Moral Imagination & the Wisdom of Augustine

A reflection by The Center on Amanda Gorman's 2021 innagural poem for the January 26, 2021 newsletter


Amanda Gorman, the Poet Laureate for the January 20, 2021 US Presidential Inauguration, enacted her poem, ‘The Hill We Climb,” with images that encourage a country to hold a mirror up close to the face of our collective well-being.  This is the labor of poets and poetry, to use words and silence both, and as Gorman demonstrated, to utilize  the performance of one’s arms in motion and pause, as a means of drawing in the public’s moral imagination for its future.  In short, where do we see the future calling us, and how will we act in ways that get us there?

In this question, Gorman helps us to recognize both a people’s weariness and the stirring sinews of hope, in the same moment.  It was in this context of a moral imagination for our future that the newly inaugurated President of the United States dedicated himself to the years ahead with “all my soul.” He did so by drawing upon his own faith as a Roman Catholic and pulled on a religious thread that surprised some.  He mentioned Saint Augustine.

President Biden made his statement on the soul’s work, with appeals to love and empathy, both of which can be a cause for strategic engagement in the world.  St. Augustine, whose writing influenced the formative philosophical and theological years of the Latin Church, is still mightily influential today.  But that wisdom is often subterranean, until he gets a shout-out in a speech of this kind.  For his part, Augustine spoke prodigiously on paper, and used compact and colorful oratory of words to describe what inhibits love (like leaves blocked in a channel along a roofline) or to lament the heartbreaking loss of a friend to illness in his youth (like pouring my soul into sand).  In Augustine’s work, as is clear in Biden’s comments and his well-known religious formation, is a relationship between love ordered toward God, alive in the world, and desirous of being the cause of joy itself.  In every loss, in the fraught moment of challenge construed, the moral imagination begins from the fidelitous sway of a love well-directed; such is the wisdom of Augustine in an inauguration.

In this season, the Center asks itself what Gorman asked of us too – what is our future and what acts are required to get us there?  As you read this newsletter outlining our current work, and the pride of our Student Affiliates – and a whole Team – who have weathered a remote reality for almost 11 months, the Center is now turning toward a scholarly project with 13 scholars from within and without Seattle University, who will focus together across disciplines on the theme of Gratitude, Injury and Restoration in a Pandemic Age.  What impacts “all the people,” from the root pandemos, in this title, is inclusive of much.  A pandemic age includes structures that fail us, that do not come from the heart of love strategically at work in the world, and that are cause for disparities, unevenness, and pain.  This includes structural racism and other forms of violence.  And the pandemic age also includes a virus, which is a singular source of national and global mourning right now.

These scholars meet first in April, and then in October, and in between those dates the Center Team will be creating a usable resource for students and local communities who will also be asked to fully engage their moral imaginations where they study, live and work. 

The Poet’s question in the mirror will require us to draw on religious traditions, spiritual pathways, and indigenous wisdom, in order to locate our gratitude for one another and for God or transcendent mystery, and to assess how these perspectives have made sense of injury across the aegis of time.  This study is one way in which the Center is engaging the moral imagination toward deeper healing in a future to which the living must co-create together. 

The Center will report more in the coming month on this season of study, and I encourage you to follow the links on this newsletter to learn more about our work, aligned to our STM students, to our ecumenical and interreligious communities, and at home in Seattle University. 

What face appears in that mirror that Amanda Gorman held up for us, to forecast our collective well-being?  The wisdom of the ages would tell us love must reside at the center of our response, and that our unity formed in love is the first measure of all ringing freedom.



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