As you know, this is the second consecutive year the Academic Convocation has been held at the beginning of the fall term, and I have to say that it’s an incredible honor to be invited to address not only the CBU community but especially the class of 2018. You probably already know how remarkable you are, but I want you to be aware, on behalf of the faculty and staff, how much we cherish the opportunity to serve you as your teachers and to become your partners in Lasallian education. It is also with you in mind, the class of 2018, that my comments tonight have been assembled, and I hope you find value in what I have to say.
What that is will take a few minutes to sort out, but my topic has a lot to do with something I learned probably around the time I was a freshman or sophomore in college, something I still think about a lot. Back then (before the Internet!—but well after the last good Star Wars movie) I was still figuring out what my major was going to be. I was very interested in biology, as I was pretty good in math and science, and I was equipped with a childhood fascination with the diversity of living things. To kindle that fascination, it helped that I grew up in two worlds—on the one hand, home was the rapid and loud urban environment of Washington, DC where I was exposed to all kinds of people and all kinds of ideas, challenges, and opportunities, and of course to the remarkable political symbolism of our nation’s seat of government. On the other hand, we lived close enough to my father’s family farm in Culpeper, Virginia, where I had the frequent luxuries of the quietness of the countryside, the thrill of exploring the deep woods, learning to fish, and discovering the farm’s rich abundance of life. Unfortunately, the college I attended did not readily offer the support I needed to develop this fascination much further in science—I loved my classes in ecology and historical geology, but these were rarities for a department that had the responsibility of training hundreds of future health care professionals. There just weren’t enough classes or enough faculty to teach the ones I thought I needed.
Around the same time, I was also becoming increasingly attentive to threats to life’s diversity. I was already haunted by what I had learned in school about the extinction of once incredibly abundant populations of species like the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet. The thought that human activity was somehow responsible for these losses was chilling, especially since people probably didn’t mean for them to happen. If there was something I wanted to be a part of, I wanted to be on the side that prevented such things from happening again. That was (and still is) a strong sentiment for me.
Of course, feelings and facts don’t always match, and as it turns out, I also knew from my studies that extinctions of species have occurred countless times over the roughly 3.6 billion years life has been part of Earth’s history. In fact, without extinctions, it is quite reasonable to think that the richness of life that I grew up having such affection for could have turned out quite differently. Or, stranger yet, that I or others like me may never have actually turned up on the scene to appreciate it all! In short, I was becoming aware that the history of life on Earth is much like a river. Sometimes, the river dries up in places, other times it spills over, creating meanders, and making islands, and here I was, like of all us, like all of life, just along for the ride.
I needed something other than biology. I needed philosophy.
When you’ve taken a few classes in philosophy, you soon catch on that philosophers are kind of obsessed with opposites. Of course, there’s the big one: Existence vs. Nothingness, famously etched into our cultural imagination by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There’s also an opposition fundamental for logic: that something you believe cannot be both true and false. Although the law of non-contradiction is said to be inviolable, this is an important rule to forget when you fall in love or if you ever decide to enter politics. There are also a bunch of important opposites that structure the way we think: sameness and difference; unity and diversity; transcendence and immanence; universality and particularity; and of course, tastes great…less filling (you may have to be a bit older to get that one).
The opposition that attracted my attention in my early years of college was one that the ancient Greek philosophers—the ones who inspired Socrates and Plato—were also troubled by. The problem is this: when you take a picture of something (the Greeks would have made a drawing), you freeze that scene in time. The images in the picture will remain that way forever. But, if you try to describe what happens to that same scene outside the picture, over time, it changes. In fact, over time, nothing stays the same. Like the river of life I described a few minutes ago, everything is actually quite dynamic. It moves, things are constantly in the process of becoming something else.
The concise name for the opposition that the Greeks had stumbled upon is called Being vs. becoming. On the one hand, we often take for granted that the world has some stability. Things are fixed. In fact, the world is kind of set up for us already. And it’s a good thing we didn’t have to design it ourselves. On the other hand, if we aspire to describe what is really and truthfully the case about the things with which we live, we can’t ignore the observation that all things eventually change. And of course, that includes ourselves.
One of Plato’s many gifts to philosophy and ultimately to science was to suggest that the forms that things take on are themselves real. That behind the scenes of the world in which everything is in flux is something permanent and eternal that gives every episode and event its meaning. Whether or not Plato’s thoughts were on target, I have always appreciated his insights into how one might go about holding in tension these opposites of Being and becoming. I have also come to appreciate how important that tension is for the kind of learning that takes place during college.
In every subject we teach here at CBU, you’re going to encounter Being. Each discipline is defined by methods and rules of inquiry for proper understanding. In many subject areas, the behavior of what you study is determined by laws. The institution—CBU—itself embodies the enduring intentions of countless educators and stewards of its mission, as evidenced by the university’s curriculum, its policies, and even its buildings. Indeed, the enduring visions of particular persons are all over this campus, and will soon be realized once more in the Rose G. Deal School of Arts in which I work. And of course, there is no more significant expression of our encounter with Being at CBU than in our sustained remembrance that we teach and learn within the holy presence of God.
And yet, all encounters with Being must take root somehow in the world of becoming for them to become meaningful. Maybe it’s my own fascination with living things, but I’ve always been a little more excited about becoming than Being. Don’t get me wrong, there is wisdom to be gained in understanding what endures. And without laws, rules, and principles, life is chaotic, disordered, and often destructive. And yet, to learn, we have to surrender at some point to the restlessness of the desire to know—a restlessness that a college education is primed to cultivate. Sometimes, methods we’ve been taught require revision. Rules need to be replaced. What worked previously may not fit circumstances today. Let me be clear, I’m not advocating student rebellion. But I do want to caution against the fear of letting go of the past when it’s clearly time to move on. Better yet, find ways to be open to the excitement that comes from anticipating a future that is as mysterious as it is full of promise.
I am as resolute in my convictions today as I was when I began my own college journey that we have the responsibility to ensure that we protect the web of life that sustains us. I am just as resolute, though, that what makes its protection so important is the creative and adventurous path life takes through the world of becoming. Not everything that happens is good, and not everything you will learn will be something you cherish, but the power to become something beautiful and good is something that resides in life and as a result it also resides in you. By embarking on a college education at CBU, you have all put yourselves in an outstanding place to be open to amazing transformations in your knowledge, character, and sense of community.
So, to the class of 2018, I wish you many many fantastic changes during the next four years. You guys are already great, but I can’t wait to see what you become!