the class of 2014:
Welcome to the King’s College. Here at King’s we are in the business of educating Christians to engage the world in a new way. My job this morning is to tell you how we will do that.
We live in strange, perilous, and exciting times. The Cold War has ended, but it has been replaced by a new threat from Islamic radicalism, a threat that we don’t understand very well and are not always sure how to respond to. Domestically, capitalism seems to have won the economic debate, but it clearly hasn’t won the moral debate. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton said that the era of Big Government has ended. Evidently he spoke too soon: the era of Big Government is back. For the last few decades, it seemed that our economy was doing fine while our culture and moral fabric was decaying; now it is clear that both of them are in trouble. America is $8 trillion in debt, and a good part of that debt is held not by Americans but by governments in China and the Middle East. China and India are growing at five times the pace of the United States, leaving open the question of how long we will remain the world’s superpower. We are on top on the world, but the view looks a little precarious from up here. As Bob Dylan once said, “You don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
Pundits these days bemoan the brokenness of Washington. But we seem to have a deeper crisis that seems to affect all our major institutions. There is a crisis of Wall Street and the banks. There is a crisis in housing and mortgage lending. There is a crisis in health care. There is a crisis in the supply of energy. We also hear about the crisis of global warming, although this one I feel more positive about: I’m always a little chilly. Years ago, in my book Illiberal Education, I wrote about the crisis in academia. Journalism is in crisis, with major outlets shutting down or being transformed. I don’t think I need to convince anyone in this room that something seems deeply wrong with our popular culture. If you have any doubt about that, just look at the kinds of movies that typically come out of Hollywood. What is happening to America? What is left of the American dream?
Now there are different ways to respond to a crisis. The first is to bellyache about it. We’ve all seen and heard a lot of that. In truth, I am a pretty fair bellyacher myself. So we can document what’s wrong with our institutions and we can expose the bad guys and we can complain and write letters and maybe even go to rallies. That’s the first way: to seek improvement by calling for improvement. The second way is to tackle the problem at the surface level. If you think that Washington is dysfunctional, you can work to elect a Congressman who seems different from the rest. If you think academia is too liberal, you can push for a conservative speaker who will offer an alternative point of view. This is the second way: to make improvements on the margin. That’s needed, but it’s not enough.
At King’s College, we offer a third way. We don’t just want to document the problem; we want to be part of the solution. We aren’t satisfied with improvements on the margin; we want to help transform the core institutions of society. In short, we are here to make a difference. That’s why we’re all here in Manhattan, in the capital of the world. Because you have to be in the capital of the world to understand the world, and only when you understand the world can you change the world. Karl Marx said that, and he wasn’t right about much, but he was right about that. And that’s what we’re about at King’s: changing the world.
How are we going to do that? We have a fine college, but over the next several years, we intend to build the finest Christian liberal arts college in America. Each year, we seek to send several hundred of our students out into the world. These students will go to Wall Street, to Silicon Valley, to the leading corporations, to influential positions on Capitol Hill and the White House, to Fox News and ABC, to Hollywood, to faculty positions at Duke and Columbia, even to entrepreneurial hotspots like Hong Kong and Shanghai and Bangalore. Imagine the impact on America if the King’s College were to dispatch a thousand students a year into key positions. But we’re not going to start with a thousand; we’re going to start with 215, the young men and women in this room. Get ready, because we are going to train you and equip you and inspire you.
Many Christian institutions seek to shelter their students from society. Even if they succeed, and especially if they succeed, they marginalize those students because in shutting them out from the mainstream institutions, they have no access to those institutions. Right now if someone were to ask me, “Where is Christianity strong in America?” or “What is the Christian capital of America?” I’d have to say: Orlando, Florida. Or Colorado Springs, Colorado. Or Tupelo, Mississippi. Now I know that there are lots of good, solid Christians in Orlando and Colorado Springs and Tupelo. But, ladies and gentlemen, the major political and economic and cultural decisions in America are not made in those places. They are made in New York and Washington and Boston and Chicago and Los Angeles and San Francisco. Those are, if you will, the secular capitals of America. So if we want to make a real difference, we have to go where the action is. Here at King’s, we’re not running away from the problem. We are running in the direction of the problem. New York, by the way, is only our base. Our goal is to have a global impact.
How can we do this? First, by attracting to King’s the leading Christian thinkers and teachers in the world. We are going to expose our young people to “the best that is being thought and said,” if I can borrow a phrase from Matthew Arnold. King’s has already started to do this, through its curriculum and through its distinguished speakers and visitors program. When you graduate from King’s, I want you to be able to say, “I cannot believe all the incredible teachers and visiting scholars and speakers that I was directly exposed to in this place. There is no way that I would have gotten this kind of exposure at any other college in the country. Not any other Christian college—any other college. That includes Harvard.”
Now we cannot compete with Harvard or other major universities in offering hundreds of majors and a phone directory of courses. At Dartmouth I knew a guy who basically majored in disco. He wanted to be relevant. Now when he comes to class reunions and you ask him what his major was, he won’t tell you. Hey, I have nothing against disco. But we don’t offer that here at King’s. Our goal is to stay focused on a few things, but they happen to be the permanent things, the things that matter most. We have three broad areas of concentration: Politics, Economics and Philosophy is one of them. Business is another. The third is media, culture and the arts. The core of our program is Politics, Philosophy and Economics–PPE. Some people may wonder, what’s the point of learning about all that? Well, politics is about how we live together in society. Economics is about how we eat and survive and prosper. Philosophy is about what and why: what is truth, what is justice, why is there a universe, what is happiness, what is the purpose of life. These are practical questions, and by figuring them out we are better prepared not only to have successful careers but also to be good citizens and to live full and happy lives.
PPE isn’t about three separate subjects, it’s about the connections between different branches of knowledge. Too often academia is so specialized that these connections become lost. Knowledge becomes divorced from application. Years ago, when I was researching my book The End of Racism, I approached a leading scholar of slavery and asked him, “How is the legacy of slavery connected to the problems that we see in the inner city today?” He told me he couldn’t possibly comment on that. His field, he said, required him to address very precise technical issues, such as how many slaves came over in the Middle Passage, and what their life expectancy was. But when it came to relating slavery to America’s contemporary challenges, he had nothing to say.
Our goal is knowledge, but knowledge applied to the world that we live in. Our mission is academic excellence. But it is not excellence for its own sake, or effort for its own sake. Rather, it is effort and achievement for the sake of America, for the sake of society, for the building of God’s kingdom. We are a Christian college. We’re not embarrassed about that; we’re motivated by that. We are, you might say, unapologetically Christian. The Bible tells us to go out and contend for the faith. We read in 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within you.”
That’s not so easy to do, actually. Think about the early Christians who had to go out into the world and proclaim the message of Jesus Christ. At first, they were communicating this message to their fellow Jews. But pretty soon they were outside the Jewish world: they had to engage Romans and Persians and Hindus, people who believed in many gods or had a very different idea of God. Obviously they had to figure out how to engage those people in terms of their own assumptions, their own worldview. And that’s what we have to do. Today we don’t have polytheists but we are back, in a way, to the pagan world that the early Christians confronted. Our paganism isn’t about Jupiter and Juno and Artemis; it is a radical secularism that not only rejects but vehemently attacks God and Christianity.
The King’s College is already known as a staunch defender of the faith. I think we can build on this reputation; I think that the King’s College has the opportunity to become the leading institution of Christian apologetics in America. Apologetics is an old term and it doesn’t mean apology: it means giving a reason. We welcome the challenge of atheism and radical secularism, and we intend to engage it with its own weapons. We aren’t going to win these arguments solely by citing passages from the Bible. We have to recognize that we live in secular society. Citing Scripture on a given question—say creation or gay marriage—is not likely to work when you are addressing someone who rejects the authority of the Bible to adjudicate that question. I am a big fan of C.S. Lewis. Lewis was probably the greatest Christian apologist of the twentieth century. And he was steeped in the Bible. But how many of his arguments in Mere Christianity appealed to the Bible? None of them. Because he was addressing a secular audience. Lewis knew how to speak to people in their own language.
This is what I call Christian bilingualism. As Christians we have to be able to speak two languages: one language in church and another when we are addressing people who don’t share our Christian beliefs. We have to be able to answer those who say to us, “How can you be so sure that your beliefs are true and everyone else’s are not? You have a holy book, but other religions also have a holy book. What makes you think that your holy book trumps their holy book?”
I take these questions seriously. Partly that’s because I grew up in Mumbai, India, in a culture where Christians are a tiny minority. The predominant religion in India is Hindu; the largest minority is Muslim. My family was converted by Catholic missionaries in southern India, in a place called Goa, many centuries ago. But when I think back I was not raised with Christianity; I was raised with what may be called “crayon Christianity.” This was a Christianity simplified to my very young mind. Most of us learn about God and Christianity that way: from our parents. We know what we believe but we don’t know why we believe it. And this crayon Christianity is what I brought with me to America at the age of 17, when I came to Arizona as an exchange student.
A year later I was on the Dartmouth campus, and my Christianity came under severe skeptical attack. Now Dartmouth, like a lot of the Ivy League colleges, was started as a Christian college. In fact, it was started to educate and Christianize the Indians. Sometimes I wonder how I got there. I think I must have misread the catalog—you know, the part about the Indians. Anyway, Dartmouth and other Ivies have moved away from their Christian roots. They are now thoroughly secular. And I realized that when my faith was challenged at Dartmouth, I didn’t know how to defend it. I began to pull away from it. Not that I didn’t want to believe, but my brain kind of got in the way. And this is the strategy of modern atheism: to drive a wedge between the mind and the heart. To make Christians feel like complete idiots for believing in Christianity.
These days I debate leading atheists. I’ve found that if you approach the challenge in the right spirit the debate is very stimulating. It reminds me of my days as a conservative rebel at Dartmouth. Harpooning atheism can be fun. It is also an educational experience.
Today the skeptical attack against Christianity isn’t just coming from the big-name atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Peter Singer, and others. Rather, this skepticism is now part of our mainstream culture. It is certainly part of the culture of academia. Rather than hide from it, I want to take it on. And I want you to take it on. Here are King’s we’re going to equip you to take it on. And you’re going to discover that these atheists aren’t quite as formidable as they seem. Yes, some of them have a lot of degrees, but I’ve found that in academia there are quite a few people who are educated beyond their intelligence. This does happen, although of course it doesn’t happen at King’s.
We are Christians who believe that reason is not opposed to revelation; that reason is a valuable tool to discover and affirm the truths of God and creation. Moreover, we believe that the Bible isn’t merely about the next world: it has important things to say about economics, and about war and peace, and about ethics, and about human nature. At King’s we aren’t afraid to say what we stand for: we stand for the truths of Christianity, and we stand for political and economic and spiritual freedom. We don’t hesitate to say that the free society is better than the totalitarian society, or that free markets are a better way to generate prosperity than socialism. We don’t hold these truths dogmatically; we hold them empirically. We affirm them because they are congruent with the facts. At the same time, we are all about open debate. We don’t avoid tough issues; we plunge into them. Freedom and truth aren’t opposites; they go together. Freedom of inquiry and open debate are the mechanisms by which we arrive at the truth.
In a way we are more open and inclusive than secular institutions: in their quest for truth they focus on secular knowledge and leave out the Bible and Christianity. We too are after truth, but we are willing to examine all angles, all points of view, the secular option and the Christian option. We don’t need to stack the deck; we are confident that in a free and wide-ranging investigation, the truth will prevail. We aren’t scared of knowledge; we welcome it. We don’t need to beat our opponents over the head, much as they sometimes deserve it. Rather, we engage them in a civil way, seeking to convince not only with the clarity of our reason but also by our winsome manner. Ultimately our outlook is a confident Christianity. We are confident about what we believe because we know why we believe, and we know from very good authority who is going to be the victor.
Here at King’s we believe we have an important message for today’s world. Our previous presidents, Stan Oakes and Andy Mills, began the process taking that message to the world. This is something that we can really raise to the next level. Now I’m not talking about globalizing the King’s experience. We can’t do that; to have the King’s experience, you have to be here at King’s. But we can show the rest of the world what makes us distinctive, what we are about. Today we have the technology to do that—we can use the world wide web to share some of our ideas with the world. Drawing on the faculty and on the great ideas of Christianity, we can begin to show people how they can apply those ideas to today’s challenges and how they can use them to defend and uphold their faith in secular culture. We can use modern technology to give people around the globe an appetizer of what we offer here at King’s. It’s only an appetizer, a little dish of escargot. But if they like it we’re going to ask them to send their sons and daughters to King’s to get the whole package, the full menu, only missing the sullen French waiter. I want King’s to be one of the most recognized names not merely in Christian education, but in education generally.
We don’t want to be of the world, but we do want to be in the world, having an impact on the institutions that count. While other Christian institutions shelter you from the power centers of society, we prepare you to take your rightful place in those power centers. While other colleges seek to protect and shelter your faith, we go beyond that and teach you to defend and proclaim your faith in secular culture—but in a way that can be heard and understood by that culture.
Our final product is not King’s College: it’s you, the students. You are the King’s College. That’s why we will do everything we can to get behind you, to build you up, to pour knowledge into your brain, to stimulate you to put in your best effort. If we have large objectives, that’s because we have faith in your capacity and your dedication. We will give you the tools, but you are the ones who must rise to the occasion. And I believe you will. In doing so, you will join a growing and distinguished group of King’s College alumni who are already leaving their distinctive mark on society. How lucky you are, and how lucky I am, to be part of this. I am thrilled and honored and privileged to be part of this bold enterprise. If we do our job, and if you do your job, you will graduate from King’s as a very dangerous Christian. Dangerous because you are spiritually equipped and intellectually equipped. You are ready to move into that path of leadership, whether it be in politics or business or law or media. You have lived in the big city, and you have already encountered the slings and arrows from atheism and radicalism and secularism. You aren’t intimidated by these challenges; your attitude is “bring it on.” That’s what makes you a force to be reckoned with.
It was Abraham Lincoln who said, as he faced the great challenges of secession and war, that without God’s help he could not succeed; but with it, he could not fail. Let us ask God’s help in our daily lives, and for the King’s College, and for our great commission in the world. With His help and through our dedication and effort, we will not merely endure; we will also prevail. Thank you.
I think I love this man.