The Greatest of These: Loving Fallaciously
I’ve mentioned before that I teach at an online high school. Each year, my school has a number of graduation ceremonies (that number being 3), with a different speaker for each. This year I was very honored to be asked to deliver the commencement address at one of them. I felt that my speech is one of the best things I’ve written, so I decided it was worth sharing here, as well.
Also I’m kind of lazy and don’t like writing more than one thing per month.
Also also, if you want to watch me deliver the speech, you can do so here (start at around the 10-minute mark): https://livestream.com/dordtcollegewebcast/AlphaOmegaGraduation2017/videos/157039578. So far several people have told me I did a great job and one person told me I should take a speech course. Who’s right? You decide!
I’d like to start by saying congratulations to everyone in the class of 2017! Your accomplishment, which we celebrate today, is by no means a small one, either personally or as a cultural milestone. I hope you all get the chance today to enjoy this moment.
When our principal, Mr. Bakker, asked me to speak to the graduates at this ceremony, I was initially both honored and intimidated, and I wasn’t really sure what I had to say. I took some time to think it over, and I looked at some other graduation speeches. And I noticed a pattern: they usually began with a quote from a famous book or story, and ended with a charge to the graduates. And I think I found a way to work that to my own ends. But buckle up because we’re going to start in a bit of an odd place.
First the quote:
“Cool was I and logical. Keen, calculating, perspicacious, acute and astute—I was all of these. My brain was as powerful as a dynamo, precise as a chemist’s scales, as penetrating as a scalpel. And—think of it!—I only eighteen.”
While this may sound like something I found in one of my journal entries from my high school graduation, this actually comes from the short story “Love is a Fallacy” by Max Shulman. My guess is this may strike most people as an odd choice. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that, unless you read this story in your Short Story project your freshman year, or attended the online class I’ve taught on logical fallacies, you probably have never heard of the story or its author. If you did one or both of those, you may already be sick of both the story and its author. To anyone this describes, I apologize, but just a little.
Shulman’s story relates the plight of his narrator, who, as you can tell from the previous quote, fancies himself one of the great minds of his generation. At the start of the story, he’s determined that the only thing he needs in order to guarantee himself a successful future as a lawyer is the perfect wife. Someone who can be, as he says, “a proper hostess for [his] many mansions, [and] a suitable mother for his well-heeled children.”
As luck would have it, such a woman attends the narrator’s exact college, and just happens to be dating his roommate, Petey. Petey agrees to stop seeing Polly, the girl in question, in exchange for the narrator’s giving him a raccoon coat. The story takes place in the 1950s, and our characters inform us that raccoon coats had again become a massive fad. “Fads,” the narrator tells us, “are the very negation of reason.” I would submit that this is doubly true when the fad involves raccoons, but I suppose that’s personal preference.
With Petey out of the way, the narrator and Polly go on several casual dates. He gives her a course in logic, feeling he needs to make her more intelligent before she’ll be “worthy” of him. By the last scene, he’s deemed his task complete and asks Polly if she will “go steady” with him. But she refuses.
She had already agreed to go steady with Petey. He, at least, has a raccoon coat.
Again, it’s an odd story. Not particularly well-known, by an author who’s not particularly well-remembered. And yet, I chose it because it’s had a profound impact on my thinking. I still distinctly recall the day my older brother brought it home from school and read it to my family around the dinner table, and obviously it’s stuck with me through all these years. In part because it is quite useful for introducing the concept of logical fallacies—the narrator’s explanations to Polly on their dates are as humorous as they are helpful. But there’s another reason, I think, that the story has held such a significant place in my mind; a reason I sometimes wonder if Shulman even meant to incorporate.
“Love is a Fallacy.” That’s the title, and it’s obviously meant as a joke, in substance no different from the hundreds of other jokes hack comedians have told about love and marriage over the years. A character in a TV show I saw once said, “No creature would ever willingly make a fool of himself,” to which the other character replied “Obviously you’ve never been in love!” It’s tempting to view the title as merely a briefer form of this dialogue.
And yet, there’s something fundamentally true about that title, isn’t there? After all, love is a fallacy.
A fallacy, as we’re told in the story, is something that runs contrary to logic. And this certainly would be true of love. Logic says “I need to keep my eye out for what’s best for me.” Love says “I need to look out for what’s best for you.” Logic suggests we ask “What can I do to advance my own ends?” Love demands we ask “How can I serve you?”
We see the principle of illogical love at work in our everyday lives, as well. For example, there’s nothing logical about the way we see parents love their children every day. In many cases, the logical thing for parents to do would be to leave their children behind or to let them fend for themselves. And, indeed, we do see this at times across the animal kingdom. Groups of giraffes, for example, have been known to abandon their young if they can’t learn to walk fast enough. They have to. They have predators chasing them. It’s the logical thing to do.
Now, that’s not all animals, but it’s certainly more common in the animal kingdom than among humans, where you can find story after story of fathers, and especially mothers, ignoring all logic, risking their health, even their lives, for the sake of their children.
And then, of course, we have the Gospels, and the ultimate example of love that defies all human logic in the person of Jesus Christ. The logical thing for Him to do, from a human perspective, would have been to stand idly by, let us all condemn ourselves to Hell, not forsake His throne in Heaven, not subject himself to the pains, sufferings, and humiliations we read about, and, of course, not submit to death on the cross.
I imagine, in such a world, if we even had a Bible, John 3:16 would read a bit differently. Perhaps “For God so logically regarded the world that He gave not one iota of caring, that whosoever was born into it would have a miserable life and then enter into everlasting death.”
But thank God, literally, we know that “God is love,” and we know the verse reads quite differently.
Now to my promised charge.
When we started here today, I told you that high school graduation is a huge accomplishment, and it is. In many ways, it’s your first major milestone on the road to adulthood.
Many of you will soon be moving away from home, perhaps for the first time. Some going off to college, others out to the work force. And what you absolutely need to understand is that you are entering a world that is desperate and needy for this kind of love. Love that is self-denying, that is compassionate and unconditional. Love that is, in every way, a fallacy.
You’re entering a world where school shootings are no longer a surprise. Where we have averaged almost 15 per year, more than one every month, over the past ten years, just here in the United States.
A world where more people have taken anti-depressants than have not taken them, and where cries for help go answered less often, the more people there are around to hear.
You’re entering a world where torture and beheadings are recorded and played over and over again. Where executions and assassinations are admired and celebrated.
A world where reasoned discourse at times seems impossible to find, no matter the issue. Where people, of all ages, from all demographics, in all political parties, see those who dare disagree with them not as fellow humans, made in the image of God, but merely as enemies to be destroyed and ridiculed.
Where people gleefully join online hate mobs; where they make it their mission to hound and harass and abuse people they will never meet. Where they gloat at the downfall of these strangers, taking a sick pleasure in having played a role in dismantling a life.
This world, as the Apostle Paul tells us, is in “bondage to decay,” it “has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth,” needing the kind of self-sacrificing love shown to us by Christ. And, as you can see, this thirst, this insatiable need for that love is evident not just in the big events, or the places far away from the safety of home. It’s something we can see in every person, every day of our lives, no matter where we go.
This is the world you are now inheriting, and this is the world we all have created; and each of us has played a role in shaping it. But the good news is that each of us can also play a role in reshaping it.
When you encounter hatred, it’s natural to want to meet it in kind. In fact, I’d even say it’s logical to try to outdo the other person in aggression. “They deserved it!” is the refrain we hear so often from children excusing themselves for taking revenge on a person who wronged them.
But there’s a curious verse that’s particularly relevant in this regard. In Genesis 6, the Earth has become so corrupt that God has decided to start over again. He floods the Earth, with the only remnants of the human race being Noah and his family. And when the flood waters clear in chapter 8, and Noah has offered a sacrifice to the Lord, God says to him, “Never again will I curse that ground because of humans, for every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.”
If Shulman’s narrator had read that, I’m sure he’d inform Moses, the human author of this verse, that he was guilty of the fallacy “non-sequitur,” which literally means “it doesn’t follow.” Because the human heart is evil, God promises not to destroy us? There’s obviously something odd about the logic at work here. Our wickedness deserves destruction. Yet God, in His wisdom, knows if He delivered what we deserve, if we faced ultimate justice, it’d be the end of His creation. And because of that God promises not to give us what we deserve.
Once again, the wisdom and goodness, the love of God defy even the greatest human logic.
Brothers and sisters, it may be logical to seek to meet hatred with hatred. But let us never forget, we are called to live in a way that’s better than what is logical. And what’s more, we have the only thing that has ever reshaped this world for the better: Fallacious, self-sacrificing love. We have it demonstrated for us in Jesus the Christ, and, as John tells us in his letter, because of His love, we can show it to others.
Let’s look again at the quote from Shulman’s narrator. He uses some very specific terms to describe himself—“cool… calculating… perspicacious,” he describes himself in almost clinical terms. In fact, look at what he compares himself to: a dynamo, chemist’s scales, a scalpel—none of these qualities or comparisons are inherently bad. But there’s a distinct lack of humanity there.
And we see this in his pursuit of Polly, too. He loves her, or at least he insists that he does, but every action we see from him is so, well, so cool, and calculating. So logical. There’s no openness from him on their dates, no vulnerability or sacrifice in his attempts to woo her. She changes for him. He offers no such consideration.
Now compare that to the person of Jesus Christ, whose love goes so far beyond our understanding. Christ, who humbled himself so much, sacrificed so much, endured so much… And isn’t it fitting that, for all his planning and logic, the narrator lost his perfect woman. And Jesus Christ, by degrading and debasing himself, won not just a crown, not just the highest honors of heaven. But He won the Church, His perfect bride, and redeemed her with His very blood.
God made us logical creatures. He gave us a mind to use and logic to guide us. But before that and beyond that, He made us to show Christ’s love to the world.
May God grant us His all-sufficient grace to live out this love every day of our lives.
Graduates, let me again extend my sincere congratulations to you today on what you have achieved. And I’d again encourage each one of you to take some time today to celebrate this milestone. Because tomorrow, we have to get back to work. We’ve got an entire world to reshape, and plenty of work for each one of us to do.
I’d like to close now with the words of a praise song that has been particularly close to me for much of my life, and one I try to remind myself of frequently when I’m confronted with the world’s burdens.
I won’t sing it for you, because the last time I tried that there were no survivors. But the words are:
“We will work with each other, we will work side by side…
And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride,”
“And they’ll know we are Christians,” not by our voting record or political affiliation, not by our Twitter handle, the memes we post, or which email chains we join, but…
“They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”