The start of the school year is a time of sweet renewal. We see now on campus substantial architectural renewal – a beautiful new library entrance and paths, freshly sodded quads and in due course, a restored chapel and a new student union, football stadium and athletics plaza. But the promise of renewal that a fresh school year provides does not reside primarily in the improvements to campus amenities or the “Duke Experience.” Rather, that promise lies within each of us.
The start of the school year calls for a renewal of vows, vows to a four-year vocation that each of us has accepted by enrolling as students at Dear Old Duke. Certainly, it is a privilege to be at Duke, and this opportunity carries a responsibility to recognize that our purpose as students is to grow intellectually and spiritually.
Those two dimensions of education are intrinsic to our school’s motto, eruditio et religio, “knowledge and religion.” The former is well covered at Duke. It is hard to emerge from these Gothic halls after 34 courses without having grown intellectually.
Yet, the spiritual dimension, indeed the more important one, is too often and too easily neglected at Duke. On the surface, we tell ourselves that we are “too busy” with schoolwork, social commitments, career planning, or otherwise to contemplate the Life Questions – why am I here, what makes for a Good life, what is virtue? Far from being esoteric or inflated, those questions are embedded in every human heart, and their answers should frame our lives. Yet, graduation day can arrive without our having given those questions their due consideration. Sadly, that outcome has the implied consent of the University, as Duke will confer a degree on a course of study that has not addressed, even remotely, a single Life Question.
Our spiritual dimension is the basis of our human meaning. It allows us to experience, each in a unique way, the inexorable call to the transcendent – to truth, beauty and goodness. But the transcendent spiritual order that grounds human meaning requires a cause. That cause, as Thomas Aquinas articulated, is God, who is the pure, subsistent act of “to be” itself. And our unique capacity and desire as human beings to seek the transcendent, to seek God – the infinite in truth, beauty and goodness – affirms our being made in the image and likeness of God, the imago Dei, and our endowment with an eternal soul. Those facts supply us with ineffable and indelible dignity as distinctly human persons and separate us from other animals.
Like our privileged Duke education, our privileged status as human persons carries a responsibility. And what a happy responsibility it is! We need only to open ourselves to the constant call of the infinite and, in that response, we will find richness and fulfillment. Augustine of Hippo, the intellectual giant of the fifth century, discovered the futility and emptiness of even the most sophisticated education without God. After years of unfulfilled searching, when he finally turned to the transcendent, Augustine concluded, in one of the simplest but most powerful sentences ever written, that God made us for himself and that our hearts will be restless until they rest in him.
Without God, the human being is cut off from its transcendent source and thus ceases to have a soul and to be a person. So understood, the human species is reduced to biological matter and indistinguishable from other species. Although some argue that a moral order can be identified even in the absence of the Transcendent, that claim has not been validated in history. When God has been marginalized and the material order has been exalted – for example, in the French Revolution, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, China, Cuba and many other instances – human dignity has been annihilated. Man has become dispensable and “sacrificed” for other “goals” – the state, the will of the powerful, or some ill-conceived notion of a superior society.
With God, derived from God and destined for God, we rightly understand ourselves as the imago Dei and of inestimable meaning and dignity. To affirm our dignity as human beings is to respond affirmatively to the first Life Question – do I even matter? Let us not balk at that question, but rather face it confidently and joyfully by affirming that we are destined for the transcendent.
Some Duke students might be skeptical about the existence of God. Some might identify as “spiritual but not religious” or as maintaining belief in some sort of “higher power.” Those yearnings are real and good. They are the imago Dei calling, even if faintly. Responding to that call will lead to fulfillment. As John Paul II, one of the great voices of our time, declared, “the deepest joy in life is the joy that comes from God.” Everything else – a 4.0 GPA, social status, that dream job with a six-figure salary – falls short in the end.
Upon beginning a new school year, let us commit ourselves to cultivate both mind and soul and to meet our student responsibility. We should pursue our spiritual development just as much as we pursue our intellectual, social and professional development. In the words of the legendary Duke professor, Stanley Hauerwas, let us commit this year to “Go with God.”
William Rooney is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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