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John L. Esposito, Religion Scholar and Expert on Islam, Delivers 2017 Baccalaureate Address

Lehigh’s 149th Baccalaureate Service featured an address by John L. Esposito, a leading American expert on Islam, and discussions of world religious traditions by student adherents of those faiths.

A crowd of graduating seniors and their parents and well-wishers filled most of Packer Memorial Church for the one-hour ceremony, which was held Sunday afternoon.

Lloyd Steffen, professor of religion studies and university chaplain, introduced Esposito and described him as a “renowned religion scholar, a prolific author, a model for the activist-scholar and one of the first people to point out the significance of Islam as a political force.”

Esposito, who titled his address “What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam,” is the founding director of the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in the Walsh School of Foreign Service and director of the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University. He is also Georgetown’s University Professor of Religion and International Affairs.

Esposito, who filled his 20-minute speech with humor and personal anecdotes, began by admitting that he was the “oldest of three boys and the least intelligent. I didn’t like to read books until after I got my Ph.D.”

His life took several twists and turns, Esposito said, before he decided to devote his life to the study of Islam. He entered a Catholic seminary before leaving to pursue an academic career. After finishing his Ph.D., he held a series of jobs.

“People would later ask my mother, ‘How do you feel seeing your son giving a public speech?’ And she would just say, ‘Thank God he finally has a job.’

“You still have some lead time,” he told the graduating seniors. “You can decide not to do what you initially started out to do.”

Globalization, Esposito said, has had a dramatic effect on America’s religious and political landscape. In the 1970s, the United States was predominantly influenced by the Christian and Jewish faiths, he said, and other religions, including Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, were poorly understood.

“Neither education, the media nor government saw these other religions as important.” Even to diplomats, Esposito said, the study of other faiths “did not matter.”

The revolution that brought an Islamic government to Iran in 1979 forced America and other Western nations to reconsider, he said.

Esposito posed the questions, “Is Islam compatible with Christian and Western values? Is it a violent religion?” He answered by saying that Islamic terrorists “are a very small but deadly group.” To judge all Muslims by the actions of a few, he said, would be no different from judging all Christians against the backdrop of the violence between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland in the late 20th century.

Esposito criticized the “major media” for devoting too much of their coverage to acts of terrorism and for insufficiently covering the everyday practice of Islam by average Muslims.

America, he said, was a land of immigrants and multiple ethnic groups.

“To learn how to transcend our religious and political differences, we need to know where we were and where we are now. Our challenge is to fall back on the common precepts of the three great monotheistic religions—love of God and love of neighbor. Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Jews need to remember that.”

Love of neighbor, Esposito said, requires more than tolerance.

“The word ‘tolerance’ has come to mean, ‘I tolerate your existence.’ We need to move beyond that to embrace a pluralism that does not see diversity as dangerous. We need to say ‘I recognize your right to your faith and your traditions. This requires mutual understanding and respect.”

Students speak of faith

Five graduating seniors made brief remarks about their faiths—Samuel Cassell (Judaism), Naiya Patel (Hinduism), Rachel Weckselblatt (Christianity), Helen Ard (Islam) and Kevin Rongkai Sha (Asian Perspectives-Meditation).

Cassell, who majored in analytical finance with a minor in Jewish Studies, led the audience in a Hebrew recitation of what he called a “perfect” Jewish prayer for the occasion: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, for granting us life, sustaining us and enabling us to reach this occasion.”

Patel, a double major in finance and economics, expressed her gratitude to Lehigh and to the Indian Students Association for helping to reconnect her to her Hindu faith. “At Lehigh, I found my home away from home,” Patel said. “Hinduism began to define me. My mom always taught me that you don’t need to be Indian to be Hindu; you don’t need to go to temple to see God, and that God is within you.”

Weckselblatt, a materials science and engineering major, thanked Lehigh for giving her the opportunity as an engineering student to take classes in the humanities and to hold meaningful discussions with students from other backgrounds. “Multifaith events taught me how to hold conversations with and learn from people who are different from me,” she said. “Most of the world’s inhabitants say they are believers. Only through dialogue can we eliminate intolerance and persecution and find peace.”

Ard, who earned a B.A. in global studies and economics, said she became interested in Islam after taking an Arabic language class. “A classmate invited me to join the Muslim Students Association and to attend mosque,” she said. “I decided Islam was the way I wanted to live life.” In February, upon hearing that a Syrian refugee family had been denied entry into the United States, Ard decided to “work on practicing Islam…it’s a slow process. Experience and daily practice have given my life a new center.”

Sha, who double-majored in accounting and business information systems, urged the audience to confront problems that often seem overwhelming by “living in a spirit of inquiry and mindfulness. Our life can too often seem not to work because we’re not working at life,” he said.

In his welcoming remarks, Steffen told students that the baccalaureate service had its origins nearly 600 years ago at Oxford University in England, when graduating students were required to take their final exams—and demonstrate their mastery of religious communication—in Latin.

While the exam nature of the baccalaureate service has largely disappeared from the modern university, Steffen said, the ceremony has evolved into an interfaith service. Lehigh has followed this model by inviting graduating seniors of different religions to speak and by hosting an address by a “person of distinction” on a topic of the day.

Father Christopher Butera, Lehigh’s Catholic chaplain and director of the Newman Center, delivered the invocation, and asked God to give graduating seniors “the wisdom, courage and fortitude to embrace the future and to accomplish your reign.”

Reflections of faith leaders

Earlier on Sunday, at the Catholic baccalaureate service in Packer Church, Butera recounted the story of Jesus’s promise to send a Paraclete—the Holy Spirit—to act as a counselor, or coach to his followers. Butera compared this story from the Gospel of John in the New Testament of the Bible to an anecdote about Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who discovered the South Pole.

According to the anecdote, Butera said, Amundsen took a homing pigeon on his expedition across Antarctica and released it upon reaching his goal. The bird flew back to Amundsen’s house, allowing his wife to know that Amundsen had safely finished his journey. Jesus’s story of the Paraclete, Butera said, is a reminder “that we all stand in constant need of divine help.”

Rabbi Danielle Stillman, associate chaplain and director of Jewish student life at Lehigh, also gave welcoming remarks, relating a story from the Talmud about two rabbis who go their separate ways at a fork in the road.

“When friends take leave of each other,” Stillman said, “the Talmud says they should teach each other something. That way, they remember each other when they think later of what they learned, and they remember what they learned when they think later of each other.

“May you also always remember your friends,” Stillman told the students, “and what they have taught you at Lehigh.”

The Concord Chamber Singers performed an arrangement by Shawn Kirchner of the African-American spiritual “Unclouded Day,” as well “Alleluia” by Randall Thompson and “Choral Benediction” by Peter Lutkin. The Lehigh Valley-based ensemble is directed by Jennifer Kelly, assistant professor of music and director of choral activities at Lafayette College.

The Southside Brass opened the ceremony with 15 minutes of processional music. The event closed with a postlude by university organist Ian Tomesch.

Story by Kurt Pfitzer

Photos by Christa Neu


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Samuel Cassell discusses Judaism at the Lehigh University Baccalaureate ceremony.

Samuel Cassell ’17 gave a brief address on Judaism.

Naiya Patel discusses her Hindu faith at Lehigh University's 2017 baccalaureate ceremony.

Naiya Patel ’17 discussed her Hindu faith.

Rachel Weckselblatt spoke from the Christian perspective at Lehigh University's baccalaureate ceremony.

Rachel Weckselblatt ’17 spoke from the Christian perspective.

Helen Ard talked about her life as a Muslim at Lehigh University's baccalaureate ceremony.

Helen Ard ’17 talked about her life as a Muslim.

Kevin Rongkai Sha gives an address about Asian perspectives and meditation at Lehigh University's baccalaureate ceremony.

Kevin Rongkai Sha ’17 gave an address about Asian perspectives and meditation.

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