Extraordinary as his contributions were to the cause of ending apartheid in South Africa, they can actually stunt our perception of the true greatness of Desmond Tutu. "Odyssey Networks Presents," a Sunday morning feature on Hallmark Channel, is the first to provide cable television viewers with perhaps their first glimpse of just how great this man is -- how wise, how puckish , how bold and brave, how creative, how compassionate and caring -- and, at the same time, how "real" and how human he is.
Listening to Desmond Tutu's conversation with Tom Beech of the Fetzer Institute at Western Michigan University, I realized for the first time the dimensions of Archbishop Tutu's "greatness." As we do with such figures as King and Gandhi, we can perceive Desmond Tutu to be simply a great man forged by "his times." Certainly "the times" do shape such individuals. But what makes them great, ultimately, is what they bring to those times from deep within themselves, and how these extraordinary people shape so profoundly the "times" that they inhabit.
Listening to Tutu talk one cannot escape the questions: do I believe that? can I do that? His greatness is not merely his intellect, or his charm, or even his "status" as a member of the hierarchy. It's quite simply himself.
As Tom Beech points out, the broad themes in their conversation are intimately connected with one of the Fetzer Institute's own: love and forgiveness. Here is a man who is great simply because of his tremendous capacity for living out both of those "virtues" and doing so in such a way as to make "doing likewise" attractive.
In the course of their conversation, several Tutu axioms and insights emerge. They are simple but profound. Here are some that struck me.
"Imagine, imagine, imagine..." he calls out at the beginning of the dialogue. And, right away, I realized that he was not talking about us creating little fantasies to escape into. With that invitation, Tutu is demanding (lovingly of course) that we call upon this most powerful of human capacities: imagination. Referencing any number of human longings, he shows us that it is this capacity and what we bring to it that makes a difference in the world. What do I imagine: domination, power, popularity? Or the things that truly make our world: reconciliation, community, justice.
Another. "We are stand-ins for God." Tutu holds that the way God is present in the world is through humanity. Ironically, by a bit of logical twisting, one can see that this is true even for atheists. Many who do not believe in God, still, in a sense, long for what it is that believers have found: peace, justice, hope, a future. So, all people, religious or not, can see that we share this yearning for better times, better conditions, a better/cleaner planet. Believers find the source of all that is God. Others, without that faith, still understand that only people can make the vision real. Tutu's point is that all human beings are called either by God or by experience to "re-create" the world.
"We are created for goodness." "The good will win." With his long lens look at history, the archbishop is convinced (and is convincing in his reflections) that good will out. He calls on the evidence all around us. Why are we almost naturally attracted to the Dali Lama? We recognize "the good" in him. Remember, he urges us: tyrants die; they are deposed; they fall. All things tend eventually toward good.
A voice like his is compelling because it relies on the truth of his experience and, ultimately, the truth of ours. Tutu is, unquestionably, a Christian. But, other than referencing the very fundamentals of religious faith (i.e., there is a God); he relies on the validation of our own experience (not scripture texts, or catechisms) to confirm the basic truths that are open to all of humanity.
It is a pleasure and a gift to spend time in the presence of this great, good man.
You can watch the whole conversation on line. You'll be drawn in. Tutu's vivid imagination and his call to join in the exercise of our own imaginations makes the opportunity to eavesdrop on the archbishop's conversation with Tom Beech one that will allow you to listen to "greatness" and find out that it can begin to find a home in you.
Odyssey Networks Presents will feature "A Conversation with Archbishop Desmond Tutu" on Hallmark Channel, Sunday, February 15, 7 a.m. ET/PT. (Check local listings). The interview is also available at www.odysseynetworks.org through March 15. The full-length interview plus featured clips may be seen at www.fetzer.org