Baccalaureate Vespers followed by Immanuel Lutheran School Graduation Ceremony
June 5, 2019
After sitting through dozens of graduation speeches that were a terrible waste of time, the brilliant educator and critic Neil Postman wrote the sort of commencement address he wished would be given but never is. In it he talks about two groups of ancient people, the Athenians and the Visigoths. This is because, Postman said, you soon must align yourself with the spirit of one or the spirit of the other. You must choose between the Athenians or the Visigoths.
The Athenians developed a political democracy, invented philosophy, and one of their scientists conceived of the atomic theory of matter 2,300 years before it ever occurred to a modern scientist. They sang beautiful poems and wrote plays that are still performed today. They loved beauty and strove for excellence.
The Visigoths, by contrast, were good at one thing: killing. Their language was barbaric, their art grotesque. They loved to burn books and destroy buildings. Nothing of this people remains.
Except, of course, they do remain. Their spirit lives today, on social media and every flickering screen: the exaltation of death; music without melody; a culture where beautiful art is despised and the modern forms of drama revel in nihilism. The Visigoth cares for no one but himself. This is not a matter of high culture versus the common man – a blue-collar laborer can be an Athenian while many of today's physicians and artists are Visigoths.
Postman, in his usual brilliance, encourages graduates to take their place among the Athenians of the day: those who love community, who value tradition and self-restraint, who are committed to beauty and excellence.
Neil Postman was among the twentieth century’s most exceptional writers and thinkers. Everyone would profit from reading his books and essays. When I began to fall in love with Postman's writing I wanted to know more about the man. It was with a deep sadness I discovered he was not a Christian. And as such, there is something lacking in the choice he sets before us, to choose between being an Athenian or a Visigoth.
The Apostle Paul encountered both in his life. He faced the Visigoths in the form of brutal and cruel men; he also visited Athens and dialogued with the philosophers on Mars Hill. This holy man gives us a third option: Athenian, Visigoth, or Christian.
He writes to the Colossians, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit” (2:8). Philosophy is the domain of the Athenian; it is cultured and learned, and yet denies the single most important reality, that God in the beginning made heaven and earth. The Athenian is a philanthropist, a lover and benefactor of mankind, but too much so: for he exalts man over God. He exalts in the human spirit, human potential, so that he is overwhelmed by his own pride. He denies God, and so worships mankind.
This is simply a variation of the love of the Visigoth, which is love turned in on itself. This is the "Empty deceit" of which St. Paul speaks. The world’s promises are empty, vain – they do not last. All of this emptiness St. John calls “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” What the world and its popular culture offers you are empty deceits; they fade away and cannot last.
The beauty of a body fades, as it grows old and sinks down toward the ground. The beauty of possessions is devalued as they become obsolete and broken. Few people have their names remembered even in the next generation. All that the world offers you cannot last.
But you, St. Paul says, are not one to be cheated by either philosophy or the empty deceits of the world. You are a Christian. To you is given the promise of Jesus we heard this night: “Because I live, you also will live” (Jn 14:19).
Abigail, Reagan, Jack, Marie, Kendall, Jonah, Tyreke, Marie, Lucas, Elbethel, A.J. – beware both the Athenians and the Visigoths. Their offer of happiness and success through embracing philosophy or empty deceit, is hollow. Work hard, but remember that not everything can be accomplished through your work, your achievements, your experiences and pleasures. Whether you end up in the world’s eyes as the greatest success or an epic failure, it will all fade away and be gone before you can realize it.
One thing alone matters. One thing cling to above all else: the death and resurrection of your Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is life, whom to know is true wisdom. Above all else, we pray you be disciples of Jesus and be found in Him now and ever and unto the ages of ages. +INJ+