The College and the Cross by Owen Strachan


The College and the Cross

An Address to the McKeen Study Center on its Opening

Owen Strachan


            Some years ago, in his iconoclastic 1978 Harvard College commencement address, novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn offered the following diagnosis of the world:

If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge: We shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.

Solzhenitsyn covered a great deal of ground in his message. This closing thought reflected his view that the West, as with all the globe, found itself in a spiritual crisis. The “spiritual being” of mankind was “trampled upon.” Humanity, in the Russian’s mind, had never been more free of moral constraint, and yet never more weighed-down in spirit.

            We move ahead over 35 years later. Solzhenitsyn is not among us. But we live in an age when his dichotomy seems to hold. This is a period of unparalleled prosperity. Poverty has been reduced all across the world; living standards have never been higher. Hans Rosling has showed by way of charts and graphs that life expectancy has shot upward in the last 200 hundred years. Yet young people in the West still are weighed-down.

We may illustrate this condition by reference to photography. That which we visually record seems to reflect our view of life-as-it-is, with things shading toward life-as-it-should-be. Some of you, like me, have wasted time on There, you see the American family in all its ugly-sweatered glory. For very little reason discernible to the viewer, families pile on top of one another in strange pyramids. They stage shots on the couch and for factors unrevealed to the website visitor, bury one child underneath pillows, and look on with embarrassment-bordering-on-torture as Dad and Mom enjoy an all-too-passionate anniversary kiss.

And yetand yet—there is something profoundly right about the Awkward Family Photo. Compare it to its modern photo-visual cousin, the “Selfie.” A lone subject stands isolated from anyone else, wearing a look that is either too chipper or too disconcerting, separated from fellow human beings save for the occasional photobomber. The selfie is bereft of awkwardness, generally, but also of that common generator of awkwardness: family. Friends. Others. We have seen the future, and it is us, uploading airbrushed selfies to Facebook, the sad digital chain binding us to one another only as those who are lonely, lonely together.

This little digression underscores the modern condition, I think, and in particular the modern condition of the young. In his movie Damsels in Distress, the auteur filmmaker Whit Stillman features one young liberal-arts college student reflecting on society today:

Violet: Do you know what's the major problem in contemporary social life? The tendency to always seek someone cooler than yourself.

This is a humorous quotation, but it speaks to a real challenge. The self today has suffered fragmentation. We have little sense of how our emotions fit with our intellect, and how our rational side interacts with our aesthetic bent, and how we are to channel our spiritual instincts in a world that celebrates the convulsive power of the arts but looks askew at transcendence and its claims.

            This is true not only for the individual, but for the defining institution of many an American young person’s young life: the college. What is college to be? William Deresiewicz, formerly a professor of Yale University, has recently started a major conversation with his book Excellent Sheep. Deresiewicz calls for universities and colleges to stop focusing on the bottom line and to start producing students who are “more interesting, more curious, more open, and far less entitled and competitive.” Stephen Pinker of Harvard responded to this line of thought and reiterated the view that schools are not primarily in the business of character formation, but cognitive training. Still others, as David Brooks of the New York Times pointed out, would see the purpose of the college as a credential by which to win a job in a competitive marketplace.

            This much is clear today: there is not presently a clear vision either of who the self is or of what the college is. These are major challenges in American life and society today. They call for further thinking and reflection. But my purpose in the limited time that remains is not to think through the strengths and weaknesses of the modern college. It is instead to consider what a fledgling institution like the McKeen Study Center may provide to the modern college, and more specifically, to the community known as Bowdoin College.


            Let me start this section with a few biographical comments. Bowdoin is in my blood. My grandfather, Ralph Strachan, is an alumnus of this august institution. He served his country in World War II and became an executive with Shaw’s Grocery. He and my grandmother, Faith, a graduate of Radcliffe College, provided me with an entrée to the world of excellent New England academic schools. My other grandfather, Daniel Dustin, a manager at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in the areas of national defense and radar technology, was a graduate—I hesitate to say—of Bates College, as was my mother. My father studied at Colby before thinking better of it and graduating from UMaine-Orono.

            I went to Machias Memorial High School, a 160-student public school in Washington County, Maine. It was three hours but a long way from Bowdoin. I can still recall the thrill I received when I came home from classes one day and was told by my father that there was an envelope for me on the kitchen table. Sure enough, underneath the day's copy of the Bangor Daily News was not a slim envelope, but a thick one. It contained my letter of acceptance to Bowdoin, and a ticket to a very different environment than the one from which I came.

            I came to Bowdoin expecting--let me stop there. In 1999, as an eighteen-year-old, I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting. I knew it would be tough, and it was. Eddie Glaude, now of Princeton, famously marked a point on the initial papers of his students at which he said, “I’ll stop reading here.” I took Paul Franco and had very little sense of how to engage in political theory. I did not know what political theory was, but I wrote a paper for him scolding Machiavelli for being shrewd. I learned not only in the demanding and personally stretching Bowdoin classrooms, but in the basement of Hyde Hall. After smelling my laundry, scattered about while drying in our common room, my roommate kindly informed me that No, the cleaning device did not naturally pump soap into the wash. One had to use Tide for that. So it was that Bowdoin opened my eyes to a veritable world of discovery, a harvest of fresh and soap-related wisdom.

            I loved Bowdoin. I do to my core today. I found much material and teaching that challenged me. But I also very much enjoyed the diversity, the pluralism, as I came to realize. It was fun to debate and discuss. It was enjoyable to be around peers who liked thinking and reading. Plus, there was all kinds of basketball to play. But despite my enjoyment of the college, I also found myself floundering. I had grown up going to church, and I loved Jesus Christ, but I had not sunk deep roots in the church. Over the years at Bowdoin, several very close friends came alongside me and encouraged to wholeheartedly pursue the Lord. I attended Berean Baptist Church and profited from the preaching and the kind fellowship. I was thankful for the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the friends and leadership of Will Truesdell, and I reaped benefit from it.

            My environment shaped me and drew me closer to God. I know now as then that each of these blessings were vital for spiritual growth: the local church, close friends, a gathering point for believers and those curious about Christianity. Here, today, there is another major resource for Bowdoin students. It is the Joseph McKeen Study Center. It is led by Rob and Sim Gregory, a man and woman of profound faith and courage. What may this Study Center provide to Bowdoin students, those just like me some fifteen years ago, walking among the Whispering Pines, shopping at Freeport, getting ice cream at Cote’s, and asking of themselves, Who am I?

            In the time that remains, let me suggest four gifts the Study Center may offer young Polar Bears.

            First, a big vision of God. The medieval university was founded on the idea of coherence—there was “one truth” that united all the disciplines of the school. For many Christians over the years, this one truth is found preeminently in God as revealed in Holy Scripture. This God is not limited or small, distant or unconcerned. This God is glorious, unity in diversity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is the privilege of the McKeen Study Center to introduce students who do not know this God, and have not encountered the crucified and risen Christ, to him. The great end of theology and of life, French Reformer John Calvin once said, is to know God and from that starting point to know ourselves. The linkage is unmistakable and intentional. It is only in studying him that we may know ourselves.

            Second, an enchanted view of humanity. Christianity offers mankind the vision of life it wants but cannot find. We discover our essence neither in the all-is-one philosophy of the pagans nor the science-is-everything of the rationalists. The McKeen Center stands on the bedrock of Scripture, and Scripture gives us a breathtaking foundation for the dignity and worth of all people: we are the “image of God” according to Genesis 1:26-27. There is a tremendous conversation going on in the West today about what it means to be human. Christians may make a friendly contribution to this discussion that is second-to-none, because it is divinely rendered. We may make clear that we are all, old or young, born or unborn, healthy or infirm, the special creation of Almighty God. Here is grounds for loving all people, glorying in diversity, and serving one another. We are, together, God’s own likeness.

            Third, a propulsive view of salvation. Our world might think it is no longer interested in ultimate salvation. God is dead; salvation is outmoded, goes the thinking. But it is not so. At the popular level, one superhero franchise after another features a digitized savior figure. Things get bad, the planet’s very existence is threatened, and then the hero shows up. There are also quieter echoes of this hunger for redemption. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom features a thoroughly imperfect husband and wife who divorce, come to hate one another, and eventually watch as life strips away their comforts and consolation. In the end, Franzen pictures the husband, Walter, as returning to his native Minnesota. His girlfriend has tragically died. His ex-wife, Patty, sits on the doorstep of the home Walter returns to. The weather is frigid. He says nothing to her when he enters the house. He hates her.

            But then something happens in Walter. He recognizes this woman not as a despised object, but as his wife, as a human being, as someone in need. She is cold, terribly cold, cold to the point of death. She found in herself the strength to come to Walter’s house, but she has no strength left. She depends on him. Walter brings her inside the house.

He turned up the furnace and brought her a mug of hot water and made her sit up to take a drink, but she blew it right back onto the upholstery. When he tried to give her a second drink, she shook her head and made vague noises of resistance. Her fingers were icy, her arms and shoulders dully cold. ... all at once, her eyes were wide open and she was looking into him. ... he could feel her getting warmer by the minute.

And so he stopped looking at her eyes and started looking into them, returning their look before it was too late, before this connection between life and what came after life was lost, and her see all the vileness inside him, all the hatreds of two thousand solitary nights, while the two of them were still in touch with the void in which the sum of everything they'd ever said or done, every pain they'd inflicted, every joy they'd shared, would weigh less than the smallest feather on the wind.

"It's me," she said. "Just me."

"I know," he said, and kissed her.

Franzen, we see, is keenly interested in salvation, albeit of a human-to-human kind. There is in this scene the hope of redemption, of things being made right, of people who have embraced pain and anger and dissolution as a way of life coming to life. We might have to look a bit harder in our day for the desire for salvation, but it is surely there.

            The McKeen Center offers the hope of grace. In concert with local churches in this area, it preaches a gospel of total transformation. People today are disillusioned with Protestant churches. They offer tips and tools and stories and jokes. They feature nice people who smile warmly at visitors. But they do not seem to offer anymore a gospel that can lift the soul out of darkness into light. This gospel is here. It is real. It saves. It is the reason that Joseph McKeen came to lonely Bowdoin many years ago to teach a class of eight students in drafty Massachusetts Hall. It is the reason this center, commissioned in his name, exists today. Jesus Christ was crucified for our redemption and resurrected for our vindication. He is not far off. He is near.

            A holistic picture of flourishing. We become fully alive not when we sin, when we embrace our carnal appetites, but when divine grace lays hold of us and remakes us. This grace-in-action awakens us to the beauty of this world, the true beauty of this place. We come to understand why we have bodies and minds and feelings. These things are not disconnected from one another. They are meant to sing in harmony. Our bodies are not made for anonymous gratification of our lusts; they are made for worship of God and service in his vineyard. Our minds are not made only to calculate and create, but to think after God, and to experience the thrill of studying him and the world he has made. Our feelings are not made to rule us, to send us into despair, but to connect us to mystical things, things beyond us, things that we yearn for but cannot locate in ourselves.

            The McKeen Center is a place that offers shelter to the body, stimulus to the mind, and warmth to the feelings. It is here and in every place that proclaims Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior that the modern self, disintegrated and barely hanging together, may find a unified vision of personal flourishing. There is little hope in our world today. This place exists because of it, and for it.


            We should conclude. I expect that students of many kinds and backgrounds will find more here, in this place, than I have described. They will experience life-giving hospitality, deep-rooted encouragement, and perhaps above all else, sound biblical instruction. This is, after all, the McKeen Study Center. There is rich scriptural grounding for such a program. I love the way the King James renders Paul’s words to his charge, Timothy, in 2 Timothy 2:15: “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” This counsel to a young pastor need not be confined to future ministers; it speaks to the power of study in the life of a Christian. We have a book. We have a God. We should get to know God through his book. It is in study, in the accrual of knowledge, that we begin to ascend upward to God, and—though we hesitate to say so—by which we come to know him.

            We should love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, as we read in Matthew 22:37. Jesus, the one who formed each of these faculties, has called us through the ages to devote them to him. The McKeen Study Center exists to speed students along in this pursuit.

            We began with one wise man’s words. Alexander Solzhenitsyn called in his Harvard address for courage. The need for this virtue has not died out in our day. If Christians will have something to offer their friends to study, they must have courage. Nothing is falling in shorter supply today; nothing is more desperately needed. We think of the name given to the students of Jesus, apostle, "witness." To be a witness requires courage, the courage not simply to give off the air of being a Christian, but the courage of clearing one's throat, feeling one's heart speed up, and speaking.

           They must have courage, but not only this. They must enjoy the blessing of Almighty God. One wise man saw this over 200 hundred years ago. In his inaugural presidential address, Joseph McKeen said this to the eight students arrayed before him in 1802:

And now let me entreat all good men here present, who wish to see their fellow citizens enlightened, virtuous, free, and happy, to exert the portion of influence which they possess, in favor of this infant institution; and to unite in fervent supplication to the great Father of light, knowledge, and all good, that his blessing may descend upon this seminary; that it may eminently contribute to the advancement of useful knowledge, the religion of Jesus Christ, the best interests of man, and the glory of God.

As at the inauguration of the first president of Bowdoin College, so we pray at the inauguration of the McKeen Study Center. May his blessing descend upon this new work, and may it spill over to the good of Bowdoin College, and to the glory of our great God.