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Public Theology: The University in a Time of War
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The University in a Time of War
Mark K. Jensen offers comments on the Iraq war at Pacific Lutheran University.

by Mark K. Jensen

[Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington - March 20, 2003]

As someone who has been active in the antiwar movement, I have many thoughts at this somber time.

But there will be other occasions to share my specific thoughts about this war on Iraq, about this moment in American history, about this moment in the history of the world.

Here and now, I want to speak to the role of the university in a time such as this. What is the role of the university in a time of war?

Three values are paramount in the academy, and they are mediated by a single ethos.

The values are truth, goodness, and beauty -- the true, the good, and the beautiful -- and the ethos is the ethos of rational persuasion.

I'd like to say a word about each of them.

The true, the good, and the beautiful: these values are embodied in essential ways in things here on campus.

Truth, and the search for truth, are visibly manifest in the library over there.

Beauty, and the love of beauty, are apparent in the art gallery in Ingram, in the many works of art on campus, and in the campus itself.

Goodness is harder to see, because it's everywhere here, but you can see it in the rules and codes by which we try to live in peace and justice together. You can also see it, I think, in the religious symbols all around us.

And we live by the ethos of rational persuasion. Unlike a business, where the market is the guide, unlike the military, where a commander gives orders, we live by the ethos of rational persuasion, the ethos of scholarship: minds addressing other minds in the search for better and deeper understanding.

And that is why, of the three values -- truth, beauty, and goodness -- truth is the highest value here.

Which brings me to the current moment. A war has begun. Part of the war -- part of every war -- is a vast propaganda campaign to enlist public support. Truth is not the highest value in a propaganda campaign. In a propaganda campaign, truth and untruth are deliberately blended.

At whom is this propaganda campaign aimed? At you. You are the object of this propaganda campaign. You are not a bystander in this war. You are not merely an observer. The effort to enlist your support, or at least your acceptance, is part of the war effort.

Should we cease to inquire into the truth of these things because the United States is now at war? Some people think so, because their notion of goodness dictates this. They think this would be "best." They think we "ought" to give unquestioning support to the government.

But I say: No. Their notion of goodness should not prevail here, because this is a university, an institution of higher learning. Our primary commitment as scholars must be to the truth. Socrates, at the very sources of the tradition we call academic, gave his life for this value. The search for truth must go on.

Those who say otherwise misunderstand the nature of this institution, and they misunderstand our vocation as academics.

Individual minds, appealing to other minds, seeking truth. That's the conception behind this event today, and that's the conception the Peace Studies Working Group is committed to uphold during this war.

In our increasingly Orwellian age, when powerful agencies have obviously adopted the slogan from 1984 that IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, truth may be hard to uphold. But Jesus said: "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." (John 8:32) Alas, he also said: "But now you seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth." [John 8:40]

I appeal to you, one mind to another: be worthy of this place! Be worthy of the vocation of this place! During this war, continue to seek the truth!

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Date Added: 3/22/2003 Date Revised: 3/22/2003 8:00:47 PM

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