“Each one of us is a tangled web of life experiences, hopes, dreams, fears, and passions,” Erskine College and Seminary President Dr. David Norman told assembled students, professors, staff members and guests at the school’s Formal Opening Convocation Sept. 8. “But God has called us to be here, right now, together.”
Norman spoke during the worship service in the Due West Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Alluding to Erskine’s mission “to equip students to flourish,” Norman said rhetoric about human flourishing is usually “happy and optimistic” but “can sound a bit fluffy,” so he took as his topic “The Other Side of Human Flourishing.”
The president said he believes he did get one thing right in his first formal opening address last year—“If we try to be a community that exists for its own sake, we are wasting our time.”
Last year Norman laid out his vision for Erskine, focusing on academic integrity, financial sustainability, and service to the poor. This year, spotlighting the element of service, he said academic communities “try to offset their elitist tendencies” by using a system of service to run alongside the academic program.
But even in such well-intentioned efforts, real service to the poor is often replaced by “a self-righteous system of résumé building” or “some shallow form of charity that dehumanizes the poor by putting a thin whitewash over the tomb of injustice,” the president said.
“And that is why, although I talk about service to the poor a lot, I haven’t rushed off to start some new program or system of quick fixes to long-term problems,” he said.
Instead, a task force commissioned by the president will offer proposals based on “their year of listening and learning,” he said. “I believe that together, if we are smart about it, we can authentically address some of the bad things we see around us.”
Norman recounted the story of a wealthy friend who began to understand service to the poor in light of Jesus’ call to “take up your cross.” His comfortable life was no longer enough. “He began to see a whole new dimension of Christ’s deep, authentic, and crazy kind of love.”
Considering how his friend’s lesson might be applied to Erskine as an “authentically Christian liberal arts community,” Norman said his three-word response would be “I don’t know,” summarizing about 90 percent of the answer.
“I’m not giving up on an answer,” he explained. “I really think that ‘I don’t know’ is the answer. If we can’t admit that we don’t know, we can never learn anything. And if we think we have it all figured out, we are stuck up in our irrelevant ivory tower again. This is an intellectual aspect of service to the poor.”
Then Norman homed in on his message. “Here is the really, really beautiful thing about the other side of human flourishing: when we identify ourselves with the poor, we join the community that most urgently seeks God’s blessing,” he said.
“And whether that community of seekers is defined in spiritual, physical or intellectual terms, we recognize our utter dependence on God and on each other,” he continued.
Such a community is blessed by a whole new dimension of love—“that crazy kind” that Norman’s wealthy friend discovered.
Taking up the pulpit Bible, Norman read the account in Luke 18 of “the rich young ruler” who is seeking eternal life and says he has kept all the commandments since his youth. Jesus tells him, “…sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.”
Jesus’ response to the man’s unwillingness to give up his possessions is his famous description of how difficult it is for a rich man to enter heaven—“it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye.”
Norman said the passage that immediately precedes the story of the rich young man—“Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein”— represents the overall principle the story illustrates.
“That is the message I really want to leave you with today,” Norman said, speaking especially to students. “Don’t get too uptight! Have faith. Don’t worry. Don’t try to prove yourself. Have fun Enjoy God. Enjoy each other.”
He added, “Take advantage of the good things God is doing in, around and through Erskine. And don’t worry about the bad stuff. That’s my job!”
Moving toward the conclusion of his address, the president said there is a line from the epic poem Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson that “goes along with this theme of the joy that comes through childlike humility.”
The line, etched on one of the walls of Erskine’s McCain Library, is: “Live pure, speak true, right wrong, follow the King/Else, wherefore born?”
Norman closed by issuing a challenge to students, particularly the Euphemian and Philomathean literary societies, to be considered at the Darlington Cup Debate this year. Last year’s proposition was “a little long,” he said.
“So this year’s is short. Just two words. And the proposition to be debated is this: ‘Charity works.’”
Interim Vice President and Dean of the College Dr. Brad Christie also spoke, characterizing the formal opening as an occasion for thanksgiving. He noted that steady progress has been made toward implementing curricular changes that will “only strengthen Erskine’s academic reputation.”
Erskine’s chaplain, the Rev. Paul Patrick, offered a prayer for the coming year. the 173rd year of the college and the 175th year of the seminary. Associate Professor of Music Robert Glick served as organist and the Erskine Choraleers, directed by Assistant Professor of Music Mark Nabholz, participated in the service.