Searching for God and man at Yale

Posted: Dec 10, 2001 12:00 AM
All commemorative utterances these days have in common a low bow -- fearful, inquisitive, chastened -- to the events of Sept. 11. On the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor the chiaroscuro is especially vivid. It was 60 years ago that our vulnerability was tested, though we properly remind ourselves that Hawaii was not homeland territory back then. It became a part of the union and sacred national tissue not until 1959, 18 years after Pearl Harbor. But on Sept. 11 there were no gradations of subordinate territorial or legal status: Manhattan and Washington, D.C., are essences of America.

Well, we have an agenda on that score (find the enemy and destroy him), which is getting along all right, the engrossing question, on this anniversary of Pearl Harbor, having to do with terms of surrender in Kandahar.

But the implications of Sept. 11 seem to be asking larger questions than how to deal with al-Qaida, and these were accosted in October at Yale University, celebrating the 300th anniversary of its founding. The festival included a lavish fireworks display above the football stadium and, the next day, on campus outdoors, more of the same by Bill Clinton.

But the eye-catching event was the peroration of a talk by a senior historian. Professor Gaddis Smith spoke of "Yale, America, and the World in 2001." Up until Sept. 11 -- he cited one student who had raised the question with him --she had not taken seriously the legendary watchcry, "For God, for Country, and for Yale." Now curiosity is intense on that legend.

Professor Smith explained that such affiliations as were historically felt for our country require sharper definition. "'Country' meant my country right or wrong --until the Vietnam War."

He traced spurts of historical refinement. "When you leave this auditorium you will pass the university flagpole. Note the inscription of dedication to an alumnus who died suppressing the insurgency in the Philippines in 1901. That was not death in a good cause." What he meant, one assumes, was that 50 years later, the nationalist movement in the Philippines prevailed.

"And to your right will be the cenotaph to the dead of World War I with the names of battles inscribed above the columns of (campus) Commons. President Arthur Twining Hadley said of the dead that they had fulfilled the ultimate purpose of the university in dying for their country. The generation of World War II agreed more with Gen. George S. Patton who said, 'Men, it is not your duty to die for your country; it is to make the other son of a bitch die for his.'"

The conspectus is freighted with ambiguities. Hadley (a learned divine) had meant that a university conveys to its students the worth of the ultimate sacrifice for their country. The Congress that put us at war in 1917 had a less noble historical purpose, perhaps, than the Congress that put us at war in l776, but the willingness to die remained a constant, salted by the empirical contribution of General Patton to the effect that it were better that the enemy died than that we should die. Professor Smith seemed to be saying that, in Vietnam, it was not right to fight. It remains an uphill fight for the historian to proclaim the 35 Yale dead in Vietnam as uninstructed by their university, in contrast with those who shirked what we thought of as duty.

But the crowning insight lay ahead for Yale's spokesman. Who is this God whose name, in the watchcry, comes before even the Country's and Yale's?

"Yale's 18th-century God was an intolerant Puritan. In the 19th century he became a smooth general Protestant. And today God means the spiritual center for all those, of whatever faith, who believe in the worth of the individual."

Of whatever faith? Oh yes. "The Yale chaplain told me recently that even the organization of Yale atheists wanted a mentor to be associated with his office."

We are being told that Yale's atheists feel that the services of the Christian chaplain are potentially useful, presumably on the understanding that such spiritual services as are proffered would stop short of submitting the Christian God for consideration of the atheists. That would be backward, on the order of making a case for Vietnam.

"Yale cannot and will not turn inward," Professor Smith pledged. Instead, the modern university must use its resources "to help us understand the complexity of the trembling world and in the process contemplate more deeply the meanings of God and country." We certainly have a long way to go if we have to transcend the thought of Yale's scholars and clergy during those 300 years leading up to Sept. 11.