Keepers of the Faith; Defenders of the Light

Catholic University of America
Columbus School of Law

Commencement Address

May 24, 2003

Delivered by The Honorable Janice R. Brown
Associate Justice, California Supreme Court

To the President, the Dean, Distinguished faculty, Graduates, and all our Honored Guests. Thank you for your warm welcome, your gracious hospitality, and for honoring me by allowing me to share in the happiness and excitement of your graduation day.

I really am delighted to be here to celebrate your accomplishments in this beautiful place. A place that invites, indeed bids, our spirits to soar. It seems especially appropriate to hold a law school commencement in a cathedral. After all, the legal profession got its start as part of the priesthood.

We once welcomed law students by inviting them into the brotherhood. Now, with so many women in the profession that no longer seems right. But, we can certainly understand why our brethren would not wish to be part of a sisterhood. A friend of mine, Justice Vance Raye, came up with the perfect solution. He said, from now on we should just call it the “hood.” So, let me be the first to welcome you … to the “hood.”

A graduation is always a special occasion. And the feeling of it, the sense of triumph and relief, is never quite forgotten although (luckily for all of us) commencement speeches have a very short shelf life. I can still vividly remember my graduation day which — as my son will tell you — was back at the dawn of history.

It was a warm day in Los Angeles, and for some reason they had us show up hours early, put on our robes, and sit around, sweating, waiting for our real lives to begin. Like you, we were dressed in robes with purple velvet plackets and purple stripes on the sleeves. Our hood was purple satin, edged in gold. We were, if I do say so myself, resplendent. And while we were waiting, the administration announced that all graduates would have to go to the student union to get a release, attesting that we owed no monies to UCLA and had not failed to return any library books, in order to receive our diplomas. So off we went, grumbling, to handle this last detail. It was so hot, we had the robes unzipped. We were laughing, talking, giggly and euphoric. Thrilled that we had made it; a little sad that the adventure was over. We strode together into the student Union, coming out of the sunshine into the relative dimness of the building, robes swirling around us. We paused at the top of a shallow flight of stairs to let our eyes adjust before starting down, and as we stood there, haloed by the sun behind us, a young man, also dressed in cap and gown, was heading up the stairs. He was wearing the plain, black gown of an undergraduate. When he spotted us, he stopped in his tracks and just gazed upward, slack-jawed. “WOW,” he said, “who are you guys?”

That remains one of my fondest memories of the day. It makes me smile to think about it... But it occurred to me as I began preparing this speech, that it is a good question to ask law school graduates — who will soon be lawyers — to ask seriously and thoughtfully — not because of the splendor of your academic regalia, but because you are about to enter a profession that has had, and will have, a profound impact on American society and government.

Law is the most permeable of disciplines, affected by the changes in society, but in its turn affecting what it touches. In a country so diverse, “legality ... has become the touchstone for legitimacy. ...[Law becomes] the terrain on which Americans are struggling to define what kind of people they are, and what kind of society they wish to bring into being.”1

Abigail Adams, writing to John Quincy Adams in 1780, said: “These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or in the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. ...Great necessities call out great virtues.”2 That was a critical time for America. This is an equally critical epoch. You and your peers may well be the most important generation of lawyers since that founding generation. The question for the framers was whether we could form a government based on “reflection and choice” rather than conflict and accident. They answered the question in the affirmative. What strikes me as I read the notes and letters of the founders is their supreme confidence.

The question for you will be whether the regime of freedom which they founded can survive the relentless enmity of the slave mentality. It will really be whether you want freedom to survive. The answer may be no. There are many reasons to forsake freedom.

Some will do so because they are ambitious and can only make their mark by setting out upon a new path. Abraham Lincoln described this dynamic many years before he became president. He said there will always be people among us (from the family of the Lion or the tribe of the Eagle) who “scorn to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor,” who thirst and burn for distinction, and who will obtain it “whether at the expense of emancipating slaves or enslaving free men.”3

Some may reject freedom because security has always been more comfortable than freedom and infinitely more comforting to the “herd of independent minds.”4

Perhaps the most likely reason for a negative response is the fatigue engendered by the “accumulated decisions of so many revolutions.”5 Freedom requires certitude and we are now so enlightened that, in Pascal's phrase, “we know too much to be ignorant and too little to be wise.”

I, of course, hope that this generation will rise to the challenge; that our present great necessities will call forth great virtues. Perhaps that is why, when I tried to think about what I might say to you as you commence your life in the law, only one word, one image, surfaced. The word, the image, was “Light.” Sometimes sharp and white, like the flash of a lighthouse beacon. Sometimes the soft, full radiance of sunrise. But, always, light. How odd, I thought. But then the brochure for the Columbus School of Law arrived with the motto of the Catholic University of America emblazoned across its cover. Deus lux mea est. God is my light. And then there was the Cardinal's dinner, held in San Francisco this year. The program began with a wonderful film about the university which was entitled — are you ready — “Sharing the Light.” Aha! At this point, even the dull witted must begin to see ... the light. And finally, leafing through a book of essays seeking inspiration, these words leapt out at me: “The night is for spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.” (Romans 13:12)

Light is often used as a metaphor for consciousness, comprehension, and truth. Light as an analogue of God's creative activity. Indeed, in the Christian liturgy God is light — “God of God, Light of Light” — and truth — “I am the way, the truth, and the life...”6 Historically, and poetically — and, I believe, actually, light and truth seem indissolubly linked.

In fact, that linkage is often proudly reflected in the mottos of institutions of higher learning. Veritas (truth) is the motto of Harvard University. And Lux et Veritas (light and truth) is the motto of Yale University, a circumstance which, due to the longstanding rivalry between the two schools, has led some Yale students to observe that Harvard graduates are just Yale students who have not yet seen the light.

Being at The Catholic University of America hopefully means you have not only seen the light but also understand its source. This is one of the few universities in America that explicitly affirms not only the existence of truth but also the legitimacy of its relentless pursuit. You will nevertheless be living, working, and striving in a world that is suspicious of, if not downright hostile to, even the possibility of truth. This is not only a stunted and benighted worldview, it is a profoundly dangerous one. Nothing less than Western Civilization and the Rule of Law is at stake.

In the spirit of the Enlightenment, truth has been reduced to a matter of perspective and all perspectives are declared equal. Since our choices can only be justified rhetorically, that is by reference to philanthropy or utility; even equality is debased, reduced to the equal right of all desires to be satisfied. “The repudiation of metaphysics, religion, and tradition… leads inevitably to the destruction of all foundations for prudence and practical reason.”7

Thus, scientists and philosophers have spent the last three hundred years trying to organize society as if God did not exist and the last two centuries seeking to reshape society through industrial development, social engineering, and various forms of wealth creation and redistribution. This process was supposed to bring forth the new man, a new and improved humanity. The project was a miserable failure.

The project failed because it denied the essential nature of human beings and because, like it or not, our political institutions are a product of our culture. Culture is organic. “Culture is something you must grow; you cannot build a tree, you can only plant it, and care for it and wait for it to mature in its own due time; and when it is grown you must not complain if you find that from an acorn has come an oak, and not an elm tree.”8

It is curious that we can comfortably accept the premises of a scientific specialty like chaos theory, and not see its implications for the social and moral realm. The simplest expression of chaos theory posits that “tiny differences in input can quickly become overwhelming differences in output” — a phenomenon given the name “sensitive dependence on initial conditions.” In weather, for example, this translates into what is only half-jokingly known as the Butterfly Effect — the notion that a butterfly stirring the air today in Peking can transform storm systems next month in New York.9 Why then can we not see that societies as well as civilizations may exhibit a similar sensitive dependence.

So, let me ask you a question. What did Superman fight for? If the answer does not come immediately to mind, I am not surprised. Had I asked the same question of an audience my age, the answer would have come without hesitation: “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” When I was a child, this was an easy question. We didn't know exactly what Truth, Justice, and the American Way meant, but we did know it was good. Because Superman was one of the good guys.

By the time I was a young woman, though, we sang a different song. We sang: “There ain't no good guys; there ain't no bad guys. There's only you and me and we just disagree.” The song was not intended as an ode to moral relativism. It was particular and specific — about the end of a love affair. But in attitude and sensibility it could have served as the anthem of my generation.

There is only one problem with this little ditty. It is wrong. Wholly, flatly, irredeemably wrong. There are good guys. There are bad guys. And, as Cardinal Manning reminded us long ago, differences of opinion are at bottom theological.

Which brings me to my second question — which will be much harder. What is the American Way? If you find this more difficult to answer, it is not surprising. The American Creed has not been forgotten; it has been repudiated. “Historically, American identity has had two primary components: culture and creed.”10 The former is defined by our heritage from Western Civilization; the latter consists of a set of universal ideas and principles articulated in our founding documents: liberty, equality, democracy, constitutionalism, limited government, and private property.11 On these principles there once was wide agreement. Indeed, the Creed was hailed by foreign observers, ranging from Alexis de Tocqueville to Gunnar Myrdal, as the “cement in the structure of this great and disparate nation.”12 As Richard Hofstader notes: “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one.”13

And now the final question on today's quiz, suggested by Japanese philosopher Takeshi Umehara, who theorizes that the breakup of the Soviet Union is only the precursor to the collapse of Western liberalism: In an era in which “people everywhere define themselves in cultural terms, what place is there for a society without a cultural core,” defined only by a fragile political creed which — like Tinker Bell — is close to expiring because no one quite believes in it anymore?14

In some ways, it seems we have been moving backward: bringing chaos out of order instead of the other way around. At least that is how things stood until quite recently when, in one instant of anguish, pity, grief, and rage, we had a moment of awful moral clarity. All perspectives are not equal. Evil is not merely a matter of opinion. Suddenly and undeniably, we understood that there are ideas worth defending to the death. There are lies that must be defeated at all costs. Freedom is not free. And it will never be the lasting legacy of the lazy or the indifferent. For what we ultimately pursue is a true “vision of justice and ordered liberty, respectful of human dignity and the authority of God.”15 What we need is to revive our passion for freedom and our determination to defend vigorously, rationally, and without apology, our way of life, which is unique and deserves not scorn nor diffidence, but devotion.

By accepting the beguiling proposition that all perspectives are equal, we left Western Civilization, the God of Light, and light itself, undefended. We left the very spirit of truth desolate and abandoned on its high hill. Indeed, we deemed them unworthy of defense. But, there may have been a reason why Truth, Justice and the American Way are seamlessly conjoined in the phrase with which I began today's exam. There can be no discussion about the nature of justice and the essence of law when human will is made the supreme arbiter of all human values.16 Without truth, there is neither justice nor freedom. “Once truth is denied to human beings, it is pure illusion to try to set them free. Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery.”17

If our commitment to truth and justice was, in fact, the foundation of the vision that made America, then moral and cu1tural relativism is more than an educational anomaly, it is a calamity. That is why the lawyer classifieds need a new ad. Wanted: Keepers of the faith; Defenders of light.

The title poem from Sahara Sunday Spain's third book of poetry (she is now about eleven) is titled “If There Would Be No Light.”

She says:

If there would be
no light,
we would fall
into an
endless sleep of dust
and become
the stars,
the moon
the endless
burning sun.

I do not know exactly what the youthful poet meant by these words, but they reminded me of physicist Paul Davies's wonderment that “we have cracked part of the cosmic code.”18

“Why this should be, just why Homo sapiens should carry the spark of rationality that provides the key to the universe, is a deep enigma. We, who are children of the universe — animated stardust — can nevertheless reflect on the nature of that same universe, even to the extent of glimpsing the rules on which it runs.”19

He concludes the existence of human consciousness in the universe cannot be “a mere quirk of fate, an accident of history, an incidental blip in the great cosmic drama.”20

These are questions with which to conjure. What if the universe was created solely so we might see? What if God, when He spoke the universe into existence by saying, “Let there be light,” was calling forth not just the creative properties of light but consciousness itself? What if consciousness, not matter, is the ultimate foundation of the universe? What if all of creation was set before us like a textbook from the master teacher's hand? So that our hearts could be ravished by the perfection of a single rosebud; our minds dazzled by the complex landscape of an atom; our spirits humbled by the immense, breathtaking splendor of the night sky.

What if filling the world with light (with the luminosity that ought to live within each of us) was the point of the whole exercise? Why then, if the light of truth and reason is extinguished in the world — “if there would be no light” — we might return to being nothing more than stardust. Only this time, creation would be moving backwards, like a film running in reverse. And we, sad stars, between one instant and the next would wink out one by one.

The challenge I offer you today is to be among those who seek, speak, and defend the truth.

The next time you hear that phrase, Truth, Justice, and the American Way, I hope it will have more resonance for you. This is not a perfect country. We are not perfect people. We were founded on the recognition of human fallibility. Still, I believe with all my heart that the Rule of Law, the ideal of equality under law, and the principles of human dignity and liberty which this country exemplifies are worthy of defense. Who knows? As a keeper of the faith, a defender of the light, you may be saving more than America — more than Western Civilization — you may be saving the universe!

1 Glendon, Rights Talk (1991) p. 3.

2 Williamson, The Healing of America (1997) ch. 1, p. 31, quoting a letter from Abigail Adams to John Quincy Adams (Jan. 19, 1780).

3 Lincoln, Speech Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois (January 27, 1837).

4 As coined by Harold Rosenberg.

5 Stanley Rosen, Rethinking the Enlightenment, Common Knowledge (1996) p. 104.

6 John 14:6

7 Rosen, Rethinking the Enlightenment, supra, at pp. 104, 106.

8 Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1949) p. 123.

9 Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (1987) p. 5.

10 Huntington, The Erosion of American National Interests, Foreign Affairs (Sept. 10, 1997) p. 28.

11 Id. at p. 29.

12 Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1997) p. 306, quoting Myrdal, An American Dilemma (1944) p.3.

13 Hofstadter, quoted in Hans Kohn, American Nationalism: An Interpretive Essay (1957) p. .13.

14 3 Constitutional Commentary (1986) 293, 294.

15 Simon, Missing in Action, World Net Daily (Sept. 22, 2001).

16 d'Entreves, Natural Law: An Introduction to Legal Philosophy (Hutchinson Univ. Lib. 1951) p. 75.

17 Encyclical Letter, Fides et Ratio of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Relationship Between Faith and Reason (1998) p. 111.

18 Davies, The Mind of God (1992) p. 232.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

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