Given at a local university's Newman Center
In the college atmosphere, it is really easy to make ourselves the center of the world. I don’t mean that as a judgment on you—I’m simply stating that’s just the temptation that faces us at college: we worry about “my classes” and “my projects” and “my professors” and “my studies” and “my schedule” and “my social calendar.” It’s very easy to become worried about “me.”
As an aside, we see how deep this me-centered world has become in us when we go home for summer break. There, mom or dad tells us to do something and suddenly the me-centered world is thrown for a loop. Indeed, it can be very frustrating: coming home and being told what to do—doesn’t my mom or dad know that I’m very busy? (With what? Isn’t it obvious? With my life!)
Your generation and mine—and I say that because we are very close here—our generations stink at volunteering precisely because of this reason. When we graduate, we remain me-centered: focused on my job, my spouse, my kids, my retirement—such that, when someone (especially a priest or family member) asks us to volunteer, we politely say, “I wish I could, but I’m busy” without saying with what we are busying ourselves. But we all know what it is. And there’s guilt there. And I see it when people start to squirm when I ask them to break free of their me-centered orbit.
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The problem with the me-centered orbit, however, is not only that it leads to a lower sense of community and our responsibility to it through volunteering and building bridges and so on, but it also leads to a wrong-headed approach to college education.
I graduated from a Top Ten university and have earned three post-graduate degrees. So, being fairly well-acquainted with higher education, I’ve come to realize that it has a certain “blind spot.” And that blind spot is that higher education often overlooks the fact that man and his ability to know is limited. And not only is there only so much that I am able to know, but there is only so much humanity as a whole is able to know.
I am not God. We are not God.
And I know that’s a truism, but it is nevertheless very important. And I say it is important because that simple understanding opens the door for greater exploration. Indeed, there is a great problem when a professor or student doesn’t understand that. Let me explain.
I’m 35 now and there came a day when I realized that there are things that I don’t know that I don’t even know I don’t know. (Try that on for a minute). There are things about which I don’t even know where to begin asking questions. This “humility” in knowing that there is a world “beyond” me—this humility is the very stuff that spurs on good questions and exploration.
The Age of Discovery, for example, was spurred on by this humble understanding that there is a world beyond my visible horizon. Something is “out there” which I do not know—and so let’s go in search.
And while there is still a kind of Age of Discovery going on in our universities (as I hope there would be), there is not so much exploration and discovery into the great “out there” questions of Why.
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An example. Why are there craters on the moon?
Go ahead and answer.
Ok. Most of us have answered that there are craters on the moon because of asteroids and the pre-conditions of the moon’s thin atmosphere and, going back in time, the colliding of some likely broken-apart celestial bodies in what could be described as a kind of giant Marbles game up there.
And that’s all well and good. But that doesn’t answer my question. You answered “how?” How are there craters on the moon?—but I asked why. “How” tells me the process by which something happens—in this case, asteroids. But “how” is different from “why.” “Why” deals with meaning; with the deeper reasons.
In my experience with higher education, I have found that we have become very good at answering how questions, seeing the process, knowing how things work. But we don’t do very well at the why—the meaning questions. And, in my humble experience, as fascinating as the how questions are (and they are very, very fascinating!—I who thought about being a chemist)—as fascinating as the how questions are, even more fascinating are the why questions.
Why craters or the moon at all?
But it's those questions that have been pushed to the side. I could theorize why this is and my speculation would simply boil down to the fact that why questions are hard questions and they humble us and they put us face-to-face with our limited capacities to know—and that maybe there is something beyond my me-centered orbit.
In my hundreds and probably thousands of conversations with atheists—strangers, friends, and family all included—I have noticed that why questions are oftentimes dropped. So, for example, there’s that discussion on how man came to be and evolution and so on. And the conversation revolves around the how of the coming to be.
But the conversation ends when I ask the very simple question: why existence at all?
And they don’t know. Maybe they chalk it up to chance (a how-answer) or to aliens or a spontaneous emergence from nothing …. (And they accuse Catholics of magical thinking!).\
[[[Please hear me correctly: this is not an attack against science. Actually, this is a promotion thereof. After all, only a universe written in some logic can be scientifically understood—as science itself presumes some kind of logic. (Else, we have no such thing as understandable results—at which point, why do science if it doesn’t yield results understandable).]]]
At any rate: the conversation ends when I ask the why questions. And I humbly submit that the conversation ends because such questions appear silly. I further submit that such questions appear silly because to the person with the me-centered orbit—just like I was in my youth—the question places me face-to-face with my limitation. And so, I either have to accept my limitation or dismiss the question.
And it’s easier to dismiss the question than dismiss myself—especially when I’m prideful and surrounded in an environment of me-centeredness as a place of higher learning is so often tempted to be.
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So would you like to know what the answer is? Why are there craters on the moon?
(It’s a very humble answer…)
The answer is Love.
I know. That’s unsatisfying to some of you. But walk with me for a second. If we presume that God is Creator and that God wills His creation to be; and if we further presume that God creates from a will that is Love and Love straight through—then the ultimate answer for why there are craters on the moon is Love.
Yes, asteroids—that’s how. Love is why.
And from this comes a wonderful frontier of questions to explore and discover! And for the me-centered person, we could ask the me-centered question: “What does this have to do with me?”
One saint, when she discovered that everything was created because of Love—Love of her, Love of all, Love Itself—it then happened that she would walk along a sidewalk lined with flowers and she realized the flowers were calling out, “I love you! I love you! I love you!”
Strangely, the world became all about her—not because it was about her, but because it was a total gift from the One who loved her. The flowers, the craters, … it was God trying to woo us with beauty.
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Imagine how different our academic studies would be if we were to approach them in this way! To study science would no longer be to simply study the how of things (of course, it would), but also to realize that what we are really studying is the logic of God Himself.
Saints would say that theology should be done on the knees. I humbly suggest that when we study, we should at some point genuflect at the whole, amazing exercise: we are delving into things mysterious and deep.
A thing is no longer just a thing. You are not just the sum parts cells gathered. Written in you and communicated through you is the reality that God loved you into being.
Rene Descartes once said, “I think, therefore I am.” No. That needs revision: “I am loved, therefore I am.”
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Why the moon at all? Why existence at all? Why studies at all?
Your book is not just simply the communication of information to be read, stored, and (hopefully) accurately regurgitated. Your book is a door into the why of Love.
What I am getting at is the need to rediscover the role of contemplation in university studies.
To not just study, but to pray in and through our study. To enter more deeply into them by the humble admission that there is Someone greater present here whose mind and heart I am exploring—and, indeed, who wants to be known by and through these Studies.
I am sounding the call to be real explorers. A new Age of Discovery is truly upon us—the beginning of which means to embark from the me-centered to the God-centered world.
Strangely, just when we do that and just when we think that we lose everything because of it—like those explorers of the past who saw the mainland disappear behind them—a new and beautiful world appears before us, a world—so wonderfully—given precisely for us from the God who is Love.