STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 05/06/2011

John D. Mason: A Beloved Professor's Address to Graduates

Dr. John Mason, founding father of the Department of Economics and Business at Gordon, passed away January 15. This is text of John’s address to graduating seniors May 18, 2007, at the traditional Senior Breakfast.

I am a Christian brother who happens to be an economist. Now economists might be described as charter members of the World Association of Party Poopers (WAPP). It is our self-assigned task to assess the cost of whatever it is you may want to do, and then more often than you would like, to caution that these desires simply are too costly—that the ends you seek are not feasible, and therefore we encourage you to chart a less utopian course. In other words, so we are interpreted, “Don’t dream so much, and be content with the way things are”—to which you may well respond, “Who invited this guy to the party?”

But before showing me the door, recall that I am a Christian economist, and Christians should always be dreaming of new and better ways of bringing God’s full shalom to every corner of our world—albeit, I must note, in ways that indeed yield the improvement we seek (for example, feasibility).

I share a special bond with your class. You and I terminate our full-time involvement with Gordon College at the end of this academic year: in your case, I pray, to use what we offered here in a quest to make this world more pleasing to its Creator; and in my case, to retire from full-time teaching. Although retired from this calling I have dearly loved, I will join with you in the pursuit of a better world through my ongoing research into ways of assuring that all students in this society receive a good, quality education.

Before I say anything more I must recognize the beautiful woman sitting beside me at this breakfast, my wife of almost 41 years. To the extent I have been able to accomplish anything worthwhile throughout my professional career, Sherrie has been a vital part of that. As a number of you can testify, she manifests the gift of hospitality in a way I never could, and she keeps this otherwise dour economist smiling and fashionable.

A foundational principle of economics is the law of diminishing marginal utility, which observes that the more of some good we consume, the less the additional value received from one more unit of that good. As I have noted with some of you, I have discovered at least one exception to this law—kisses with one’s spouse of many years. Each kiss is at least as sweet as the previous one; there is no diminishing marginal utility here. I wish for each of you this same sweetness with your life mate as I have found with mine.

The counsel offered to me by your representative who extended the invitation to speak was to make this talk touching and lighthearted. I hope I have been faithful to this charge so far. She also said that you asked me to speak for who I am. Heeding this counsel, let me return to my encouragement to you to embrace the pursuit of God’s full shalom in this world.

The New York Times this past week contained two contradictory items. The Sunday Book Review highlighted the latest book from Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens is one of those erudite and clever British imports who help us better understand ourselves. The reviewer notes how in his recent writings Hitchens seemed to be edging towards a position of cultural conservatism. But rather than embrace a traditional religion, as one might expect as the next step in this intellectual pilgrimage, Hitchens now turns and attacks religion—joining what appears to be a counter-offensive by prominent atheists of late in reaction to the growing influence of orthodox believers in each of the religions that claim Abraham as a spiritual father. This past Sunday, probably about the time when readers of The Times were digesting the Hitchens review, Pope Benedict XVI was addressing the Latin American bishops in Brazil. In this much-anticipated speech, delivered on a continent hosting the largest concentration of Roman Catholics—as well as knowing great disparities between rich and poor—the pope condemned both capitalism and Marxism/socialism as “systems that marginalize God.” “What is real?” he asked. “Are only material goods, social and economic and political problems ‘reality’?”

“Just structures,” he continued, “are an indispensable condition for a just society, but they neither rise nor function without a moral consensus in society on fundamental values. Where God is absent—God with the human face of Jesus Christ—these values fail to show themselves with their full force: nor does a consensus arrive concerning them. . . . I do not mean that nonbelievers cannot live a lofty and exemplary morality; I am only saying that a society in which God is absent will not find the necessary consensus on moral values or the strength to live according to the model of these values.”

From where I sit, Benedict XVI wins this contest hands down. A comprehensive market economy—call it capitalism—will of itself not generate a just distribution of income, and the socialist alternative (given all we have learned over the last century) offers no improvement. Any workable economic order requires the presence of underlying values that constrain its harmful potentials, along with mercy-filled actions by citizens to provide what no government, however well-conceived, can do. In this part of the world the Judeo-Christian religious tradition has been a—if not the—primary source providing these necessary components that render the politico-economic order more just. As one very important example of this, fellow Christians in an earlier era led the cause for abolishing slavery and the subsequent repressions known as "Jim Crow."

To advocate for and to assist those in society who are weak, vulnerable and poor—as I contend the Bible instructs us to do—will inevitably require sacrifice in a world constrained by scarcity. I challenge Christopher Hitchens and his fellow travelers to provide in the absence of God a more compelling and enduring motivation to sacrifice than that given to us in Jesus Christ—the God Who became man and taught us to sacrifice for others, and then in humble obedience offered His own life as an example for us and as an atonement for the sins of the whole world.

So, dear brothers and sisters, have fun this morning and this weekend as you remember and celebrate the good times you have enjoyed together over these past years. And as you march across the stage tomorrow to commence your life after Gordon, may you continue to have fun—even dancing (my middle name is Dancer!)—in the midst of the necessary sacrifices required to help make this world more pleasing to our great God. Help this world do the good things to which it aspires, but, without God, lacks the understanding and will to make it happen. May God bless you!

NEXT: Are You Up for a Challenge?