September 27, 2005

Open Letter to Noah Riner


I would like to correct a misunderstanding I think you may have in regards to ‘character.’ You seem to believe it is about the moral or ethical courage to stand alone and sacrifice, as Christ did in the Garden of Gethsemane; it is more than that. It is propriety. Propriety is the quality of doing the right thing at the right time. Propriety may not be glamorous or romantic, may not get you headlines or convince anyone of your views, but it is the very soul of character, of moral and ethical strength. After all, if one is unable or unwilling to do the right thing in the right moment, but rather insists on doing a right thing at a wrong time (or worse, a wrong thing at a wrong time), how can that person truly be said to possess moral or ethical strength, which encompasses far more than courage, but also discipline and discretion?

You define character as “sacrifice, laying our personal interests down for something bigger” yet you have belied that very definition by your actions and words at the recent Convocation. You have chosen to put your personal interests in spreading the message of Christ before the “something bigger” on whose behalf you were acting—namely, the Dartmouth student body.

I am certain you believe that the “something bigger” you were working for was Christ Himself, but I believe that you in fact neglected entirely what should have been your primary responsibility—your role as Student Assembly President and thus representative of the student body. The duty you owe to our student body is one of representing—or doing your very best to—all voices while silencing or estranging none. This may mean that while you are acting in this capacity, you cannot fulfill your duties to God in the same manner you might otherwise do.

I realize that many Christians believe that no duty comes before their duty to Christ, but I also believe that Christ, at least in the Gospels, was pragmatic. He realized clearly that there are days and times for proselytizing and there are days and times for more worldly matters. Christ was comfortable with allotting to the world what is owed to the world; he was comfortable with fulfilling secular and material obligations when they needed fulfilled.

I assume you know your Bible well enough to substantiate this claim, but Matthew 22:21 is always a good place to start: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.” I Peter 2:13-17 also works well:
Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.

I am sure that the outcry against you must now seem like “the ignorance of foolish men,” but I think it is more important that you realize that you should not “us[e] your liberty [of speech] for a cloak of maliciousness”—which in this case, I hope, amounts to insensitivity. Insensitivity to the fact that the day, time, and place you chose to speak was not one that was dedicated to Christ, nor need it have been. It was a time to challenge students, sure, but not to do so in a manner that had at least the potential of alienating some of them.

Some have suggested that this small impropriety of yours has been blown out of proportion, that if you had used an innocuous figure from popular culture, then this whole thing would have not been an issue. What that sort of argument ignores is the very fact that you tried to make clear in your speech—exactly how important a position the figure of Jesus Christ is in society.

If all you were doing is dropping his name, you show tremendous ignorance of the kind of impact a mention of Christ has on many students who do not share your faith. It is ironic that you can put Christ at the center of your life but fail utterly to see the tenor and shape of his relation to people other than yourself or Christians like you. Christ is simply not a positive figure in many people’s lives. This may be an unfortunate fact in your opinion, but it is not and will not be solved by thrusting His Cross into a Convocation speech.

Andrew Seal


  1. Anonymous11:40 PM

    if mr. riner was evangelising during his convocation speech, your letter would... well, make sense. the facts being that he did nothing more than express his religious belief, or did nothing to exceed what might be said in a religion class, means that your letter is encouraging yet another example of the repression of a person's rights as set up be the US Constitution. That a person can no longer simply state the "facts" (the facts as set up within a specific religion, not the facts as they actually are) is dispicable and appalling. One would expect more from an institution such as Dartmouth, but it seems in this day and age of freedom from all convictions of other people, one's own expression is threatened by people like yourself and others in Dartmouth's student government.

  2. Dear sir,
    Your error lies in your interpretation of Matthew. When Christ spoke of rendering to Caesar the things of Caesar and to God the things that were His, there was an irony set forth. Everything belongs to God. Therefore, everything about your life must be turned over to Him. The idea of a single student body being "something bigger" is preposterous and narrow. There are many things and even more people outside of the Dartmouth community. If your "something bigger" is correct, then the vast majority of the world does not belong to this bigger scheme. However, I posit that Riner is correct in believing that the bigger plan of this world is the building of character through being found in Christ. Jesus was indeed is the greatest example of character simply because He is God. Jesus' most basic message which is prominent throughout all of His ministry including the passage you quoted is "repent because the Kingdom of God is at hand." This means turn from the old order of doing things which includes trying to be good enough or smart enough and trust completely in the work of Christ to reconcile you to God. I truly hope you have read far enough to hear me out on this, but I do not wish to badger you. You see, I once believed as you do and it took somebody caring enough to confront me with the emptiness of my works to lead me to search for the meaning of this life. This is simply a plea from one man to another. I have searched for truth and this is the only place I found every question answered. Please, be found in Christ for the Kingdom of God is at hand.

  3. Anonymous7:47 PM

    noah you kick ass

  4. Frank Foto, MD11:59 PM

    The President of the Student Assembly at Dartmouth is criticized and accused of insensitivity for expressing a need for the development of character in conjuction with knowledge, and then invoking his religious beliefs in his examples of such character. How did the spiritual example cause the student body of Dartmouth harm? Better yet -- how did the referenced example detract from the noble message for the need to develop a part of the human soul which is so often ignored by university faculty and administrations? Oh the horror! Imagine that! A university student who represents the student body freely expressing his spirituality and religious convictions in order to send a message which is honorable in the least! The audacity! What is wrong with the free expression of one's religious beliefs as an example in delivering such a noble message?

    Wouldn't the implied intelligence of the student body at Dartmouth suggest that there is a capacity for students to distinguish between indoctrination and expression? Insensitivity? Mr. Seal and other detractors only fog the noble message of a student capable of the characterizations found in Mr. Riner's words.

    In using his spirituality to exemplify his definition of character Mr. Riner did not incur any negative consequence or repercussion on the student body. There was no ill wish - no ill intent - no ill inclination toward his fellow students. Indeed it could be argued that the religious example in his message gives it a sense of aspiration for the future success of his fellow students.

    The students deserve more credit than that. That is - there must be an intrinsic understanding and ability by Dartmouth students to characterize Mr. Riner's example as just that - an example! What does it matter that he happened to invoke his religious beliefs to find that example. Mr. Seal failed to appreciate the message and chose to detract in the name of political correctness. I am not a religious man, but consider myself very spiritual. I find Mr. Riner's words and message outstanding - notwithstanding the example used.

  5. Anonymous8:48 AM

    You whiners are such hypocrites!!

  6. It begs to ask the question: Was it really the mention of Jesus Christ that has caused all the controversy or, that Dartmouth's seeming lack of character being addressed?

  7. Anonymous1:48 AM

    Noah, i read your speech and i though it was awesome. i do believe you nailed it on the head addressing character. Keep up the great work. i hope all is well at dartmouth- tim h.

  8. Mei-Shen Gregory7:19 PM

    I was encouraged to read about Noah Riner's convocation message. Why is it that so many people are uncomfortable, offended, and feel threatened by the nature of his speech? I believe that it is because he addresses the truth of mankind's sinful nature: We are all morally corrupt, boastful, and plagued by carnal desires.

    Whether you trust Jesus or not, none of us are completely righteous, and we know it. We can lie to cover up our "cheating, lying, and lusting," but we can't get away from the crummy dirt that we hide on a daily basis. Noone understands God, we have all turned away from God, and we are stubbornly resistent to repent before God. Why are many people reluctant to ascribe God as both Father and Judge? Most importantly, the sacrificial act of Jesus is a symbol of the depravity of our condition?

    We need Christ on the Cross to make us free from the bondage of sin and the law. We need to have faith in Jesus Christ so that we will have eternal life and not be condemned by sin. I know I'm preaching, but in this postmodern culture, our reasoning has become clowded by too much generous orthodoxy and not enough absolute truth. The absolute truth is that we are all dying, and ultimately need Someone (Christ) to dwell in our hearts so that will can rest in His grace. This grace is what sets us free to love one another and forgive others.

    His righteous judgement is rejected out of fear, but we must realize that His rightous judgement and truth will be revealed because "God will give to each person according to what he has done. to those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then the Gentile. For God does not show favortisim." (Romans 2:6-11).

    Apart from God and the saving acts of Christ, we are swift to take credit or give credit to laws, condemnation, or the Law of God.

    Riner's message at a prestigious and secular IV league school such as Dartmouth was quite impressive, but remember that faith in Christ is not Riner's truth, but holy truth. It is a harsh reality that we are fallen and corrupt, but the authority of Christ in our lives helps us aim for perfection, live in peace, live in grace, and be led by the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Cornithians 13:11-14)

    Thanks, Noah for sharing THE message of the gospel, and pray that you will not grow weary of doing good at your last year of Dartmouth.

    In Christ,
    Mei-Shen Gregory

  9. Shaundra6:42 PM

    i wanted to just simply say that i am a christian who goes to a secular college. I battle daily within myself when to speak out about my faith in christ. I have been a people pleaser practically all my life mainly because i fear the rejection and ridicule i would receive. I have no problem saying what God has done for me if asked, but i lack the courage to confront those who choose to believe in false idols. You have encouraged me to speak up. Just last sunday our pastor taught on Divine dignity and it was about the dignity that Jesus showed. I believe God is trying to get through to us lukewarm Christians and stand up for what we believe in.
    There is a christian comic who just wrote a book called "out of the Closet Christianity" I am not sure if this is a quote from the book, but it talks about how homosexuals are coming out of the closet and christians are going in. That is a very scary thought. I am so glad that God used you te send this message out. It was greatly needed

  10. God bless you Noah! I pray my kids are 1/2 as committed and driven in their Christian Walk as you are. Never be discouraged, you are doing the right thing. There is a higher calling and responsibility. I have finally gotten more bold in my convictions and have lost "friends", but I now have no regret for not spreading the Truth.

  11. God bless you Noah! I pray my kids are 1/2 as committed and driven in their Christian Walk as you are. Never be discouraged, you are doing the right thing. There is a higher calling and responsibility. I have finally gotten more bold in my convictions and have lost "friends", but I now have no regret for not spreading the Truth.

  12. Andrew Seal,

    If Jesus Christ truly did exist and if he lived a perfect life, would he not be worth mentioning in a convocation speech? Furthermore, if Christ actually died on a cross for the sins of mankind and resurrected after three days in order that we might be saved, then don't you think it was a good thing that Noah spoke of him? And so I challenge you to research the facts, the evidence; if you find that there is no real evidence for everything I listed above, then you're right in admonishing Noah for saying what he said. But I assure you that if you seek sincerely and diligently you'll find that the life Jesus led is like no other. Perhaps you're not interested in seeking? Why not? Is it REALLY because you don't think it's true? Or is it because you're afraid of what it will mean for your life? Truth will always remain truth, whether or not you agree. Noah Riner presented the truth that September day last year, and he stepped on some toes. Why are we so afraid of toe-stepping? At least Noah was brave enough to do it. I hope you're brave enough to seek out the truth. I think you are.

  13. Anonymous11:17 AM

    Some 'preachers' are afraid to talk about sin and Jesus in church, but Noah chose to do so in front of a secular group.
    Took a lot of courage and conviction. A true soldier of the cross.
    For too long Christians have allowed themselves to be brow-beaten and silenced by self-righteous demagogues.
    Way to go Noah! Maybe you'll inspire others to join in the fray.

  14. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for taking a stand. It is a sickening thing, the selective tolerance that is shown in our world. Thank you for following in the footsteps of Christ and being bold. I pray one day I, as a growing Christian, will develop the same devotion and bravery.