Editor’s note: The following address was given to the Hope College graduating class of 2020 on May 22, 2021, one year after their Commencement ceremony was canceled due to COVID.
Dear Class of 2020, I am grateful for this opportunity to speak with you today. And, honestly, I am even grateful that we are gathering at this time because you are in a better position now to reflect on your education than you were a year ago. And that is what I would like us to do tonight: to think about the meaning of your education, to reason together, to pursue the truth as a community and to acknowledge anything true, good, or beautiful that is said here tonight.
What is Education?
So, let’s begin with a question. What is education? What is its purpose? How do you know if you got an education here at Hope College—not just a degree, but an education? And, is your education over?
To begin addressing these questions, let’s look at the word “education.” The word “education” comes from the Latin e-ducere, “to lead out.” And we should ask, “to lead out of what”? Generally, this was understood to mean to lead out of childhood to adulthood; out of ignorance to knowledge; out of chaos to order; or, as the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic has it, to lead out of the shadows of opinion into the light of truth. The word can also mean “to summon” or “call forth.” In this, we can hear an echo of Plato’s discussion of recollection: there are truths within our souls which can be called forth by a good teacher who, in doing so, also shapes our souls. As Christians, we might also hear an echo of our vocation, our “calling forth” by God to be what he created us to be.
The word the ancient Greeks used for “education” was paideia. This term has no easy English equivalent. Sometimes it is translated “culture,” as in our phrase, “a cultured man,” a person who has a well-cultivated mind, clarity of speech, good aesthetic sensibilities, and a gentle demeanor. I think the Romans did something lovely when they translated it humanitas. The goal of paideia, the goal of education, is humanity, that is, the formation of a complete human being, whose powers of mind and heart were fully alive and rightly ordered. Education means formation of the whole person. The ancients believed that we were made to live in truth, goodness and beauty; to live into our full dignity as rational animals, and anything less stunts our humanity. Education, then, was understood as the path to true humanity and wisdom (cf. Stratford Caldecott, Beauty for Truth’s Sake).
Education Begins with Creation
If education is the formation of the whole person and the path to true humanity and wisdom, then when does this journey begin? Let me propose that it begins when God calls you forth from nothingness into existence. It began when God formed your inmost being and knit you together in your mother’s womb (Ps. 139:13). And God did not create you as a blank slate to be filled in by society or your own preferences, but he created each and every one of you with a destiny, with a purpose, with the goal of be united to him in an unbreakable bond of love and transformed into him forever.
It should humble us that our origins are completely mysterious to us. We did not make ourselves and we have no memories of our early existence. Our existence depends on God’s eternal choice that we exist and, more proximately, our existence depends on the love of our parents who brought us into this world. There is a givenness to our existence that should teach us that we are not the masters of our life, but that our life is something that we have received as a totally unmerited gift. This is a fundamental truth about reality: our existence and the existence of all things is a gift.
Education in the Home
So, our formation as human beings, our education if you will, begins when God created us and gave us a destiny. But more immediately, certainly our parents are our first educators. And what did they teach us? First, they taught us unconditional love. Imagine yourself as an infant: what did you ever do for your parents? Sleepless nights, soiled clothes, wailing and gnashing of gums. And yet, your parents poured out their lives to take care of you, a very expensive and helpless creature. It is not because you did something for them, but because your existence is good. It is good in itself. Your existence is a gift, and your parents love you because you are theirs. Your parents, then, are your first image of God.
Your parents not only demonstrated this selfless love, but they also taught you to love. They cooed over you, they poked your nose, and played with your toes until they evoked your first smile, your first laugh, your first recognition of another face. Your parents called forth love in you.
They taught you to speak, to name things, to make distinctions in the world. That is, they taught you to use reason, the faculty that makes you distinct from other animals. They taught you to walk. That is, they taught you to be upright, the posture most befitting a rational animal. They did this by holding your hands and catching you when you fell, more signs of their love and providential care for you. More ways that they revealed the face of God to you.
Your parents taught you to say “please” and “thank you.” This is not merely a matter of nice manners, but an education in graciousness and gratitude, and a reflection of a fundamental truth of our existence. To say “please” is to acknowledge that grasping and taking are not the proper disposition to the world. We are not tyrants, but recipients who depend on the generosity of others. To say “thank you” is to acknowledge the gift nature of reality. All is gift. And, as your parents taught you, the proper response to a gift is gratitude. This is written into our very being (cf. D.C. Schindler).
So, what our parents rather naturally do teaches us some supernatural truths. But, let me turn this around for a moment: your existence educated your parents as well, it made them more human. Many parents will say that having children made them less selfish, more sacrificial, more responsible, more serious, more religious, and more appreciative of their own parents. Again, children do not set out to educate their parents in being human and becoming wise, but God has written this pedagogy into the fabric of existence.
Education in College
Now, all of this is very interesting, but we haven’t even started talking about your formal education. Because education is the formation of the whole person and our path to true humanity and wisdom, true education begins before formal schooling and lasts well beyond it. And, let us be honest, many of us experienced schooling, at least K-12 schooling, not as something that enhanced our humanity and wisdom, but which militated against it. More profoundly though, our education lasts a lifetime because, as Jesus says, we have only one Teacher, Christ himself (Mt. 23:8).
But, I do want to talk about schooling now, especially your liberal arts education at Hope College. What are the liberal arts? Liberal here is not a political term—it is not the liberal arts as opposed to the conservative arts. Liberal arts can be contrasted with the practical or necessary arts, such as the arts of a blacksmith or shoemaker or auto mechanic, those crafts which provide the necessities of life. “Liberal” means free. The word “arts” comes from the Latin ars which means “virtue” (a false cognate of the Greek arete). The liberal arts, then, are the virtues of free men and women. They are the skills and habits of mind, heart, and body which enable us to be totally free and flourishing human beings; they are the qualities of soul that enable us to be truly alive.
According to the ancient Greeks and Romans, to be free meant to be disciplined. The mind had to be trained, but also the body and the soul. The body had to be trained in temperance, lest students act like beasts; the emotions and desires had to be trained so that they responded appropriately in various situations. The mind had to be disciplined so it could pursue truth and penetrate the depths of reality.
Freedom comes through discipline and, while this sounds counterintuitive at first, we all know this to be true. Think about the discipline it takes to play the piano well or to play a sport well. Being disciplined allows us to be free, free to play Mozart or Chopin. Free to play excellent baseball. Free to be beautiful and in accord with what is best in music or sport. What is true of music and sport is more true of the moral and intellectual life.
When Christians come on the scene, they adopted this vision of education, but they also transformed it. They understood that the human being in himself could not be the goal. This is too limited a horizon. Christians realized that only a transcendent end could really bring the human person to his fullness. “You made us for yourself,” Augustine famously says, “and our heart is restless until it rests in You” (Confessions, 1.1.1). God is the goal and by aiming at God, the human being can come to true fulfillment, he can be perfected, and all of his powers can be brought to full flower. Christians adopted the definition of education given above: education is the path to true humanity and wisdom, but now, in Christ, these take on a whole new dimension. Christ is the New Adam, the head of a new humanity, and he shows us what true humanity and divine wisdom look like.
If we have done our job here at Hope College, then you have been prepared not merely for some lucrative career, but you have disciplined your body, heart, and mind; you have fallen in love with the true, the good, and the beautiful; and you recognize that Christ is the center of all things.
Education after College
You all are in a good place now to see how much of this vision has been realized in your education so far and how much you still need to learn. Your education continues and Christ is your teacher. Your formation as a human being will not be complete until the resurrection. But, we can live in a way now that is consistent with our final destiny.
So, how do we do this? How do we walk the path of true humanity and wisdom after college? What are the practices we need to be truly free? Let me suggest three: fidelity, silence, and weakness.
One: Cultivate fidelity. Or, if you don’t like the word “fidelity,” let’s use the word “commitment.” Cultivate commitment. Your generation is afraid of commitment. You have inherited a very unstable world. You have had perverse pressures put upon you since your youth. Many of you come from broken homes. While these things are not your fault, they are now your responsibility.
We fear that commitment is slavery. But commitment is not slavery; fear is slavery. Fear binds us and compromises our decision-making. Fidelity frees us. Commitment makes us more free. You know this from your experience in music and sports. The more committed you are, the more excellent and free you become. This is true in life as well. You must be committed to your friends to be an excellent friend (something that becomes much more difficult, and more important, once you leave college); you must be committed to a spouse to be an excellent lover; you must be committed to God to be an excellent Christian. We are not free by keeping our options open. That only paralyzes us and makes us anxious. We are free by committing and staying the course.
So, what should you do? First of all, invite God in. Pray that God heals you from the inside out. Second, start small. Keep your commitments to coffee, to dinner, to calling your parents regularly. Third, commit to God, to praying every day, to going to Church every week.
Fourth, and probably most challenging and controversial: get married and have kids. Have lots of kids. And settle down. Getting married is most important decision you’ll ever make. And, marriage, Christian marriage in particular, is a beautiful thing. It is an image of Christ’s love for the Church, though not merely an image, but a participation in that love. Everyone will tell you that marriage is difficult and having children is more difficult. But all things worth doing are difficult. You are never ready to get married and have children. You become ready by doing it. In your spouse and in your children, you will find the path to true humanity and wisdom. Find someone who believes these things and you will likely make a wise choice. Do not worry about finding “The One.” Just find one. Together, you will enjoy the good things of this life and prepare yourselves for the next.
Two: Practice silence. We live in a world with demonic levels of noise and distraction. We live, as Robert Cardinal Sarah says, in a “dictatorship of noise.” This noise is both external and internal. The noise of the world draws us out into the world. It scatters not only our attention, but our affections and loves. We become stretched thin and fragile. In the noise, we can no longer hear the voice of God. Indeed, often we cannot even hear ourselves.
So, we need to practice silence; to create “zones of silence” (Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life), where we experience silence without and where we learn to find the silence within. For, all truly great things are prepared in silence. Before Jesus started his public ministry he went to the desert for forty days. Before he was crucified, he went to the Garden of Gethsemane. The salvation of the world was prepared in silence (Sertillanges). When Elijah went up the mountain, he did not hear God in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in the still small voice. We need to be people of silence if we want to hear this voice. We need to learn to be still and know that he is God. We fear that silence means absence, nothingness. But silence is not absence; it is presence (Robert Cardinal Sarah, The Power of Silence). We are present to God and he is present to us, and his presence transforms us.
One way to do this is to keep the Sabbath. This is, after all, one of the Ten Commandments, so it is probably important. We modern people get the Sabbath exactly backward: we rest on the weekend so that we can go do more work; but we should work in order that we can rest. We are a nation of doers and we think that doing is the most important thing. But being is more important than doing (Henri Nouwen). And being in God’s presence is the most important of all. The Sabbath is the crown of creation, it is the presence of God written into the rhythm of time; it is the day God gave us to enter into his holiness and rest. In the seven days of creation, humans are created between the beasts and the Sabbath. These are two destinies for human beings and we can only choose one.
Three: Find your weaknesses. All of you graduates took the StrengthsFinder test while you were here at Hope College. But I think you would have been better served if we had given you a WeaknessFinder. There is a remarkable discussion in 2 Corinthians 12 where Paul asks God to remove a thorn in his side. But God says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). It is hard for us to believe that God wants to use our weaknesses. But weakness is the way God works.
Christ is the all-powerful Son of God, yet he came to earth not in majesty, but in poverty. He came not as Superman, but as a powerless embryo. He was born to a young peasant woman; belonged to a conquered people; he was a refugee and an immigrant; he was persecuted by his own people. He led no army, but was like a sheep led to the slaughter. Christ was weak. Yet, his weakness is the source of the greatest strength. This is the divine jujitsu: out of Christ’s weakness, God transforms the whole world.
This is how God wants to work in your life as well: he wants to meet you in your mental health issues, your depression, your sinful habit, your chronic illness, your addiction and he wants that area of your life to be the channel of his grace. So, find your weaknesses, invite God into them, and allow his power to transform you and others through them.
Some of you will travel the world, make a name for yourself, solve big problems, change the world, and be leaders in a global society. But most of you will be like most other people: you will live a quiet life with a family and a decent job. This sounds rather mundane and unglamorous. Yet, I propose to you that fidelity is a high adventure and I would insist that there is no more important job than loving your spouse and raising your kids well. In marrying, you will make a covenant that is a sign to the world of Christ’s love for his people. In having children, you will bring immortal souls into being. You will help your family to know and love God and you will help them get to heaven. Not bad for a quiet life.
So, for most of you, your lives will be hidden lives. But remember: Jesus himself lived a hidden life. For thirty years, Jesus lived at home with his mother (he was like a Millennial in this way). He lived a public life only for three years. This should assure us that our desires for marriage, family, and home are not signs of settling for less or lack of ambition. The daily sacrifices you make and the acts of love you do will not be seen by others, but they will be seen by God. They may not be great in the eyes of the world, but they will be in the eyes of God. In the end, the only eyes that matter. In God’s eyes, little things done with great love are great.
God called you forth from nothingness not only so that you might exist, but so that you might exist in holiness. In other words, God called you into being in order to be a saint. Like Jesus on Mount Tabor, you are meant to be transfigured. By walking the narrow path of commitment, practicing the presence of God in silence, and allowing God to perfect his power in your weakness, you will become so united to God that his divine life will permeate you and transform you until you “shine forth like the sun in the kingdom of your Father” (Mt 13:43).
Your education has an eternal horizon. From your formation in the womb to the love of your parents to your time at Hope College and beyond, your education has been forming you into the person God created you to be. And, Class of 2020, if you are open to his gifts, “I am confident that God who began this good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6).
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