Archive for Saturday, October 15, 2005

Seal of approval?

Presence of Moses on KU symbol gives rise to burning questions

October 15, 2005


Every time Jay Lewis sees the Kansas University seal, it makes him proud - both as a KU alumnus and as a Jew.

The image on the seal is a scene taken directly from Scripture. In the Book of Exodus, God talks to Moses in the form of a burning bush to give him his calling to deliver the Israelites from Egypt.

"The symbol of Moses and the burning bush is such a powerful image in Jewish philosophy," says Lewis, executive director of KU Hillel, a Jewish student organization. "It is a beautiful image."

It's an image that will be seen less on campus in coming years.

With the university's recent "integrated marketing campaign" - the same campaign that resulted in the new "KU" logo - came instructions from KU officials to reserve use of the seal for formal university ceremonies and functions. It no longer will be used on brochures, letterheads and business cards.

The scaleback occurred, in part, because of a survey that the university took of faculty, staff, students and alumni last fall that found some people think the seal is confusing, says David Johnston, KU's director of marketing. That's probably because the text is written in Latin, he says.

The seal traces its history back to KU's first chancellor, R.W. Oliver, an ordained minister in the Episcopal Church. He chose the seal in 1866.

The flame is meant to symbolize knowledge. Moses' kneeling posture, according to the new KU instructions for using university symbols, "is thought to represent the humble attitude of the scholar who recognizes the unquenchable nature of the pursuit of truth and knowledge."

In English, the Latin inscription reads: "I will see this great vision in which the bush does not burn."

'Divine' sign

For Christians and especially for Jews, the scene from Exodus is a cornerstone of faith.

But what it represents exactly - and whether it's an appropriate symbol for a public institution - is in the eye of the beholder.

For Matt Terrill, president of the KU Navigators Christian organization, the seal takes him back to the book of Exodus.

"As a Christian, I definitely think of the scriptural references," says Terrill, a senior from Overland Park. "Moses is confronted by a presence of God. From a more modern standpoint, I think it's about seeking divine inspiration and recognizing there is no knowledge we can attain on our own. Our knowledge and understanding of things is shaped by the divine."

He says the religious icon also reminds him of the Christian abolitionists who settled Lawrence, and of the belief of some pioneers that a college education could lead to better understanding of the Scriptures.

A sculpture of Moses kneeling before a stained-glass burning bush flanks the entrance to Kansas University's Smith Hall, home of the religious studies department. KU is scaling back use of the university seal, which includes a similar image, as part of a marketing campaign.

A sculpture of Moses kneeling before a stained-glass burning bush flanks the entrance to Kansas University's Smith Hall, home of the religious studies department. KU is scaling back use of the university seal, which includes a similar image, as part of a marketing campaign.

Lewis, of KU Hillel, says the image reminds him of the Passover story that Jews retell in a ceremonial dinner once a year.

"From a Jewish standpoint, Moses is referred to as a teacher," Lewis says. "He isn't a divine figure. In that context, it seems appropriate on a university seal."

Point of contention

One voice of concern over the seal comes from a seemingly unlikely source: the rabbi at the Lawrence Jewish Community Center, 917 Highland Drive.

Debbie Stiel says the story of Moses and the burning bush is "meaningful to me, and therefore I like to see it displayed." But, she admits, if she came from another faith background, she would feel "offended and marginalized."

"Separation of church and state is an important value in our country and one that I, and most Jews, greatly prize," she says. "So all of that leads me to say that while I am fond of this story, it does not belong on an official state university seal, in my opinion."

Johnston, the KU marketing director, says he's never heard a complaint about the religious symbol representing a public university.

In 1999, the KU chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to university administrators asking them to justify using a religious symbol in its seal. But the ACLU chapter never pursued action after that.

Leaders of several local organizations that fight for the separation of church and state now say they're not planning to challenge use of the seal.

Andrew Stangl, president of KU's Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics, says the symbolism from the Moses story could provide folkloric lessons, even if they're not viewed as religious lessons.

"There's so much history in the stories we tell and what we get out of it," he says. "That may also have a religious significance to a certain group of people. We still have these universal stories and values and morals you get out of stories. It's about imparting knowledge."

Context issues

Stangl, a junior from Andover, says the situation would be different if the university's motives in using the seal were different.

"It's only a problem for us and other secularist organizations if the motive behind it is religious," he says. "I don't see the symbol as directly having some religious significance, and I don't think the university feels that way."

Likewise, Phil Minkin, president of the Douglas County chapter of the ACLU, says he hasn't heard any rumblings about the seal.

"Personally, I don't have any problem with it," he says. "I know the Supreme Court has ruled in some cases the Ten Commandments are historical, and in some cases they're religious. It depends on the context."

As for the artist who crafted the current incarnation of the seal, he's happy with the image of Moses and the burning bush.

Elden Tefft, a retired KU art professor, said there wasn't discussion or debate over the seal when he was asked to redesign it and cast it into a medallion for the university's centennial in 1964. He said not much changed in the new version, though he gave the once-bald Moses hair.

Tefft, who also designed and created the sculpture of Moses outside Smith Hall, says he thinks the image fits.

"Since our early chancellors were clergy, it makes sense they'd go to something like that," he says. "Somebody said something about them getting their enlightenment from the bush. Everything from the story fits to me."

"Of course," he adds, "I have something invested in it."


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