Note: Each year the graduating class elects one of its members to present the Senior Address at Commencement. Upon graduation, this year’s speaker, Felicity Seeley of Santa Paula, California, intends to pursue a career in writing.
What is Truth?
May 17, 2014
Friends, “I should like to have a word with you, here, on this very spot. We shall be parting soon. Let us agree here that we will never forget one another. And whatever may happen to us later in life, even if we do not meet for twenty years afterwards, let us always remember” what good times we’ve had here, searching for Truth together. “And even though we may be involved in the most important affairs, achieve distinction or fall into some great misfortune, all the same, let us never forget how good we once felt here, all together, united by such good and kind feelings as made us, too, for the time perhaps better than we are.”
Alyosha’s words at the end of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov remind us of the importance of each and every experience of goodness. This is what the Class of 2014 would like to thank all of you for. Cardinal O’Brien, members of the Board, parents and families, dear tutors and staff, thank you for joining us on this Commencement day to help us form another memory of love and unity. Christ said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). We thank all of you who have given us this school, which has been for us a means to increase in faith, hope, and love, a means for life more abundant than any of us could have imagined.
As Class Speaker, I am supposed to express what we’ve come to celebrate. I’ve noticed that, at special events, we find it difficult to keep in mind everything that makes this day different from others, what gives us cause to rejoice; all these parties tend to blend together. My task, then, is to vocalize what may not meet the eye when you look at our class today. You may see a small group of young students who are exhausted from four years of intense studying — and two months of partying. You may see a close-knit bunch of friends who are relieved to be done with this stage of their lives, and joyful to all be done together, if sad to say goodbye. And that’s all we may understand ourselves: exhaustion and relief, sadness and vague joy.
But really, we have done something great, something to be proud of. What have we been doing these four years? Many times when you’ve reached the end of a book, or a mathematical proposition, you pause to wonder if the author eventually did what he said he would do. You flip back to the beginning to compare what you’ve learned to what he thought he could teach. So maybe looking back at the beginning, to what our class was searching for when we came, would shed some light on what we’ve done.
We were all different when we came here. Some of us knew what we were getting ourselves into and couldn’t wait! Some of us were willing to deal with it, as long as it came one day at a time. Some of us had definite plans for after school, such as discerning a religious vocation. Some of us had no plans beyond graduation — maybe some of us still don’t — but with such differences, how could we all work toward one end? What held us together?
Many of Thomas Aquinas College’s t-shirts say, “Carpe Veritatem” — Seize the Truth. You’ve probably seen them either on the website, in slideshows, or on the backs of your friends and family. We all came to seize the Truth. We all came because Thomas Aquinas College offered Truth, proposed its curriculum and method as truth-seeking. That’s what the school set out to teach, and that’s what the Class of 2014 set out to find. Did we find it?
Well ... “What is Truth?” (John 18:38). I know I didn’t have a clear idea when I decided to attend. Perhaps Pilate was right to ask the question. After all, human beings have asked it since the beginning of language.
There have been many answers: “Truth is individual, dis-integrated facts,” or “Truth is relative.” Some people take a truth to be whatever an authority says, afraid that Truth isn’t strong enough to answer our questions. More recently, the common answer has been, imitating Pilate’s skepticism, “What is Truth? Why search for something so powerless, so meaningless, so being-less? After all, Christ, who claimed to witness to the Truth (John 18:37), has been brought before the world time and again, and it has judged Him unworthy to be its God and King.”
Without quite knowing why, we students came to find this Truth. What is Truth? The truth is, I don’t know what the Truth is. In the beginning of our pursuit, we learned from Socrates that the first step is to admit, to yourself and others, that you don’t know everything. “Always be open to Truth,” he seems to advise. “Open your mind, open your heart, and keep them open. When you ‘know’ something, you could be wrong. Don’t blindly follow others’ leads; listen to them, ask questions, and don’t take anything for granted; they could be wrong, too.”
This lesson was important in the beginning for two reasons. First, we come to the College with many preconceived ideas, some right, some wrong, some we don’t even notice for some time; if we don’t carefully examine each of them, we may fail to reach our goal. If we don’t check our plotted path to Truth, no matter how good our map is, we’ll be lost from that point on. Secondly, it is a great temptation in that first year to bend to those who seem smarter than us, just accepting what they say; to fear asking a question in case we look stupid. We find in Socrates the teaching that it’s all right to look stupid.
So, to find Truth we must be open to it; we must not greedily hold on to what we think is right, and we must always be willing to ask questions. Even if what we know is true, that truth can only deepen our souls and fill us up if we have faith in its depth, never being content with a surface explanation, but always diving in head-first.
This school’s attitude is ideal for both of these Socratic Admonitions. Through the “Socratic Method,” the classes force us to test our own notions and conclusions by fielding the questions of peers and tutors. Similarly, we are encouraged to question and clarify the ideas and opinions of others, whether our fellow students and tutors, or the greatest thinkers Western civilization has ever known. Thus, the school helps in these first steps. Further, it gives us the thoughts that the world has judged “The Great Books.” We read many writers throughout the centuries of human history because many of them contain snippets and slivers of truth.
If truth is found in all these places, however, perhaps our search is much more complicated than we thought. For every truth participates in and is a facet of the Truth. This includes truths of every subject, from philosophy and theology to astronomy and music. The challenge is to continuously fit them together so that no class is separate from the others, so that each brings Truth’s diversity to one place: our souls, hearts, and minds. To do this, we must continually question, as Socrates’ example taught us, until Truth’s aspects become unified and integrated. We must always remember what we’ve learned, making sure that what we’re saying now in math agrees with what we said last semester in theology. That’s what an integrated curriculum is all about: making Truth one.
This is also what makes Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas so great. Their works form an integrated whole; these authors touch on everything because their idea of Truth is one. Every truth they find touches on another until they’ve built a complete understanding of the world. Anything that doesn’t fit either has to be modified and fixed, or it has to modify and fix their world view. Each piece that does fit fills out their understanding of the whole.
After all, to hold truth means to hold it in the depths of our souls, not just the surface of our minds; to believe Truth means trusting it with our whole being. To do this, we must show our thoughts and bare our insecurities out loud in class. If we’re supposed to let Truth inform our souls and build our worlds, we must be invested in it, and, as we said before, we must not be afraid to look silly.
We are certainly invested in the classroom. Here’s a common example: Descartes says something extreme or silly, or even extremely silly; it might not affect us much. But as soon as one of our peers disagrees with us, even slightly, it’s nearly impossible to let it slide. I don’t think it’s because their mistake would ruin our ability to believe and understand the Truth. It’s because we have discovered that their world is false, that they hold something in their souls that differs from us.
We all find this distressing. For some reason, we can’t shrug it off and say, “Well, let So-and-so be wrong.” I think this has to do with friendship. When we grow closer to someone in friendship, we share more and more of ourselves, our picture of the world and its effects on our souls. The more we share of ourselves, and the more we understand and become like the other person, the more we grow in love and friendship for them.
Thus, when someone disagrees, he is pointing out that our worlds, our souls, are unreconciled on a certain point. Because Truth is One, any philosophical detail can have exponential consequences. (That’s why we occasionally get bogged down in class and can’t seem to move on from something that seems relatively minor; we can’t tell how far this disagreement will run if we don’t fix it now.) To discuss and agree, perhaps compromise on the “middle position,” is to redefine our worlds so that we can again see the Truth together.
All this shows that Truth is a common good, one that brings about the strongest of friendships. We say, “You are friends with people who have things in common with you.” What could be more common than a common view of the world, its origin, its consequences, and the place of humanity in it? When we hold the same Truth, we know that we are, in fact, standing in the same world and wondering at the same Goodness and Beauty.
Some might argue, “The understanding of Truth you’re building here is too narrow. It’s not getting the whole picture; your souls will suffer for it. Looking at Truth through the lens of the Catholic Church will give you a distorted picture, one that simply doesn’t fit with the rest of the world.” I would answer: “If the Truth of the Church is what we’re seeking, to Whom are we conforming ourselves? Whose world are we adopting as our own? Whose friendship have we attained by making our souls like Him? Truth Himself!”
Well … we’ve said a lot. First, we’ve agreed that Truth must be one, whole, integrated picture of the world; second, that sharing that world is what brings us together as the dearest of friends and fellow citizens of the City of God; third, that the Truth that we have found, to Whom we have conformed ourselves, and with Whom we have become friends, is Jesus Christ, the deepest and most trustworthy friend we can have.
The Truth we came to seek at Thomas Aquinas College, then, is not simply “the knowable things,” whatever we can fit in our minds such that we can be certain, knowing its cause, that it is the cause, and that it cannot be otherwise. If that were so, it would imply that Truth can be fully comprehended by us, that there is nothing beyond human understanding. But we know this to be false. Our Patron, St. Thomas, spends time proving that God is infinite, that is, unbounded, and therefore far beyond the comprehension of our limited minds. But we already know that God is Truth. Thus, we can conclude that, while knowable things are part of Truth, and the foundation for our knowledge of it, the fullness of Truth is not knowable by us.
After all, Truth is to be found in every part of us. Searching for Truth is not just a formation of our minds, but also of our hearts. It teaches us to desire what we know of it, not only what is comprehensible, but also the mysteries. For this Truth is not merely of understanding, but one of living and being. It is both knowing and loving with our whole soul everything that we can know and love; it is participating in what God knows and loves.
That, friends and family of the Class of 2014, is what we have gained: the beginning of Eternal Wisdom. That is what we celebrate. Now we will go out into the world, hoping to continue our learning at the hands of God, Who teaches through His creation. We go out as Christ sent His Apostles: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matt. 10:16). Being witnesses to Christ and the Truth means again baring our souls, showing our world to those who haven’t seen it. Make no mistake; very few people know of our world of Truth. It takes true love of neighbor, true love of Truth, to bring a stranger into our world, to show him the Truth, to help him desire that goodness and order as we do. God will give us courage and aid. “Do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say,” Christ orders us; “for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”
As I see it, Christ is the jackhammer to Plato’s Cave. With one saving act, He destroyed the dark world of opinion forever; the world will never be the same. His help is more effective than any argument, and His love shining through us, informed by the Truth we’ve found here, is all we need in order to serve Him and bring others to love Him, too.
When I was a freshman, a senior commented on freshman theology, pointing out to me, “If you’re reading the Bible and it’s not changing your life, you’re not reading it.” She was right. The Scriptures are pure and eternal Truth. The same power can be attributed to all the Truth we read here. The power of Truth is to change us from the inside out; to liberate us from sin and error; to free us from fear and lead us to eternal happiness; to transform us, as He has all His saints throughout the ages, into His servants, friends, and brothers. When Pilate scoffs, it is only because he cannot see this power. He does not search for it, he does not love it.
We have seen how the Truth is faith and love, and how it teaches us to hope for its fulfillment. I end with the hope that Alyosha expresses in his speech at the stone: “Ah, dear friends, do not be afraid of life! How good life is when you do something good and just! Certainly we shall all rise again, certainly we shall see each other and shall tell each other with joy and gladness all that has happened!” We look forward to that day, when together, “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). Thank you, and congratulations to the Class of 2014!
“I am grateful to Thomas Aquinas College for educating new leaders for our Church, leaders who are grounded in their personal relationship and commitment to Jesus Christ.”
– Most. Rev. George Niederauer
Archbishop Emeritus of San Francisco