Published May 18, 2021
This essay is adapted from a commencement address presented to the graduating class of Trinity Law School on May 15, 2021.
We live in a society that largely avoids thinking seriously about callings. We live in a society of individualism and relativism, where man is the measure of all things. We hear people speak of human rights, for example, but rarely of human goods, or human nature, or nature’s Author. We hear people appeal to natural rights, but rarely to natural law, or the Natural Lawgiver.
So, the first thing to say about vocation is that it is intimately connected with truth—both metaphysical and moral truth. We have it on good authority that each of us has a calling in imitation of the Master who gave his life bearing witness to the truth. We will face this challenge everywhere our lives take us: in the courtroom, in government service, in the marketplace, in our families, and in service to the Church.
Bearing witness to the truth will require us to think seriously as Christians. For me, this first really happened as an undergraduate, when I came to see that there’s no conflict between faith and reason. I came to understand more deeply the reasons for the hope I have.
I also came to see just how misguided secular liberal policies were on the most urgent and important questions, and how much damage—in terms of human brokenness—these policies cause. I saw that to love my neighbor required me to help defend the truth in terms that my secular classmates could engage. The knowledge I had acquired in thinking through these questions wasn’t just for me, it wasn’t just so I could be secure in my opinions, puffed up knowing that I’m right and they’re wrong. It was to be shared—precisely because it is the truth that sets us free, and makes us flourish. This was what God was calling me to do.
In my case, this has meant living out a vocation in the public square, finding ways to reach modern secular audiences with arguments for the truth about life, marriage, gender identity, religious liberty, and social justice.
I never could have planned this for myself. It was simply a matter of taking one step at a time. God sometimes gives us five-, ten-, and twenty-year plans. More frequently, he just tells us what our next step is. And we have to be faithful in taking it. What is the next step God’s calling you to take? Are you willing to take it?
Faith, Reason, and the Role of Law
Today, you are celebrating your graduation from law school. Ask yourselves: why did you devote the last three years of your lives to higher education? More broadly, why does any of this intellectual work matter? Why do laws and legal debates matter?
Universities are a creation of the Church. Christians believe that all knowledge comes from God, and by using both faith and reason we can seek out unified knowledge of the truth. In the Middle Ages, Christians established some of today’s most storied institutions—Oxford and Cambridge, the Universities of Paris, and Salamanca, and Bologna—with rightly renowned law programs, all to fulfill Christ’s command that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.
Precisely because God is Logos, because God is Reason itself, it is good for man to develop his mind. As a being made in the image and likeness of God, man has reason to seek out the truths about God, about man, and about nature—truths that are embedded in creation, a creation that should be understood as the outgrowth of God’s designs. And in the universities established by the Church we see the flowering of theology and philosophy, science and medicine, human rights and legal theory, economics and ethics, literature and music and art. All of these disciplines were developed and deployed in the service of the truth, the truth about God and man and nature.
As free and rational beings—that’s what it means to be beings created in the image and likeness of God—we have a calling to develop our minds, to embrace the best of both Athens and Jerusalem, philosophy and theology. When faced with secularist ideologies, we have the responsibility to show the world the harmony of faith and reason. When faced with modern relativism, we have the obligation to propose with the apostle Paul the more excellent way.
The law has a crucial role to play here. Thomas Aquinas famously defined law as “nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.” Now today’s most contentious legal debates tend not to hinge on who has care of the community, i.e., rightful authority, or how law should be promulgated—though obviously both of those are topics of debate in American legal circles. Our most contentious debates tend to center on the first clause of the definition: “ordinance of reason for the common good.” After you graduate from Trinity, you’ll want to do your part—in whatever area of legal practice your vocation will take you—to ensure that our laws embody a sound conception of reason ordered to authentic common goods.
A Call to Courage
To do this in today’s legal culture will require both technical expertise and moral virtues. Since I’m not a lawyer, I won’t say much about the technical expertise, but I know that you’ve received those skills from your professors here at Trinity. Being trained in philosophy, let me say a few words about the virtues. While you’ll need to develop all of the virtues for your legal career to flourish, it strikes me that one virtue is particularly important at this moment in time, for all of us, but especially for lawyers. That virtue is courage.
Aquinas explained that courage is “that which binds the will firmly to the good of reason in face of the greatest evils.” As creatures made in the image and likeness of a God who is Reason itself, we can sometimes be prevented by grave evils from willing the good as reason discovers it. So Aquinas explains that courage “is chiefly about fear of difficult things, which can withdraw the will from following the reason.” Sometimes doing the right thing—doing the reasonable thing—is costly. We fear it, for grave evils stand in our way. Courage is the virtue that helps us stay the course.
C.S. Lewis taught that courage is the form of all the virtues. He explains that “courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” What does this mean? Consider the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, moderation, and courage) and the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love). To live out any of these virtues at the most challenging times—at the testing point—will require courage. To love when it’s most difficult requires courage. To hope when you’re most inclined to despair requires courage. To exercise prudence when throwing caution to the wind would be easier requires courage. To be just when you’re most tempted to bend the rules requires courage.
Now, virtues aren’t in binary opposition to vices. It’s actually a triadic relationship, where each virtue is the mean between two extremes. Aquinas explains that courage is the virtuous mean between the vice of cowardice on the one hand and the vice of foolhardiness on the other. Hence, he says that “courage is about fear and daring, as curbing fear and moderating daring.” We are called to curb cowardly fear when we might decline to defend the truth when we should. Yet we must also moderate foolhardy daring when we are tempted to rush into battle without making the necessary preparations and taking the necessary precautions.
So where does the Christian lawyer most need courage today? Where does our culture reject the good of reason? Where is binding the will to the good of reason most controversial? When are we confronted by fear to be cowardly or by daring to be foolhardy? Where will you as Christian lawyers find the most opposition to your vocation?
I don’t think the opposition to Christian witness in the United States is because of our charitable works. Who could be against our healing the sick, sheltering the homeless, or caring for widows and orphans? And it’s not even our beliefs about an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator God. Who wouldn’t prefer that over a meaningless, cold, dark, nihilistic world?
No, the opposition comes when we run our hospitals, homeless shelters, and adoption agencies as Christians, doing so in accordance with moral truth. When we won’t perform abortions. When we want to have separate spaces for males and females. When we insist that children entrusted to our care deserve both a mom and a dad. And when we defend these truths not simply as idiosyncratic religious beliefs, but as truths that should be embodied in law—as the substance of that ordinance of reason for the common good. The challenge you’ll face as a Christian lawyer is when you seek to practice law in ways that conform with the truth about the human person. These truths are knowable by reason, but are so important that God also revealed them to us on the very first pages of scripture: we are created in the image and likeness of God, we are created male and female, and male and female are created for each other in marriage. Defending those truths today will require courage.
Models of Courage
In my life, three of my teachers have been particularly exemplary in their courage—both in refusing to allow cowardice to silence them, and in refusing to be foolhardy in how they engage the culture.
Hadley Arkes was my first, unofficial, teacher of political philosophy. A Jewish professor at Amherst College, Hadley was convinced by the natural law of the moral truths that many of us here defend. And it was the Church’s witness to these truths that led him a number of years later to be baptized into the Body of Christ.
Some argue that the Church should soften her stance on so-called controversial issues. They say that, in order to be evangelists, we need to be seeker-friendly. They’re wrong. While we shouldn’t be bombastic or imprudent, it is precisely our countercultural witness to what St. Paul called “the more excellent way” that will bring people to Christ. By witnessing to the natural law, we can make our claims about the supernatural law—the law of Grace—all the more believable. For all law comes ultimately from the same divine guide. In a culture that is so confused about morality, and with so many people hurting from false teachings, helping people see the truth is one way of loving our neighbors.
Robby George was my next teacher. From him, I learned that bad philosophy needs to be answered by good philosophy, and bad science needs to be responded to with good science. This is true with the science of embryology, the social science of marriage, and the psychology of gender identity. We cannot allow the other side to depict these debates as ones that pit faith against reason, that force a choice between backward superstition and enlightened science. As C.S. Lewis taught, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” This takes work. Since our adversaries control the principal institutions of our culture, we have to work twice as hard as they do. We have to understand their arguments better than they understand those arguments themselves—so we can then explain, at the level of reason, where they’ve gone wrong. Even if your professional vocation will never bring you anywhere near these debates, you need to continue the learning that took place here at Trinity to prepare yourselves for the discussions at the office water cooler and at Little League games, being ready to help your neighbors understand the reasons for the truth.
But you can’t stop there. Here’s where my third teacher comes in: Father Richard John Neuhaus. Neuhaus taught me that while we have to respond to bad reason with good reason, we also have to build on that reason with revelation; that while nature and natural law are foundational, grace builds on and perfects nature. And Christ came to make us perfect.
Father Neuhaus was a leader in the civil rights movement. He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. He protested the Vietnam War. And he was an early recruit to the pro-life movement. He saw it as the logical extension of his prior activism. He hoped that his liberal friends would see it the same way. But they caved. And they abandoned him. Thus, a life that was set on a trajectory of liberal accolades, and the applause of the elites, took a new path. Abandonment by former friends, denial of honors and prestige, scorn and ridicule: all of this may very well happen to many of you because of your witness to the truth about the dignity of the human person and the human body. It will take courage.
Neuhaus’s life was one of witnessing to the truth of Christ—what he called the high adventure of Christian discipleship. At the end of the day, for Neuhaus, friendship with Jesus was what mattered. The only way to persevere in living out the truth of the natural law is to know and love the natural lawgiver. The only way to find the courage, and the strength, and have the hope to fulfill our vocation is to rely on the grace of the one who calls us to that vocation.
The two-thousand-year story of the Church’s cultural and intellectual growth is a story of challenges answered. For the early Church, there were debates about who God is (and who is God). In response, the Church developed the wonderfully rich reflections of Trinitarian theology and Christology. In a sense, we have the early heresies to thank for this accomplishment. Arius’s errors gave us Athanasius’s refinements on Christology. Nestorius’s blunders gave us Cyril’s insights.
A thousand years later, with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Church saw renewed debates about salvation. The rending of western Christianity was an unspeakable tragedy, but it left the Church with a much richer theology of justification and sanctification, ecclesiology and soteriology.
The debates of modernity are not primarily about the nature of God or the Church, but about the nature of man. John Paul II famously taught that the crisis of the twentieth century was a crisis of faulty humanism. Secular thinkers thought that by diminishing God, they would be elevating man. Instead, by diminishing God, they debased man. The result was World Wars, totalitarian regimes, Auschwitz, and the Gulag. Today’s debates simply extend that faulty anthropology to a new domain: Whether it be debates about abortion or assisted suicide, same-sex marriage or gender identity, they all challenge those three truths right on the first page of the Bible.
In order to achieve justice, in order for law to embody reason ordered to the common good, we need to vindicate these truths. That will require courage from you.
A Love Story
Yet even more than your courage in your legal vocation, the world needs you to have courage in your personal vocation. After all, our defense of the truth can never be merely an intellectual exercise. Take it from no less an intellectual giant than Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict is famous for having written profound works of theology and participated in debates with top European intellectuals. Yet he’s also famous for saying that it’s not the arguments of the intellectuals that win converts, it’s the lives of the saints and the beauty of the artists. And as he once put it, “Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is instead an encounter, a love story.”
This love story—with its beauty and holiness—starts in the home, the domestic church. If you are graduating today from Trinity, chances are you didn’t do it on your own. You had help along the way. Someone was there to teach you to walk and talk, to read and write. Someone was there to help you to love Jesus, to take an interest in the type of legal education and formation that Trinity provides. Someone helped with all of life’s ups and downs. So, as we celebrate your accomplishments today, be sure to thank your mom and dad, and grandma and grandpa.
Many of you deepened your place in that love story and the adventure of Christianity while here at Trinity. The community here helped you to grow in your faith. As you graduate today, find ways to continue that community. Stick together. The outside world is not always a friendly place, especially to people who speak the truth. But it needs what you have to offer. It needs what Trinity has given you. And you need each other.
Bear witness to the truth by living out the truth. Go to church. Join a church. Volunteer to teach Sunday school. Get involved in your church’s school.
Be generous in responding to God’s call in your life. Get married. Stay married. Be a faithful spouse, knowing that adultery and divorce are always dangers that must be guarded against. Be generous in welcoming children, and be a devoted mother or father. Bear one another’s burdens, persevere through adversity, and let the family you create—the children you raise and the parents you care for—be your best long-term defense of life and marriage. Let the love you create and sustain—the holiness and beauty of your life—be what attracts others to Christ.
Class of 2021, congratulations on all of your achievements these past three years, and best wishes in the years ahead. If you remember nothing else that I said today, remember this: important as legal success may be, God doesn’t ask you to be successful according to worldly standards, he asks you to be faithful. The only success of ultimate importance is holiness. The only real tragedy in life is not to have been a saint.
Ryan T. Anderson is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the founding editor of Public Discourse.