A Statement of Faith


By DR. JAMES B. CONANT, President, Harvard University

Baccalaureate Address, June 7, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 585-587.

GENTLEMEN of the Class of 1942: The exigencies of war have altered our traditional Commencement program. I understand that many of you will not be able to stay until Thursday morning when the degreesare formally bestowed. On that occasion, according to the ancient formula, it is the privilege of the President of the University to admit the class graduating from the College into the "fellowship of educated men." Therefore this morning I venture to set the clock ahead four days and welcome the members of the Class of 1942 into that ancient society, the traditional fellowship of educated men.

The significance of both the academic ritual of commencement and the phrase "fellowship of educated men" lies in the word fellowship. It is this word which denotes the link connecting all generations of Harvard graduates—connecting them with one another and with the graduates of all other American colleges. You who now graduate from Harvard enter, as it were, into a band of chosen men who have shared a certain experience. You have served your apprenticeship during the years of youth in contact with a great and living tradition based on the cultural inheritance of our civilization. From this experience provided for you by organized society you have derived benefits which will endure throughout your life. Recognizing the peculiar obligation placed upon you by these benefits received, you together with all members of the fellowship of educated men go forth now to place your talents at the disposal of your country.

To many generations the fulfillment of the obligation never takes the form of a clear-cut call for action; it is rather diffused throughout a man's career, intermingled with his personal responsibilities and ambitions. But to you of the Class of 1942, immediately upon graduation, and for a few still earlier, the country has turned for special service. For a time the imperious demands of a nation fighting a i desperate war must transcend all else. Throwing aside all other plans, casting aside for the moment hopes nurtured in the days of peace, you respond and each proceeds to take his appointed place in the vast national effort.

You entered this College in the days when the collective energies of the American people were so bent on peace that hardly a soul would admit the possibility of war. It has been no easy matter for a free people with a will to peace to become suddenly an embattled nation. To none has the transition been more difficult than to those who now leave our colleges to encounter the hazards of war itself. At this Commencement, therefore, I count it a special privilege to address you as members of the graduating class. I wish that to every one of you I could say a personal word. I wish that I could convey the understanding pride and confidence with which the College salutes you on this graduation day.

I have spoken of the link which connects one college generation with another. In the case of this College, the succession of these links, the chain of graduated classes, now spans exactly three hundred years. The members of the Class of 1642 were the first to receive the bachelor's degree, from the hands of Henry Dunster. From one point of view those first alumni of three centuries ago seem as remote as prehistoric man. Yet, viewed from another angle, the long interval of time appears to vanish. When the Class of 1642 graduated, a civil war was brewing in England. Half the members of that class crossed the seas to join with other Puritans whose victorious armies were to rule England for nearly twenty years. 1642 was a time of anxiety and trouble for Harvard men—a time that "tried men's souls." So was 1775, so was 1861, so was 1917, and so is 1942. The members of all the war classes in the history of Harvard are united by a special bond. For the questions which face young men in times of war have changed little in the course of three hundred years. All the material changes of the centuries and many of the cultural differences that separate one climate of opinion from another disappear when a crisis brings an individual face to face with the fundamental problems of human destiny.

Days of anguish and suffering are days when individuals, both young and old, must probe more deeply in their search for a solid foundation on which to build their faith. A philosophy of life sufficient for calm and uneventful periods is all too often inadequate in time of stress. To be sure, sooner or later most men have to reexamine the basic assumptions from which they direct their lives, they have to rethink their answers to the age-old questions arising when the stark facts of tragedy and evil suddenly obtrude. But for young men in particular, war compresses the normal span of years during which a satisfying outlook upon the world may be attained. Some answer must be found at once, some solidity achieved in a universe which seems to have exploded into chaos. Such being the case, the least that a person in my position can do is to try to speak honestly and frankly. One man's religion will rarely satisfy another. But a statement of a point of view may be of assistance to others in formulating their own beliefs. Therefore, I shall venture to try to outline the framework within which I believe a young American who has not subscribed to a formal creed may today find the faith that he requires.

"There are no atheists in fox-holes"—these words were used by a war correspondent writing from Bataan. They are typical of the United States of the twentieth century; no other age would have said so much by indirection. Affirmations of faith by earlier generations of Americans were bold and direct, though often couched in the narrow vocabulary of a special creed. Not so today. This is not an age when one wears the heart upon the sleeve. No Gallup poll can estimate the inner thoughts of the millions who constitute this nation. In these times few laymen venture to think out loud on questions which once were heatedly debated up and down the land. Religious toleration has by necessity driven theological controversy underground. Indeed, in many quarters it is thought to be un-American even to inquire as to a man's religion. But it is easy to mistake a changing mode of expression for a fundamental alteration in men's hearts. I venture to believe that even today, not only under enemy fire but under any circumstances of a desperate and gruelling nature, few atheists would be found in any group born and bred in the American tradition.

Some of you may well challenge this statement. Let me, therefore, explain what I have in mind. In the first place, experience seems to show that few men will fight fiercely against desperate odds unless they are imbued with a living faith. In the second place, for nine men out of ten such faith must arise from the background of their lives—it must be indigenous to the society they defend. And it would be my contention that for most of the American people today the final answers to the questions propounded by the facts of life and death must be in terms that no atheist would admit. For a vast majority of us the answers will involve the basic tenets of Christianity, even for those who do not count themselves as members of any church. For, to my mind, the whole development of the American conception of democracy has been conditioned by the existence throughout our history of a powerful religious tradition. In the earlier years of the evolution of what we call the American way of life, this driving religious force came predominantly from the dissenting Protestant sects. Therefore, I shall speak of the historical religious tradition as the Spirit of the Reformation. In opposition to this religious current there flowed an ever-increasing secular stream of thought and action. This antithetical force was the bold, adventurous self-assured belief in man's capacity to aid himself—the Spirit of the Renaissance. Out of the conflict of these two—the Spirit of the Reformation and the Spirit of Renaissance— has come a synthesis; the American belief in democracy, aform of government which both guarantees the integrity of the individual soul and allows man's potential capacities to develop to the full.

Perhaps I may illustrate the struggle between the Spirit of the Renaissance and the Spirit of the Reformation by a famous Harvard story. It is usually told to illustrate that bygone age when university administration was an intensely personal concern of a college president. Emerson Hall was in process of construction. The design included an inscription on the north facade over the doorway leading to Sever and Robinson Halls. The Department of Philosophy had decided that this inscription should read, "Man is the measure of all things," speaking in the Spirit of the Renaissance. But President Eliot quietly decided otherwise. When the professors returned from the summer vacation they found the building essentially complete, and cut into the stone were the words: "What is man that Thou art mindful of him?" Now this story may well be apocryphal, but I cherish it none the less. For the two famous quotations which are made to contend for the place of honor symbolize the two great cultural streams which together have made the America in which we live.

The Puritans who founded this College were bent on eliminating from their religion every vestige of magic and superstition. For that contribution to the evolution of American thought many of us honor them today. From the cross currents of other dissenting sects and as a strange transformation of puritan dogma itself came the idea of religious toleration and the reaffirmation of the spiritual basis of individual freedom. For these elements in our national life, all who understand the nature of the present struggle must pay a tribute of deep gratitude.

In the course of the nineteenth century came the industrial revolution and with it increasing optimism. Not merely optimism about material progress but a Utopian philosophy became generally accepted. To men who in their lifetime had seen the modern age of machine develop, nothing seemed impossible. To them and their children there appeared to be no limit to what man might accomplish, no limit to the extent to which he might transform the universe materially, socially, ethically, spiritually. As has been said, the twentieth century of America renounced a belief in all miracles save one, the most miraculous of all—the rapid and complete transformation of man himself. It was as if one generalized about the weather from the experience of a sunny day.

To some who view the present chaos in the light of the follies of the last twenty years, no small measure of blame must be laid at the door of the prevalent Utopian philosophy. One has only to recall the slogan, "War to end war" and the famous pact to outlaw war to illustrate the point. Surely the history of the United States from 1917 to 1941 shows how the Utopian philosophy may defeat the very movements it would foster. Dreams based on a misconception of a total situation are bound to produce a severe reaction. When impossible ideals are set before men's minds, no harvest except bitter disillusionment and cynicism can be expected.

The danger exists again today. We are fighting to defend human liberty and render secure the American way of life. We desire to prevent the recurrence of a devastating worldwide struggle every generation. We want and expect to have the United States a better place to live in when the war is over. Limited objectives we must set. But let us proceed cautiously in painting too rosy a picture of the world or even of the United States after the war is over. Modern civilization will be hard pressed, indeed, if another era of cynicism is the product of Utopian war aims of this struggle!

Let me make it clear that in finding fault with the Utopian philosophy of the last forty years I am no defeatist as tohuman hopes. I am confident that in your lifetime you will see a new flowering of those aspirations which were expressed by the founders of the Republic. It seems to me possible to hold the balance even between the optimistic Spirit of Renaissance which sets no bounds to man's ambitions and the spiritual forces of the Reformation. And by holding such a balance, I believe the spiritual values basic to American democracy may be maintained and strengthened.

But, on the other hand, it seems to me evident that man's nature is such that all men at some time and some men at all times will feel and behave not as though they were true Christians but as though they were devils incarnate. To my mind, it is the first duty of an individual to oppose such thoughts and behavior either within himself or in other men. To the extent that a man does this he has courage which is good; to the extent that he does not he is a coward and that is bad. I use the absolutes good and bad without apology. For when it comes to passing a value judgment on courage and the lack of it, even the most hardened cynic, the most confirmed relativist in the field of morals will hardly dissent from the verdict of all ages.

To my mind, the Utopians who foresee the future in terms of a world made perfect by technology and the applied social sciences or those who believe in a complete spiritual regeneration of a majority of men are equally mistaken. The facts of history and of human nature to me speak of a universe constructed on totally different principles. The problem of evil seems to be as ever present as the air we breathe. Why this should be, I do not pretend to know; nor do I believe that man will ever fully understand, though he must never cease to try.

If I may speak personally, for me the whole story of human history would be only a "tale told by an idiot" and my life and yours would be totally devoid of meaning if its prime significance lay in the visible results of an individual's or a nation's actions. In terms of my faith it is unthinkable to say, as some have said, that men died in vain in certain wars because the proclaimed objective was never won. To me whether a man lives or dies in vain can never be measured by the collective activity of his fellows, never by the fruits of war or peace. It can be measured only by the way he faces his own problems, by the success or failure of the inner conflict within his soul. And of this no one may know save God.

For centuries Christians have quarreled as to the answer to the question: "What is man that Thou art mindful of him?" and I am inclined to think they will continue to disagree on this subject for many generations more. But it is the assertion implied in this question, not the answer, that is basic to any faith. And it is this assertion that gives significance to the individual, that makes imperative human liberty, the very cause for which we fight. As a man views the past record of the human race and grapples with his own problems, as he strives to find the good and combat the evil, as he gains spiritual strength one day and loses it another, as he drives forward with all his power yet realizing his inadequacies, he must say with Job, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him."

Gentlemen, I realize that in attempting to speak freely to you, I have both oversimplified the problem and trespassed on areas properly reserved for theologians. I have spoken in terms of war. But when you return to the ways of peace, you will have no less need for a solution of the eternal problem of human destiny. You will have no less need for a militant faith. Superstition and cynicism, the ever-present selfishness and cruelty of man will be ready to challenge your strength. For the struggle is never-ending. May you have wisdom, skill, and courage in the days to come.