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In a book that addresses the meanings of education and the voices and wisdoms within us all, inspired alumni, colleagues and his wife Ruth have collected memorable sermons and lectures delivered by M. Holmes Hartshorne.

by John Morris

M. Holmes Hartshorne (known to his many friends as "Steve") was one of a group of Colgate’s outstanding teachers in the three decades following World War II. Most students who took one of Steve’s courses were in some way changed by the experience. It was not simply that the courses he taught were interesting and challenging. If you allowed your mind to become engaged with what he taught you questioned your life and your world. This engagement was important to him as a teacher. He would laugh at the thought that he might be called a scholar, even though his work on Kierkegaard shows a deep understanding of real scholarship. Scholarship for him seemed to involve distance between the important questions that a writer wanted to communicate and the reader. He was first and foremost a teacher concerned that the student should face the questions that the philosophers or theologians discussed.

To all his courses he brought his desire for his students to come face to face with the question of their own being. Through their encounters with the great minds of the past and the present they would gain a deeper knowledge of themselves. This was what a liberal arts education was about. In his 1987 Founders Day speech Hartshorne talked of the four years of leisure that lay before the students: "The fruition of that creative leisure is, I believe, the deepening of self-knowledge, so that one is no longer a stranger either to his world or to himself."

The intellectual probing in class presented deep challenges to one’s certainties. Hartshorne exposed the anxiety that underlay certainty and introduced the student to doubt. While his lectures elicited doubt, one was at the same time aware that the teacher also offered the kind of support that encouraged rather than denigrated one’s meager attempts at creating a world for oneself. He taught us much through the power of those doubts and anxieties, for he taught us that the truth about the world lay not in the perfection of what we can create in this world, but in the very fragility of what we in our own haphazard way had pieced together. He forced us to the edges of our certainties and made us look into the abyss.

Here we find the power of the other Steve Hartshorne — the preacher. His book of sermons shows us the prophetic critic alongside the one who looked for the meaning of the darkness of the abyss. In the darkness of our uncertainties it was his conviction that here we could encounter truth. In reading through his sermons one becomes aware of his desire to bring us that light that emerges from the darkness.

In his preaching, Hartshorne’s sense of occasion and his ability to touch his audience in the midst of their immediate concerns is apparent. His sermons were carefully prepared; they are meant to be spoken to a very particular audience at a particular time. Yet they speak beyond the occasion. That is their genius. His Baccalaureate Sermon, preached on June 1, 1975, when he retired as a full-time teacher at Colgate, speaks to this appropriately. The preacher and the students present at that occasion were about to leave Colgate, and their common experience — the intellectual adventure of their time at Colgate — makes the occasion. Embedded in that sermon are two deeply held facets of Hartshorne’s life and thought. First is his understanding that a liberal arts education brings one to think critically, radically such that the search for self-understanding is done with honesty and integrity. Second is his understanding of the Judeo-Christian prophetic tradition, which sees in the radical questioning of the certainties of our world the way in which we can be open to God’s approach to us. In this sermon the preacher does not give simple guidance from the old "gray head" with experience. Instead the preacher is one with them in seeking a common quest for a new future. Steve in this sermon shares the anxiety about the future and in that moment creates an experience filled with meaning.

Steve did not pontificate in his sermons, instead he made sense of the hard realities of human existence and helped bring the light of its very harshness open to our gaze. Commencement is an ending that is also a beginning, and in that sermon Steve celebrates and affirms his liberation from the past. At the same time, he affirms the same truth for the students who were looking anxiously to their future.

There is no sentimentality in Steve Hartshorne’s world. Sentimentality must hide from us the reality of the fragility of our world; as such it becomes a mechanism by which we hide from the truth of ourselves. Consequently, he reached out to his students in the classroom or in the Chapel, in a way that was strong and honest and filled with the recognition of the limits of humanity. But that reaching out was also an acceptance of the other, filled with the hope that the acceptance was reciprocated. In his preaching one could see that his teaching was not empty thought, abstract and unrelated to life. His teaching flowed from his own deep sense of the fragility of life, a recognition of the meaning of human life that came to him from the central symbol of his faith — the Cross. His teaching centered upon the meaning given to human existence through our encounter with the limits of existence. His preaching always started by asserting that when we are no longer able to avoid the reality of life, then we encounter truth, but then he always affirmed that it is here that we are met by the reality of God.

Hartshorne taught us much through his insight, integrity and perceptive questioning of the things that we take for granted.

He looked beyond the surface of life and probed our easily held assumptions and so he forced us to look beyond the self and beyond this transitory world. It was the character of this man, however, that he did not exempt himself from the agony of the search for truth in our ephemeral world. In one of his last sermons he said: "Maybe it will seem to you like pulling rank, but no matter, it’s a fact that I have lived a lot longer than most of you, and this means that I’ve spent many more years running from God than you. I’ve been hurt and resented it. I’ve been foolish and paid the price. I’ve tried to get God to see the error of his ways and to make my life more to my liking . . . None of it works, believe me" ("The Presence of God," a sermon preached on November 15, 1987). This honesty helped us to listen and sometimes gave us the wisdom to realize that it is not in searching for the certainties that might lie around the corner yet to be discovered, but in its acceptance of the reality we discover that it is God who seeks us.

Reading his sermons, preached in the Colgate Chapel over a span of 30 years, it is remarkable how clearly Steve’s voice and personality come through. The laughter appears in the sense of the absurd, the integrity in the honesty of self-appraisal, the perceptiveness of the man in the insight into the occasion to which he is speaking. These are words spoken to a time and a place, but they reverberate beyond that particular time and place to us today. These are words not to be scanned for a nostalgia for a time and a person no longer here. No one would be more horrified if that were the case than Steve Hartshorne himself. These words still have power to penetrate the mind and stir the heart. They invite us once again to reflect upon our lives and what we have made of them. They remind us of our debt to Colgate and what it gave and gives to each of us. They speak to us once again of how necessary the critical spirit is for us. Steve Hartshorne had a deep and profound respect for the college at which he taught for more than 30 years and his mind and spirit make it easy for us to understand why we honor Colgate still.

John S. Morris, former dean of the faculty and acting president at Colgate, is now interim president at New England College and Union College President Emeritus. Among his many degrees is a 1961 M.A. from Colgate.

Hartshorne Speaking is $13 (S&H) and can be ordered through:

Philosophy and Religion Department
Colgate University
13 Oak Drive
Hamilton, NY 13346