Trinitas Blog

Graduation Address to the Class of 2021

Posted by Colby Gilley on Jun 20, 2021 4:38:34 PM

           ColbyatGraduation Thank you so much for that kind introduction. Before we begin, I would like to express my sincerest thanks to the administration and to all the senior class parents for providing me the opportunity to speak to these graduating seniors before you all tonight. And I would be terribly amiss if I did not congratulate you, seniors, on the many accomplishments that have brought you to this very place on this momentous evening. My purpose this evening is two-fold and somewhat paradoxical in nature. On the one hand, my job is to remind you that all of this evening is about you. On the other hand, my job is to remind you that none of this is about you, at all. Like I said, somewhat paradoxical. But there is a method to this madness, and I hope to demonstrate as much over the course of the next few minutes. There are many things I could say to you this evening; in truth, there are many things that ought to be said to you this evening, but that’s what all these good people are for. Lord knows I’ll need the backup. Yes, there are many paths we could tread, but I thought it best to stick to one rather familiar to you, and to me as well. Our progression this evening will follow a sort of timeline: First, we’ll revisit the past, taking great pains to put a very fine point on just what it is that you have been doing here at Trinitas for the past 6, 8, 10—and for some of you—13 years of your life; next, we’ll pause and ponder the precise precipice upon which you are perched, at present; and finally, we’ll look to the future, daring, even, to prescribe what must be next. So, let’s roll back the clock.

            You all have spent years of your life—some more than a decade—pursuing a “classical and Christ-centered education” here at Trinitas. Along the way you’ve heard many explanations of what this actually means, many defenses of what it actually is, but—as I said earlier—tonight we’re in the business of putting a fine point on things, so humor me one last time. Despite the enthusiasm with which we at Trinitas pair the ideas of “classical” and “Christ-centered,” the union of philosophical questioning and Christian teaching has not always been a blessed one. As far back as the 2nd century A.D., the early Christian author Tertullian, in his On the Prescription of Heretics, famously quipped, “Quid ergo Athenis et Hierosolymis—What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Tertullian could find little room for the questions of the Greeks within his understanding of Christian doctrine. Nonetheless, here at Trinitas we have welcomed the classical tradition of intellectual inquiry with open arms, without cheapening or diluting our devotion to orthodox Christianity. How, then, do we harmonize these poles, between which Tertullian perceived a gaping chasm?

            Let us examine, in turn, the two terms that have dictated the tenor of your educational experience here at Trinitas: “classical” and “Christ-centered.” A “classical” education roots itself in the “classical” tradition—by which we mean the intellectual tradition of Western civilization. This tradition is best typified by the questions it has, over the course of millennia, sought to answer, questions such as: “What does it mean to be human? What is the good life? What is a life, well-lived?” A “classical” education, then, prompts students to ask these same questions, studying, debating, and critiquing the various answers that have been provided throughout the course of history.

            A “Christ-centered” education, on the other hand, revolves around teaching the sovereignty of our Savior as it has been revealed to us, primarily through God’s written Word. Now, it is here that we begin to perceive Tertullian’s reasoning. When encountered with the classical questions “What does it mean to be human?” and “What is the good life?”, the student of a “Christ-centered” education has ready answers, pulled straight from the pages of Scripture. In response to the first question, Genesis 1:27 immediately comes to mind: “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (NKJV). What does it mean to be human? It means bearing God’s image as His creation. In response to the second question, Philippians 2:5-7 presents itself: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (NKJV). What is the good life? It is the life of Christ. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” There is little room for a Socratic dialogue in Paul’s imperative.

            So, is that it then? Having checked all the boxes, do we just wipe off our hands, close up shop, and call it a day? Clearly, we don’t think that’s quite how it works. No, Athens and Jerusalem do have a relationship, but of a particular kind. Let me suggest that we characterize the interplay between Athens and Jerusalem, between a classical education and a Christ-centered education as a sort of dialectic: one idea contending with another, but ultimately yielding a freshly harmonized pursuit. For, when the classical questions “What does it mean to be human? What does the good life look like?” are countered with the Christ-centered response “A human is a created being, bearing the image of God, who ought to live as Christ did” the conversation does not abruptly end; rather, new questions arise in light of these truths—questions of the utmost importance to the earnest Christian: “Who is God? What does it mean to be like God? How does it look to live like Christ?” Simply put, a “classical and Christ-centered education” teaches one how to seek God; how to survey the whole course of history, gazing upon the finest figures, the finest works of literature, the finest works of art, and seeing, stamped upon every inch of it, the fingerprints of an almighty God. My friends, this is the business you have been about at Trinitas Christian School. This is the pursuit to which you have devoted the past decade of your life.

            And if you’ll reflect with me for a moment, I believe you’ll see that this has indeed been the case. Every time Mrs. Phillips lovingly and faithfully corrected you, she was pointing you to God. Every bit of loving admonishment and tireless encouragement that Mr. Gilley has offered you, was pointing you to God. During every class period in which Coach K taught you how to look around at the goodness of creation and replicate its beauty with precision and with passion, he showed you how to seek out your Maker. In every science experiment and dissection with Mrs. DeGraaf, you glimpsed the very handiwork of God. When Mr. Butcher, through the interactions of Portia and Shiloch, compelled you to grapple with the “quality of mercy,” he was leading you toward the qualities of Christ. When Mr. Varela taught you to sing oh so many new songs to the Lord, he showed you how to approach your God. When we pored over I John together, we sought out the Lord in a new language! When Mrs. Stout displayed for you the mathematical order undergirding the created cosmos, you were seeking God in yet another language! Through all the reading checks, recitations, Boni Libri presentations, and syntopical essays that Mr. Hadley assigned you, he pushed you to see the truth of God within every text. In all your prayers before, after, and most likely in the middle of soccer games, volleyball games, baseball games, and drama productions, you called out to God. In the Scripture readings, the Scripture recitations, the creeds, the hymns, and the prayers you uttered in Morning Meeting on every single day of your Trinitas career, you were in the presence of God. If there is one thing you’ve been taught at Trinitas, it’s how to seek and how to find your God.

            But your time here is drawing to a close. Presently, we will be your past. Now, we’re not all about to disappear off the face of the earth, God willing. But, Mr. Gilley, Mr. Hadley, Mrs. Stout, Mr. Butcher, and all the rest of us will no longer be a daily presence in your lives—a presence that has been constant for many years now. So, where does that leave you?

            Having lingered on the accomplishments of your past, I think it’s time we try to get a grasp on where you sit right now, in this present moment. To help paint this picture, let me advance a cautious comparison: the position that you graduating seniors now find yourself in is not unlike the position that Dante, the Pilgrim, finds himself in after the conclusion of The Divine Comedy. Having descended through the rings of Hell, having ascended the terraces of Mount Purgatory, and having been transported through the celestial spheres of Paradise, Dante’s imagined Pilgrim-self finally encounters the True Light of God, and upon viewing it, can barely conjure words of description. And then the text ends. But the careful reader understands that this was not the end of the Pilgrim’s journey. Having employed the voice of the Pilgrim as the narrator of his own odyssey, Dante, the Poet, implies that the Pilgrim no longer remains in celestial bliss, but has descended back to earth. Because he was still a living human, the Pilgrim was never meant to stay in the Empyrean, but to return to his home on earth. Talk about culture-shock. This implied descension presents the Pilgrim with a substantial dilemma as he must strive to ground himself after such an expedition—that same dilemma lies before the nine of you this evening.

            Now, before we proceed any further, allow me to make an important clarification. Though the spiritual geography presented in The Divine Comedy is clearly the imaginative work of a fallible, human author, in no way does my comparison intend to equate your experience at Trinitas with the experience of heaven. Trinitas is firmly grounded on earth, in the realm of humanity; your teachers are flawed, fallen humans. For goodness’ sake, I taught you this year! No, you’re still a ways off from heaven. But a fundamental similarity does exist between the Pilgrim’s progression through the cosmos, and your own time here at Trinitas. Just as Dante passed through ring after ring, terrace after terrace, sphere after sphere of figures who confessed their sins or expounded upon their good works, all as signposts guiding the Pilgrim upwards to the Empyrean, so too have you progressed through a gauntlet of teachers, classes, and texts, all serving—fallibly, but faithfully—to direct you toward the Creator. But, just like with the Pilgrim, this is not the end of your journey. You were not meant to stay here.

            If the nature of this dilemma has thus far failed to impress itself upon you, consider your situation for a moment more. When Dante, the Pilgrim, descended back to earth, he left his beloved guides behind him—Vergil, Beatrice, and St. Bernard—and departed from the intimate presence of God. Now you, too, are leaving behind your guides—beloved or not. You are leaving behind the habits and patterns of daily life that have formed you for years. You are leaving a place where Christian charity has been a common goal and where the bold proclamation of God’s Word has been inescapable, and you are headed out into the world. But the world does not offer such wisdom and spiritual security.

            Now, as we look toward your future, entering the third and final stretch of our journey, I must take up the second portion of my task: to remind you that this evening, and this moment of your life, are not at all about you. Returning to our comparison, we must imagine that Dante’s fictional, Pilgrim-self, felt a bit dazed and confused at his arrival back on earth. I think we can confidently assume that nothing around him even began to resemble that effusion of Divine Light he experienced in the Empyrean. What can he do after he’s glimpsed the Greatest Good, and then had to leave it behind? What will you do after you’ve been steeped for years in a fervently Christian school, and then had to leave behind the paths, the people, and the practices that had dictated your every day? Well, I can certainly tell you what you do not do: You do not forget. The Pilgrim proceeds by looking back—he acknowledges the goodness and truth he received throughout his cosmological course, and he tells the story for all who will hear. So too must you proceed by looking back, by keeping in mind what you have received throughout your career at Trinitas.

            While I am not asking you to go off and write a three-part epic poem about your time at Trinitas, I do have three specific tasks for you this evening. These are not tasks of my devising; these are the tasks which your education, as we’ve described it tonight, demands of you. So, listen closely. First, you must continue to seek your God. Your classical and Christ-centered education has compelled you to look for Him, to ask what He is like, to search Him out in every nook and cranny of reality. Your teachers have worked tirelessly to put this on display for you. At times, we have failed. But we have always endeavored to demonstrate that pursuit to which we are commending you. Hopefully, we have also succeeded. You have seen God revealed in the pages of His Word; you have caught glimpses of Him in the pages of Augustine, of Dante, of Tolstoy, of Tolkien. Now, even though copies of Augustine, Dante, Tolstoy, or Tolkien may not be in front of you every day, your obligation to seek God does not disappear. You cannot be a Jonah. You may not be a Jonah. You may not cover your eyes and ears and turn away from Him. To deny the God whom you all know to be your Creator, whose image you all know that you bear, to seek out anything other than Him, is to betray Him. You may not be a Jonah, and above all, you may not be a Judas.

            Second, you must remember the good wisdom of the ages. In studying the history of the world, in studying the developments of politics, literature, science, theology, art, music, and mathematics, you have received countless real-life examples of how humans have sought after God—and how they have rebelled against Him. You have studied the vices of Achilles, of Nebuchadnezzar, of King Xerxes, of Nero, of Dante’s many enflamed interlocutors, of Chesterton’s madman; you have witnessed the virtue of Hector, of Daniel, of Leonidas, of Constantine, of the heavenly saints, of Santiago. Examine yourself in the looking-glass of the Great Ideas. You know how righteous kings and queens ought to live. You have seen the habits they form, you have prayed the prayers that they pray, you have read the things that they read. Now you must go and do what they do.

            Your third task is, in great part, a confluence of the previous two, and the apostle John expressed it perfectly in I John 4:1, which we read together this year: “Ἀγαπητοί, μὴ παντὶ πνεύματι πιστεύετε ἀλλὰ δοκιμάζετε τὰ πνεύματα εἰ ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐστιν, ὅτι πολλοὶ ψευδοπροφῆται ἐξεληλύθασιν εἰς τὸν κόσμον. Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (NKJV). You must test the spirits. Our fallen, sinful world is rife with false prophets. They may appear as renowned politicians, as popular celebrities, as famous authors, as attractive ideologies, as passionate professors, as viral social media trends, and sometimes even as friends. They will appear delightful and eye-catching; they will ask if you want to live deliciously; they will promise you that you will not surely die. But you must put them to the test. You have been taught how to recognize the handiwork of your God. You have seen how He has made Himself known through the actions of His people in history. And now, you must put that knowledge to work—actively. Hold every spirit up to the True Light and examine it fervently. You cannot make excuses. You cannot let your guard down. You cannot be swept away by their charms. You must push back against the sinful spirits. You must seek out those that are from God. You must carry forward only those things which are good and beautiful and true.

            A classical and Christ-centered education demands much of its students. It has demanded much of you and will continue to do so for the rest of your life. It demands that you forget yourself, not as a gesture of false humility, but so that you may participate in something far greater than yourself. It demands that you decrease, so that something unimaginably greater than you, may increase. It demands that you give up the prevailing notion of the zeitgeist that your life is a solo theatrical performance, where “you do you.” Instead, it demands that you seek out whatever role you were designed to play in the grand cosmological drama of history—no matter how small—and you play it to the best of your ability. It demands that you always seek out your God, that you always remember the wisdom of those who have walked before you, and that you always test the spirits you encounter. This is what your education asks of you; this is what your teachers have asked of you; this is what your families ask of you; and ultimately this is what your God asks of you. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” This is what you were created for; this is what you have been prepared for; and now, it is up to you to bear well the image of God. It is my fervent prayer that you do, so that one day, along with the Pilgrim, you may say: “My desire and will were moved already—like a wheel revolving uniformly—by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Thank you.

Topics: Classical Education, Alumni, Christian Education, College Admissions, Christian Living, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, Virtue

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