Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

I’ve never known a Rosaria before, let alone a Rosaria Champagne Butterfield. But her book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, lives up to her name. Three months before this speech, she was a tenured English professor at a university in New York living with her girlfriend and researching a book about the history of the Religious Right’s hatred of homosexual people. Then she became a Christian. This is what she had to say to a group of incoming graduate students in 1999. There’s an element of comprehensive chaos in her words that made this part of the book the highlight for me:

What King Solomon Teaches Those in the Wisdom Business: Active Learning and Active Scholarship

Since I was 16-years-old, I have been inspired by three categories of ideas: text—the written testimony of experience and meaning; history—the content of events that stands outside of consciousness and shapes it perpetually; and mercy, the category of selfless love and stealth compassion. These categories have never been merely academic, and indeed, they have saved my life on more than one occasion. As a child and teenager, I used these categories to store understanding about the dynamics of my home. I wrote my first book about this. As an adult, these categories have expanded to address the historicity of social genocide to the historicity of the resurrection; the authority of texts produced in the social margins of women’s literature to the Bible as an authoritative text, the written revelation of the living triune God (too often misread and misused as our contemporary political Trojan horse); from social justice on behalf of women, people of color, the disabled, and queer liberation to the counterintuitive lessons of mercy taught in the New Testament. Text, History, and Mercy. These categories raise my life’s Big Questions. What are yours? What are yours?

This leads me to my first point about real learning: It’s not a recipe, it’s not a toolbox that neatly fashions any notion, no matter how bankrupt or dubious or silly. At least two decades of poststructural and postmodern research has equipped intellectuals with powerful methods to question the reliability of truth-claims and procedures of evidence, and to reveal the social effects of oppression produced by epistemological imperialism. But the powerful legacy poststructuralism bequeaths to contemporary intellectuals should not create its own hegemony of intellectual expectation, one which categorically trades in truth for doubt and faith for skepticism. Students smell fear, laziness, and fraudulence faster than a scavenger on road kill, and real learning depends on our quest for real knowledge, not its perpetual deferment in the form of endless doubt. In order to seek real knowledge, we will confront times when we have to choose between the old ideas that give us comfort in their familiarity or the safe paradigms that encourage endless questioning for the bold quest of capacious truth. Knowledge depends on the renewal of our minds. If you fear such renewal and its consequences, then you don’t belong in graduate school. This may seem like a tall order, perhaps even an unfriendly one, and you should get a second opinion, to be sure. From my position, though, the stakes only get higher from this day on, so risking immediate comfort and facing instead the Big Questions is a skill that must begin early if it is to begin at all.

Graduate school can be like purgatory, and at various times professors make proclamation, as I just did a sentence ago, about who belongs in graduate school and who doesn’t. Professors usually base these judgments on grades, scores on comprehensive examinations, expedience in academic hoop jumping, publications, and too often for my moral code, the disciple’s adoration of the mentor. For graduate students, the value of your undergraduate teaching may seem as distant as Kansas and the pursuit of deep ethical questions as unreclaimable as the sting of your first skinned knee. Here’s my advice: don’t buy it. Strong scholars and successful professors experience bumpy roads in graduate school and after. Learn how to fall on your face and pick yourself up. Learn how to turn the train around. Learn how to glean good lessons from bad teachers in an effort to be a good teacher to those undergraduates under your care. Learn to look up, act on faith that the Big Principle has purpose: failing an exam does not mean that you don’t belong here. The only people who don’t belong in the classroom, library, laboratory, or lecturing from the podium are those who fear confrontation of incommensurable truth-claims, and who seek safety over the production and excavation of ideas—even scary ideas. If truth-claims, the scholarly evidence that supports them, and the opportunity to engage in meaningful and testy debate with those who think differently than you do are burning in your heart and mind, then you are in the right place and I have only one thing to say to you: welcome home.

In juxtaposing truth-claims with endless questions or in advancing the case that we make decisions based in articulated presuppositional values, I intend no formula. Newer is not always better. Nor is the traditional more solid than the contemporary. It’s not that easy. The university classroom is neither a shopping mall whose existence depends on disseminating the latest, sexiest critical approach, nor a museum, where ideas are valued because of tradition alone and where you can look but never touch. Instead, the classroom is a place of joy fueled by the quest for excellence and the productive fear generated by the awesomeness of our ignorance and our inability to transform human reason into wisdom on its own terms, when it is unhinged from a living God. If you remember the Big Questions and claim them in your heart as your Big Questions, you will find that there are more ways to succeed than to fail and you will be connected to something that matters. Don’t fret because your path to those Big Questions doesn’t look like somebody else’s journey. Don’t fret when the path is lonely or treacherous. Look up.

Enjoy the classroom. Enjoy the opportunity to touch the lives of others. Cherish the sacred relationship of student to teacher. Learn how to adjust your focus. Find ways to transmogrify the emotional manipulation or bad manners that some of your students will no doubt display as opportunities to turn the train around. Find ways to see past the symptom of seeming boredom or disrespect to its source, and then work from that. Listen first—and listen last—and listen in between. Bring the outside into your classrooms and bring your classroom outside to bear on the world. Think about the categories that frame your Big Questions. Write them down. Think about the life lessons that shape them. Remember who you are and the road on which you traveled to get here. I’ll leave you with three of my life lessons on which I rely.

Lesson #1: When you don’t know what to do, go back to the basics.

When I used to run marathons, I had a training partner who would say to me, at the most horrific moments, usually at about mile 20, “Rosaria, this could be the best moment of your life.” I thought this man was certifiably nuts, a DSM-IV special. I tried to ignore him. But later I started to understand his meaning. This expression teaches me now that while I am motivated by the Big Questions, I do not have the Big Picture. I do not know how student resistance, classroom explosions, my own general screwing up, or mean-spirited colleagues will really affect my success or failure as an intellectual and a teacher. So I find myself, in life’s most unbearable moments, in and out of the classroom, saying, “This may be the best moment of my life.” At first, this makes me feel, perhaps too viscerally, that I am on mile 20 of the marathon and I’m about to throw up. And then it reminds me that even if I do throw up, I still have a marathon to finish, and something extraordinary will happen in the process of focusing on the rigor and simplicity of putting one foot in front of the next.

Lesson #2: Speak the truth, because you never know who is listening.

For a decade of my life, I lived as a lesbian and was a spokesperson for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered issues on the local and national front. One morning, as was my routine on my way to work, I stopped at the Jordan mini-mart to get a cup of coffee. On this particular morning, I heard a woman yelling at her kids, telling them that they were worthless and inconvenient and in the way. Nothing makes me more furious than the disrespect of children, and I turned to give her my iciest glare.

That’s when I saw the t-shirt she was wearing. It featured the General Mills cartoon rabbit speaking these words to an effeminate man: “Silly Faggot, Dicks are for Chicks.”

There in the Jordan mini-mart on a regular day in June 1996, I decided that ideas were bigger than I was, and I approached the woman. I told her that I was a lesbian and that my feelings were hurt by her tee shirt. At first she didn’t comprehend what I was saying, so I said it again. She got it. Her jaw dropped like a fish on a line. The mini-mart went pin dropping silent. Finally, her husband elbowed her and said, “Stop talking to the queer.” I started to cry and the mini-mart exploded in laughter. When I returned to the mini-mart on the next day, stubbornness overruling fear, the woman behind the counter pulled me aside to ask me a question. It turns out her daughter was a lesbian, and she needed help.

Lesson #3: It’s better to be wrong on an important subject than right on a trivial one, as long as you are willing to learn from your mistakes.

This lesson got me through graduate school and, most recently, became profoundly important for me during the research of my second book. I was studying the religious right from the lesbian feminist perspective of the secular left, and aside from discovering what I already knew, that the religious right was manipulating religious commitments in the name of capitalist consumerism and conservative political agendas, I discovered something else, something that I wasn’t looking for, and something that changed my life—not to mention my research—from the ground up. I discovered that God isn’t just a narrative we pick like summer berries or leave for the next person; nor is God a set of social conventions tailored for the weak of mind; nor is God a consumerist social construct who exists in the service of Christian imperialist ideologies and right-wing politics. Rather, I discovered that God through Jesus Christ exists, the triune God of the Bible exists, whether we acknowledge him or not. I discovered that God wasn’t very happy with me.

This brought me to the awesome realization that our living God is in all of our life, and that my “success” as a professor was his blessing on me, not my deserved and earned accolade. I discovered, through what the Bible calls the renewing of our minds, that what I had previously claimed as mine wasn’t even about me.

This leads me to my point and the title of today’s talk: beware of the Solomon problem of academic life. King Solomon, one of the many sons of David, ruled over Israel from 962-922 BC. Before Solomon stepped into his Kingship, he asked God to give him an “understanding heart…to discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9). God gave him a gift of discernment unmatched by any other figure then or now on the condition that Solomon never forget the first commandment (the commandment to honor God, not the idols that bolster the autonomy of our own egos). As Solomon became rich and successful, he started to believe that knowledge was something that he “owned,” something that he harbored inside of himself, rather than what it was: something loaned to him, but something fundamentally located in the radical Otherness of a Holy God. Once he lost his anchor, he lost his wisdom, and it all came tumbling down. The biblical story does not stop here, because the nature of a Holy God is redemptive, not abandoning, but that is a lecture for another day. Suffice it to say for today that Solomon failed by thinking that all truth-claims exist in a contingent relationship to the self. Solomon’s legacy offers a warning to all academics, believers and atheists alike: we all need to be anchored in something bigger than we are, something bigger than the ideas currently generated within disciplines, and certainly something bigger than the politics of our fields of study. Real learning, no matter how polished the moves or rehearsed the rhetoric, is empty learning unless we who profess are anchored in something bigger than we are. Choose with discernment, and don’t let the proclivities of the here-and-now choose for you.

Syracuse University, August 1999 Graduate Student Orientation Convocation


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