Archives For February 2014

Convocation Speech

February 25, 2014 — Leave a comment

“Broadening to Narrow: University’s Paradox”

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Last week, I presented the following speech at Wake Forest’s Convocation:

Children, for all their naiveté, are particularly astute. They are credulous when it comes to certain matters, yet they ask very difficult and honest questions. Above all, children ask questions that begin with the pesky word why. “Why is the sky blue?” they think. “Why do trees lose their leaves in the fall?” they wonder. Or, a much more typical one in my household, “Why do you always burn the frozen pizza,ma?” Anyways, children’s demands for causal knowledge—and their restlessness in the pursuit of it—never cease to catch us off guard.

But now, there comes a day when children fail to receive a satisfying answer to one of their questions or when they are given two seemingly mutually exclusive answers to the same question. At this point they begin to get a feel for the meaning of the word truth. Something inside tells children, perhaps now teenagers, that certain ideas are more intellectually satisfying than others. After some such experience, these older children start to look for not just any answer, but for theright answer. They don’t cease to seek information per se, and in that sense they are expanding; but they do cease to acknowledge the validity of everything they hear, and in that sense they are contracting. Notice that this process of expansion and contraction is not arbitrary. Actually, it has a purpose: the apprehending of what is true.

This idea is a bit of a paradox. Like a beating heart, we expand in order to contract. Without the expansion, there would be no contraction. We broaden our knowledge precisely in order to narrow it. It is as if we are sifting through the vast array of possible explanations available to us, but only certain explanations make it through the pores of our rational filter. This paradox is the very essence of a liberal arts education. For the rest of this speech, I’d like to share with you a few stories I’ve picked up from my time at Wake Forest that demonstrate this insight.

Let’s start way back with Socrates and the dialectical method of reasoning. Socrates is one of my personal heroes, not necessarily because he was right about everything but rather because of his approach to life. He was a rigorous pursuer of wisdom. His most famous ideas, written down by Plato, were not (like this one) expressed in long monologues or meditations: they were conversations. Socrates loved talking to people. He discussed philosophy with others in order to chip away at preconceived notions. Most of his conversations ended in confusion, without absolute certainty, but because of the perseverance of his disciple Plato, a handful of these dialogues did reach acceptable conclusions. Plato and Socrates knew all the arguments presented to them, but they only believed that certain ones were correct. They planted many seeds, but only a few of these seeds produced fruit. I hold that these two thinkers were college students par excellence: they aimed to move from many competing notions to one, to the type of notion that we commonly call “truth.” They expanded to contract.

Now consider the genius Rene Descartes, whose journey may more aptly be explained as a movement from expansion to contraction to expansion. Descartes, like Socrates, had a thirst for wisdom. As a young student, he took in the numerous possible explanations of reality that his scholastic professors offered him. However, these manifold accounts were not sufficient for him. Descartes wanted clear and distinct premises, indubitable premises. His expanding mind occasioned an abrupt narrowing. He questioned everything he had ever been instructed, but he did not question solely to question. He questioned for truth’s sake. His doubtful mentality constricted him at first, but he would later build upon the scant indubitable certainties with which he was left by the end of his skepticism to construct a formidable mathematical and philosophical methodology. Like the aforementioned child, Descartes was not content with dissonance: he wanted absolute clarity.

For a more contemporary example from my major, religion, let me share with you the ideas of Stephen Prothero, who came to speak to Wake Forest during my sophomore year. Arguably this scholar’s most famous work is God Is Not One, which, as the title implies, explains that the so-called eight major religions are, in fact, different. Dr. Prothero challenges the reader as if by saying, “Read this book, and you will see that these religions are not different paths up the same mountain. No. They are different paths up different mountains.” To the spiritual seeker, Dr. Prothero is the modern Socrates. He encourages the confused and the sure-footed alike to come to real conclusions, if there are any conclusions, by putting these major religions into conversation with each other. Dr. Prothero asks students to expand their views so that they can come to know what they may have formerly only believed. For brilliant minds, vagaries are not enough.

Now I’d like to share something more personal. Most of my research while at Wake Forest has consisted of analysis of competing models of economic development in Central America. At first for me these competing models were like the beliefs of children: vague and indiscriminate. My situation was similar to a statement by Juan Luis Segundo, a prominent liberation theologian: “I had many ideologies in front of me, as available in a shop window, and I could choose the one I liked.” And isn’t there a great temptation to be like a child who chooses the flashiest shoes in the shop only to later find that they don’t fit?  And isn’t there a great temptation to blindly trust the appealing preference of a well-known public figure, perhaps a certain successful basketball player from the 1990s? And isn’t there a great temptation to walk out of the shop without any shoes at all, as one who finds comfort in indecision? Without a doubt, all these temptations weighed upon me. And without a doubt, I pondered these forbidden fruits in awe of their apparent splendor. But! Taking a hint from the likes of Plato, Descartes, and Prothero, I broadened to narrow, for I have never been satisfied until pillars of truth are built in the midst of the rubble.

I trust that these movements of expansion and contraction are familiar to all, especially to those of us who have an inexhaustible hunger for wisdom. We continue to struggle for more knowledge so that we can dismiss the fallacies and accept the truths. The human mind is like unrefined gold, good in essence yet indefinite in form. A goldsmith passes it through fire. It stretches and hardens. Once a dull heap of rock, it is now a wedding ring to be given to the beloved. We are the same. Although full of potential and grounded in our goodness as dignified human beings, we remain dull until we pass through the fire of expansion and the cooling of contraction. We allow ourselves to be molded into who we are. It is a dynamic process, and it makes for challenging and restless nights as we seek that to which we are oriented. Despite these trials, we become like the wedding ring, a gift to be shared. But this gift is not any gift. It must be tested, and it must be true.

“On the Definition of Love: A St. Valentine’s Day Reflection”

Love is the most confusing word that exists in the English language. Its definition is so muddled because we tend to use it in so many different ways. However, in this post I will venture to arrive at a singular, core meaning of the word.

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In many English translations of the Bible, the word love first appears in the twenty-second chapter of the “Book of Genesis.” God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you,” (Genesis 22:2). Interestingly, the context of this opening appearance of the word love in this narrative is a filial relationship between a father and his son. To the Christian this context is familiar: Abraham loved his son, and God loves us as sons and as daughters. This love is so profound that it entails a sacrifice for a greater good. Thus, Abraham did not proceed to sacrifice Isaac solely for the sake of sacrificing him; rather, Abraham did so to accomplish the greater good of obedience to God, in whom we find our fulfillment as human beings. Likewise, God the Father did not allow the sacrifice of His Son on the cross merely for the sake of sacrifice. Actually, the Father permitted that sacrifice to accomplish the greater good of reconciling the world to Himself in accordance with His respect for the free will of the human race. As a result of this initial reflection, we come to see that love is a free choice that entails three parties.

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What are these three parties?

1) The lover: In the first case from “Genesis,” Abraham is the lover. In the second case from the gospels, God Himself is the lover.

2) The beloved: In the former scene God is the beloved. In the latter humanity is the beloved.

3) An innocent yet cherished “victim”: Isaac in the former; Jesus in the latter. 

Now, it seems common to wonder, “Why must there be a third party?” Well, there must be a third party because real love is absolute love. Our postmodern world, of course, claims that nothing is absolute, but the Christian responds that love is absolute by its very nature. Considering that God gives what is absolute its absolute-ness because He is (by definition) absolute, it makes sense that God is present in both of these instances of love. God gives love its character, and only an eternal, absolute God can give love this particular character. 

So, you might ask, “Why must love be absolute as opposed to relative?” This question gets to the core of the issue, but I think there is an acceptable answer: Love is absolute because we can conceive of love as absolute. After all, nothing in this world seems to be absolute. Even we humans die, so not even our very selves appear absolute. BUT! We somehow intuit that love is best when it is absolute. Most people would not say to their lovers, “My love for you is conditional.” Now, from where does this sort of unconditional love come? It can’t come from us, as we are conditional. Therefore, it must come from a Being that isn’t conditional. It must come from an absolute Being. It must come from God.

God gives us the ability to love, so it makes sense that we would use that ability according to His purposes. After all, if God is perfectly all-knowing, then He knows how to love perfectly. Likewise, He knows how we can best love others. 

That said, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is not irrational because Abraham trusted that God’s reasoning was better than his reasoning. The end of the story confirms this truth.

What, then, is love? Love is a free act ordered to the benefit of another person according to the reasoning of God (theo-logy). Love necessitates a self, an other, and God. The harmony of these three persons is essential to any loving act. 

With love,

David J.W. Inczauskis

“On the Wisdom of the Angelic Doctor”

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January 28th was the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, arguably the most influential philosopher and theologian of the Middle Ages. As some of his quotes are very relevant for contemporary discussions, I’d like to share a few of them with you.

1) “The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false.”

It is lamentable that many Christians have neither substantial knowledge of dogma nor significant scientific knowledge. I have been guilty of this charge, as well. The great philosopher Rene Descartes was keen on speaking only about the topics in which he was well-versed. We would do well to mimic him. Now, I do not mean to say that the Christian must be an expert in cosmology, evolutionary theory, and biblical scholarship (though it would help…); however, I do mean to say that uninformed Christians should not masquerade as if they were experts in these fields of inquiry. 

2) “Hold firmly that our faith is identical with that of the ancients. Deny this, and you dissolve the unity of the Church.”

In one of my current classes in the Department of Religion at Wake Forest, we are discussing various post-modern scholars who claim that the Church has “changed” its dogmatic teachings over the years in accordance with discovered secular truths. At first sight many of these arguments seem convincing, but I’ve found that they do not stand the test of rigorous fact-checking. In other cases these faulty arguments from secular professors fail to do justice to Catholic theology, so they are setting up straw men that appear easy to knock down. Of course, it is not difficult to dismiss an idea that I define for myself! The authors of What Is Marriage? write in one of their footnotes, “With the right (unfair) description, any view can be ridiculed,” (pg. 27). For further information on these faulty arguments that claim that the Church has “changed” its dogma over time, please leave a comment. I’ll be sure to outline the specifics for you.

3) “Beware of the person of one book.”

Many university students self-identify as experts on a given topic after reading just a single work on that topic. These students are often bigoted and prideful, not real pursuers of the truth. I have most definitely been guilty of this sin!

4) “How can we live in harmony? First we need to know we are all madly in love with the same God.”

Since the Enlightenment and especially after the advent of post-modern thought, we have been floundering for unity in truth, particularly in moral truth. Father Robert Barron has written, “Removing God is tantamount to removing the ground for the basic goods, and once the basic goods have been eliminated, all that is left is the self-legislating and self-creating will.” Without God and His Church, there is no foundation for moral truth apart from the self. (And we know to what extent post-modern philosophers debate the commonality of the billions of human “selves”!) Frankly, our selves are so conflicted at the moment that we will have a difficult time arriving at the basic moral truths that are inherent in the natural law. Our only recourse is the Lord, who complements the natural law with his divine law. 

In sum, St. Thomas Aquinas can help us to better understand ourselves in contemporary society. Personally, I need to commit to a deeper study of this extraordinary man’s writings. St. Thomas is the rational believer in the fullest, and isn’t it true that the world could use some rational believers today!?

May God bless you!

–David J.W. Inczauskis