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Baccalaureate speaker finds comfort on rocky ground



Baccalaureate speaker Wendy Doniger, left, receives an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from Lehigh President Alice P. Gast during Monday's commencement ceremony.

Wendy Doniger, one of the world’s leading religion scholars, took the overflow crowd that packed Packer Memorial Church for Sunday’s baccalaureate service on a breathtaking tour of sacred texts, classic literature, and popular culture to arrive at her parting hope for the Class of 2009:

“I wish you all lives with beautiful gardens full of rocks and thorns and roses.”

Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, delivered the baccalaureate address on “The Garden and the Lotus Pond: Christian and Buddhist Parables of Education.”

Lloyd Steffen, professor of religion studies and university chaplain, noted that the baccalaureate service dates back to 1432 in Oxford, when all candidates for undergraduate degrees were required to present themselves for an examination that included delivering a sermon in Latin.

“We have not set aside time for each undergraduate to come up here and deliver a sermon in Latin,” Steffen joked. But the “religious aspect” remains very much a part of the service, he said, although it has evolved over the years to become more inclusive of other religious traditions.

Joining Steffen at Sunday afternoon’s service were Rabbi Seth Goren, director of the Hillel Society, a student-run organization that encourages and strengthens the continuity of Jewish values among the university’s Jewish students, and the Rev. Wayne E. Killian, director of Catholic Campus Ministry for the Diocese of Allentown, Catholic Chaplain of Lehigh University, director of the Newman Center, and pastor of the University Parish of Holy Ghost, which is the present home of The Catholic Center of Lehigh University.

The service also featured readings by three students: David Kurtz ’09, representing the Jewish tradition; Ayse Nur Bayat ’11, representing the Islamic tradition; and Komal Patel ’10, representing the Hindu tradition.

‘We are the thorny and rocky ground’

The text for Doniger’s address came from Matthew’s gospel, relating Jesus’ Parable of the
Sower. The parable involves a “sower” who casts seeds by the wayside, where they’re taken by birds; among rocks, where they start to grow, only to wither under the sun because they have no roots; among thorns, which choke the fledgling plants; and in good soil, where they take root and grow and bear fruit.

Doniger, who holds doctorates from Harvard and Oxford and has authored more than 30 books, called the parable “Gardening 101A.” It is usually interpreted, she said, to mean that understanding is given to those who already have understanding. In the case of the parable, those would be the disciples.

“He (Jesus) is, in a most literal way, preaching to the converted,” said Doniger, who on Monday received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree during Lehigh’s commencement ceremony.

She found an interesting parallel to the parable recounted by Matthew in an ancient Buddhist text about a lotus pond. In the Buddhist account, teaching is described as a pond where some lotus flowers are deep below the surface; some are out of the water, blooming; and some are just beneath the surface.

In that story, Doniger said, it seems the lesson is to teach the lotuses that are already blooming out of the water.

Doniger, however, has her own interpretation.

“When I read these two texts side by side, Matthew’s parable of the soil and the Buddhist parable of the lotus pond, I draw a different conclusion than the one apparently intended by the authors of these texts,” she said. “What I would get is, teach the lotuses just under the water. Cast your seeds of wisdom on thorny and rocky ground.”

Doniger said the crowd in Packer Church—highly educated and relatively privileged—would at first glance seem to be the “good soil” or lotuses blooming above the water.

But again, she offered a different interpretation: “We are the lotuses just under the water. We are the thorny and rocky ground.”

And Doniger found a Hindu parallel as well, noting that the Hindu word for lotus means “born out of the mud.”

Drawing on such diverse authors as Dostoyevski, Garrison Keillor, Robert Frost, C.S. Lewis, and Voltaire, Doniger concluded that the hardships and pain of life—from alcoholism and depression to losing beloved pets and caring for elderly parents—guarantee that we will have to slog through mud and traverse rocky and thorny ground to come to a deeper understanding of the meaning of our lives.

“Rocky and thorny ground is good ground,” Doniger said. “It is, in any case, the only existential ground there is to stand on.”

Finding the common ground between the Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu texts, Doniger said: “Precious things grow out of places that are not so precious.”

Which brought her to her desire for the Class of 2009:

“I wish you all lives with beautiful gardens full of rocks and thorns and roses.”

--Jack Croft

Photo by Theo Anderson

For a complete article, audio, and photo slideshow about Lehigh's 141st commencement, see Commencement 2009: Sachs tells graduates that 'global and online connections might...be our world's salvation'

To read about Lehigh's doctoral degree hooding ceremony, see 'They have earned the right to be called doctor'


Posted on Sunday, May 17, 2009

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