The controversy over Student Assembly President Noah Riner’s sermon/speech at the Dartmouth convocation is covered at Inside Higher Ed, and is also the subject of a William F. Buckley column, an article at the website of the invaluable FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Higher Education), and two blogposts by Todd Zywicky at the Volokh Conspiracy.
Unfortunately, all these articles, except for the IHE one, continue (as I noted in my first post on the subject with regard to Peter Robinson’s post at NRO’s The Corner) to focus on the less controversial part of Riner’s speech — the passage invoking Jesus and his sacrifice as an example of “character” — while barely alluding to the much longer passage in which he spoke of Jesus as humanity’s redeemer (“He gave His life for our sin so that we wouldn’t have to bear the penalty of the law; so we could see love”) and as the solution to the problem of flawed character. To invoke Jesus as a role model is one thing; to invoke him as the pathway to salvation is quite another. As I noted, too, Riner was not merely speaking of his own personal perspective and experience; he consistently used the word “we.” He was either proselytizing or assuming that he was speaking to an entirely Christian audience; either way, it’s completely inappropriate at an event meant for the entire student body at a religiously diverse school.
I’m not saying that Riner should be officially penalized or disciplined for his talk. I do find it disturbing that, as his comments quoted by IHR suggest, he doesn’t understand why his talk was objectionable. Said Riner, “My goals were to challenge and inspire students and specifically to make them think deeply about character. And for me, Jesus is a natural figure to bring up when talking about character.” Fine, but he wasn’t just talking about himself.
As one commenter at IHR pointed out:
Riner could have solved his problem with a very simple addition to his speech—acknowledging that Jesus was his personal icon, but that other students who come with different faiths, including agnostics and atheists, may have other role models. His purpose was to move students toward character development, not just acquisition of learning and/or power, but he failed to put himself in the position of those who do not share his personal beliefs and background. He “embarrassed himself” in the sense that one might expect a Dartmouth senior to be a bit more alert to such differences.
This, it seems to me, is a salient point that should not be omitted from the discussion.
Why not do a thought experiment and put the shoe on the other foot? Suppose Riner had been an atheist who used his address at convocation to declare that “we don’t need the comforting illusion of God in our lives” and that true strength of character lies in behaving morally without divine guidance and without the hope of reward in an imaginary afterlife. Would Christians have been offended or not?