It was the American Civil War. Neighbor killing neighbor. Family members fighting one another to the death. A nation torn apart by violence. And a president attempting to lead in the midst of national chaos. Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln’s Cabinet gathered one day during the war with one goal in mind —to convince Lincoln that there was a group of people he thought to be Union patriots who were actually spies for the Confederacy. The Cabinet members presented their evidence. It was undeniable. And Lincoln was despondent. Beyond matters of national security, Lincoln felt betrayed by the dishonesty and lack of loyalty of those he thought to be loyal to the Union. At this point in the meeting, the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, turned to Lincoln and asked, “Mr. President, what shall we do?”
Lincoln had been silent throughout the meeting, but everyone could see that he had been profoundly affected by the evidence presented. Rather than answer Secretary Stanton’s question, Lincoln told a story about a dilemma faced by an old farmer whose gigantic shade tree spread its limbs over his house.
“It was a majestic-looking tree,” Lincoln said, “and apparently perfect in every part — tall, straight, and of immense size — the grand old sentinel of his forest home. One morning, while at work in his garden, [the old farmer] saw a squirrel [run up the tree into a hole] and thought the tree might be hollow. He proceeded to examine it carefully, and, much to his surprise, he found that the stately [tree] that he had [valued] for its beauty and grandeur to be the pride and protection of his little farm was hollow from top to bottom. Only a rim of sound wood remained, barely sufficient to support its weight. What was he to do? If he cut it down, it would [do immense damage] with its great length and spreading branches. If he let it remain, his family was in constant danger. In a storm, it might fall, or the wind might blow it down, and his house and children be crushed by it. What should he do? As Lincoln turned away from his Cabinet members, he said sadly: ‘I wish I had never seen that squirrel’.” (Phillips, 1993).
If you were Lincoln and faced with a dilemma of this magnitude, everyone awaiting your direction, feeling despondent and betrayed by people you trusted, how would you respond to the Secretary’s question, “What shall we do?”
What sources or experiences or beliefs would you draw from to make your decision? How would you know if it was the right decision?
Abraham Lincoln, the gifted orator, thoughtful leader, and rich storyteller, grappled with a no-win dilemma. And a test of his integrity.
Integrity. From the Latin, integer, meaning “whole” or “complete.”
Integrity is difficult to articulate; yet, somehow we know that integrity is a defining attribute of exemplary human behavior and an essential quality for effective leadership. So what exactly does it mean to have integrity?
Webster’s defines integrity first as “a person’s firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.” Second, integrity is defined as “an unimpaired condition.” Finally, Webster’s defines integrity as “the quality or state of being undivided.” This definition encompasses three key dimensions of integrity: incorruptibility, soundness, and completeness (“Merriam-Webster.com,” n.d.).
Other definitions emphasize aspects of consistency — “doing the same as what you say.” Several reference integrity’s relationship to moral or ethical principles — one’s need to reference religion or the law for guidance in decision making — the Ten Commandments, for example, or Jesus’ Great Commandment that we love one another. (“Your Dictionary.com,” n.d.)
Regardless of the definition, integrity is often recognized more by its absence than its presence. We have plenty of examples these days of people who lack integrity. Why is that?
In the absence of an agreed upon moral and ethical social contract, sorely lacking in our contemporary society, integrity becomes an individual rather than a societal construct — a personal judgment call. In today’s relativist society, where truth, right and wrong, and justification are governed by self and context rather than any absolutes, many believe we can only know how to behave with integrity based on our own internal and contextual framework for what is right and what is wrong. We judge others’ degree of integrity by whether or not their behavior comports with how we might act when faced with similar circumstances. And we construct rationalizations for our own actions that can and do justify our behaviors, even though they might contradict traditionally shared social and/or religious norms.
We see examples of artifice and hypocrisy — from the Board room and C-suites of corporations, to congregations and religious bodies, to the highest levels of government at the state and federal levels. People behaving unscrupulously with a stupefying lack of integrity. Increasingly, it seems that the moral constructs proffered by Moses and the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ call that we love one another have been replaced by Polonius’ advice to Hamlet: “This above all; to thine own self be true,” (Shakespeare, 2003).
Integrity — morality, authenticity, consistency.
Perhaps you have heard it said that we now live in a post-truth society. What exactly does that mean? In his book, Post-Truth, Harvard fellow Lee McIntyre concludes that “post-truth is an assertion of ideological supremacy by which its practitioners try to compel someone to believe something regardless of the evidence,” (McIntyre, 2018).
No matter your political persuasion, any one of us in this Chapel can cite evidence of post-truth dynamics at play around the globe. Here are a few examples: the denial of historic evidence about the Holocaust, the Sandy Hook shootings, and the deaths at Tiananmen Square; the denial of scientific evidence on smoking, vaccines, evolution, and climate change.
Add into the mix the rise of the 24-7 news channel and its voracious need for drama, conflict, and breaking news to generate viewership and advertising revenue; the infiltration of political propaganda into news reporting and the blurring of news and opinion that began with Fox News but has now extended throughout a range of print and broadcast media; the rise of social media, internet trolls, and the outrage machines of the left and right; and now the advent of “fake news” as a manipulative political tool — whether by our own political parties or from more nefarious quarters. We now live in an age where, as McIntyre puts it, “our wired-in cognitive biases … make us feel that our conclusions are based on good reasoning even when they are not.” These, he says, are the ideal conditions for post-truth (McIntyre, 2018).
In a recent address, University of Chicago president Robert J. Zimmer called this phenomenon the “Demosthenes-Feynman Trap.” Demosthenes, you may recall, was that great Athenian orator who said, “The wish is the parent to the thought, and that is why nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each person wishes, that they also believe to be true.” Demosthenes says that we regularly deceive ourselves in our perception and understanding of the world around us (Zimmer, 2017).
Zimmer connects Demosthenes with the renowned 20th Century American theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman. Feynman introduced scientific concepts like quantum electrodynamics, quantum computing, and nanotechnology. In his 1974 Cal Tech commencement address, Feynman, a Nobel prize-winning scientist, said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool,” (Zimmer, 2017).
We face a dilemma, don’t we? We cannot rely on the narrative espoused by our leaders. We cannot rely on the narrative we hear on the news, read in the papers, or share on social media. We are told to rely on our own instincts and contexts. And we are told that we are trapped by our own self-deceit.
Feynman answer rests in the primacy of disciplined, critical inquiry and careful reflection as necessary tools for seeking truth as a scientist. He challenges the graduates to always begin an inquiry by first casting doubt on one’s argument and laying out all the reasons why a particular hypothesis is invalid. It is only through this kind of disciplined inquiry, Feynman argues, that one can be honest with oneself, and one’s ideas can be presented in a way that can be received and engaged by others.
Zimmer, through invoking Demosthenes and Feynman, a philosopher and a scientist separated by nearly 2,500 years, advocates for a liberal arts education — or what he calls the cultivation of “liberating skills.” Liberating skills, like critical thinking and deep reflection, require our college campuses to be a marketplace of conflicting and, at times, extreme ideas. Zimmer argues that truth-seeking can only occur when speech and expression flourish unfettered.
An unfettered marketplace of ideas and perspectives. People engaged in dialogue about these ideas. Critical thinking. Careful reflection. The ability to draw on examples and perspectives of human knowing and understanding from science and social science, mathematics, religion, history, literature, and the arts. Intellectual humility — beginning with the perspective that one’s position on a given topic may be wrong. These are some of the facets of your Valpo education that have helped prepare you to act with integrity in a post-truth society.
Integrity — morality, authenticity, consistency, soundness, humility.
What do you remember about your first-year Convocation? For most of you, that was August 26, 2014. That was the last time you gathered here officially as a class. It was a breezy day, mid-70s. You started in the Union and paraded to the Chapel through a line of faculty members wearing their regalia and applauding your official arrival. Maybe you remember that. You entered the Chapel to the sound of the Reddell Organ and people singing.
I know you don’t remember what I talked about, so let me remind you. I talked about the creation of Google and the human quest over millennia to amass all of human knowledge in a single place, beginning with the Library at Alexandria. And I posed these questions: Shouldn’t open and unfettered access to all that knowledge be sufficient for human flourishing? And if so, why does anyone need to go to college? Why are you here today? Why is it that we still yearn for more? And what is it that we yearn to know?
That’s a flavor of what I said that day. My guess, however, is that you do remember walking up to the front of the Chapel and signing the Honor Code. Those books, with your names, are now a permanent part of the history of Valparaiso University and rest in the University Archives.
And my guess is that you will never forget these fifteen words: “I have neither given or received, nor have I tolerated others’ use of unauthorized aid.”
I wonder how many times you printed or attested to those words on your papers, exams, and assignments. Yet, it was through repeating these words, the Valpo Honor Code — a tradition started by students in 1943, that we began the process of cultivating integrity in each of you. Each time you saw those words, you had to reconcile what you knew to be true about your own behavior before attesting to those words publicly, knowing full well the consequences of your actions if you lied. And you learned how people in a community of peers hold one another accountable for their actions. The Honor Code has been a test of your integrity.
Integrity — morality, authenticity, consistency, soundness, humility, accountability.
In the Chinese folk tale, “The Emperor’s Flower,” an aging Chinese emperor has no heir and must decide who will succeed him. Therefore, the emperor decides to give flower seeds to every young man in the land and says that whoever can grow the finest flower from those seeds will be named his successor in one year.
A young man named Chang receives his seed, plants it, and lavishes it with care and attention, but nothing happens. For a year, he tries many things to get the seed to grow, but to no avail. When the year has passed, he arrives at the emperor’s palace with all the other young men in the kingdom and discovers that everyone else has a beautiful flower growing in their pot, each one more beautiful than the next. Chang concludes that he has failed.
The emperor arrives and inspects the hundreds of exceptional specimens gathered before him. Finally, he returns to his throne and announces to all the young men that he, the emperor, boiled all the seeds before distributing them. Chang is, in fact, the only person who didn’t buy a plant and pass it off as a product of the emperor’s seed. Because of his integrity, Chang is named the emperor’s successor (Friedman, 2007).
This story reminds me of the words of American writer, Mark Twain, “I am different from [George] Washington,” he said. “I have a higher, grander standard of principle. Washington could not lie. I can lie, but I won’t,” (Mackay, 2013).
Integrity—morality, authenticity, consistency, soundness, humility, accountability, honesty.
This Sunday is known in the Christian calendar as Pentecost Sunday. Translated from the Greek, it means “fiftieth day” and is celebrated fifty days after Easter. Pentecost, or Shavuot in Hebrew, is also a festival celebrated in Judaism fifty days after the second day of Passover. In Judaism, Pentecost is a day for celebrating the first fruits of the harvest. It is also the day to commemorate that time on Mount Sinai when God gave Moses the Torah, or the Book of Law. Jews consider this day, Pentecost, to be a birth day of the faith. Christians do, too.
For in the book of Acts, chapter 2, we learn that on the day of the Jewish festival of Pentecost, Jesus’ disciples gathered together in prayer. It was more than a month and a half after Jesus’ death and resurrection. They gathered in that same Upper Room where Jesus first offered them bread and wine in what we now know as the Christian sacrament of Communion.
As they prayed together on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended from above. A violent wind filled the house in which the disciples were gathered, and fire came down from the heavens. Tongues of fire appeared above the head of each disciple, and each was “filled” with the Holy Spirit. The disciples spoke of the wonders of God, each speaking in a language different from his own.
In today’s Gospel lesson from John, Jesus foreshadows this event for his disciples. Jesus promises to send them something he calls an “Advocate” and the “Spirit of truth,” a spirit who comes from God. This Advocate will testify on behalf of Jesus. And, Jesus tells his disciples, “You are also to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.”
What does that word “testify” mean? We certainly know its association with the law — where people testify in a courtroom. We use words like “bear witness,” or “be a witness” or “provide evidence” whenever we say that someone is offering testimony in court. There is a solemnity associated with courtroom testimony. Testimony is used as a vehicle to establish the facts and gain insight into the truth of the situation under consideration (“Merriam-Webster.com,” n.d.)
Outside of the legal realm, testimony involves the expression of personal conviction or making statements based on personal knowledge or personal belief. Jesus’ disciples could testify in a courtroom if need be — they were there as witnesses and had firsthand evidence. Today, we Christians testify based on personal conviction — or what we call our faith in what is described in the Gospels. And our faith is based on the hope that something we have not seen firsthand is true.
As we heard this morning, the Apostle Paul, in the book of Romans, talks about that hope. “Hope that is seen,” Paul writes, “is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8: 24-25) The very foundation of the Christian faith rests in hope, Paul concludes, because it is grounded in the shared conviction that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. And that through God’s grace manifested in the suffering and death of Jesus and in his resurrection, we too have been granted the gift of salvation and resurrection to dwell with God eternally.
How can we know this to be true? How can we live out our lives patiently, work for God’s kingdom on earth, and die with hope in our hearts? Because, Jesus says, he has sent us an Advocate, the Spirit of truth, to dwell within us. Jesus tells the disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16: 13-14)
As Christians, this day of Pentecost represents the birth of our faith, the beginning of our hope in Jesus Christ, because it was on this day that Jesus sent God’s spirit to dwell in us. The Advocate, this Spirit of truth, answers our questions about how to navigate a world filled with chaos, deceit, and despair. This is God’s Spirit — God’s gyroscope — within us, pleading God’s case throughout our lives. Interceding on God’s behalf whenever we go off course. Arguing within us about how to live the excellent lives we are called to live. Igniting the fire within us to build God’s kingdom here on earth. This is God’s Spirit of truth.
The Advocate, the Spirit of truth, God dwelling within us —offers us the guidance we need if we are to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. (Micah 6: 8) And if we choose to listen, through reflection and through prayer, the Spirit of truth will empower us to rise above the chaos and corruption of our age, to be people of integrity in all that we say and do.
Integrity — morality, authenticity, consistency, soundness, humility, accountability, honesty, incorruptibility. Integrity. From the Latin, integer, meaning, whole or complete.
Graduates, you now become full participants in this post-truth culture, where it will be so easy to be self-directed and self-deceived. You will decide how to seek truth and exercise judgment in your place of work, in your community, in your home, in your place of worship. And I promise you that you will face dilemmas — big dilemmas — in every facet of your lives. Dilemmas that will test and tax your integrity.
Others will hold you and you will hold yourself accountable on the soundness of your decision-making and your ability to rise above the corrosive and corruptible forces of these times. In each of these pivotal decisions, I hope and pray that you will remember and use what you learned at Valparaiso University.
Graduates, you came to a place where people are called to seek truth, serve generously, and cultivate hope. Together with the faculty and staff, you have been part of a community of practice dedicated uniquely to this work. You have been taught how to discern truth through critical reasoning and judgment. You have flourished in a culture dedicated to bringing people of different backgrounds and beliefs together in dialogue with one another and in the common pursuit of truth. Here you have learned how to communicate with and work together with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, religious beliefs, national origins, ethnic and cultural and gender identities. And here, you worked to love and understand one another, even when your differences were irreconcilable. Here you asked yourself and others hard questions about what you believe, why you are here on this earth, and what you will do with the unique gifts God has bestowed upon you.
Valpo’s DNA of truth-seeking and dialogue across difference, leadership and service, generosity and hope have been woven through your educational formation. It wasn’t easy. We didn’t always get it right. Yet, together we tried mightily to be our most excellent selves even as the world around us groaned in its imperfection, its pain and suffering and despair — a world groaning for the light you will bring into it.
Your education and experience and your capacity for integrity give me great hope. But my greatest hope and your greatest promise rests in that which we do not see — our faith in Jesus Christ and our trust that God’s Advocate, the Spirit of truth, God dwelling within each of you, will lead and guide you to be the graduates of knowledge, character, integrity, and wisdom whom we know in our hearts and souls. you can be.
This is my hope and prayer for you, graduates. And “may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” (Romans 15:13)
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
May God richly bless you this day and all the days of your life. Amen.
- Mark A. Heckler, Ph.D.
May 20, 2018
Friedman, A. (2007). Read with Me: Chinese folktale The Emperor’s Flowers. Sun Sentinal. Retrieved from http://www.sun-sentinel.com/features/sfl-flstory–chinaflowernbaug28-story.html
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Mackay, H. (2013). The Mackay MBA of Selling in the Real World. Portfolio.
McIntyre, L. (2018). Post-Truth. The MIT Press.
Phillips, D.T. (1993). Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times. Warner Books.
Shakespeare, W. (2003). Hamlet: An Updated Edition from the Folger Shakespeare Library. B.A. Mowat and P. Werstine (Ed.). Simon & Schuster.
Testify. (2018). In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/testify
Zimmer, R. (2017). “Liberal Arts, Free Expression, and the Demosthenes-Feynman Trap.” ACTA 2017 Merrill Award Acceptance Address. Retrieved from https://president.uchicago.edu/page/acta-2017-merrill-award-acceptance-address