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2018 Big History International Research Conference | University President’s Keynote Address

Our distinguished plenary speakers Dr. John F. Haught of Georgetown University, Dr. Mojgan Behmand of Dominican University of California, and Dr. Daniel C. Hauser of the University of Saint Francis; representatives from the Commission on Higher Education and our three partner higher education institutions; Vice President Alma S. Espartinez and our Big His¬tory Team; conference presenters and participants; fellow mem¬bers of the academic community; guests, ladies, and gentlemen: Good morning and welcome to Holy Angel University!


Big History is an emerging academic discipline that examines the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the present. It is an attempt to understand, in a unified way, the history of “Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity.” We all know that Catholic universities like Holy Angel University are instruments of the evangeliz¬ing mission of the Church. More than once, I have been asked, “What is the business of a Catholic university teaching the Big Bang Theory?” The short an¬swer is that it was a Belgian Catholic priest who in 1927 who first proposed an expanding model of the universe, leading to what we now refer to as the Big Bang Theory. The longer answer is that Big Bang Theory—the scientific idea that everything began at a moment of time 13.8 billion years ago—is very consistent with the idea that there is a God who created the world into existence in a moment of time.


No one is more likely to lead a fundamentally fragmented life than a teacher-scholar who is also a committed and informed Christian. One might live as a Catholic on Sunday and a scholar during the workweek and, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, “never the twain shall meet.” On the surface, Christianity and the academy seem to operate from radically differ¬ent premises, with both seemingly demanding our unconditional allegiance. In John 14:6, Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” On the other hand, the academy encourages us to take seriously the many competing voices that claim to be voices of truth.


As a faithfully Catholic university, Holy Angel University is committed to the Catho¬lic Intellectual Tradition, which views faith and reason as two complemen-tary sources of knowledge and wisdom in our quest for truth. The Catholic Intellec¬tual Tradition is grounded in the conviction that God has created the har-mony between faith and science. Truly, our faith can sustain the life of the mind. This conviction is the foundation from which Catholic higher education draws its inspiration and distinctiveness. There is no conflict between faith and science or the Bible and evolution because the Bible teaches sacred truths neces¬sary for salvation, while science provides a naturalistic description and explana¬tion of the physical universe. The Truth consists of both “how things are” – the realm of science – and “which things matter” – the realm of faith.


I refer to these fundamental premises of Catholic higher education because, more than ever, our increasingly secularizing society is in need of good, God-fear¬ing leaders – persons who view their spirituality not only as the basis of their identity but also as the governing force in their daily lives. Our university has a Catholic identity that stands at the core of our institutional being, an identity that in¬forms every other aspect of our personal and institutional lives and around which every other aspect of our lives can be integrated. Our choice is not to take cover and retreat from our Catholic identity, but to engage the world with our identity. We do so by producing well-educated women and men who also know what we owe to our faith as a civilizing force. It is against this backdrop that Holy Angel University made a strategic decision to base its new College First Year Experience on the study of Big History, made possible by a ₱12-million Institutional Development and Innovation Grant from the Commission on Higher Education.


At this point, please allow me to relate my own personal journey with Big History. At the time when the Dominican University of California was conceiving Big History as the basis of its First Year Experience, I was its provost and Dr. Alma S. Espartinez, our Vice President for Academic Affairs, was our visiting professor and Fulbright Scholar-in Residence. As a former business school dean, I would be the first to admit to being a stranger to liberal education, let alone Big History. Yet the Big History Summer Institute was the one program that escaped the budget cuts – much to the distress of my university president, our chief financial officer, and my successor as business dean. Therefore, you may assume that Big History is a field that is very close to my heart and, with the active advocacy of our academic vice president, our arts and sciences dean, and our Big History founding faculty, a Holy Angel offering that would outlive my presidency.


As a transdisciplinary field of study, Big History is a powerful blending of anthropol¬ogy, astrophysics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, and geology. None of these disciplines is inherently against Christianity. However, the Big History literature does not spend much time discussing perhaps the most significant influ¬ence in the history of mankind—the Judeo-Christian tradition. In fact, in the few instances when the Big History literature discusses Christianity, it is pre¬sented as an intolerant and dangerous delusion. The Creation Narrative in the Genesis is lumped together with the Epic of Gilgamesh and other creation myths.


Holy Angel’s approach to Big History will incorporate the “inside story” of Big His¬tory that has been represented in the works of the late Jesuit philosopher Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Georgetown University Professor John F. Haught who is with us in this conference. Our approach will incorporate the confluence of independent scientific evidence that complements the philosophical proofs for the existence of God. We will teach Big History from the lens of Catholic teach-ing to present a balanced view of Big History—the “whole story.” This spiritual perspective recognizes that God is both the source and destination of all human knowledge and action.


Bringing all these together, what does it take to teach and study Big History from the lens of Catholic teaching? According to Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman:


[The university] is a place where inquiry is pushed forward, and discoveries verified and perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge. It is the place where the professor be-comes eloquent, and is a missionary and a preacher, displaying his sci¬ence in its most complete and most winning form, pouring it forth with the zeal of enthusiasm, and lighting up his own love of it in the breasts of his hearers. . . . It is a place which wins the admiration of the young by its celebrity, kindles the affections of the middle-aged by its beauty, and rivets the fidelity of the old by its associations. It is a seat of wisdom, a light of the world, a minister of the faith, an Alma Mater of the rising generation.


The resulting challenge is then how Holy Angel University and other Christian higher education institutions can honor the integrity of the faith and the integrity of the academic enterprise at the same time. How can we employ Big History as a framework in our quest to have faith and reason sustain and reinforce each other? Using Big History as a modeling framework, I could think of a program of research that might include at least three streams.


The first stream flows from Big History’s Threshold Nine – The Modern Revolution – by conducting a systematic inquiry into the skills and competencies our students need in the future. We are preparing our students for careers that do not yet exist, using solutions and technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve problems that society does not yet recognize as problems. If we treat Big History as a vehicle for the integration of various academic disciplines, can we examine the different models of general education in order to better blend liberal education with professional preparation? In the context of the history of knowledge, what does liberal-arts-based professional education really mean for higher education institutions so that our graduates will possess the cognitive agility to succeed in whatever environment they will face after leaving our schools?


The second research stream concerns the human search for the transcendentals – the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. The Catholic Intellectual Tradition is woven out of 2,000 years of living faith and reflection. This tradition was initi-ated as the early Christians began to reflect upon and engage the Gospels, their experience of Jesus, in a number of new situations. Throughout their history, Christians have wrestled with and drawn upon the best of human knowledge in their search of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Much of the insights of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition are also expressed in literature and poetry such as Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy (1320), Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1476), John Bunyan’s The Pilgrims’ Progress (1678), and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880). Our challenge is to enrich the Catholic Intellectual Tradition by contextualizing it to the Philippine setting. As a second research stream, we might look at the classics of Filipino literature such as Lope K. Santos’s Banaag at Sikat (1906) and the works of Francisco Balagtas, José Rizal, Nick Joaquin, F. Sionil José, our very own Ambeth R. Ocampo, and other Filipino literary authors. From their works, we can deduce how Filipinos have approached truth, goodness, and beauty in a positive way, thereby making our hum¬ble contribution to the further development of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.


The university is a servant of society. Holy Angel University has had a long tradition of focusing our students’ attention on the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. When we do so, we accomplish a number of objectives that are fundamental to our mission as a Catholic higher education institution. How is this so? We encourage our students to take seriously the ambiguity of the hu-man condition because nothing is more ambiguous than human life that is marginalized. By teaching in this way, we allow our students to see the very face of God because, according to the Scriptures, God wears the face of the poor and has taken upon himself the ambiguity of the human condition. Further, by teaching in this way, we create a marvelous opportunity to encourage our students to serve as agents of peace, justice, and reconciliation.


This gives rise to the third research stream: How might Catholic Social Teaching be incorporated in each of our major disciplines: business, criminology, engineering, health care, hospitality administration, information and communications technology, journalism, psychology, and teacher education? In the United States, the moral challenges for Catholic Social Teaching are abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, same-sex marriage, and human cloning. In the Philippines, the moral challenges for Catholic Social Teaching are quite different: families with absentee parents overseas, reproductive health, substance abuse, extrajudicial killings, fake news, endo contractualization, graft and corruption, and machismo and its dire consequences in terms of misogyny and marital infidelity. We need to create instructional modules on how Catholic Social Teaching, contextualized to the Philippine setting, might be embedded in all of our academic programs.


Our hope is that, by becoming a center of excellence in Big History education and research in the Asia Pacific region, we will be able to share this unique perspective with others – so that, at a basic level, more will understand the need for more interdisciplinary collaboration given that all disciplines come from a single root. At a higher level, more will know of the true eternal, transcendental future that awaits all of us in the infinite and all-loving Creator. This supernatural perspective is important to envisioning the true dignity of every human being and to working toward a culture that reflects that dignity.


In conclusion, may you have very insightful and productive sessions during the next two days. I welcome you again to Holy Angel University and to the City of Angeles. After this conference, I invite you to make your contribution to the local economy by staying longer in the birthplace of sisig, pindang, betute, bringhe, and other highlights of Kapampangan cuisine. For those who left your cholesterol, diabetes, gout, and hypertension medications, there are two pharmacies just around the corner.


Have a great conference! Thank you! Laus Deo semper!


Date Posted: 05-30-2018