If our world did not have visionaries, we would all still live in caves. Visionaries catch a glimpse of something on the horizon that the rest of us cannot make out. They “see” beyond the here and now, the limitations of our frames of reference, the myopia of our institutional structures and the blind spots in those critically important (but imperfect and limited) “tribes” that form us as children and sustain us as adults – our families, our communities, our churches, our places of employment, our societies.
The best visionaries see a different world before their eyes, but also can motivate–with their vision or their personalities or both–enough humans with the potential to turn a vision into a reality. Effective visionaries not only reach for the stars; they help their companions grasp those stars, and even one day live on them.
Visionaries come in different varieties of effectiveness. Some talk passionately about a better or different world to those around them, but get little traction with their idealism. They provide a kind of entertainment and distraction to life, but do not really change it. Others become teachers attempting to inspire the next generation. They write books or give speeches that inspire segments of the population, but do not really play a substantive role in realizing a vision. Like Moses, they point to possibilities for the emergence of a better world, and perhaps offer a map to the destination but cannot walk very far along the path on that map themselves.
There is a more select group of visionaries. They not only see a more hopeful, promising horizon; they have the ability to draw around them a group of people who can build the boat to get their comrades to the horizon. Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry has always aspired to prepare students to become these kinds of visionaries, and we have had many graduates who have achieved this level of transforming themselves and the little area around their world.
Some people considered Robert (Bobby) Kennedy, the younger brother of President John F. Kennedy, this kind of visionary, one who could have made substantive changes in American society and perhaps the world. Raised in the lap of luxury, Robert became involved in politics only because his big brother encouraged him to do so, even accepting the position of U.S. Attorney General under the older Kennedy’s presidential administration. Bobby always had a social conscience, and as Attorney General (1961-64), sought to prosecute organized crime in American society, particularly its involvement in the trade unions.
But, Bobby Kennedy came into his own as an American visionary only after the assassination of his brother, John. The younger Kennedy developed stronger attitudes about the nation’s responsibility to respond to the plight of the poor in the United States, the need to redistribute wealth, and the importance of America reevaluating its outsized role in the politics of other nations. In the process, Bobby became a strong and controversial voice for social and political change. When he spoke to crowds, he projected an authenticity that not only inspired them with a vision, but also motivated them to get involved in changing the world. He seemed particularly adept at attracting the kind of people who could build an organization that could turn a vision into reality.
When Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, the youngest Kennedy brother, Edward, eulogized his sibling with a three-minute speech that is considered one of the best examples of American political rhetoric. It captures the heart of the kind of visionary the School of Theology and Ministry would hope to produce through our educational and formational processes. My brother, said Edward Kennedy in his eulogy, should be remembered “simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”
Then, summarizing the life of a visionary with a paraphrase of the Serpent in George Bernard Shaw’s play Back To Methuselah, Edward said “some men (sic) see things as they are and say, why? He dreamed dreams that never were and said why not?” (For a video clip of the eulogy, see here)
Like other tragic visionary figures, Robert Kennedy was killed before he had much of a chance to see how far he could change the nation and world he loved into the vision he had received of a more just and humane place. His good friend, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote a famous biography, Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978), and wondered throughout its pages what might have happened if the younger Kennedy had become president. Schlesinger seems to think that Bobby could have inspired the nation and built the institutional structures needed to promote and sustain his vision. As Schlesinger notes, however, we are only left with speculation. The assassin robbed the world of the chance to see.
Talking about a vision is exciting and fun, but trying to realize it is extremely hard work; and, it is a task of the many, not the one or the few. As the comedian George Carlin once quipped, playing off of the Shaw quote used by Edward Kennedy: “Some people see things that are and ask, Why? Some people dream of things that never were and ask, Why not? Some people have to go to work and don’t have time for all that!” <Image from NPR.org>
Sadly, Carlin is right. Most people in the world do not have time to catch a vision and its implications, let alone become a drum major and laborer to bring that vision to fruition. But, fortunately, history shows that visionaries do not need a large number of collaborators:
Jesus began the Christian movement with only 12 leaders, most of them moderately to significantly dysfunctional, according to the testimony of the Bible. Islam began with the Prophet Muhammad gathering around him an unlikely group of poor, weak and wealthy clans who shared only a discomfort with the materialism of Meccan society. Mary Eddy Baker built the Church of Christ, Scientist, from a “little band of earnest seekers,” in the late 19th century, and in the mid-20th century the Shinnyo-en Buddhist sect (now more than 1 million strong throughout the world) began with the passionate commitment to peace, harmony, and bridge building across human division through a vision of a Japanese aeronautical engineer and his wife after they lost a child.
Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry has had an abundance of visions and visionaries associated with it over the past 17 years in particular. The school began with an “intentionally ecumenical” vision that Christians from divided denominational perspectives could deepen and ground their particular kind of Christian faith, while simultaneously opening themselves to the insights of other Christian perspectives. There was an assumption buried in this vision – everyone becomes a stronger Christian in their own communities by taking seriously the insights gained by other historic Christian traditions. But, the real work of the school is encouraging and educating the next generation of visionaries, whether they want to transform congregations, prisons, hospitals, the military, or impact the broader society on issues like poverty, educational inequalities, or the raft of other issues plaguing the human race at this moment in history.
Over the past six years, the School of Theology at Seattle University has been refreshing and maturing its own original vision of a school dedicated to building understanding, harmony and collaboration in a diverse and too often divided world.
Five years we began wrestling with the religious pluralism of our times, creating a degree for interfaith students, and strategically engaging religious leaders of the region to promote better understanding and to look for common causes in creating a better world. Among other things, this has culminated in working with 14 Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations and nearly 18,000 people to see what we can do collectively to impact family homelessness in Western Washington. More recently, we have launched a project to integrate into our curricula the best thinking in economic literacy and management–the complicated financial issues that every visionary must attend for a vision to become a reality. The school has also reimagined not only how to integrate spirituality with the best training in clinical psychological therapy, but also how to best position our graduates for the kinds of jobs that will allow them to impact both their clients and the world around them.
Lastly, we have built in the past few years a strong tradition of “public theology.” Faculty members have taken every imaginable opportunity to engage the local media. And, we attempt to equip our students not only to lead people within church organizations, but also to bring the values of love, compassion, hope and justice to those who do not share a particular religious worldview. As part of this project we have launched a program helping young pastors become leaders in society as well as their congregations.
The weight of these efforts, and several others, has required the faculty and staff over the past year to spend a great deal of time trying to understand a common narrative to explain all of these activities. We have had long, detailed discussions about the vision that is emerging, and the way we are trying to operationalize this emerging vision.
This is hard work. Taking visions from talk to action always is. However, any visionary worth his or her weight knows that the work is worth it, and in the twilight of one’s life there will be no regret for the time and effort spent. As H. Jackson Brown, Jr., put it in P.S. I Love You:
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.