Commencement Address

The Immediacy of Sacred Things
Aaron Rhodes '71
Reed College, May 13, 2002

Aaron Rhodes imageThank you, and congratulations to this graduating class and their families.

I would like to talk to you today about learning, about the struggle for intellectual seriousness, about maintaining contact with profound ideas, and about why these problems are important in my own line of work, which is protecting human rights.

Let me start, dear graduating seniors, with saying something about my own ambivalent feelings about Reed College.

Let us be frank: this is not an institution we can recall as a normal, comfortable home. Being from Reed does not give one the kind of institutional identity or badge one can wear with simple and unambiguous pride. What we have, is the prospect of a future of intellectual restlessness, searching. If you have gotten what this place can give you, you know what intellectual torment is like. And you also know the taste of what my friend John Silber called "the nobility and grandeur of intellectual life." Properly understood, that life is often not fun. It is an ambitious project to bring young people close to the clear, burning flame with no pretty shades, no buffers or filters. Some get burned?they get too close; they don?t have the ego strength to handle it, or they get lost in a territory too big for them. Some, faced with freedom and knowledge, turn away into dissipation and escapism, hide in subcultures. I don?t know how it is now, but in the year I came here as a sophomore, half of our class dropped out. Of course, that was psychedelic 1968. I did not leave with any plan for what I would do next, but I left Reed with a mind full of general questions and ideas?not answers?a mental and spiritual backpack I knew how to keep full, because of what happened to me here. Sometimes that backpack will feel heavy; sometimes it will demand replenishing. But you and your families will never regret the effort and the commitment it took to get it.

Institutions and ideas live in an uneasy interdependency. Ideas need institutions to survive, but institutions, while they provide the mechanism to preserve and transmit ideas, also tend to degrade ideas, pollute them and dilute them. Over the generations, more and more people come into conversations, and we lose track of the original meanings of things; we think in meta-theories and we become distracted by the fads of the day. False prophets announce the coming of new ages, where the old notions don?t apply anymore. But the high priests of orthodoxy cling to traditions, sometimes in rigid or even corrupt ways that turn off new generations. Intellectual environments where respect for tradition coexists with, and is even nurtured by, a sense of immediacy and inspiration, by the moral charisma and courage of people searching for truth?those are rare indeed.

Thinking back, and wearing the rose-colored censorship eye-glasses of nostalgia, it seems Reed was remarkably free of philistinism, that there was something raw and authentic in the air?in addition to the smell of pot. It was all about prophecy, revolution, rituals, and symbols, what Spinoza said about God, determinism, paradigm shifts, class analysis. One of those big ideas, from Max Weber, was the notion of the routinization of charisma. An idea emerges in a charismatic moment, through a prophetic figure who manages to achieve immediacy with the divine, with something central, something sacred. But in the process of rationalization, teaching, unpacking the idea and breaking it into parts, interpretation, and exegesis; in the process of its becoming embedded in tradition, a church-like institutional structure like sedimentary rock builds up around it, and it loses its revolutionary and transformative power. It becomes part of the structure of authority; it becomes de-mystified. And then we need a new prophet. Because we need to break down that distance between us and the sacred.

Embedded with a sense of the tragic and drab consequences of modernity, that idea almost hypnotized us and still presents itself as more than an abstraction, rather something vivid and challenging. We study that idea, but the idea also describes the very process by which we study, our own quest for immediacy with sacred things. The idea has thus an endless, reflexive echo. At Reed we confront texts, primary sources. We try to keep contact with the fundamentals. We try to keep the institution from becoming too institutionalized, too routinized. We try to ignore much of the clever, complex intellectual static of the ages, to get down to the nitty gritty. But of course, that is not entirely possible. We are all children of our time and place, and trying to escape from history is part of the drama of trying to learn. That is why, I think, this is not such a comfortable place, but rather a place that is alive, and a place about which we have ambivalent feelings, feelings like people have about those things that are most central for them, feelings we have, perhaps, for the sacred. We should not shy away from the sense that in such an institution, where at least some achieve immediacy with transcendent things, that we are on sacred ground, ground on which people feel fear, joy, reverence, and awe.

The field of human rights is one in which the problem of the routinization of charisma has taken a terrible toll. In my experience, working with human rights groups all over Europe and the former Soviet Union, and with international institutions like the United Nations and the Council of Europe, the basic questions about human rights are not discussed much or apparently even of concern. Hardly anyone (including me, by the way) can even come up with a satisfactory definition of human rights; hardly anyone asks why human rights exist or are important, as human rights becomes more and more part of the machinery of governments and more and more of a profession for technicians, indeed, "technicians without spirit." Hardly anyone seems to "hear the music," or to miss hearing it. Where do human beings get their dignity, the dignity as individuals that state authorities ought not violate? If we do not understand that, we cannot make convincing arguments for human rights protections.

The relationship between religion and human rights is something most of the human rights community seems to want to avoid. Several years ago I spoke to an audience in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. I said that as far as I knew, human rights were not based just on laws and political declarations?on the Helsinki Accords, on the European Convention on Human Rights, on the United Nations Declaration of 1948, on our Declaration of Independence, or the Magna Carta. The idea of human rights is deeply embedded in our cultural tradition and in the common tradition shared by Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and its roots can be seen in other traditions as well. The idea of human rights emerged especially in relation to monotheism. It cannot be separated from the belief in a transcendent order, which imposes obligations on political arrangements. The idea of human rights formed in relation to the belief that if all men are subjects of one transcendent God, then no earthly king can justly exert full power over us?that there is a space around each person that cannot be violated, the space in which we find our relationship with God, our sovereignty, the space in which the sacredness of personality flourishes. Furthermore, being all subjects of a transcendent universal power, we are thus by definition equal with one another, and we owe to one another the respect due to an equal.

There you have several core human rights ideas that come directly from Mosaic law. I thought it was interesting that in Sarajevo, which used to be a truly multi-confessional city with Christian, Muslim, and Jewish citizens and leaders, many seemed interested in thinking about human rights as part of a common religious tradition, a part that could bring people together now, today. But in general, to bring up the notion of the religious roots of human rights doctrine seems to make the secular community of practitioners rather nervous, because they fear the divisiveness of religion. They fear mixing religious questions up with questions that seem to be addressed by international legal commitments and national laws, secular instruments that can be embraced by all. Such fears are not without justification. But the problem is that laws and treaties will never be sufficient to protect people from violations of their rights. No amount of so-called "human rights education" will penetrate into popular consciousness if it is disconnected from the power of moral obligations and sympathies. And if no compelling understanding of the moral foundations of human rights law exists, or if that understanding is hollow and weak, tragic abuses of people?s freedom and sovereignty, and the destruction of civil society and human potential, will continue.

My friends, I am afraid that the field of human rights lacks immediacy with the moral and religious traditions from which it emerged. I am afraid we are not cultivating the philosophical and moral roots of a culture that respects reason and the sanctity of life, a universal culture in which all hearts could find a home. I think institutions like Reed College contribute to improving human rights by bringing young scholars into immediate contact with fundamental moral ideas from our tradition, which are the basis for human rights protections. And I hope, therefore, that as graduates of this school, you will be people who not only believe in human rights, but also know why.

Thanks for inviting me to your commencement.

Read Aaron Rhodes' Biography