The High Liturgy of Pomp and Circumstance

. . . the university is a formative, liturgical institution, animated by rituals and liturgies that constitute pedagogy of desire. James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom

Attending a university graduation ceremony earlier this month, I couldn’t help seeing the event through the lens of James K. A. Smith’s “cultural liturgies.” The academy has its own language, its own arcane practices and its own way of constructing its place in society. The commencement ceremony is filled these elements that distinguish the academy from the rest of society and reinforce the nature of academic identity. The Latin phrases and the mysterious symbolism intentionally differentiate the university from society at large. The commencement doesn’t simply send the message, “We’re smarter than everyone else”; it conveys the impression that the university has access to hidden knowledge unaccessible to the uninitiated. This may be the 21st century, but academic symbolism bears a striking resemblance to ancient mysticism and Gnostic mysteries.

The ceremony begins with a procession of robed priests (faculty) and initiates (graduates). We rise as the procession begins to acknowledge the university’s hallowed place in the public order. The physical act of standing trains our souls to submit to the academy’s authority.

At the head of the procession is a marshal carrying a ceremonial mace. The stylized weapon of war is still recognizable for what it is: a symbol of authority which has the power to bludgeon its opponents.

Commonly, the procession enters to the music of the aptly named Pomp and Circumstance.

1.ceremonial splendor: a display of great splendor and magnificence
2.self-importance: an ostentatious and vain display of importance

The commencement’s ceremonial splendor shouts, “Pay attention. This institution is among the most highly valued parts of our society. This is power. This is justice. This is truth. Align your life with it.”

The university, in fact, sees itself at the head of contemporary society. The university defines truth in every sphere of life and every other institution is only legitimate insofar as it conforms to the academy’s vision of reality.

Although academic robes were derived from monastic garb, they have evolved to become the symbol of a self-aware and independent secular institution. Just as early Christian initiates were given a white robe to wear in their baptismal initiation, so the academic robe gives its wearer a new and powerful identity. The graduates have not only mastered the curriculum, they have learned to see life through the lens which the university provided. The value of higher education, it is commonly understood, does not lie primarily in the learning of facts but in the shaping of the mind.

The priests of this institution are the “professors,” a word fraught with religious meaning. At some point, one of the priest-professors will say words that will change the status of the initiates. This act will formally transform the students into graduates, men and women who now, we are told in the graduation speech, have a special role to play in society. The graduates may even change their physical appearance to mark the transition, moving the tassel from one side to another or tossing their caps in the air.

And, it seems, every commencement identifies the graduates not only as academically qualified “bachelors” or “masters” or “doctors”, but as alumni. Of course part of this is a practical effort to start sucking money from the graduates as soon as possible. It also serves to give the graduates a life-long identity. The status which the university confers produces an indelible imprint that lasts a lifetime.

The commencement often ends with the singing of the alma mater – literally, the “nourishing mother.” My college alma mater actually ends with these words: mother so dear. All of these hymns are offerings of praise and adulation to the institution that suckled us.

During my college days, there was a lot of discussion about the university acting in loco parentis in making decisions about student behavior. The truth is that all universities act in loco parentis in a much more profound manner than deciding whether the students can drink alcohol or have sex. The students may believe they are replacing their parents’ world view with their own as they make the transition to adulthood. In actuality, the students are often simply trading one mother for another.

Let me close by saying, I liked college. I liked graduate school. I value both the information I learned and the ability to see the world that I developed as a result of my academic education. I continue to learn and grow as a pastor, as a student of the Bible and Christianity and as someone who tries to integrate a broad understanding of reality into his worldview. All of this is rooted in a broad liberal arts education in a humanistic institution and in academically-informed, Biblically-focused theological studies.

I am happy to support the academic institutions at which I studied, but on my terms, not theirs. I’m happy to attend a university graduation and offer my best wishes to the graduates. In its proper, limited place, the academy is a blessing to the world. At times, however, the academy’s self-aggrandizement and pretensions border on idolatry. Tertullian’s question is still worth asking: what has Athens to do with Jerusalem? I can never look at the academy’s mythology as anything more than a broken myth of a fallen world.