This was the commencement address I gave to Torrey Honors College’s class of 2023. Torrey is a Socratic Great Books program, where the pedagogical coin of the realm is questions. So I put together an appropriate commencement talk. It’s for a very specific audience, has some in-jokes that were designed to appeal to exactly these 100-or-so people, and uses a bit of jargon. But I think most of it makes sense for a broader audience, and that others might enjoy overhearing it.
I. Is This a Friendly Enough Introduction?
May I add my warm welcome to all in attendance, and especially my congratulations to all you graduates?
Aren’t you all looking just fine and dandy today? Is it too much of a Dad joke if I call you ‘classy?’ Get it?
All right, who’s ready to get this commencement commencing?
Have you ever noticed that we hold special ceremonies like this to mark the successful conclusion of your path through college, but instead of calling it a conclusion or a termination or a denouement, we call it commencement? What exactly are we commencing? Do you need me to tell you that what you are commencing is the rest of your life? Or that everything we’ve experienced here together over the course of all these years and all those courses and all that reading and all that discussing is just the launch pad from which you are lifting off, or the preparation for the real work of a lifetime? Is that surprising?
Did you think your final exams were your final final exams? Did you think that last Don Rags was the Don Rags to end all Don Rags? Did you really think we’d let you go without taking this opportunity to put a few more questions to you? Wouldn’t you be disappointed in us if we did?
So will you bear with me for these few minutes while I ask you a few more questions?
Can I have your Don Rags form? Did you bring your books? Anything I need to know about your notebook? “What does Athena want?” (No no no, would I do that to you?)
II. What is a Question?
First of all, in truly and fully Socratic mode, may I ask you: My friends, What is a question?
Can you imagine if I said, “Webster’s defines question as ‘an interrogative expression used to test knowledge?’” How many points would you take off for that essay opener? Who can stand that? Don’t we need a better, deeper understanding of questioning than that? Or, to switch the metaphor, don’t we need a higher understanding? And how much higher?
In particular, if Torrey Honors College is a Christian program at Biola University–the Bible Institute of Los Angeles–a program devoted to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, then why is our chosen tool of instruction not the Lecture but the Question?
That, to paraphrase Shakespeare, is the question … isn’t it? Is it? It is?
Question: Can we turn any sentence into a question just by making our voice go up at the end? Yes? No?
What if I told you that in one sense, that little rising up at the conclusion of a thought is in fact the most vital and crucial thing, the thing that makes a question a question, the difference between a fake question and a real question?
Why do some statements land with a thud at your feet, while other expressions come to their conclusion and rise upward with a little lilt, an expectant exaltation? What ancient ancestral cohort of talkers decided that (in our language at least) a question requires your voice to go up at the end?
Did it develop out of some secret awareness that when we’ve got hold of a good question, it lifts our eyes toward the light, it lifts our heads toward a hope of understanding? What if our voice goes up at the end because we are eager for and open to the Truth? Do we get hold of a good question, or would it be better to say it’s got hold of us? What if that rising up at the end isn’t a cheap technique for disguising a declaration as a question, but is essential to what makes a question a question? What if it reveals that there’s something ever greater, drawing us further up and further in? What if our voice goes up at the end because WE go up at the end, because heaven is our true home, because a conclusion is a commencement, because in our end is our beginning?
Would it be unforgivably Chestertonian of me to tell you that a question is a quest? That questioners are questers, setting out on a journey to seek and to find?
And isn’t that the Torrey thing? (By the way, did you know that R. A. Torrey, our namesake, wrote a book about the Gospels in 1907 that contained nothing but questions? Thousands of questions? 11,798 questions? Isn’t that amazing?)
But isn’t this the difference between the goal of our instruction, as opposed to the kind of educational project, all-too-common, that valorizes questioning, repudiates the possibility of knowing the truth, and commits itself (who knows why?) to following the meaningless bread crumbs of nihilistic curiosity deeper into the materialist cave? Doesn’t it come down to the difference between asking questions in service to the truth versus asking questions for their own sake? What could be more pointless, more meaningless, than questions for the sake of questions?
My apologies to the very young members of our audience, but What’s more monotonous than an endless series of Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?
How many Whys does it take to make one wise?
Who shall deliver us from the endless, pointless, interminable asking? Doesn’t our voice go up, at the end, in prayer? Aren’t we delivered from pointless questions by questions pointed to the one in whom is to be found the foundation and fountain of goodness, truth, and beauty?
Graduates of the Torrey Honors College: What if a good question is the magnetic tug of attraction that Goodness itself exerts on you as it draws you compellingly into alignment with its Good self? What if a true question is the form that Truth itself takes on while it is sovereignly shaping its truthfulness within your very mind? What if a proper question is the space that Beauty itself opens up inside of you when it makes room for you to behold it in wonder and cherish it in your inner self? If this is what questions can be, can there be anything better for us than to ask with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, to ask so that it may be given unto us, to seek so that we may find, to knock so that the door may be opened unto us?
Can you see why we have shared these four years with you, training you to knock, seek, and ask? How great are questions?
III. What About Goodness, Truth, and Beauty?
Did you know that God asks questions? How important must those questions be? Remember in Genesis 3, when the Lord GOD calls out across paradise to his fallen creature? “Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “’Where are you?’” And if we can skip a bunch of questions in between, what about at the other end of the Old Testament history, when God asks the prophet in Ezekiel 37, “Can these bones live?” Do you think that in either case, God lacked knowledge? Was he asking Adam to give him a GPS location so he could get to him? Was he asking Ezekiel to fill him in on the organic qualities and possibilities of skeletons? If not, what was he doing? Feigning ignorance? Making small talk? Why would we think that? Doesn’t God take up the tool of the interrogative in order to draw in Adam and Ezekiel, to get inside the head of the patriarch and the prophet, to involve them and implicate them in what he is doing? Isn’t that what interpersonal questions do? Don’t they connect us in a common quest, wrap us up in the same problems and possibilities, and make things personal? Isn’t that something we need from each other as fellow creatures? But if that’s true down here among us, isn’t it absolutely what we need from God? For him to draw us in, involve us and implicate us in his reality? Even when we firmly believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, don’t we still stand in need of his searching interrogation to come after us and draw us out? What are some of the questions the living Jesus puts to us even today, through the words of the Gospels?
If you love only those who love you, what reward will you get?
Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?
Why do you worry about clothes?
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
Why are you so afraid?
Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?
Who do you say I am?
What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?
Do you love me?
When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?
Aren’t these good questions?
After the Bible, is any book in Torrey more important, more central, than Augustine’s Confessions? But do you remember that in the first 2 or 3 pages, Augustine asks God 37 questions?
How shall I call upon my God, my God and Lord? Surely when I call on him, I am calling on him to come into me, but what place is there in me where my God can enter into me? ‘God made heaven and earth’ (Gen. 1: 1), so where may he come to me? Lord my God, is there any room in me which can contain you? Can heaven and earth, which you have made and in which you have made me, contain you? Without you, whatever exists would not exist, then can what exists contain you? I also have being, so why do I request you to come to me when, unless you were within me, I would have no being at all?
Does he really keep that up for 300 pages? How much longer can I keep this up? Isn’t it obvious that if I were competing with Dr. Wilson at asking questions, I would already have lost to her long ago?
I’ll be done in just a few more minutes, but since Augustine is praying to God in response to God’s own words, spoken in Scripture, spoken preveniently before Augustine responds, and spoken so plentifully that they are inexhaustibly deep, why would we expect him to ever run out of questions for God? What are these volleys of questions from God to Adam, from Christ to his disciples, from Augustine to God, from us to Augustine, from your tutors to you, from you to each other, from all creatures great and small, but the medium and the material in which we live out our relationships? Why would that come to an end, if God is the God of the living?
Can I ask you a rather pointed question? How’s Goodness, Truth, and Beauty doing? Would you say Goodness, Truth, and Beauty need you? You know, like, can’t do without you? I know they suffer from a lot of neglect and trash-talking in our day and age, but would you say these transcendental attributes of being are needy? Do you think that they come to you with questions like “who will save us? Who will speak up for us? Who will help us if you don’t?” How could that be? How could we think that? Isn’t it sort of the same mistake as thinking that God didn’t know where Adam was, or if resurrection was possible? Can I ask it in a more Torrey-ish way, for those who have done the reading? In the Faerie Queene, does Una need the Redcrosse Knight, or does the Redcrosse Knight need Una? Aren’t they a cute couple? But if Una represents the truth, doesn’t she remain always herself no matter how much she is threatened? And if Redcrosse Knight represents the bold endeavor of holiness, doesn’t he immediately cease to be himself at all when he has no Una, no truth, to serve loyally? Doesn’t the knight of the red cross truly become himself for the first time when he’s appointed by the mighty monarch to pledge his life in service to the truth, when Una asks him to help, when his little quest becomes involved in and implicated in something greater than itself? Since he is a true quester, how can he stay on his own level? As he seeks the things above, isn’t it necessary for him to go up at the end?
Do goodness, truth, and beauty need you? Isn’t it the case that you need them? Don’t the ultimate answers have better things to do than to stand around waiting for you to show up with your questions? But wouldn’t you make a cute couple? Is there anything better for you to commence your adult life with than with lifting up to the Lord the curious question that is you?
IV. What Words Are Encouraging?
Well, can you believe we made it through a commencement address composed entirely of questions? What could be more Torrey? Would you believe there were way more than fourscore and seven questions there? More like eight-score?
What’s the last thing I need to say to you? What language shall I borrow to bless you, encourage you, thank you, and challenge you?
Would you expect me to talk about anything else but the Trinity?
Graduates of the Torrey Honors College, class of 2023, will you receive this interrogative trinitarian benediction?
The Father: If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
The Son: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
The Holy Spirit: Don’t you know that you are the temple of the Holy Spirit? Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?
One Eloquent God: “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent word? What more can he say than to you he hath said, to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?”