The Power of Plus

(Note: I delivered the following remarks tonight at the Committee of 100 Dinner at the Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer. It was a delight to see old friends and to be invited back to serve as the keynote speaker at this signature event).

It is an honor and a privilege to return to the Chapel + Cultural Center tonight as your keynote speaker for the Committee of 100 Dinner – and I am especially delighted to be here as Rick Hartt is honored as this year’s Sun and Balance Award Winner. Rick and I both served as Directors of the C+CC, and it was always extraordinarily helpful to me to have him just down the road at the Rensselaer Union during my time here. His work has positively touched so many people over the years, all of whom would no doubt applaud his award here. Thank you, Rick, for all you do. It’s important, and it makes a difference.

As those of you who worked with me during my time here may recall, I’m something of a design and font geek. I always found it aesthetically pleasing that the Chapel + Cultural Center’s formal name and mark included neither the word “and” nor an ampersand, but rather a stylized symbol of the Christian Cross. Of course, since working here also required me to deal regularly with the language and symbols of the sciences, I also recognize and appreciate that elegant, additive mark as a plus sign.

Tonight, I would like to talk about the special power of that mathematical plus sign, and how important it is in the history and ongoing life of this amazing campus community, which pulls together so many unique and important ideas, services, stories and people.

First off, of course, the building itself: it is a chapel, plus it is a cultural center. In the early 1960s, as the Second Vatican Council was working to redefine the relationship between the Church and the modern world, our founding Trustees – Martin Davis, William Kerrigan, John Millet, Monsignor William Slavin and Father Tom Phelan – specifically worked to create a space that would satisfy the Council’s most transformative spiritual aspirations in very concrete, worldly ways. The able guidance of building committee chair Steve Wiberley plus the sublime visions of architect Peter Levatich plus the hard work and belief and financial support of so many others all added up to this amazing, versatile building, which still fulfills its core mission in a still ever-changing world.

Myron Bloy’s 1971 book “Community on Campus” provides a fantastic record of the C+CC’s early days, and one chapter in the book focused specifically on another of my favorite additives: the sacred plus the profane. Not the vulgar, mind you, which is what modern parlance often associates with the latter word. In our case, it’s the dictionary definition of “profane” that applies: “relating or devoted to that which is not sacred or Biblical, secular rather than religious.” In short, the C+CC is a place for dialog and engagement between that which is seen, plus that which is not; that which if known, plus that which is believed; that which is in the world, plus that which is not of it.

Another power of the additive sign: town plus gown. We are a campus facility, plus also an important part of the greater community around us. We bring many constituencies together to experience art and culture, to learn and to worship. This additive multiplicity of purposes even manifests itself in our corporate structure: we are the University Parish of Christ Sun of Justice, plus the Rensselaer Newman Foundation, plus the Chaplains Office of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Sometimes that triune organization can be every bit as hard to divine and explicate as the Holy Trinity itself – but it always gets the job done, if you have faith in it.

What about the award we’re giving to Rick tonight? We call it the Sun plus Balance Award – where the Sun represents God, and the Balance represents justice. While some people believe but are unjust, and others are just without believing, it’s the pursuit of fairness anchored in the glow of something greater than ourselves that changes the world for the better, and helps us truly glimpse the divine.

How else does the power of plus work for us here? We look around the room tonight and we are young plus (shall we politely say) not-so-young. That’s the power of plus. The Hebrew plus Roman plus Greek letters on the floor remind us that we engage with a multiplicity of cultures on this great international campus. Again, the power of plus. We provide celebratory public events like this one tonight plus profoundly private moments in the 70 x 7 Room and in the one-on-one counseling that our chaplains offer to those seeking solace in times of need, and guidance in times of doubt. We wear laurels as a nationally recognized historic place plus we campaign for an equally successful and meaningful future.

Now, I could simply conclude my remarks tonight by glibly theorizing that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts when we use the power of plus here at the C+CC – but I know that some of the engineers, mathematicians, architects and other hard science types with us here tonight might challenge me on the mathematical veracity of such a statement.

I’m prepared, however, to take my mathematical statement to a higher power to prove my point. Higher even than multivariable calculus, matrix algebra and differential equations, for those of you currently suffering through such things. What is the cornerstone axiom of this higher power math? Let me refer you to the text that surrounds the Sun and Balance logo on Rick’s award: God is the Measure of All Things.

We may think we know the value of variable A, and we may think we can define the limit of curve B – but our tools for measuring such things are weak and of limited computational value. However, when we hold our viewing lenses up before the light of God’s Sun, and when we weigh things in the pans of His scale, and when we open our minds and our hearts to His math, then the formula that proves the power of plus here is simple: A + B is less than C+CC, Q.E.D.

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