Editor’s note: As one of his final works of service to his alma mater before retiring, Dr. John Sparks delivered the 2013 Grove City College commencement address, “Because Faith and Freedom Matter,” on May 18. You can watch Dr. Sparks deliver the address here or read it below. Please note that we have embedded links to Dr. Sparks’ past work and commentary in this speech.
The 2013 Grove City College Commencement Address – May 18
Dr. John A. Sparks ’66, Dean of the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters
President Jewell, honored guests, trustees, my dear faculty colleagues, parents, grandparents, and the members of the class of 2013. I am deeply honored to be addressing you.
I first set foot as a freshman on the GCC campus 51 years ago, in the fall of 1962. My parents dropped me off on lower campus at the OLD Colonial Hall. My father shook my hand and my mother cried which was probably true of many of you four years ago (for a few it may have been five or six years ago). I lived in the old Colonial hall and walked across Rainbow Bridge and back more times than I like to remember. The U.S. President was John F. Kennedy.
The Soviet Union and East Germany have just begun the construction of something called the Berlin Wall to keep their own citizens from escaping the “Communist Paradise” into the West. 2.7 million East Germans had already fled, seeking freedom. In 1962, the Berlin wall presented, starkly, poignantly the question of Freedom.
In 1962-63 the U.S. Supreme Court, in several decisions, eliminated prayer and Bible reading from the public schools. These were the Post WW II public schools where my 3rd grade teacher Mrs. Kennedy, taught us the 23rd Psalm and the 100th Psalm by heart during the school day. That was 1953 prior to changes made by the Supreme Court. These were schools (mine was in Canton, Ohio—Reedurban School) in which the day had begun with morning devotions from the Bible. Our principal had students read from the Bible on the PA system each day. I made trips to his office to read from the Bible … and some other trips that I will not mention. Those Supreme Court decisions produced an end to much of religious content in the public schools. What part would faith continue to play in the formation of young minds? So, the question of Faith presented itself in those early 1960s as I began my GCC journey.
Those were very different times, yes, and yet, the same question greets us today—Do faith and freedom really matter? Thankfully, GCC’s answer to that question today is the same as it was in 1962. Do faith and freedom really matter? At GCC our answer is an unwavering, unflinching, a courageous YES!
First, Freedom. I came to GCC in 1962 because I wanted to learn more about freedom. I enrolled here to study under Dr. Hans Sennholz, (whose wife Mary still attends GCC events today). He was the champion of free economic institutions, free markets and freedom of individual enterprise. I soon learned from him that economic liberty was only part of the larger fabric of liberty that our Founders loved and sought to protect for the generation to come.
We value freedom here because it is a God-given unalienable right. As President Kennedy said in his 1962 inaugural, “…the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.” Precisely so.
Our Founders fashioned arrangements in law and in the Constitution that provided a free society. This free society, allowed for the exercise of human ingenuity, provided for the use of talents and gifts, and encouraged the release of God-given energy to the maximum. This land of liberty served and still serves as a magnet drawing the poor, discouraged and oppressed of the world to her shores and borders.
I have prominently displayed in my office a copy of the architectural plans for Ellis Island (beginning in 1892 one of the key entry stations into this land) and over those plans a large iron plaque which says “welcome”. Welcome to the land of the free, you huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Was it perfect? No, slavery of our black brothers and sisters was a blot on this bold experiment, but that would be removed eventually as the message of the liberty bell rang for all.
And why do we value freedom? Is it because it produces great economic endeavors and enterprises? Yes, in part. Is it because freedom allows us to pursue ends that we form, value and seek? Yes, in part. But Ultimately, the liberty we enjoy is to be protected because it is consistent with the way were made by Almighty God. We are meant to be free!!
All those horrific misguided efforts of the 20th century—communism, national socialism, those efforts to enslave the human spirit – Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, Castro, and more recently Kim Jong Un of the slave state of North Korea – all have ended in failure, viciousness and unspeakable evil. The symbol of the totalitarian state, the Berlin Wall was verbally dismantled by a great president, Ronald Reagan—“Mr. Gorbechev, Mr. Gorbechev, tear down this Wall!” By which he was proclaiming—Your citizens, like our citizens, are meant to be Free!
And the fight to maintain freedom continues here at home. I could talk about the GCC case of 1984 but today I want to talk about what one student graduate did just 17 years after graduation from these hallowed halls.
Imagine this picture: A young lawyer rises to argue before the highest court of the land, the U.S. Supreme Court. He is defending the right of Susette Kelo, a single woman of modest means, to keep her home free from the eminent domain powers of the government of New London, Connecticut. He argues that Americans believe their homes are their castles. They were places where they raised their children. They were places where they share good times and bad, they were places where they hoped to live out their remaining years.
He denounced the town planners in New London who had bigger and better plans for her property—luxury hotels, fancy apartments— that would mean higher tax revenues for New London, but the demolition of Ms. Kelo’s home. That fighter for freedom, that warrior for the disadvantaged and relatively poor, Ms. Kelo, was Mr. Scott Bullock, GCC class of 1988. His rousing defense, though it did not convince the court that day, spawned a movement to curtail eminent domain abuse throughout the nation—protecting the freedom to live peacefully in one’s home. I hope and pray that you will follow Scott Bullock: Defend freedom at every turn. It is the Grove City way!
Next, Faith. While fiercely independent, GCC has taught its students to be humbly dependent upon the God of Scriptures. Thankfully, we are saved spiritually and intellectually by a God who restores us to communion with him through Christ. This enables us to see the world and our place in it as it really is and we really are. Christians are the true realists!
The Christian worldview is not complex in its fundamentals. God Almighty made the universe in such a way that its features and contours are knowable and discoverable. God is an intelligent rational being. Therefore, the world he made is intelligible. This is the basis for the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering in which faculty in those areas uncover the dazzling, awe-inspiring created order—from the startling predictability of blood clotting to the tensile strength of steel. I never tire of hearing their testimonies of amazement.
This same Godly order, in other forms is also the raw material revealed by the visual, dramatic and musical arts. In Pew Fine Arts, can be heard and seen—the music, drama and art of the spheres.
What of the social sciences and humanities? The command to inhabit the earth and bring it under control, sometimes called dominion, is the foundation for human society—economic, social, political, literary. Humans are supposed to make cultural products; tangible buildings, yes, but also intangible ideas about social arrangements—rules, laws, constitutions and systems. These cultural products in the humanities are poems, novels, essays that enlighten us and inspire us.
Some in the post-modern snobby, secular academy view these Christian faith-based perspectives as not being academically respectable. They hold to a rigid, narrow dogmatic “establishment of unbelief” (Marsden). Our faculty members, by contrast, think it is intellectually dishonest and stultifying to examine the large questions of truth, beauty, evil, community, the physical world and the human mind as though Christian religious ideas have nothing to say about them. So faith is foundational to everything we do here on this campus.
My old friend the late Russell Kirk use to put it this way—As he watched students lining up, as they soon will here, to graduate, he asked this question: Have we taught these students to love the things that they ought to love and detest the things they ought to detest.
Will they love doing the right thing, even when it is costly; will they love others no matter what their background or color, will they deplore the unfair persecution of the weak and defenseless; will righteously hate regimes that kill and maim their own citizens? If they detest what the Lord detests and love what he lauds, then we will have taught them well. We will have taught them to be moved and motivated by their Christian faith.
One final story in that regard: Picture yourself in a constitutional law class at Harvard Law School. The professor, nationally known, begins the class of eager first year law students this way: “Is there anyone here who believes that a three-month old fetus is a person?” The class is silent. Students look at one another nervously. Only one hand goes up half-way back. It is the hand of a woman. She is small of stature and build but her hand is raised high and confidently. She undergoes quite a grilling that day at the hands of this professor. But she holds up well. Her faith has taught her to defend the defenseless, the most vulnerable; those who have no voice or cannot speak. Those still enveloped in the amniotic fluid of the womb. Her hand is raised for life and that hand goes up because of her faith. I am proud to say that she is Laura-Kate Denny, GCC class of 2008, early in her career, active in seeing that child traffickers are brought to justice and now a clerk to a Federal Court of Appeals judge. That is the kind of student that this faculty produces at GCC. These are students not only with convictions but the courage to proclaim and hold to those convictions in difficult situations.
Closing: Before a jury retires to deliberate, the judge gives them a charge. And now I give a charge to you.
Now, class of 2013, go out from us here, as every class must. Leave your classrooms, labs, and lecture halls. Leave the courts, fields, arenas and diamonds where you competed. Leave those now familiar grounds and buildings. Leave HAL, Hoyt, Rockwell, Buhl, PLC, TLC, Pew, Breen, Rathburn, and Harbison—leave them behind.
Carry the banner of faith and freedom throughout this land, in fact, around this globe. Shape your communities for the good; take on tasks in your churches and places of worship, influence your schools, yours clubs, your civic organizations. Produce goods and services that improve the lives of others. Make good use of the great stature you will surely achieve.
Make astounding contributions to the sciences and the arts; gain influence, some of national fame. However, do those little-noticed things of life—raising and training your children in HIS nurture and admonition….
And, my dear friends, in the midst of all this, when there is a lull in your busy schedules…
Come back to our Towers and Campus, to the shores of Wolf Creek.
Come back to our quads and gardens.
Come back to share with us your victories and your challenges, and your families.
Come back to these hallowed halls, this special place, this little piece of the Kingdom.
Come HOME, Come HOME, Come HOME.