Another place where names play a part on a college campus is with respect to endowed chairs. I have one myself. My position at the university was funded in a generous way by the couple for whom it is named and their friends. The interest from that pool of money pays my salary and other expenses. I am the lucky recipient of this largesse.
I am not sure I can argue this is ok and naming a building is more suspect. What I do think is important is what the naming of a building or an endowed chair symbolizes. In effect we ask, what does the name stand for? Let me suggest there are at least two phases in figuring out what the name symbolizes. The first phase is the phase where everyone knows the person or persons for whom something is named. For example, there is a building on my campus named after a former president.
When people hear the name of that building and when they know the former president, that name carries huge significance. That president was beloved by nearly all folks, as nearly as I can tell. So for those who know him, hearing the name of that building brings all the memories into play. By carrying his name, the building becomes special. Although I did not serve under his presidency, I do know him. Even though he is a kindly old man now, it is still easy to see why he is beloved.
For all of us who know him, the building takes on the significance of that beloved person and leader. The significance hits us every time we walk into the building or even here the name of the building. But then inevitably a second phase kicks in. At some point everyone who knew the former president passes on. At some point no one is around who knew him. There are no more first-hand stories. He will die and never show up again on campus.
In this second phase the name on that building carries little or no significance. Even though there is a picture of the guy in the entryway, it does not really matter. In the words of students, “It’s just a picture of some dude!” Being a “dude” carries little significance. That is not necessarily sad. In some ways I would simply say his legacy is not really a building. This seems to be the end of the story.
As I think about it, there is another way of seeing naming rights. Sometimes a name is used to characterize a group. We see this in some of the Christian religious denominations. It is easy to think about the Lutherans or the Wesleyans. The names are the legacy of Martin Luther and John Wesley. Although it does not mean every Lutheran or Wesleyan is the same as the historic men the name honors, the significance of Martin Luther and John Wesley lives through the men and women bearing those names.
When we go down this route, I am struck by the fact that none of the five major religious traditions bears the name of the founding person. We might be tempted to think Christians and Buddhists are named after the founding figure, but that’s not true. Christians take their name from the main descriptor of Jesus---he was the Christ, the Messiah, and the Anointed One. Those of us who are Christians want to follow the path of the Anointed One. Our hope is to be anointed ourselves to further the kingdom building he began.
And the Buddhists are named after the experience of the one who became enlightened. The historical figure, Gautama, became the “awakened one” and attracted followers who hoped they might also experience this enlightenment. Recognizing this fascinates me.
From this we conclude that Jesus, Gautama---and we might add Mohammed---were happy to have naming rights. Effectively, they taught that you could have a name if you had the experience. If you seek to become enlightened, you can be called a Buddhist. If you seek to be anointed unto working to bring the kingdom in your life and the world, you can be a Christian. If you seek to submit to the will of God and do that will, you can be a Muslim. You have every right to those names.
I am very comfortable with this kind of naming right. But it is a challenge. You have a right to that name if you are willing to live up to what the name signifies. Suddenly, I realize it is easier to put my name on a building or something. To call myself a Christian is a bold and challenging thing. I am up for it; name me!