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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.
Our time is marked by heated cultural debates over same-sex marriage and transgender rights, abortion and assisted suicide. At the heart of those debates are underlying conceptions of reality, which means that a true engagement with any of them begins only at the level of first principles. Once first principles are in place, determining one’s positions becomes largely a matter of drawing conclusions.
On Oct. 22, 1978, a striking, middle-aged Polish man named Karol Wojtyla looked out into the jubilant crowd in St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City. He had just taken the papal name John Paul II and was about to address the world at the inauguration Mass of his pontificate. He could have said many things, for he faced a world split by the Cold War, threatened by nuclear destruction, challenged by poverty and violence and confused by an increasingly pervasive moral relativism.
Throughout the year, this column has repeatedly articulated an anthropology—a conception of the human person—that respects our human dignity and outlines our ultimate destiny. Three weeks ago, in advance of Valentine’s Day, I urged that the essence of love is to seek the good of the other, the antithesis of “a utilitarian game.” That is, “one person cannot ‘use’ another for self-gratification and at the same time make a gift of oneself. . . . We are human persons, not instruments.”
In most on-campus conversations concerning morality today, “consent” is the sole barometer. If, for example, two people agree to an act, no matter what the act is, it is deemed permissible, and if they do not agree, then the act is impermissible. That “moral standard” is most familiar in the context of sexual intimacy and sexual assault, when affirmations and reaffirmations of consent are deemed by many sex educators to be the sole criterion of permissibility.
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, which means this weekend will be packed with red and pink, hearts and roses, dates and formals. Indeed, “love will be in the air,” or so they say. For those in relationships, this weekend is an occasion for celebration. For others, as Yik Yak will no doubt attest, Valentine’s Day often yields insecurity and heavy hearts.
Politicians talk about it. Social scientists analyze it. Dean Gerald Wilson has a course about it. And everyone seems to want it.
It’s the week after Thanksgiving, the second day of December and the first week of Advent, which means, by all standards, the Christmas season has begun. The colorful lights, adorned trees, jolly music and festive cheer make the Christmas season the “most wonderful time of the year.”
As the fall semester winds down, Thanksgiving provides a welcome respite. The break allows us to catch up with friends and family, enjoy a great meal and bask in the nostalgia of old times at home.
Duke is a competitive environment where success is measured in tangible results and where high ambitions and finite opportunities produce rivalry. We have been taught our whole lives that achievement matters greatly. And many have, understandably, come to believe that their self-worth depends on achievement, whether academic, social or professional. That pressure to excel in all things, and without displaying great effort, breeds doubt.
Religious practice is on the decline in the West, particularly among our millennial generation in the United States. Just last month, Harvard released its annual freshman demographic survey, which revealed that for the first time in the history of the school’s freshman class, atheists and agnostics outnumber professed Christians, Jews or Muslims. And in August, ESPN the Magazine did a cover story on Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, who is a self-proclaimed secular agnostic.
On Sunday, Pope Francis concluded a momentous visit to the United States. Throughout his six-day tour, from his remarks at Capitol Hill, the UN, and Ground Zero, to his Vespers service at the striking St. Patrick’s Cathedral, to his closing Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia in front of one-million strong, all eyes were on the pontiff.
In my Sept. 2 column, I suggested that we turn upward as we begin the school year to meet the responsibility that flows from the privilege of a Duke education. Turning upward means exploring the Life Questions that are embedded in every human heart—why am I here, what makes for a Good life, does my existence even matter—and attending to our spiritual flourishing just as much as we attend to our intellectual, social and professional flourishing.
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.
It’s June 1, a week after Memorial Day, which means summer is upon us even though the summer solstice remains three weeks away. America’s favorite seasonal pastimes—baseball games, concert series, barbeques and lemonade stands—are already in full swing. Meanwhile, most Duke students are about to begin, if they have not done so already, their slates of illustrious summer activities.