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Message to new grads encourages ship-steering

Dr. Cole Bennett
Although Abilene Christian University is thousands of miles from oceans on either U.S. coastline, English department faculty member Dr. Cole Bennett chose to craft a Commencement day message about seamanship to new graduates.
The assistant professor and interim chair of English was the featured speaker May 14 at ACU’s Commencement, which honored 618 students in two ceremonies conducted in Moody Coliseum before family, friends and colleagues, and live-streamed around the world on its website. Bennett also is director’s of ACU’s Writing Center. An excerpt of his address:

The message I want to leave with you comes from a sixth-century Christian writer named Anicius Severinus Boethius. Among the first Christians to be regarded widely as a philosopher and rhetorician, Boethius was placed in a Roman prison at age 43 for a controversial charge of treason; he was executed a year later. While awaiting his death, he wrote one of the most influential texts in Western history, entitled The Consolation of Philosophy, in which he tries to make sense of his situation. How, he asks, does a person who has lived such a good life, reared upstanding children and performed such solid duties to the state end up in prison waiting to die?
As he goes about answering this question in the chapters that follow, he addresses the difference between free will and chance. The character of Lady Philosophy forces the narrator to declare whether our lives are governed by the Wheel of Fortune or whether we have the will to act freely. In the end, Boethius argues for the superiority of virtue and integrity and “the things of the mind,” regardless of good or bad experiences. It’s a wonderful book. But this afternoon, I want to concentrate on a passage that bids us to decide who is controlling our lives: Boethius writes “You cannot commit your sails to the wind and still expect to steer your ship.”
As years go by, I meet so many people who seem to be constantly drifting. Each crisis, each new thought, each learning experience and each setback sends them casting about in a different direction on their ocean. It is as if they have cast their entire complement of sails to the winds of nature, gone below deck, and fallen asleep; they have resigned control of their vessel. They appear in stark contrast to those who keep their hands firmly upon their ship’s wheel, bearing up under the forces of nature, wrangling them as best they can to stay the course they have determined for their lives. This metaphor works well for Christians because we continuously try to discern God’s will for our lives through prayer and scripture; we try to find ways to lean on Him and the church, a community of believers, as we sail on. Boethius’ message is not about militant independence; rather it’s about cognizance of purpose, about the grasping hold of aims and goals as we navigate.
During the years  you’ve been students at ACU, I know you’ve heard two certain words uttered more times that you can count: critical thinking. In fact, you may have heard them so many times that you have lost their meaning. They seem to be on every single syllabus, every student outcome, every faculty office door. …
Let me tell you what I think critical thinking means. You’d be surprised how many students, year after year, come to my office and ask to talk about issues not related to English studies. These students are sometimes despondent, worried about an uncertain future, and often wavering in their faith. In fact, I talk to many students who are rethinking their entire belief system. These discussions happen quite a bit when I teach in our Oxford program, where 30-plus students are separated from their natural comforts by the Atlantic Ocean. Being placed in an international context can cause people to reassess what’s important to them, what’s cultural vs. what’s absolute, and how dear their faith is to them. Thus, we often wind up sitting in a café or walking through Port Meadow mulling over matters of faith and futures.
This information may strike you as alarming; I find it exhilarating and necessary. These discussions come from students who don’t want to merely cast their sails to life’s winds; they seek to understand and take control of the direction their life and their faith are taking. If ACU purports to truly foster critical thinking, and if we highlight the integration of faith in our academic curriculum, we cannot be surprised when our students arrive at acute decision points about their paradigms of belief. We try to anticipate and welcome such sobering moments and handle them with care such that students will not merely be set adrift in a morass of competing uncertainties.
On April 28, 1789, crew members of the HMS Bounty declared mutiny and tossed Captain William Bligh and 18 others into a 23-foot launch, without maps, charts, or a compass.  This launch had two small sails and some oars, and the mutineers expected Bligh and the others to haphazardly float to a nearby remote island and make the best of things. Instead, using only a pocket watch and a quadrant, Bligh expertly led his castaways on a 47-day, 3500-mile voyage to the Dutch East Indies, saving the lives of most of his men, and living to see his mutineers brought to justice by the English courts.  He did not complete this epic journey by watching and waiting to see where the winds and waves might carry him. Rather, he marshaled his seafaring expertise to undertake what is undoubtedly the most epic nautical journey in history.
Our goal at ACU has been to set you on a course. Our goal has been to teach you how to steer your ship – because you cannot commit your sails to the wind and still expect to get meaningful or competent direction from the forces of the world. I attend a lot of faculty meetings, and I hear the people seated behind me praying for you. Over the past four years – or five – or six – I can tell you that direction for your lives has been lifted up in prayer, publicly and privately, hundreds of times. And while it’s true that we have a great interest in your professional and disciplinary life – from the moment you declare a major to the day the Career Center starts working on your occupational future – we are also tremendously invested in helping you learn to steer your ship. It is our wish that you have gained not only the specialized, discipline-specific knowledge you need to build a life and a career on earth, but also that you have gained the vision and the longing to see the eternal harbors of God’s kingdom, and the ability to navigate toward them.
Graduates, take the wheel and steer your ship. Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Go in peace, be kind to people. And may God bless your voyage.