John Lithgow at Harvard, Steve Jobs at Stanford, Hillary Clinton at Agnes Scott College ... as commencement season fast approaches, designated orators are mulling over which profundity to utter. A humble suggestion: Read what a largely forgotten scholar, J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937), said at Hampden-Sydney College on June 9, 1929.
Machen was a strong and courageous Christian. In 1929, he had for 23 years taught at Princeton Theological Seminary, a beautiful place that had just been taken over by theological liberals. He had suffered personal attacks in a decade-long seminary war now lost, but had held firm. He would return to Princeton from his graduation address in Virginia only to pack up and move to Philadelphia to start Westminster Theological Seminary.
Calmly but sadly, he began his Hampden-Sydney talk by noting that: "It is a serious step, in these days, even from the worldly point of view, to become a Christian. ... The man who today enters upon the Christian life is enlisting in a warfare against the whole current of the age."
He said that the conflict "can be avoided if the one who professes Christianity adapts his message to the desires of those who are about him. ... Such a Christianity ... causes no more disturbance than is caused to a stream by a chip that floats downward with the current. But very different is the case if the Christian proclaims without fear or favor the gospel that is contained in the Word of God."
In 1929, as now, the Christianity seen as for private or Sunday use only was broadly acceptable, and Machen saw the convenience of that: "It seems to be so easy for religion to purchase peace by abandoning to science the whole sphere of facts, in order to retain for itself merely a sphere of feelings and ideals. ... You have your Christian experience, and let science and biblical criticism do what they will!"
But such abandonment, he warned, would end up destroying "whatever of decency and liberty you thought you had left; and you will discover, too late, that the battle is now lost and your only real hope lay in preventing the initial capture of the trench."
Over 75 years later, we are well past the initial capture of the trench. Materialist philosophies that treat human beings as machines or animals possess the high ground in our culture -- academia, the most powerful media and many of our courts. Machen was right to say, "The strongest defense of the Christian religion is the outer defense," and that "a reduced and inconsistent Christianity is weak" -- but when the outer defense is lost and the notes from many Christian trumpets are either muted or blaringly off-key, how then shall we live?
Machen's solution was both theological and cultural. He told the graduates, "The real indictment against the modern world is that by the modern world human liberty is being destroyed." For example, "Liberty in present-day education is regarded as entirely out of date; and standardization has taken its place. If, it is said, we allow all sorts of queer private schools and church schools to confuse the minds of youth, what will become of the welfare of the state? How can we have a unified nation without a standardized school?"
Machen, standing up against the standardization of human beings, fought for educational diversity through the establishment and strengthening of Christian and other private schools. In other ways as well, he pushed to "regain that birthright of freedom," which was being sat on by the "materialistic paternalism of the modern state." And he advised graduates to "Read the Gospels. ... Do not study them this time. Just read them; just let the stupendous figure of Jesus stand before your eyes."
"Read the Gospels." Which of this year's commencement speakers will summarize their advice with those three words?