The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori: Beauty and Power, Truth and Good: A 21st Century Quest for the Real

Heyns Lecture at Stanford University


The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori

Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church

I'm going to start with a religious question - why are we here? I don't think we're here looking for exactly what some of my classmates sought nearly 40 years ago. Once in a while when the lecture was less than engaging, a couple of dogs would be let in and cause a row on stage. It was a way of avoiding the challenge of paying attention to the subject at hand. And we're not here to wait for the rapture. We're not here to be entertained or to sit around and wait for the train.

Why are we here, as human beings? What is our purpose in life? If not a passive approach to life - what? And in more immediate terms, what role does the Leland Stanford Junior University play in human purpose?

I'm going to invite us to think about the eternal human questions, and the title of this lecture is full of invitations to big picture thinking - the Real (it almost ought to be in German, der Realen) - quest, truth, beauty, and good, and finally, power. What do those big subjects have to do with the meaning of existence and how we choose to live our lives? Those are the sorts of questions that human beings have wrestled with since before they first started painting images on the walls of caves like Lascaux, or pecking patterns on rocks, in the aboriginal art of Australia or North America. Seeking answers to those questions is grounded in quest, like the ancient practice of walkabout - and whether or not the quest is consciously understood as spiritual quest, it generally is. The quest frequently takes the form of story-telling, about some transit, transition, or transformation. Religion is what happens when a group of people claim similar understandings and tell the same stories about the answers to those big questions.

The ability to be self-aware, and to spend time in reflection, as we're doing here tonight, is an intrinsic part of that questing and story-telling behavior. It requires a certain amount of leisure, or a conscious choice to devote a portion of one's life to seeking answers to questions like these. Physiologists and evolutionary biologists will tell you that the sleep patterns of human beings who live with a natural diurnal rhythm are different from those who live with major inputs of artificial light, alarm clocks, and imposed schedules. In the middle of winter in latitudes with significant seasonal variation, human beings sleep more hours through the night, but their sleep is of a significantly different kind than in summer. Winter sleep includes intervals of semi-wakefulness and reflection, which is perhaps where prayer was born. The psalmist knew something of this when he wrote, "my heart teaches me, night after night."[1] Human beings in search of meaning have followed many paths - art, story-telling, spiritual quest through physical journey or herbally facilitated exploration, the walkabout of Australian aborigines, the Native American vision quest or sun dance,[2] the tales of the Odyssey or Le Morte d'Arthur, Icelandic sagas (also born of long winter nights), or the use of peyote in the Native American Church. Even the LSD fueled journeying of Timothy Leary had some roots in spiritual quest.

For millennia, human beings have chosen, or been exposed to, a variety of methods in the quest for meaning and the Real. Once the wanderlust is acknowledged, that itch to go looking for answers, a desire to name the ineffable goal emerges. That goal is related to the utopian dreams and images of what life is meant to be, the direction human beings are bound, or maybe where the good ones go when they die. That search for meaning, for what is MORE than what I see and experience most of the time, that desire for an answer to WHY? is what keeps at least some human beings on the figurative "road."

In some very real sense, the purpose of institutions like this one is to equip travelers for life. Earlier societies equipped their young by means of rituals - often involving seclusion in a community of peers, where they learned the stories of the world and their local community from a cadre of wise elders. That is still the way of initiation into adulthood in many so-called primitive societies, where those rituals may include tattoos, bodily piercings or other alterations - like knocking out or realigning teeth; shaving, plucking, dyeing or decorating one's hair; the use of stimulants and intoxicants; fasting or consuming particular foods; games of strength and wit; and the hope for eventual emergence into a mature role. There is no resemblance here, of course.

The human question about a mature role is an abiding one. What does it mean to live a good life? Where are we going as fellow travelers in this world? The centuries old pattern of education in the west grew out of a desire to equip the young for life as travelers. The goal was integration in society through proper relationship with self, others, and the Real.

The quest for the Real is how I want to frame an examination of that basic human question about purpose and destination. Quest comes from the Latin quaerere, to seek or gain or ask - it is a journey in search of something - and the Real is shorthand for what is of utmost value. Real comes from the Latin res, or thing. I'll use it to mean what is actually most valuable and lasting, the result of the journey, in the same way that the Velveteen Rabbit uses it, "...once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."[3]

The Real is detectible, but it's not reducible to simple sense data[4]. It has something to do with what makes life worth living, and what invites human beings into becoming more than they think is possible. It partakes of the transcendent and mysterious and numinous, it has something to do with the eternal, and it extends beyond the individual.

The Real has to do with recognizing that you are part of something beyond yourself and the extent of your sensory inputs, and also that your own actions participate in, and influence, that greater reality. It has something to do with what John Donne said about living and dying: "No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main...[and later] any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind."[5] The Real is the quality or activity that unites all of what is - what theistic religions call God. Going in search of the Real is about discovering how you are related to all the rest.

Much of the philosophizing in the West, since at least the late 1960s, has led toward a kind of relativistic nihilism that says there is no such thing as the Real, because we simply cannot know what is real or true. In that system, therefore, I can't possibly claim that my truth is truer than yours or someone else's. Stephen Colbert's invocation of "truthiness", where truth no longer has any objective reality, and is reduced to whatever I want to invent to support my gut feeling, is a response to the more anarchic characteristics of postmodern thought.

Yet that postmodern relativizing tendency has given us at least the possibility of greater humility when it comes to imposing our version of the truth on others. That kind of humility and willingness to re-think postulates is part of the hemi-millennial garage sale that Phyllis Tickle is so fond of invoking.[6] Her point is that every 500 years or so the Christian community hauls a lot of stuff out of its house and gets rid of some of it, and begins to use the bits it hangs on to in new ways and relationships.

Dawning awareness of that relativizing tendency has also led a lot of people of faith either to hunker down and hang on tighter to their edge of Truth (what we tend to call fundamentalism), or to throw in the towel and say, "well, if what I thought was true now isn't, why should I bother?" The fear and anger engendered by this kind of relativism can evoke both stubborn closed-mindedness and despair.

The human questing does not stop for long, however, particularly if we look beyond the emptier cul de sacs of postmodern relativism. Spiritual hunger is rampant - in our culture, in the West, and indeed across the globe. Even if the old answer no longer satisfies, most of us are bound to keep on looking - or reacting. Human beings have an inherent sense, maybe born of those long winter nights, that there must be a reason for existence that moves beyond the animal passions for food, drink, and reproducing oneself. Not that those are bad things - Marcus Borg said in my presence once that he thought heaven looked a good deal like ‘good food, good wine, and good sex'!

That's a playful riposte to the nihilism of utter relativism - and it's not simple hedonism. Other creative responses to the critical dead ends of postmodernism have generally been accompanied by a return to the other virtues on which western philosophical systems have been based for millennia. If truth can't be fully defined, or alone cannot lead you to the Real, turn to beauty, thence to love and an ethic of compassion and justice - moral goodness. In the process, a richer and deeper understanding of truth, one that moves beyond legalism or logical positivism, is also emerging. The beautiful, good, and true still underlie the human quest for meaning. Around 400 CE Augustine of Hippo spoke memorably of this shift from law to love as "love God and do as you please."

The Real can be sought on a road where the guideposts are the ones anciently known as truth, beauty, and goodness. We may have a more playful response to those virtues than the ancient philosophers did, but the virtues endure.

Even if the true is no longer sufficiently understood as independent, rationally provable postulates, it still has something to do with what motivates us to keep growing, learning, and journeying. In its relationship to beauty and goodness, the true also partakes of altruism. That may be postmodern playfulness, given that altruism's root means the other, but the word ploy reminds us that truth cannot be solely inwardly directed. It must participate in the other man's death, connection to the main, and the neighbor. For many years evolutionary biologists couldn't understand altruistic behavior, until they began to think beyond the level of individual reproductive success.

What is beautiful? For eons, definitions of beauty have had something to do with geometric relationships, meaning, or timeliness. Today, beauty is often related to the semi-chaotic nature of creation - the playful variation on a theme found in the branching patterns of trees, capillaries, or rivers; or the diversity of human faces. Beauty has something to do with both order and playfulness, or the discoveries in a journey toward meaning. I sat on an airplane recently in front of a mother with a very active and vocal toddler. Her mother couldn't keep her in her seat for more than a few moments. The flight attendant arrived with snacks and beverages and asked her what she wanted. "Juice." "What kind?" "Apple." "Well, first you need to have your seatbelt fastened. Can you do that? Can you show me?" Click. "Beautiful!" Order, playfulness, journey, discovery...

The good is most intrinsically related to moral goodness, to an ethic that promotes right relationships - decisions and actions that ultimately lead to loving interpersonal relationships and justice at the level of the community and society. The good leads to more creative possibility, greater freedom, and more abundant life.

What does the road look like in the quest for these which we call education? The ancient concept of paideia is about passing on a set of values to the next generation: "train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it" as the old proverb puts it[7]. Pedagogy is focused on imparting moral values and cultural norms. Until fairly recently two significantly different forms of tutelage were envisaged, the liberal arts and the servile arts. The terms have not so much to do with our current political parties or feudal realities, but with the basic understanding and purpose of education. The liberal arts are designed to produce free citizens who can think - and those arts are studied and cultivated for their own sake, for the sole purpose of the kind of human being who results and the quality of life that person may live. The servile arts may have at one time been the province of servants, but they are basically technical or utilitarian functions, studied and cultivated for the use to which they can be put, like engineering, horseshoeing, surgery, agriculture. The educational focus of most institutions like this one has become a mix of the two, but there is a difference between learning for the kind of life one will live, and learning to earn a living - perhaps akin to the contrast between eating to live and living to eat!

The liberal arts include the values to which the title of this lecture refers - the good, true, and beautiful, classically taught through study of writing, reasoning, speaking; mathematics, astronomy, music, drama, dance, and history. Those arts help to shape a good life, and underlie much of the social construct in the West. They have parallels in other major philosophical systems. Those guideposts on the journey - good, truth, beauty - lead the seeker toward what makes life meaningful. In spite of recent paradigmatic shifts in philosophical and cultural values, I'm going to argue that these still form the core of what it means to live a good life. What has changed is how we explicate those values, what their content includes.

Some remarkable research about values has been going on around the world in the last 30 years, on the basic cultural values of different nations and cultures, and how they change. Ronald Inglehart started this work in the late 1970s, and the work now continues in more than 90 countries through the World Values Survey.[8]

This research has shown two dimensions of value-related cultural variation and change: one axis beginning with traditional values, associated with agricultural subsistence societies, who pay a lot of attention to religious observance, nationalism, and submission to authority, and have patriarchal attitudes toward marriage and family life. These values are about belonging to a stable, traditional society, usually religiously framed. The data show that as societies move out of basic subsistence agricultural economies into industrialized ones, their shared values become less traditional and move toward what are termed secular-rational values, the relative opposite of traditional values.

Another set of opposed values parallel the shift from industrialized economies to knowledge-based economic systems, as social concerns move from survival to self expression or self-agency. For people concerned about basic survival, values are focused on security, defense against the outsider (xenophobia), and a general sense of resignation rather than hope about life and one's place in it. As survival becomes less of a concern, cultural values shift toward finding the kind of good life we've been talking about. The theorists call this a move toward self-expressive values, which prioritize care for the environment, openness to those who represent difference (gender, sexual orientation, nationality), and a desire for greater economic and political self-determination. This shift is also reflected in changing family relationships and child-rearing values, as well as greater inherent trust in interpersonal relationships, a push for democratic institutions, and what the public would call happiness. It's directly related to the kind of freedom that is implied in a liberal education.

Plotting the cultural values of individual nations on these two value set axes[9] produces clusters of nations grouped by geographic location and national political histories. Societies with high survival and traditional values are clustered in parts of Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East - e.g., Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Jordan, and Morocco. High traditional and self-expressive values are more often found in Latin America. The northern European and Scandinavian countries (and Japan) cluster around high secular-rational and self expression values, and the eastern European countries cluster around high survival and secular-rational values. The poorest developing nations focus on survival, and traditional, religiously-based values are the usual expression of that. The wealthier, knowledge-based economies of Japan and northern Europe lie in the opposite quadrant. This nation (USA) has high self-expressive values, but still holds significantly traditional values, particularly about religiously-mediated issues like abortion, nationalism, and deference to authority.

The collective cultural values of different societies are shifting fairly rapidly right now - at time scales on the order of a generation. It appears that the current values conflicts are likely to moderate significantly within a generation, if - and this is a big IF - current realities don't lead to diminished confidence about economic security. That's not to say that another values clash won't take their place, but the ongoing movement is toward greater inclusiveness, tolerance for difference, and freedom as economic stability increases.

The Islamic spring we're witnessing is a remarkable example of the kind of shift these studies predict. The young in countries with highly authoritarian regimes, who have grown up in reasonably predictable economies with decent educations, want a different kind of governance. They begin to crave greater freedom when basic needs are reliably supplied.[10]

The various parts of that values map will all look for goodness, truth, and beauty, but they will be defined in vastly different ways. One of the interesting conclusions in the current iteration of the Values Study has to do with the role of religion. One aspect of the values shift away from tradition toward secularization leads to a reduced attachment to religion - at least to a traditional religious understanding. The shift from survival toward self-expression, however, may lead to an increased interest in religious questions and practices. We're seeing this in our own society, and a characteristic comment defines it, "I'm spiritual, not religious." Traditional religious participation is declining across this society, and yet the big questions of meaning and existence seem to be of increasing interest - though they are framed differently.

This has been called an expression of emancipative values.[11] It's connected to the kind of liberal education we've been talking about, and to the values research that shows an increasing desire for freedom as economic security increases. The role of religion, in the world's great religious traditions, has always been, at its core, about human liberation. Each of those world traditions has had excursions into more reified and law-based understandings of the core truths of the tradition, which at the extreme become fundamentalisms. Yet each would say that getting the basic relationship right between the human being and the divine implies that all other relationships will follow. Augustine's words are as true today as they were 1600 years ago, "love God and do as you please."

The basic relationship is the good, as we hinted at in the move out of postmodernist fatalism into aesthetics and then compassion. Moral goodness can be a product of love - a particular kind of love. When love is demanded, through mere obedience or adherence to law, it often shrinks in on itself and eventually produces bitterness or hate. Love is creative when freely given. That seems to be the parallel conclusion of the Values Survey, that societies based in survival don't have great expectations for individual or societal goodness - they don't have a great deal of hope for happiness or a better life.

When life holds adequate security, either through external sufficiency or internal attitudinal choice, love has a chance to lead us toward the good and beautiful and true. Whole societies, through increasing external economic security, are discovering that road.

I want to spend the remainder of this lecture thinking about the particulars of the Real end of the journey, which is not an end but a journeying, for the walk and the work are never finished. And I want to attend to the remaining word in the title, Power. I'm going to frame it in somewhat more overtly religious language.

The Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - share a common framework of understanding the Real. We don't share all the details, but we do have a shared base for starting the conversation. We can journey together for a very long way down that road. All talk about a restored world of peace and justice, where human beings live in right relationship with God and each other. The more familiar images or phrases for that vision are the Reign of God, the peaceable kingdom, shalom, salaam. A number of them include a garden, both a reflection of the Garden of Eden, from which human beings were expelled in the second creation story in Genesis, and the pairidaeza or walled garden, from which we get the word paradise. The garden is about abundant food, good wine, and sacred relationships. All of these are highly particular visions of enough to eat and drink - and not mere adequacy, but the abundance for a feast. Human beings in this vision are living out their full lives, unafflicted by disease or sickness or war. That takes justice, where scarcity is unknown because resources are shared, and each lives rightly with others. All of this dream or vision is related to living in right relationship with the Real, with God, or as some might put it, with the cosmos, with all that is.

Some of the bolder versions of this dream, like the Song of Songs or the poetry of some of the mystics in each tradition, move into a vision of holy and intimate union that is either the best of human sexual experience or human union with the divine or both. Borg's comment about heaven is actually a traditional part of the vision.

The Abrahamic traditions offer this vision as the goal of human existence, even though various fundamentalizing tendencies in each tradition have pushed it out of this life into an afterlife, or insisted that the dream is only open to a privileged few who fulfill the fine points of religious law. At the core of each, however, is a parallel move from legalism toward compassion. Paradoxically, sometimes each has used the law as a kind of spiritual cell[12] within which a deeper truth can emerge. But the movement from law to compassion pervades the core, and compassion becomes the new understanding of moral good. Perception of beauty shifts as well, toward the innate beauty of creation. It's related to what Irenaeus (2nd century CE) said about human liveliness, "the glory of God is a human being fully alive." It also parallels what we're seeing about postmodernist movement from despair to aesthetics.

If compassion is essential to approaching the Real, what stands in the way? The ancient understanding is that our largest human failing is to think we are god(s). The Abrahamic traditions understand that we reflect God,[13] that on a journey toward God we may even be on the road to becoming divine, but we are not God in fullness. Our self-focus stands in the way of the Real, and in some sense always will, that being the way of things. The cure or response is to turn outward, in compassion, toward those who are suffering. Righting human relationships is one avenue - the work of justice between human beings and in society - and relationships with all that is are incrementally healed as a result. My relationship with the Real is healed as I ensure that my hungry neighbor is fed today, and as I work to prevent his future hunger. "Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself."

The way of compassion is also the way in which power is employed to change what is broken, unjust, suffering, or life-denying. Positive regard for those who differ is part of this work, and that reality is reflected in the Values research. When societies move out of survival mode (where care and concern is usually reserved for one's closest relatives) into an economy[14] where knowledge is shared, that wide availability of knowledge itself makes it more possible to know and care for those who were formerly strangers, and may lessen personal anxiety about scarcity.

But in addition to mere knowledge as a resource empowering transformation, the ability of empathy and compassion to change the world should compel our concern. Compassion is a vastly different kind of power, which grows in being shared, and changes human hearts and societies in ways that the power of arms or domination cannot. This is the power made perfect in weakness of which Paul of Tarsus speaks[15]. This is Gandhi's satyagraha or soul-force, which informed Martin Luther King's practice of non-violence. This is the witness of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who in the midst of the civil rights struggle in the early 1960s stepped in front of a 14 year old African American girl, threatened by a racist's gun, and died for his trouble. This is the response to Matthew Shepard's death, and Tyler Clementi's, which are transforming attitudes in this country toward gay and lesbian people. Whenever the life-denying impulses around us are met with an affirmation that life will only be more abundant in the absence of violence, transformation begins again.

The creative riposte to nihilism sometimes takes remarkable form. Connie Duckworth started Arzu to import handmade rugs from Afghanistan, and wrote contracts with women weavers that bear up to a 50% bonus if they promise to all their children (daughters and sons) to school fulltime, and if the household agrees to let the women attend literacy classes. In spite of the attempts of traditional religion to shut girls away from education, change is happening. Whatever the complexities around Greg Mortenson's story, the schools he has founded are also changing reality. The rising spring of expectation in North Africa and the Middle East will never be put back in purdah - and the young woman who's been arrested for having the temerity to drive in Saudi Arabia will not be forgotten.

The very fact that the developed nations of the world collaborated in 2000, and committed to reducing the worst of the world's poverty by half by the year 2015, has changed global reality. We are not likely to meet all the benchmarks of the Millennium Development Goals in the next four years, but the possibility of a world that looks more like that ancient dream of plenty, justice, and peace will not likely be pushed back into an afterlife. People here tonight, and around the world, will continue to hold that dream in their hearts.

The power to move toward a beautiful, good, and true future for all humanity rests with us, and any who share the quest for the Real. We have a part in our neighbors' well-being, the death of any diminishes each of us, and we shall only know life more abundant when all begin to taste the feast.

In the Christian tradition, this amounts to saying that the Real lies in the direction of the way, the truth, and the life. The quest for the Real actually lies toward the suffering of this world. On that road we will discover the true, the beautiful, and the good.

[1] Psalm 16:7

[2] e.g., Black Elk Speaks

[3] The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams., originally published 1922, Avon Books.

[4] fide Plato

[5] John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation 17. 1624

[6] Tickle, The Great Emergence. Baker: 2008.

[7] Proverbs 22:6


[9] Inglehart-Welzel Values Map:

[10] Abraham Maslow came to the same conclusion about individual human beings in the 1940s, in his hierarchy of human needs.

[11] Robert Miller, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology,

[12] like a monastic cell; a limitation that liberates.

[13] being made in God's image

[14] Recall that economy has a root meaning of the house rules (oikos + nomos)

[15] 2 Corinthians 12:9

[Taken with permission from the website of The Episcopal Church.]