Excellence in a World Gone Mad

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This is my commencement address for the Logos Online graduates.

It is a time-honored custom, hoary with age, for commencement speakers to inform you graduates, and doing so quite solemnly, that the “future lies before you.” Let me give you a minute to write that down.

When May and June approach, in academic communities the air grows thick with such bromides, cliches, platitudes, banalities, and other assorted propositional sedatives. They swarm like mosquitoes, and while you can sometimes get used to it, it can get really bad when those mosquitoes start crossbreeding with the turkeys. The same kind of thing is true with regard to commencement speeches. The mosquitoes of cliched commonplaces can be somewhat tolerable . . . until they start breeding with the turkeys of intersectional wokeness.

And so my aspiration here, weather permitting, is to provide you with a commencement address that you might actually find useful. Under this heading, my first rule would be to urge you to avoid overdone metaphors. Actually, that’s not my first rule. That would be hypocritical.

I wanted to speak to you about the need to strive for actual excellence, not pretend excellence. This is where we get serious. Proverbs says this:

“Do you see a man who excels in his work? He will stand before kings; He will not stand before unknown men.”

Proverbs 22:29 (NKJV)

Now this proverb is assuming an ordinary world, a sinful world to be sure, but still an ordinary world. This is a world in which the bell curve dominates, in which cream rises, and in which excellent artisans stand before kings.

But unfortunately, you are not being graduated into that kind of ordinary world. In such an ordinary world, the fastest runner wins the race. Because of sin, he is sometimes too pleased with himself for having done so, and sometimes other runners cheat in order to win, and sometimes the timekeepers fail at their jobs, and so on. In ordinary world, sins and mistakes and errors handicap all of our races in numerous ways.

You, however, are not being graduated into an ordinary world. You are being graduated into a world gone apparently mad. Under the sovereign pleasure of God, you have the privilege of coming of age in a time when our rulers and authorities, princes and presidents, opinion makers and media moguls, faculty members and college presidents, and all the rest of that lot, have all gone barking mad.

Perhaps you think I overstate my case a mite, but within living memory a nominee to the Supreme Court was actually confirmed without being able to say what a woman is. The whole world treated a really bad flu season like it was the seventeenth horseman of the Apocalypse. A dude swimmer is blowing away all his female competition because certain lunatic officials decided, on nothing more than his say so, that he was a female also. Politicians tell you they are fighting inflation by printing more money. It is sometimes hard to figure out what is going on, and it is difficult to keep track of all the stories, but what is happening really does rhyme with bonkers.

So you have a problem before you. Cream rises in ordinary world, but what is cream supposed going to do in this one? It may seem to some of you that the authorities have outlawed both cream and rising. They have attached penalties to excellence, calling it whiteness or some other felony, and so what are you supposed to do?

My exhortation to you is going to be straightforward and really simple. Remain cream. Despite local aberrations and rebellions, creational milk remains what it is, creational cream remains what it is, and rising will continue to happen. God remains on His throne, and it is our responsibility to remember that.

So look around you at this world gone mad, and hear this. You have my permission to refuse to get used to this. This is a period. This is a phase. This too will pass.

Such a refusal is not only lawful, it is also wise. A steadfast refusal, an ongoing refusal to acclimatize to the current madness, is exactly what you must maintain. But why? The answer is found in my reasons for maintaining that this spasm is not a permanent condition. Our culture is going through a grand mal seizure, but it will pass. This kind of thing has happened before in history, and careful students of history have seen this particular patient in the ER before. This is not the first time.

The ancient poet Horace put his finger on the problem: Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret. “You can drive out nature with a pitchfork, yet she will hurry right on back.” Another way of saying this is that reality is not optional. The world the way God made it is like one of those inflatable punching clowns, always coming back straight at you, or like one of those glass tumblers that cannot be successfully laid on its side. Reality is like that. You can spill the wine, but not for long.

In the grip of this kind of frenzy, someone can sincerely believe that he is capable of flying, and in that condition he can go jump off a bridge. And for a few moments, he can really have the sensation of flying. He can rejoice in his flight, and he can think himself vindicated in the eyes of his critics. But he cannot fly, and reality is not optional.

There are many places where you graduates might go from here—the military, the corporate world, the secular university—and unless that place is governed by believing Christians, you will there be told the most absurd things. Moreover, you will be commanded to applaud these absurdities. And despite their belligerence, the ones issuing these decrees are not confident at all because they know how fragile their whole enterprise is. This is why they insist that you all clap and cheer on command.

But here is where the testing point comes. I said to you earlier that my exhortation for you was to stay cream. I need to expand that. Here it is. Have the courage to stay cream.

C.S. Lewis says somewhere that courage is not so much a separate virtue as it is the testing point of all the virtues. It does not matter how much you understand if your understanding folds under pressure. It does not matter how much you know if your knowledge collapses when threatened. Now the people you will be up against do not know how to reason. They do not know how to think. But they do know how to threaten.

But here is another thing they don’t know how to do. They don’t know how to respond when anyone stands up to them. Bullies often have a long career because no one ever stands up to them. But the first time someone stands up to them, the game is over.

Taking the likely averages, you young people have seventy or so years ahead of you. The current frenzy is likely to be no more than six or seven percent of that entire time, and you do not want to spend your latter years lamenting the fact that you rolled over when time revealed that you did not have to.

So be strong and courageous (Josh. 1:7). Gird up the loins of your mind (1 Pet. 1:13). Acquit yourselves like men (1 Cor. 16:13).

What you have been given is extremely valuable. Treat it like it is valuable. Defend it. Fight for it. Stand up for it. Cling to it. Be jealous for it. A lot of people sacrificed in order to give this education to you, and they did so with the full expectation that you would sacrifice in a similar way in order to keep what they have given you.

Your education was not provided to you in order to keep you from battle. Your education was given to you in order to fit you out for the battle that your parents knew was inevitably coming. Each generation has its own battles, and each generation needs to look to the past for examples of courage, but also to look to the living Spirit of God for the encouragement that sustains you in the present battles.

You have made it to this point. You have come to graduation. You have done well. But you have not done well so that you could be done doing well. That’s not how it works. You have carried a heavy load, and well done. You are about to be given a heavier load. But it is not aimless, it is not pointless. As my son once told his mother, “Mom, baskets of fruit are heavy.”

Let me conclude with the lesson that Shasta learned in The Horse and His Boy.

“And he writhed inside at what seemed the cruelty and unfairness of the demand. He had not yet learned that if you do one good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one. But all he said out loud was: ‘Where is the King?’”

The Horse and His Boy, Loc. 5763

I am not trying to rain on your joy. I want your joy to make it all the way to harvest, and if you want a golden August, you should be content with a little rain in June.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.