Emory Report

September 18, 2000

 Volume 53, No. 34

Thoughts on Reconciliation

Billy Frye is Chancellor of the University


"True reconciliation is based on forgiveness, and forgiveness is based on true confession, and confession is based on penitence, on contrition, on sorrow for what you have done."

- Desmond Tutu, The Essential Tutu


"Imagination reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual with the representative; ...judgment and self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement;."

- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria

Last year, when Provost Rebecca Chopp asked me and several colleagues to plan a Symposium on Reconciliation to mark the millennium, we began by talking with others about the idea: would "reconciliation" be a theme that would have interest and significance for everyone in the Emory community? We were met with several kinds of responses. Some people immediately saw the idea as an opportunity to showcase and enhance the outstanding teaching, research, and public service that many Emory faculty, staff, and students are doing in such areas as conflict resolution, international and ethnic violence, and human rights. Others thought immediately of the contradictions and inconsistencies that arise from our seeming inability to understand and balance self interest with social responsibility, or to temper the demands for immediate gratification with an understanding of the long-term consequences of our actions. They focused upon the shortsightedness and inequities that are found in all societies, economic and political systems, and governments, and upon the social and intellectual problems that arise from their inconsistencies, such as poverty, racism, unequal access to basic requirements, and environmental degradation.

Yet others, intrigued by the idea of such a symposium but wary of the perils of excessive abstraction, were perplexed and uncertain. "Reconciliation of what?" we were often asked. Some, particularly those working in more purely academic and theoretical areas, pointed out that conflict is not necessarily to be avoided. It can be a positive force insofar as it reflects critical analysis and a passionate engagement of disparate ideas; it enlivens scholarly debate, and advances truth and understanding. Thus we came to understand that the concept of reconciliation-and its contrasting terms-was itself worthy of critical examination.

In proposing this idea, which has now evolved into the Year of Reconciliation, Provost Chopp was explicit about her wish to explore further some of the shared values that were identified in Choices & Responsibility: fostering links between teaching and research, encouraging interdisciplinary scholarship, promoting a stronger sense of unity, and recognizing and expanding our opportunities and responsibilities in the external world. Along with a steering committee and three co-chairs, I have been working this year on planning the symposium, and on talking with others across the university whose inspiration has led to some exciting events, which I hope you will read more about in this issue of Emory Report.

In thinking about and working on reconciliation this year, I would argue that we need not seek a universally acceptable definition or objective; rather, we need to think about the meanings and associations that are most significant in our own work and lives. The two quotations above (brought to my attention by Jan Cahoon) evoke different senses of reconciliation, much like the ones we heard from members of the Emory community. We recognize both senses of reconciliation, of course, but clearly the emphasis, and even the goal, can vary depending upon the context.

Archbishop Tutu, whose name has become almost synonymous with reconciliation, sees it as a process that includes disclosure of guilt, contrition, reparation, and forgiveness. The objective is social justice and spiritual healing. It is an essential condition necessary for a divided and deeply wounded nation to make a new start. Though not a student of Tutu, I understand his view to be rooted in a deeply religious belief that our individual lives have meaning only in relationship to one another and to God. His doctrine is that we must live together, not just because we cannot live apart, but because we do not meaningfully exist apart from one another. But for poet and sometime philosopher Coleridge, the essence of reconciliation lies in discovering and understanding relationships and connections, in discovering the unity of the natural universe:

"And what if all of animated nature

Be but organic harps diversely fram'd

That tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps

Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze

At once the Soul of each, and God of All?"

"The Eolian Harp"

Whereas the essence of Bishop Tutu's view of reconciliation is both deeply moral and spiritual and powerfully pragmatic, Coleridge's seems to be more cerebral and conceptual, more about synthesis and creativity. His view seems to me not unlike the idea of "consilience" that has been advanced so compellingly in recent years by E.O. Wilson.

It is fruitful, I think, to reflect upon the different uses and implications of reconciliation in this way. Some of us will put greater importance upon social issues and humanitarian concerns. Others will emphasize discovering the root sources of discrepancy and inconsistency, finding conceptual unity, and understanding the nature of imagination and creativity. Still others will inquire about the limits of reconciliation. I believe that at the heart of all of these senses of reconciliation is a process of searching. We search for a coherent understanding of what we know and what we believe; for a less dogmatic, more tolerant world view; for more rewarding interactions with one another; for more imaginative and creative solutions and a vision of new possibilities; and especially for more harmonious ways to engage our differences, the contradictions that are inherent among and within us. These are the things that academic communities do best.

It is our hope that the Reconciliation Symposium, and the varied and numerous events of the Year of Reconciliation, will help everyone in the community share with and learn from each other. Along the way, I urge each of you to take some time to reflect upon the meaning of reconciliation in your own life and work.

Return to September 18, 2000 contents page