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Finding freedom in truth

imago dei

For the class of 2016, the penultimate week of classes in our final year at Duke is concluding. Amidst the typical Duke buzz and the added pressures of senior year, we are called to consider who we have become and the role that Duke has played in that process.

Like almost every first-year to matriculate at Duke, I arrived on East Campus in August 2012 excited for what I knew would be four very important years. I had general ideas about my major and a prospective career path. I had concrete aspirations for my cross-country and track career and a strong interest in exploring Duke’s vibrant social scene.

I had few initial thoughts, though, about my spiritual and intellectual lives. In fact, to the extent that the great Life Questions (as I have called them throughout this column) entered my mind, I pushed them to the periphery, believing that I could address them later, perhaps in my forties, when I thought they would finally be relevant. In a similar vein, I entered Duke skeptical and largely uninterested in the Catholic faith in which I had been raised, as I viewed that faith as little more than a burden on the “freedoms” that I sought at Duke.

But as I settled into the academic and social culture, those pesky moral and existential questions wriggled back into plain view. My first-year experience forced me, almost against my will, to confront the propositions that I had brought to East Campus.

Some professors flatly asserted that objective truth—and perhaps the entire reality that we perceive—is fictional and constructed. Others triumphantly claimed that religious people are happier than atheists only because atheists are able to accept the (supposed) meaningless of our existence. At the same time, the Duke culture presented as entirely permissible that which conventional morality would roundly reject. I quickly realized that I had to jettison far sooner than I had hoped my plan of attending only to the convenient aspects of my life.

So, I began to consider the Life Questions: Is faith reasonable? Does morality exist? Must God exist for objective morality to exist? If so, what does that mean for my life?

As professors and peers answered those questions in the negative and, indeed, asserted that positive answers reeked of “bigotry,” “intolerance” and “irrationality,” the gauntlet was thrown. I picked it up and undertook to find answers to those questions, answers that would ultimately form the person I have become.

The answers began to appear in the most unsuspecting of places. The topic of my first-year writing seminar—the only course required by this university—happened to address friendship and the life of virtue. There, we read Aristotle’s account of the three kinds of friendship. Aristotle spoke of the friendships of utility and pleasure, where “friends” agreeably use each other for their own selfish ends, and of the highest kind of friendship, grounded in love, where each friend does what is good for the other for the sake of the other. I was struck by the beauty and timeless relevance of his 2,300-year-old insights and noticed their application to the relationships in my own life.

Excited by what I had found in Aristotle (and appreciating that he was no intellectual slouch), I developed a keen interest in the meaning of the human person and the consequences of that meaning for the rest of one’s worldview. As I proceeded from question to question—Is Jesus perhaps God? What is the Church? What about evil?—my intellectual and spiritual lives began to converge. I attended Mass more regularly, and by the beginning of my junior year, I had concluded that the human person is unintelligible without God and had received the grace-endowed certitude that the Church is true.

Over my four years at Duke in the classroom, on the track, in the Catholic Center, and in my social life, I have come to understand that each human person is a unique and unrepeatable composite of body and soul. I have learned that faith and reason are not just compatible but synergistic—one without the other is impoverished. Most importantly, I have experienced the joy of love—that our happiness increases precisely in the measure that we make ourselves gifts to others.

And what of my first-year instinct that faith would restrict and oppress? I had it exactly backwards. Truth liberates and elevates, not encumbers and limits. To say “yes” to truth—ultimately to God—is to say yes to human flourishing. To make the human person a creator in a godless world—to seek happiness by meeting every fleeting desire—delivers anxiety and emptiness on a personal level and division and conflict on a societal level.

Duke is fairly criticized for not fostering introspection. With no core or even recommended curriculum and no mentorship program, Duke fails to encourage its students to acknowledge, much less examine, the Life Questions. But requirements can be beneficial and formative, as that Writing 101 course (the topic of which I still had to choose) spurred the introspection that has changed my life.

A senior administrator once told me, “Duke is about achieving excellence in everything.” Too often, though, many at Duke pursue and value only material excellence and the honor of peer recognition, not the human excellence of moral virtue. A quest for empirical achievement that ignores or denies moral virtue reduces our horizon to the practical and tangible and deprives us of our deepest dignity.

This column has claimed that truth includes and transcends the material order. In truth, we find a freedom that leads to durable fulfillment, responsible citizenship and moral virtue. That proposition states nothing new or radical but only revives the Duke motto that should guide our mission: Eruditio et Religio, knowledge and religion, reason and faith—the lives of the mind and of the soul. Duke should draw from its roots and endorse the fullness of truth and human excellence.

I would like to close with a note of gratitude to the readers of this column. Each installment has given me the joyful opportunity to explore a different facet of the bedazzling jewel that is the human person. I can only hope that those explorations might have inspired others to turn upward, embrace the human person as the luminous image of God and rejoice in the splendor of truth!

William Rooney is a Trinity senior. This is his final column for The Chronicle.

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