I’m interested in readers’ comments about this speech and the ensuing brouhaha. Note that the speech was given at a Catholic institution by a graduating senior, chosen by students and faculty as an embodiment of the institution’s ideals and character.
As has been often written, our Founding Fathers were children of The Enlightenment. So influenced, they possessed a great confidence in an individual’s ability to understand the world and its most fundamental laws through the exercise of his or her reason. And that reason was best developed, they clearly believed, by a broad based liberal arts education that caused its recipients to engage the world by constantly questioning and persuading others.
Ironically, but perhaps fittingly for my purposes today, we see the Founders’ ideals quite clearly, among many places, in the Establishment Clause within the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. This of course was the clause that I determined the school board had violated in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case. While legal scholars will continue to debate the appropriate application of that clause to particular facts in individual cases, this much is very clear. The Founders believed that true religion was not something handed down by a church or contained in a Bible, but was to be found through free, rational inquiry. At bottom then, this core set of beliefs led the Founders, who constantly engaged and questioned things, to secure their idea of religious freedom by barring any alliance between church and state.
As I hope that you can see, these precepts and beliefs, grounded in my liberal arts education, guide me each day as a federal trial judge. I am daily exposed to many disciplines, I must learn and relearn things constantly, and I am at risk of deciding a case incorrectly if I accept that which is presented to me at face value.
And so what are the lessons for you in all of this? You are not children of The Enlightenment, but you are now the product of the closest we can come to approximating that---recipients of a strong liberal arts education. So allow me to then suggest these lessons. First, the fundamental idea behind what you have now accomplished is that you are leaving here with all of the tools, but you must use them wisely. The love of learning that I hope has been instilled in you, the tendency to question all that is around you, and the ability to engage the world, all of these things must not be left on this beautiful campus as you depart this weekend. These traits, now inculcated, must endure and be cultivated. Remember that Thomas Jefferson, throughout his life, accumulated a library of almost ten thousand books. George Washington died with nearly a thousand volumes in his collection. These gentlemen read voraciously, including daily newspapers and periodicals.
I find myself in agreement with Judge Jones on at least this: "the practice of law ought to rest on a foundation of liberal learning" (which is what I said he appeared to lack in his Kitzmiller opinion).
I would say that his liberal education left him a dogmatic rationalist (mistakenly attributing that stance as well to all the founders and assuming that it alone animated the Establishment Clause), but there’s also this:
Joseph Campbell was a lifelong student and teacher of the human spirit and mythology. Some of you may have studied him. He said something that I read once and never forgot. It has guided me in my life, and I would suggest that it should guide yours. Campbell said this: "I even have a superstition that has grown on me as a result of invisible hands coming all the time--namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be."
When he reaches for spiritual depth, he gets Joseph Campbell and following one’s bliss!!!! So he’s not simply a dogmatic rationalist. He’s aware, however dimly, of the limits of rationalism, but its aridity (at least as he experiences it) has left him nowhere interesting or profound to turn. This is unfortunate, given Dickinson’s roots.
Update: Christianity Today notes that Joness views are contrary to those of John Dickinson, his alma maters namesake, which of course isnt sufficient to refute his view of religion, but may be adequate further to question his view of history. A belated hat tip to Rob Vischer.