The Colgate Scene ON-LINE

[Coleman Barr Brown]
Coleman Barr Brown

Coleman Barr Brown

Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion 1970-96

I send warm greetings to former students, to colleagues and friends of the college, especially those I've known personally over my 26 privileged years at Colgate. I value you more than I could ever convey. This is not a personal letter. Yet with friends one can sometimes simply compile citations and still be saying something -- something, that is, to those who remember or have an ear to hear. I'm embarrassed that what follows is fragmentary, perhaps incoherent, almost entirely words of others, at best a kind of meager anthology. I'm embarrassed, too, at its length and a certain presumptuousness. What to do with words like those which follow -- maybe each of us decides with our lives.

As for embarrassment, I've tried to learn from Abraham Heschel not to fear it overly -- though I've never grown used to it! -- but rather to recognize that most things worth finding, or trying, involve us in embarrassment. As for fragments -- "Man is a fragment and a riddle . . . The more" we experience and know "that fact, the more" we are really human. Fragments "remains fragments, even if one attempts to reorganize them. The unity to which they belong lies beyond them; it is grasped through hope." The "power of love" transforms "tragic fragments into symbols of the whole." (Paul Tillich)

As to how we go about things -- "Tell me `how' you seek and I will tell you `what' you are seeking." (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

As for education at a place like Colgate -- a former student (not long after graduation a financial success, even a stunning success, but then confronted with the price paid for that success) writes this: "After a round of interviews, the most confident subject from the best school with the best grades can be . . . whittled down to a quivering lump of apology and self doubt. And this provides the metaphor for his entire experience with life: he is afraid of not getting it, and when he gets it, he is afraid of losing it. The central task of education must address the sources of this fear, its manifestations in the world, and the best responses to it. Otherside, everything else is deck chairs on the Titanic."

As for what kind of world it is -- From a modern fairy tale, conversation between a smart young adolescent from our world and a wise old man of another world: Says the young adolescent, "In our world a star is a huge ball of flaming gas." "Even in your world, my son," replies the old man, "that is not what a star is but only what it is made of." (C.S. Lewis)

As for human beings -- this comment made to him by his plumber, William James found one of the wisest he ever heard: "There isn't much difference between people, but what difference there is is awfully important."

As for human relationships -- "I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be." (Martin Luther King Jr.)

Regarding our needs -- "There is a fixed minimum of needs" for all persons. But needs "are looked upon today as if they were holy." Needs have become "our gods." We believe we have "found the philosopher's stone in the concept of needs." "The more we indulge in satisfactions, the deeper is our feeling of oppressiveness." The real task is to convert moral "ends into needs." (Heschel)

Regarding character: For mental health itself we must be capable of renunciation. "But the capacity for clear and conscious renunciation is rare, because our feelings and beliefs are muddled and perhaps because in the last analysis most people are not secure and happy enough to renounce anything." (Karen Honey)

Suffering -- Academic ethical theory "usually pays little attention" to suffering. "Yet everyone with any experience of life is aware of the extent to which the characters of people [we have] known have been given their particular forms by the sufferings through which they have passed. But it is not simply what has happened to them that has defined them; their responses to what has happened to them have been of even greater importance, and these responses have been shaped by their interpretations of what they suffered." (H. Richard Niebuhr)

Regarding justice, an issue we often find "too heavy" or from which, for other reasons, we turn away: "The struggle for justice is as profound a revelation of the possibilities and limits" of our personal and social existence "as the quest for truth. In some respects it is even more revealing because it engages all human vitalities and powers more obviously than the intellectual quest." "Teachers of morals who do not see the difference between the problem of charity within the limits of an accepted social system and the problem of justice between economic groups, holding uneven power within modern society, have simply not faced the . . . obvious." Social order is the prerequisite for justice. But social injustice tends to destroy social order. The "equilibrium of power" is "a principle of anarchy and conflict in so far as its tensions, if unresolved, result in overt conflict." It is a basic principle "of justice in so far as it prevents domination and enslavement." Both equality and liberty are "regulative and guiding" principles for justice; liberty and equality are usually in tension with each other. (Reinhold Niebuhr)

As for democracy: Our human "capacity for justice makes democracy possible"; our human "inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." Democracy "is a method of finding proximate solutions for insoluble problems." (Reinhold Niebuhr again)

As for some facts -- are they important facts? One "out of every five children in this country lives in poverty" (20%); "two out of every five Hispanic children" live in poverty (40%); "one out of every two black children" lives in poverty (50%). "Twenty percent of the U.S. population holds 94% of the wealth of the United States." (Cornel West, et al. "So," asks West, "how can 80 percent fight over 6 percent of the wealth without being at each other's throats?")

Religion? "Religion deals with both earth and heaven, both time and eternity." It seeks not only to integrate persons with God but to integrate persons with persons and each person with him or herself. "On the one hand, it seeks to change the souls" of people, "and thereby unite them with God; on the other hand it seeks to change the environmental conditions" of people "so that the soul will have a chance after it is changed. Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls" of people "and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is dry-as-dust religion" or spirituality. Such a spirituality or religion is "the kind Marxists like to see -- an opiate of the people." (M.L. King Jr.)

In a state of mind that may be known through religion, "what we most dreaded" becomes "the habitation of our safety." (William James) (Those in Alcoholics Anonymous understand.) There is "a resource of divine mercy which is able to overcome a contradiction within our souls, which we cannot ourselves overcome." (Reinhold Niebuhr)

As for love. In words cherished by Dorothy Day, Father Zossima (in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov) responds to an inquirer: "Are you speaking the truth? Well, now, after such a confession, I believe you are sincere and good at heart . . . . Above all, avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood, especially falseness to yourself. Watch over your own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute. Avoid being scornful, both to others and to yourself. What seems to you bad within you will grow purer from the very fact of your observing it in yourself. Avoid fear, too, though fear is only the consequence of every sort of falsehood. Never be frightened at your own faint-heartedness in attaining love. Don't be frightened over much even at your evil actions. I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed . . . with all looking on and applauding . . . . But I predict that just when you see . . . that in spite of all your efforts you are getting further from your goal instead of nearer to it -- at that very moment -- you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you."

As for how we may do our part in society -- "Let love be the motive and justice be the method." (Pope John XXIII)

And faith, hope and love? "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness." (Reinhold Niebuhr)

Prayer? (With W.H. Auden --) "Defenseless under the night/ Our world in stupor lies;/ Yet, dotted everywhere,/ Ironic points of light/ Flash out wherever the Just/ Exchange their messages:/ May I, composed like them/ Of Eros and of dust,/ Beleaguered by the same/ Negation and despair,/ Show an affirming flame."

In chapel, prayer may come last. But in the classroom, the world (and, often, in chapel too), questions contain strange benedictions. Certain questions -- if we really live with them -- can bring us to life. Kant's four great ones we do well to remember: How can I know? For what can I hope? What ought I do? What is it to be human? Do we recognize the answers we are giving -- to these next two?

"To whom or what am I responsible and in what community of interaction am I myself? (H. Richard Niebuhr) And always this question, from the third chapter of Genesis, addressed to me I know and, I believe, to us all: "Where are you?"