Keynote Speech at Ateneo de Manila University
January 24, 2009
It is wonderful to be back here in Manila. When Fr. Nebres invited me to participate in this conference, there was never a question of my coming. First, to be with Fr. Nebres, is to know one of the great global leaders in higher education. The contribution that he has made as a member of our Board of Directors at Georgetown University is incalculable. And my debt to him can never be repaid, and to engage in the issues that are the focus of this forum, under his guidance, is an opportunity that I couldn’t miss.
Second, I welcomed the chance to be with so many leaders from around the world, engaged with these questions that you’ve been focused on these past days, at such an important time in our world, as our universities wrestle with the challenges of this moment, of this financial crisis.
Third, as many of you may know, my wife’s mother is from Tarlac. And I received strong encouragement from my family to be here.
And fourth, just four years ago I had the privilege of being with you for a few days for a truly unforgettable visit. I came to know many of you; see your city; visit Gawad Kalinga; learn about your distinguished alumnus, Jose Rizal, and what he means to the people of the Philippines; and discover the insights of a true spiritual master in Fr. Horacio De La Costa of the Society of Jesus. It is an honor for me to be back here, a place that brings warm, glowing memories of my last visit to your community.
I have just left my home, a city which is also glowing—glowing from the extraordinary events of this past week…a week in which America inaugurated our 44th president. It’s hard to describe how moving an experience it was to be present for such a moment. Barack Obama was inaugurated just one day after what is a national holiday in America—a day in which we honor the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 80 years old this week. The dream that one day a young man, born of a Kenyan father and a mother from Kansas, could aspire to the position of President of the United States, is one that few would have ever hoped for. But Barack Obama knew it could be done…that the time for the dream to be realized is now.
In his address on Tuesday, on the stage in front of the Capitol building, President Obama said:
“To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”
“For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”
What is this world in which we now find ourselves? How has it changed, and how should we—those of us who live our lives in higher education—how should we respond? I’m going to organize my thoughts this morning in three parts. First, some reflections on how has our world changed; second, how we understand the point and purpose of our work, the work of the University; and third, what are the resources that we bring at this moment in time to respond to the needs of our changing world?
First, what is different? I believe there are three forces that have been at work over the past generation—two of which I don’t think will be a surprise to you; a third which just might. Each is having its own impact, and together they converge in a way that is fundamentally altering the way we think about the world, the way we understand the world, the way we engage in the world. The forces are globalization, postmodernism, and a third which, as I said, may surprise you, an evolving de-secularization. So a word about each…
Globalization is a phenomenon with ancient roots, but in recent years has developed a new, powerful character that defines it as a very immediate force. New technologies in transportation, in information, and in communications, have enabled an interconnectedness around our globe without historical precedent.
Just think that on Tuesday of this week, I was present for the inaugural activities of the President of the United States. On Wednesday morning, I attended the prayer service to welcome the new President. Throughout the day Wednesday, I met with my colleagues in Washington; had meetings on Thursday morning. And then I got on a plane, flew to Seoul; worked on these remarks in the fourteen hours that I flew from Seoul to here; and when I landed, I got on the phone and dictated these remarks. I went to bed last night, and when I woke up, they were ready for me to read in typescript. And here I am, Saturday morning. I called home—it’s Friday night at home; my son just got home from a day of school and activities…Think about this—transportation, communications, and information technologies that enable us to be interconnected in a way that I’m here participating with you all today in a way that I just couldn’t have imagined.
The impact that these forces of globalization have had on capital flows, on knowledge flows, on migration and the movement of peoples, international and intercultural exchange, are truly changing the face of our globe. Our children are truly moving into a world that is scarcely recognizable to an older generation.
Postmodernism was first given its definition in 1979 by Jean-François Lyotard. Signaling the end of the period in which there was both a stable and coherent set of categories and concepts through which we interpret the world, there emerges a loss of confidence in the truth of our meta-narratives, the grand frameworks through which we establish meaning. Differentiating between what knowledge is discovered and what is constructed; acknowledging the instability of some of our “timeless” values; acknowledging the historicity of much of what we know. What emerges in this move from the modern age to a more postmodern age is an increasing fragmentation, a lack of confidence in the stability of what we know. Much of the foundations that many of us were raised on, intellectually, have been thrown into question.
Now the third force is the one that I think may surprise you. De-secularization requires even more historical context, and for all of us, we are privileged to live in a time when a scholar as distinguished as Charles Taylor has provided us with a magisterial account in his A Secular Age. We in the academy—particularly the Western academy—have lived in a most unusual context for more than a century. While much of humankind participates in some form of religious practice, religion has not been present in much of Western intellectual discourse since the Enlightenment. For much of that time, this was regarded as a positive development. But think about the resources of our religious traditions, and consider how might the world be different if we had the full engagement of these resources in responsible, respectful, inclusive, and appropriate ways. Imagine if we could harness the resources of faith. There’s a connectedness, fragmentation, and an emerging, evolving presence of our faith traditions: the convergence of these factors are creating a new world, a world in desperate need of our imaginations and our intellect, our hearts and our souls.
So what does this changing world mean for us, those of us living our lives in the contemporary academy?
This past summer, I was honored to be invited to deliver a talk in the United States at the University of Notre Dame. But this wasn’t just any talk. I was speaking to their annual gathering of faculty, administrators and alumni, committed to supporting their intercollegiate athletics program. For those of you familiar with higher education in the United States, you’ll have an appreciation of just what this means—the role that intercollegiate athletics plays in our nation, and the unique place that Notre Dame has among colleges and universities through the strength of their athletic program. Coming from the oldest Catholic university in the United States, and going to visit one of the great ones, I chose that moment to discuss what I would describe as two different conceptions of excellence. I believe that there are two compelling and at times competing understandings of what constitutes excellence. These conceptions provide us with an orientation, a sense of a point and purpose of our work.
The first understanding holds that human excellence is best understood as a balance—as an integration—among various dimensions of our humanity. Let me explain: we have intellect, reason; we’re capable of artistic expression; we can communicate between and among one another; we feel emotions; we have religious experiences and sensibilities; we are social and political beings; we make moral judgments; we act in the world.
All of this, taken together, and blended together, characterizes, under this account of excellence, what it means to be human. In this account, human excellence can be understood as the ability to find the proper balance—the harmony—within and among these elements as we pursue the unique point and purpose, the telos, of our lives.
The second understanding is very different. It holds that human excellence is best demonstrated in boundary-breaking achievements. Excellence means performing feats that perhaps others cannot even imagine—forging beyond the limits of previous accomplishments; pushing back the frontiers; going where others have not yet gone. Typically, this understanding of excellence requires that one sacrifice well-roundedness—the proper harmony between the elements that comprise the human experience—to the focused, unyielding, pursuit of truly unprecedented discovery or performance.
I label these two understandings “logics”—because they catalyze and justify whole sets of decisions or actions. I will call the first type of logic “Aristotelian,” because it captures an understanding of the human condition first outlined by Aristotle. Strictly speaking, it’s not “Aristotle’s view.” But the understanding, the logic, that I’ve outlined, does owe many of its concepts to a tradition that originates in the Nichomachean Ethics.
To understand our end, the point and purpose of our lives, both individually and collectively, requires an individual and collective acts of interpretation and construction, but when we are working toward an end, an end that is proper to our being, we call that end Eudaimonia, which translates as “happiness,” or perhaps more appropriately, “human flourishing.”
The second logic is a little more complex to label—and with apologies to the many here who will be uncomfortable with the sweeping generalizations that I’m about to make—I think that calling it “Nietzschean” best captures its dimensions.
In Nietzschean logic, human excellence is to be found in the “limit experience.” To put it another way: it’s exceptional people defining themselves by exceptional experiences. Human excellence isn’t to be found in the feeling of “balance” or “harmony.” Life must be lived at the edges—including the edges of knowledge, exploration, and thought—and on the boundaries—in the ultimate pursuit of triumph. While everyone can strive to live in Aristotelian balance or harmony, few can reach Nietzschean greatness. But those who can, they are challenged to make every necessary sacrifice in the quest to define, or redefine, the standards of achievement…standards by which humanity measures itself in a particular endeavor.
Now a moment ago I mentioned that I offered these thoughts in a talk at Notre Dame. It may now be clearer why. As an outstanding American research university with one of the nation’s pre-eminent athletic programs, Notre Dame is a paradigmatic example of an institution shaped by both logics. As a research university, when we provide our faculty with the opportunity to push back the frontiers of knowledge, we’re creating an environment where we’re supporting and sustaining this pursuit of the limit experience. And when we provide opportunities for some of our students to engage and compete at the highest levels of athletic competition, this can only be defined as a limit experience.
The academy, as a whole, is shaped by the tensions, the conflicts and the complementarities between these two logics. We encourage both. We celebrate both. We pursue both. We encounter the conflicts and tensions within our classrooms, in our laboratories, and on our playing fields. Negotiating the conflicts is one of the defining challenges of the academy. And doing it well is among the most vital roles we play in our societies—societies which, all too often, also experience the tension that arises between these two logics…between these two ways of viewing excellence.
You might imagine that in this moment in DC, the Nietzschean logic that had driven some of the financial context of the last generation, measured against much of what we stand for in trying to ensure that our people have access to all the opportunities that can ensure full human development—this is a tension we’ve all been living in our nations and in globe.
So why does it matter that we as an academy, with an entire framework, manage this tension well? I think the answer leads us to the crucial question: In what does our purpose lie, and how does that purpose serve to answer the challenge laid before us on Tuesday in the Inaugural Address of Barack Obama? How do we respond to the demands of this changing world?
Now a Catholic and Jesuit university, like the one we celebrate here today, in the Ateneo de Manila, certainly carries forward both traditions—both logics. While the Jesuit understanding of “magis,” or striving for more, seeks to capture something a bit different than Nietzsche’s “limit experience,” wherever we support and sustain colleagues whose focus and intensity pushes them past normal boundaries, we are supporting a Nietzschean logic, and throughout our histories we have manifested a deep resonance with Aristotle’s conception of eudaimonia, “human flourishing.”
But a tradition like the one we celebrate today, on the 150th anniversary of this extraordinary university, this tradition does push things further. In this tradition we do not accept that Aristotle’s conception of human flourishing tells the whole story. It was through the work of another, Thomas Aquinas, who brought forward Aristotle’s conception of eudaimonia and integrated it with a Christian vision. For St. Thomas, “man can never achieve his ultimate end through his own powers.” It requires a union with God. And it was another student, from the University of Paris, who later offered us this articulation of our ultimate end, purpose, our telos:
“In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance
for all these creative gifts in so far as we have a choice
and we are not bound by some obligation.
We should not fix our desires on health or sickness,
Wealth or poverty, success of failure,
A long life or a short one.
For everything has the potential of calling forth in us
A deeper response to our life in God.
Our only desire and our one choice should be this:
I want and I choose what better leads:
to God’s deepening his life in me.”
“I want and I choose what better leads: to God’s deepening his life in me.”
This is of course the First Principle and Foundation, the statement of St. Ignatius that begins his Spiritual Exercises.
With this understanding, how do we understand the nature of our responsibility at this moment, a moment in which we face a world that has changed, a moment demanding new kinds of responses from us? How do we respond to this moment, characterized by a new connectedness, an instability, a fragmentation, and an emergence of the resources of faith into the public square? A moment when perhaps the unique resources of a Catholic and Jesuit tradition can be brought into dialogue, into conversation, with those of other traditions. How do we respond in this moment? In the words of Fr. Nicholas, in his first sermon as Superior General of the Society of Jesus: “In this moment of our history, where do we need to fix our attention, our service, our energy?” How do we find that “deeper response?”
I’d like to offer one thought: We have not faced the range of financial challenges emerging from this current crisis in our life-times. And I recognize that we all bring different national experiences and histories, but no one—no one—is escaping the challenges of this financial crisis; and in such a challenge, we must never forget that it will be the poor who suffer the most. The forces that I have described that are present in this moment have the opportunity to be harnessed in ways that can have a real impact in creating a more just order. And, they can also be employed in the service of injustice. Consider Father Kolvenbach’s comments of just a few years ago:
“The frightful results of economic globalization that have been introduced, against all ethics, are obvious: dehumanization, individualism, lack of solidarity, social fragmentation, a widening of the already existing gap between rich and poor, exclusion, lack of respect for human rights, economic and cultural neocolonialism, exploitation, deterioration of the environment, violence, frustration.”
But if we step back, if we “hold ourselves in balance,” listen to what he then says in the same talk:
“It must be recognized that globalization also includes other dimensions which offer unique possibilities for the construction of a world more fraternal and solidary. Never before have there been so many opportunities for communication, for integration, for interdependence and unity of the human race.”
One of the great achievements of the “modern” era was the identification and protection of “human rights.” The Western Enlightenment produced a body of work that provided the architecture for positing human rights, the architecture for a new nation, and a new regime through which a commitment to rights were enshrined. In the case of the United States, still today, two centuries later, we are working to fulfill the founding promise of the new republic. But embedded in the Enlightenment ideals of both the American and French experiments is a commitment to certain inalienable human rights. There is a spirit, an Enlightenment spirit, that comes alive in the institutions and practices of the modern age. These are among the greatest achievements of the modern era.
But let’s “hold ourselves in balance” and ask ourselves as we are moving from the modern era to a postmodern context, how do we respond to the challenges of this moment? How does a postmodern era interpret this achievement?
Consider this idea. The novelist and critic John Berger identified a principle arising out of the modern period. He called this “the world principle of a Better Future.” This idea, this principle, gave hope, it offered a perspective that humankind was all engaged in a collective attempt to bring about a better world. This is the spirit of the Western Enlightenment. It’s an idea that transcends, that we are all part of a collective effort to bring about a better world. But Berger identifies another dimension to this principle: this very principle, which gave such hope, could also serve as a justification for human suffering. How? How could this be? This same principle also enables us to avert our eyes, to avoid responsibility: we are not responsible for suffering in our world. We are working, always, to build a better world. The suffering in our world is not a result of our decisions and actions. It is not the institutions that we have built, it is not the treaties we have signed, it is not the boundaries that we have established, it is not the economic systems that we have constructed. We are not responsible for the suffering in our world, and any suffering that does take place is part of the process of “progress.” In the modern mind, we are building a better world. Berger recognized a different dimension, a different dynamic, in this very modern project. He wrote to those who are marginalized and disenfranchised, your suffering is part of a process that will lead to a better future. Berger challenges us to look beyond the obvious achievements of the modern era and to ask ourselves what a better response might look like. He doesn’t accept the idea that the suffering of the poor is part of a process that leads to a better future.
What if in this moment, when the forces of globalization, and the questions raised by postmodernity, and the resources of our faith traditions, what if in this moment, these forces enable us to re-examine some of the assumptions that have guided us throughout the modern period? What if what is different about this moment is that we come to understand that human suffering truly is our responsibility? What if we now have the resources to harness the forces at work in our societies in ways that can truly impact human suffering on an unprecedented scale? In this moment, can we work through the blocks and constraints of our conceptual models? Can we work through the structures, the systems and the institutions that we have built, and understand that perhaps the unintended consequences of these frameworks, in which we’ve operated, can make new demands on ourselves? We can no longer justify our response to human suffering through the same framework that guided us through the modern era—the promise of a better future. We need to capture in this new age a “new promise,” a promise grounded in a new responsibility—seizing the forces of globalization, the challenge to reshape our intellectual frameworks beyond modernity, the opportunity to harness the resources of our faiths, and to bring our imaginations forth to build a new world; a new world in which we understand our very purpose, and the very point, our telos, our conception of human flourishing as entailing a responsibility to end human suffering wherever it may be in our world.
We stand “in balance,” recognizing in this very moment these very forces can lead us to a “deeper response.”
Again it’s an honor to be here with you all, to share this moment, and to have the opportunity to be here with so many distinguished leaders in global higher education, to try and wrestle with just what this moment demands of us. And I hope my reflections today serve as a way of offering a provocative framework through which can engage with some of these questions.
Again thank you for the opportunity to be here, and thank you for listening.