Message to Majors in Religious Studies of the Graduating Class of 2020

May 15, 2020


Graduating students, it is my pleasure to be able to write to you on graduation day, May 16th, 2020, even the sadness of not being able to be with you in person marks this unprecedented moment in our lives.

I’m Kurtis Schaeffer, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies. As we celebrate over fifty years as a department in College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia, I’d like to offer my gratitude to parents, family, and friends for making it possible for us to include your student within our community over the past four years.

On behalf of the Faculty and Staff of the Department, I offer our heartfelt congratulations to Graduates of the Class of 2020!

We are the largest department of religious studies at a public university in the United States. As such we are both proud of our capacity to serve the UVA community, the Virginia community, the national community and, increasingly, the global community. And we are humbled by the intelligence, the acumen, and spirit that every single person from each of those communities brings to us when they walk through our doors. Most importantly, we are truly grateful to have had the opportunity to spend these years with you, members of the graduating class, in this community of learning and inquiry that you have helped to create.

Religion is one of humanity’s primary expressions of, and responses to, the human condition. Religion can be a key to human understanding, and to a harmonious and enlivened community. It can also sow seeds of conflict and can precipitate tremendous human suffering. Our globalizing and shrinking world demands, more than ever, an understanding of religion, both in our own society and across the world.

At the University of Virginia, we have explored with this graduating class the complexities of religion through a deep and passionate engagement with both Tradition and Inquiry. Thoroughly steeping ourselves in the world’s religious traditions—their modes of thought, practice, and expression—we have engaged the full gamut of the traditions on their own terms. We have sought to understand what religious thinkers and communities have to say for and about themselves. At the same time, we have examined religion dispassionately, with the eye of the modern research scholar. Our great privilege, indeed, our enduring mandate as students of religion at a public university, is to uphold and enact our capacity to see religion in both of these modes—as the traditions that inspire humanity and as a deeply complex human phenomenon demanding rigorous humanistic inquiry.

By holding together Tradition and Inquiry, we have endeavored in these years with you to understand and to explain how religion has shaped, and continues to influence, individual lives, distinct societies and cultures, and the whole of our increasingly interconnected world.

Students of this graduating class, as a faculty, it is our sincere hope that you will retain the passion for understanding and inquiry that you have shared with us, and carry it into your communities, your traditions, your careers, and your lives.

At the end of his life, Mr. Jefferson wrote that he wanted his tombstone to mention three accomplishments alone, three acts by which he wanted most to be remembered: “Thomas Jefferson: Author of the Declaration of American Independence/of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom/and Father of the University of Virginia.”

Jefferson wanted, that is, to be known not as President, or as scientist, or as architect, diplomat, governor, or inventor, all of which he could lay reasonable claim to, but as a man who wrote inspired documents concerning political freedom and the freedom of conscience and worship, and as one who founded this place, this place that he so audaciously dedicated to the "illimitable freedom of the human mind," so that the principles expressed by those documents might endure over generations.

Whatever else it is about, religion is always and everywhere about human construals of the common good—about goods we can know in common that we know less well, if we know them at all, alone. As in Jefferson’s time, in our world the various religions can be as much challenges to as resources for constructing a common good for our pluralistic global community. Any attempt to construct that common good must intellectually engage the manifold challenges and energies embodied in humanity’s religions, because religious tradition is, for the majority of humanity today, a central field where this very "illimitable freedom of the human mind" is played out in all its creative and destructive promise.

The centrality of religion in public affairs today is perhaps no more true than in contemporary global politics, as former Secretary of State John Kerry signaled when he said “If I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion, because that’s how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.”

As educators we work to ensure that the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia serves these purposes in the most fundamental manner possible. You, students of this graduating class, have helped us in this ongoing effort in authentic and abiding ways. For this, we offer you our gratitude today even as we offer you our congratulations.

In that spirit please allow me to offer to you, graduates, parents, family, and friends, a poem from writer Wendell Berry. Titled "Creation Myth", Berry's poem flows with powerful language that challenges even the most arresting scripture. Yet this power is freely given in words that resonate with the land in which Mr. Jefferson's University is grounded, coming as they do from Berry's long-time home fields, the farmland just a way’s west of here in the rolling hills of Henry County, Kentucky.

This poem works up a vision that is both earthy and, if you will, cosmic. I invite you to relax and let Berry's words hold you for a moment between those two modes of being.


"Creation Myth"

by Wendell Berry

This is a story handed down.
It is about the old days when Bill
and Florence and a lot of their kin
lived in the little tin-roofed house
beside the woods, below the hill.
Mornings, they went up the hill
to work, Florence to the house,
the men and boys to the field.
Evenings, they all came home again.
There would be talk then and laughter
and taking of ease around the porch
while the summer night closed.
But one night, McKinley, Bill's young brother,
stayed away late, and it was dark
when he started down the hill.
Not a star shone, not a window.
What he was going down into was
the dark, only his footsteps sounding
to prove he trod the ground.
And Bill
who had got up to cool himself,
thinking and smoking, leaning on
the jamb of the open front door,
heard McKinley coming down,
and heard his steps beat faster
as he came, for McKinley felt the pasture's
darkness joined to all the rest
of darkness everywhere. It touched
the depths of the woods and sky and grave.
In that huge dark, things that usually
stayed put might get around, as fish
in pond or slue get loose in flood.
Oh, the things could be coming close
that never had come close before.
He missed the house and went on down
and crossed the draw and pounded on
where the pasture widened on the other side,
lost then for sure.
Propped in the door,
Bill heard him circling, a dark star
in the dark, breathing hard, his feet
blind on the little reality
that was left. Amused, Bill smoked
his smoke, and listened. He knew where
McKinley was, though McKinley didn't.
Bill smiled in the darkness to himself,
and let McKinley run until his steps
approached something really to fear:
the quarry pool. Bill quit his pipe
then, opened the screen, and stepped out,
barefoot, on the warm boards. "McKinley!"
he said, and laid the field out clear
under McKinley's feet, and placed
the map of it is his head.

This poem has been a lifelong companion to me since I was in college. I've read many things into it and taken many lessons out of it. Family, laughter, darkness, danger, illumination, the vitality of language, the passage from unknowing to knowing, the journey of a whole life set down in a few words: these are the stuff of religion.

Standing before you now, I value this poem for its vision of education. McKinley, the "student", knows the lay of the land; he simply needs a signal, a name, a word that helps him to know where he is, to locate himself on the hill, by the creek, at home, in the world. Graduates, your parents have ever played Bill, the "teacher," in this creation myth, laying the field out clear simply, miraculously, by being present at that crucial moment to speak your name. (and Parents, if you are lucky, you've even been able to smile a time or two as you've listened for the right moment to orient those footsteps). Graduates, so too your teachers have aspired to inhabit the role of Bill, to come to the assist as you get your bearings. And now, it is your turn. You will care for tradition even as you foster inquiry. Ever actors in this creation myth, you are now switching roles. You will call out the name. You will help to lay the field out clear. You will, if you so choose, place the map of knowledge—that vision of Jefferson's illimitable freedom of the human mind—upon the heads, in the hearts, and under the very feet of others. And I know that the name you call out will ring clear and true. 

With Gratitude,

Kurtis R. Schaeffer

Frances Myers Ball Professor | Department Chair | Department of Religious Studies | The University of Virginia

May 16, 2020