If Not Us, Who? If Not Here, Where? If Not Now, When?

Inaugural Address by Gregory Alan Thornbury, Ph.D.

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church
New York City
April 3, 2014

Trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumni, distinguished guests, and friends of The King’s College: Mr. Kampouris and Camille, it is an honor to have you here with us this evening. Peter and Maxine, you’re brilliant. Travis Cottrell, God bless you, my dear friend. Tonight I felt like I was back in the band. Dr. Bradley, you are a great colleague and a magnificent theologian. And to Chairman Andy Mills, who has served faithfully for ten years as Chairman of the Board and interim President of this institution on three separate occasions, I and we are deeply grateful for your service. To Drs. Dockery, Moore, and George: gentleman, I have heard your charges, and I receive them with all sobriety. I am privileged beyond my capacity to describe your words of welcome and charge. You are my heroes, and I am in your debt.

It now falls to me to talk about the mission and vision of The King’s College, for that is why we are here this evening. We have gathered here tonight to celebrate a college whose mission is one with which we have concord and whose history has seen both the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and the remarkable providences of God. And it is our privilege to watch Him work wonders in this city which Pope John Paul II once called the “capital of the world.”

Today, we who are attempting to do Christ-centered higher education across this country are called to do the almost impossible: to prepare citizens to engage in thoughtful debate about the things that matter most in life in a society that increasingly lacks anything remotely resembling civility. The avant garde music pioneer, Frank Zappa, in reflecting on doing interviews with reporters, once declared that “most rock journalism is made up of people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.” That description, which was once the purview of only a small slice of cultural conversation, now seems to be the most apt description for most of the characters with whom we must have conversation in the public discourse. (Maranatha! Even so, come, Lord Jesus.)

But like every generation, it is one of our great temptations to lapse into nostalgia, to believe that previous generations lived in a golden age and that ours is the time of Sauron. We have come here to say this evening, Jesus is Lord! Now, sometimes I get asked, wasn’t Columbia University’s name once The King’s College? To which I always say, yes, that was the name of Columbia. But there’s one crucial point of departure—we’re talking about different kings.

Today, we all, for good reason, can fall prey to what I call the “chicken little” worldview: that the challenges and calamities that beset our generation are unique to our times. This is not true. Let me adduce one example. It is not well known or appreciated that, during colonial times, interest in religion was relatively low. Even generous estimates place church attendance somewhere between twenty and thirty percent, according to most scholars.

Take this as a case in point: when Timothy Dwight (the grandson of Jonathan Edwards) was appointed President of Yale in 1795, interest in Christianity—as well as American values and virtues—was, incredibly, at a very, very low ebb. Students showed more interest in the French Revolution than they did the American one and the young Yalies devoted themselves more to becoming disciples of Hobbes, Hume, Tindal, Diderot, and d’Alembert than of Christ or the holy apostles.

Recently, my godly father gifted me many precious and rare volumes from his library from the heirs of Edwards, those in the so-called new divinity school, of which Timothy Dwight was one. And I have been reading about his biography. Yale was, to put it mildly, a disaster when Dwight took office. As one contemporary of Dwight’s put it, “The state of the college . . . was in many respects unhappy. Destitute in a great degree of both public and private patronage, its numbers were reduced, and its discipline was relaxed, its looseness of moral and religious sentiment had become fashionable, and its reputation had been on the decline for some time.” When Dwight arrived, only 10 of the 110 enrolled students were attending church.

He waded in and attacked the problems with a happy confidence. He engaged the students immediately on the topic of why he had confidence in the Bible in response to growing student skepticism. Next, he addressed the shortcomings of so-called “infidel philosophy,” both at the level of ideas and on the basis of its lack of applicability to real-life situations and problems. Dwight read the great philosophical texts of his day and engaged with the great ideas. Next, he took up the issue of the remarkable moment that America faced in the early days of the nation in 1798: he gave an address on the duty of American citizens in light of the present crisis in Europe. It was a call for love of country and commitment to the principles of the recently adopted United States Constitution. Two years later, he gave an address to his students at Yale on the character of George Washington, a man who stood apart from the suzerains, potentates, and dictators the world had become accustomed to up until that point.

But most of all, Timothy Dwight was patient. He was a beloved classroom professor. He made it a point to personally befriend every student, as much as was possible, until he was known all across the campus as “the young man’s friend.” (Apologies to our female undergraduates, Yale was not co-ed at that time.) In 1802, seven years after he took office, spiritual renewal hit the campus. By 1817 when he died, enrollment had tripled, and the college would be set upon a permanent foundation. Timothy Dwight’s is a story that not only cures us of our nostalgia—it reminds us that great institutions are built by going back to the mission, back to the sources, and bringing these resources into full engagement with the zeitgeist.

But the answer is always, always, always to raise our sights higher, to present this generation with better ideas, ideas that can re-enchant intelligent young people with the convictions that have made Western civilization great in general, and America in particular, exceptional—the engine for human flourishing, liberty, and justice that has been the blessing of the world. We must make that case again.

Isn’t that a crucial part behind the central thesis of Douglas Hyde’s classic 1956 work, Dedication and Leadership? Hyde, who was a one-time high-profile member of the Communist Party in Great Britain and editor of the London Daily Worker, converted to Catholicism and abandoned his former ideology. But he noted that the reason for the growth of Communism in the 1940s and 1950s was that it appealed to young people’s own sense of idealism and righteous indignation. It gave them a cause for which they could sacrifice their lives—which was ironic, because Karl Marx himself shunned all manner of righteous-speak and justice- and morality-talk. And it was also ironic because such topics as justice and mercy and virtue are, ostensibly, the playing field of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. But a generation was being lost to the Communist Party because they, as opposed to the church, possessed a clear agenda, a vision, and an identifiable skill set of practices and duties to convey. Did the Church and her institutions? Douglas Hyde was skeptical.

Today, we must learn from the mistakes of the past. Our nation, “a cut-flower civilization,” as D. Elton Trueblood once put it, is the recipient of unprecedented comfort and ease—be the change you want to see? Can’t we outsource that? That seems to be sort of the unstated assumption of our times. We are comfortable, as Professor George said, all too comfortable. By way of contrast, we clearly see that the way of Jesus, as we have heard today, is one of sacrifice, dedication, and discipleship.

Today we hear a lot of talk about moral therapeutic deism and the weakness of the millennial generation. There’s another story that’s out there. All across this country, and particularly on the campus of The King’s College, what I am seeing is a “know your roots” generation. These are the ones who, by the thousands and tens of thousands, are reading and re-reading the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These are the ones who are crowding by the hundreds of thousands into Vatican square on Catholic Youth Day and by the tens of thousands into the Passion conferences. They have come to grips that we are a generation of inescapable faith, and we are not going to go out quietly.

Know your roots. It’s not just about your 1980s Nintendo game console.. This is precisely the value proposition that animates the curriculum, faculty, and the students of The King’s College:

The King’s College, where every student is required to understand the foundations of philosophy, the history of economics; and the genius of free-market capitalism (as opposed to soulless crony capitalism), the great books, and the overarching narrative of what has separated the West from the rest. This is a college that celebrates free enterprise and that confident and competent entrepreneurism is the cure for what ails a failing economy. As both the sociologist Rodney Stark and Tomas Sedlacek, former chief economic advisor to Vaclev Havel, have argued, democratic capitalism as we know it at its highest point can be traced directly back to Christianity’s emphasis on a creator God who gave us ordained reason and free will to be brought to bear upon the culture mandate, as opposed to the passive mysticism of other worldviews.

The King’s College, where rhetorical eloquence in speaking, writing, and debate is expected of every student, or you simply don’t succeed.

The King’s College, where good, old-fashioned civics is conveyed—the foundations of politics and American political thought—and where the Federalist Papers, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution are committed to memory. We teach these things because we believe that our cities, institutions, and the nation deserve citizens that are fit for a great republic. And we do this, incidentally, on our campus in the exact same neighborhood that the Founding Fathers lived, in lower Manhattan where the nation was born.

The King’s College, where the missing mark of contemporary higher education is cherished: wisdom and judgment, where the ideologies of the age are challenged and easy assumptions are scrutinized in a rigorous liberal arts context, where all great texts from all times, past and present, are read with charity, clarity, and discernment. We believe firmly that students who know how to think will do just fine when it comes to what to think.

Recently, Professor George was lecturing with his colleague, Cornel West, at Swarthmore on the importance of the liberal arts to challenge our harsh, ideological age where people are not allowed to convey their opinions. And in the Q&A after the presentation, one rather self-righteous undergraduate student stood up and attacked Professor George for his convictions about marriage, and Professor West for his motivations for even participating in the event. Many in the crowd erupted in applause.

Professor George sat quietly from his chair, let the applause die down, and said this, “Does the applause feel good? Enjoy it. I’d rather hear the applause too. But let me ask you a question: Who is your friend? The people who are backing you up and saying, ‘Go get ‘em! Gotcha! Put him on the spot! Let him have it!’ Or is it the person who says, ‘You sure have a lot of certainty about your conviction. Maybe you should stop and think about the possibility that you are wrong.’ Do we choose our convictions on the basis of what gives us standing, of what gives us status? Do we choose them on the basis of what a group or clan or class or tribe is?”

He continued, “When I was a student at Swarthmore, I had the blessing of taking a political theory course with Ken Sharpe, and he made me read Plato’s Gorgias. And I understood that that dialogue raises the question: ‘What is the purpose for intellectual engagement?” And Professor George (he’s really leaning forward now in his inimitable way), he said, “That old Greek, Plato, took me by the lapels and shook me and said to me, ‘You haven’t thought for a minute about why you believe what you believe!’”

That is the purpose of Christian liberal arts at The King’s College in New York City. Why do we believe what we believe?

The King’s College, where the narratival origins of the beliefs which we prize most are on full display: the sanctity of human life, freedom, balanced by constitutionalism and limited powers of government—an entailment of the doctrine of radical depravity, gender and racial equality based on the image of God, the dignity of labor, property rights and free trade, which are the legacy of Israel, critical realism and modern science—a rational God created the universe, we should be able to figure it out, education and the university system—historically, all of our great institutions were founded for the cause of Christ and his kingdom, and on and on we can go. All of these core convictions of Western society can identifiably trace their origins back and subsequently were undergirded by the genius of the Hebrew-Christian revelatory pattern.

To quote Liz Lemon from 30 Rock, “I want to go to there.”

I stand before you this evening to tell you that as this institution’s president, I can say without any prevarication that my colleagues who sit before me are the right people to deliver on these promises. There is not a single one of them who is sitting here tonight in whom I do not have 150 percent confidence.

And the student body? Let me just say, they are inexhaustibly wonderful. Time and time again I have left our campus on 56 Broadway in the evening and thought that these are some of the most remarkable people I have ever met on planet Earth! We have got to get this right for them. These are the students who would rather have houses named after giants in the Western tradition than a conventional Greek system, men and women who take up name, mantle, and moniker from Bonhoeffer, Lewis, Churchill, Reagan, Thatcher, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth I, and Corrie ten Boom.

Our mission is simple, and our vision is focused. We don’t try to do everything. Through a commitment to the truths of Christianity and a biblical worldview, The King’s College seeks to transform society by preparing students for careers in which they will help to shape and eventually to lead strategic public and private institutions, and by supporting faculty members as they seek to directly engage culture through writing and speaking on cultural issues. We are an academic community of godly ambitions. And our students pursue these ambitions in a city in which they have rare and unique access to the very institutions that shape the world in politics, government, think tanks, business, finance, media, publishing, journalism, cultural institutions and museums, and the arts.

And they are competing side by side with the most able people in their fields, because guess what? Those are the people who come to New York City, where 45 of the Fortune 500 companies are based. No other city even comes close.

And, once and for all, let me clear this up: I am not saying that New York City is the only strategic location. We rejoice with our friends who are being faithful throughout the nation in Christ-centered higher education and in the places to which God has called them. These are needful, important, and Kingdom-shaping places and endeavors.

But doesn’t there at least deserve to be one traditional, residential Christian college that is in the heart of the city, for the good of the city? Shouldn’t some of us be traveling with the Apostle Paul through Macedonia and Achaia via Jerusalem, saying, “I must go to Rome”?

Like Mary Mapes Dodge’s classic short story The Hero of Haarlem, also known as The Little Dutch Boy, it may seem as though we are asking these students and this faculty to do the impossible: to hold back the sea with a single finger in a dyke. But we must remember the whole context of that original story. That little boy did his duty all through the night until dawn broke, and help was on the way. Friends, the night falls. Who are those among you whom we can expect to come by daybreak, of whom we can say, “Help is on the way!”

This college began in 1938 with radio evangelist Percy Crawford’s dream. Although he originally wanted King’s to be in New York City, they had to settle for New Jersey. But Percy’s aspirations were high. He wrote his supporters, “The King’s College will be, as far as it is in our power to make it so, a college with the highest standards of any college in the country. The Lord’s hand is on this project, and we’re going forward with Him. Although it is a large undertaking, we have the assurance of His word that nothing is too great for Him.”

Thanks to the vision and fortitude of men like the late Bill Bright, whose beloved wife and co-laborer Vonette is here with us this evening; through giants like Friedhelm Radandt, the third president of The King’s College, and Stan Oakes, the fourth president, King’s was reborn in 1999 with 17 students. Talk about some intrepid 18-year-old kids. What courage it took for them to begin something new.

Friends, tonight I want to say even though that began in 1999, the Lord is doing something new here. Small beginnings. It’s a parallel for those who are in the minority, those whose faith in Jesus is mocked, those who feel that so much has been lost in our culture (and there has, as we’ve heard tonight) whose confidence has been shaken. How do we find our way back together?

In this connection, I am reminded of a story in the life of the great Duke Ellington. In the early months of 1956, the word on the street was that the Duke was washed up—a has-been, done. No one seemed to remember or care about the greatness of his early career. Bebop was all the rage; Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were the new kings. By the time Ellington showed up at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, his band was a mess, and he was recycling old material without anything dazzlingly new to offer.

When he took the stage, the band limped through the first couple of tunes. His new suite of songs that he had composed with Billy Strayhorn got tepid applause. But then the Duke called an audible; he launched into “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” Ten minutes earlier, it seemed as though a fabled career was over. But twenty minutes later, the crowd was delirious with joy at the pinnacle of Paul Gonsalves’s soaring fifty-nine-chorus-long tenor saxophone solo. And, as it kept going on and going on, more and more people came to the band stage until the entire assembly of the Newport Jazz Festival was standing there soaring. And as that solo crested to be followed, if not surpassed, by Cat Anderson’s high solo on the trumpet, the producer George Avakian described the pandemonium that ensued: “Halfway through Paul’s solo, the crowd became one single living organism reacting in waves like huge ripples to the music played before it.”

It re-birthed Duke Ellington’s career. He could have coasted after that point. He was the king again. But he wasn’t through. This great pioneer of civil rights could not stop and would not stop. So what did he do? What was his final act? He decided to employ his full resources in the composition of a masterwork of sacred music, his late career triumph. He wanted to show where the music came from. He wanted the world to know that Jesus Christ, the creator God, gave him the music to write all those years, a band to lead, and a song to sing. And although he first performed the Sacred Concert at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, he substantively revised the entire work and decided to perform it again, this time to be recorded by RCA for posterity.

And do you want to know where the Duke thanked God for his talent, for his comeback, for the fact that he was chosen as a vessel of mercy and grace? Right here on this very spot where I stand, right here in front of this magnificent organ at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, the day after Christmas in 1965. Speaking to the media afterwards, Ellington declared, “This music is the most important thing I have ever done or I am ever likely to do. This is personal, not career. Now I can openly say what I have been saying on my knees in private all of these years.”

Friends, the question for us tonight is the same: Are we willing to say openly to the watching world what we have been saying on our knees to Christ all these years, through our work, through our witness to the institutions to which God sends us in this city? It will be a steep climb. We may in fact find ourselves back in the days of Marcus Minucius Felix, the second-century Christian apologist whose dialogue entitled Octavius sought to set the record straight to a skeptical culture about the many misconceptions and outright lies that Roman society had perpetrated about the followers of Jesus, their beliefs, and practices. The response of these believers was love. But in an age in which other powerful voices said “separate, leave the culture, go into your ascetic hiding places,” St. Jerome tells us that Minucius Felix, who recorded this conversation with Octavius and a skeptic, knew exactly where he needed to be after he converted: right back in the midst of the Roman Legal Forum at the center of social debate, where we are told by St. Jerome he was one of “Rome’s most notable and leading solicitors.”

Tonight, we mean to say that New York City is our Rome. The vehicle that God has given us here is The King’s College, in which the next generation of young men and women are being prepared to be engaged, dedicated, and informed citizens who have unprecedented access to the strategic institutions of this, the greatest metropolis on planet earth.

When I was a little boy, I sat in front of my television in central Pennsylvania and sang the jingle, “I love New York.” I love New York. The King’s College loves New York. There is only one New York. This is the place that has inspired courageous people. This is the place where the beleaguered faithful and the optimistic entrepreneurs throughout the ages have come and have succeeded in surprising ways.

Steps from the front door at The King’s College is where the Dutch settlers first landed and where Peter Stuyvesant and the first mercantilists saw this New World as a world of unprecedented opportunity. Across the street from the King’s College, buried in the Trinity Church cemetery, are six signers of the Declaration of Independence. Alexander Hamilton, the genius behind our banking system, is buried there in the cemetery as well, a proud New Yorker. At the very address, 56 Broadway, where our building stands was the home of Founding Father John Jay. George Washington lived right across the street. Turn the corner and there stands Federal Hall where the Bill of Rights was passed and where Washington first took the oath of office. All of these bear witness.

This is the city where Jeremiah Lanphier, who, after the financial collapse of the 1850s, began a Bible study which was first attended only by himself and one other man. And within months, ten thousand businessmen on Wall Street were on their knees gathered together for prayer, and a great revival after the great stock market crash of the 1850s was born in this place.

This is the city which helped propel Abraham Lincoln onto the national stage, where he traded his coonskin cap for a stovepipe hat. But far more importantly, this is the place in which he gave his first nationally-covered address, originally scheduled to be at Henry Ward Beecher’s church in Brooklyn, but moved because of interest to the Cooper Union, where he boldly and simply declared that the Republicans could not give in to the Democrats’ demands that slavery could be countenanced. Why? Because it was not the principal intent of the authors of the Constitution.

This is the city where Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the rising star theologian of Germany, had to come in order to hear the biblical gospel which he did not hear at University of Berlin in Germany. Where did he hear it? He heard it in the rapturous preaching of Adam Clayton Powell at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. And while he was there, he bought records, records on vinyl of his favorite gospel songs. And those were the records he had tucked under his arm as he got on the last ship out to Germany before the war to do battle with Hitler and the Nazis at his little underground seminary in Finkenwalde and then later in the Abwehr.

This is the city where just a few blocks from here Whitaker Chambers spoke the truth to power about Communist espionage and treason inside our borders, and he was proven in the right—where? In the Commodore Hotel, room 1400, where he was vindicated that Alger Hiss was committing treason.

In closing, we stand together in solidarity as witnesses to the incarnate and risen Lord Jesus. Let us be those dedicated to be witnesses to his presence in this world as we have heard this evening. As my mentor—Russ’s mentor, Dr. Dockery’s mentor—Carl F. H. Henry once said, “The early church did not say, ‘Look at what the world is coming to!’ They said, ‘Look at what has come into the world!’” Let The King’s College be a beacon for Christ and the gospel here in Gotham—shining lights as we hold forth the Word of Life!

It is a high privilege to be installed as the president of The King’s College. And as this institution’s leader, I covenant with you to be neither cruel nor cowardly, to never give up and to never give in.

But tonight will be a failure if it is just about me. It is about us. So I will leave you with these final interrogatives: If not us, who? If not here, where? If not now, when?

May the love and peace and mercy of Christ be upon us all. Amen.

Thank you very much.