Thomas Kasulis

Thomas Kasulis, a renowned religion and philosophy scholar, delivered this year's Baccalaureate address in Packer Memorial Church.

Internationally Renowned Religion Scholar Thomas P. Kasulis Delivers Baccalaureate Address

This year’s Baccalaureate was the first in-person in three years because of the pandemic.

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Christa Neu

On an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon, graduates, their parents and members of the Lehigh community filled Packer Memorial Church for this year’s Baccalaureate service, as renowned philosophy and religious scholar Thomas P. Kasulis delivered the address.

Titled, “The Warning Label on Your College Diploma,” Kasulis’ speech cautioned students to set aside the clinical nature of their studies and consider that there may be more than one way to solve a problem. Above all, always consider who will be affected by the outcome, he said.

Kasulis called upon a passage from the Christian New Testament: “Knowledge puffs up while engaged caring builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they should know.” (Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 8, Verse 1.)

“Your studies have trained you to neutralize your prejudices and biases so that you can observe and evaluate fairly, cooly and objectively, gaining the power to better manage yourself and the world physically, psychologically, politically and economically,” said Kasulis, professor emeritus of comparative studies and University Distinguished Scholar at The Ohio State University.

Each practitioner knows their chosen subject, but some understand it differently, Kasulis explained. For example, who knows clay, a geologist or potter? Who better knows words, a philologist or a poet? he asked.

Rabbi Steven Nathan

Rabbi Steven Nathan, endowed director of student life and associate chaplain, delivered the opening remarks, asking graduates and their parents to each stand for a moment of applause.

“The point is not whether or what they understand, but how they understand,” Kasulis said. “That difference underlies Paul’s distinction between the knowing (gnōsis in Greek) that puffs up and the engaged caring (agapē) that builds up.”

He asked those gathered to consider the following examples: As a yogini settles into her deep meditative breathing, is she transforming her breath or is her breath transforming her? Does the poet choose the words, or do the words find their expression through the poet? Do landscape photographers choose the light for their photographs, or does the light show the photographers how the landscape is to be photographed?

“While detached knowing is dispassionate and neutral, engaged caring is empathetic and mutually transformative,” Kasulis said.

He shared a story about a corporation in Japan that was building a new 20-story headquarters in a small city. The proposal included detailed plans to preserve an existing park adjacent to the development.

When construction began, corporate leaders were shocked when the women in the neighborhood began to protest. While the corporation’s plan exceeded all the standards required by law, corporate leaders hadn’t actually spent any time in the park seeing how the community used it.

Mothers would meet there, walking the paths with their strollers and enjoying the sunshine, but when the 20-story building started to go up, it became obvious it would block the sun.

A philosophy professor from the neighborhood proposed placing large, mechanized mirrors on top of the building to reflect sunlight back into the park. Corporate leaders agreed, and even added solar cells to light up the park at night and energize a water pump for a wading pool for the children.

The original plan was “puffed up with the facts of detached knowing, but was not built up with care,” Kasulis said.

As graduates go about their post-college life, developing business models, city plans, modes of transportation and new laws, among other endeavors, he advised them to continually ask whether their standpoint is “dehumanizing to the people their work affects.” Kasulis urged graduates to read Paul’s warning label before starting any project.

“In these last hours before you leave Lehigh, besides your lasting friendships, be grateful for all that you have learned. As the years go by, you will come to appreciate ever more the valuable skills and insights you have acquired here,” Kasulis said. “But don’t ignore the invisible warning label that Paul has inscribed on your diploma: Do not think that because you know something, you already know as you should know. Your education must be on-going."

Students speakers at the Baccalaureate

Five graduates were invited to speak at this year's Baccalaureate. From left: Jenna Simon '22, Melina Mitsogiorgakis '22, Emma Mirabelli '22, Aatika Rizwan '22 and Malik Wahidy '22.

Words from the Traditions

Baccalaureate precedes commencement and is more akin to a sermon, being reflective in tone and offering graduates a chance to evaluate what they’ve learned at Lehigh and what it means, Kasulis said.

Before Kasulis’ address, Rabbi Steven Nathan, endowed director of student life and associate chaplain, delivered the opening remarks, asking graduates and their parents to each stand for a moment of applause.

“You have now accomplished something significant in your educational careers, and we are here to recognize and celebrate this,” Nathan said. But, for all they have accomplished, graduates still have much to learn, he said, and Nathan encouraged them to take an active role not only in their chosen professions, but in their communities as well.

“We remind ourselves that if we are to be faithful to the university’s mission, and true to the spiritual demands of living, working and studying here, we must set ourselves to service in the world and attend to the needs of all our brothers and sisters,” Nathan said.

The first Baccalaureate service was held in 1432 at Oxford University, Nathan said. It was intended as a final exam where graduates had to deliver a sermon in Latin before the faculty.

Today, Baccalaureate provides an interfaith religious service that honors the spiritual traditions of the community. In addition to Kasuls’ address, graduates also heard from five classmates of different faiths who each shared something of meaning to them. The students were:

Aatika Rizwan ’22 (Islam), graduates with a computer engineering degree. Rizwan will return to Lehigh in the fall for the Master’s in Management program. Rizwan said the pandemic claimed nearly two years of her time at Lehigh. Through all the stress and anxiety, Rizwan said knowing she had a higher power to lean on carried her through four years and a pandemic. “Sometimes life doesn’t go as expected, but God guides us through. I praise God for bringing you and me here today to celebrate the 2022 Commencement.”

Emma Mirabelli ’22 (Roman Catholicism), graduates with a degree in computer engineering. Mirabelli will enter the Master of Engineering in Computer Engineering Program next fall at Lehigh. She said Catholic Campus Ministry and attending Sunday services at Packer Memorial Church were among her fondest memories of Lehigh. “I developed lasting friendships and became part of a community where anyone was always welcomed with open arms,” Mirabelli said. She shared the “Prayer of St. Frances” to serve as a reminder to treat others with kindness, spread peace, humble oneself, and to live as Jesus.

Jenna Simon ’22 (Judaism), graduates with a computer science major with a minor in data science. Next year, she will start working as a data engineer with Meta in the San Francisco Bay area. In Judaism, there is a blessing for everything, Simon said, yet she struggled to pin down which part of graduation she was most thankful for. “So many accomplishments went into getting us to where we are today, and upon reflection, my biggest feeling was simply a sense of pride and gratitude for having made it to this special weekend.” Simon then shared a special Jewish blessing, the Shehecheyanu.

Malik Wahidy ’22 (Islam), graduates with a dual major in finance and economics. Wahidy has accepted a position in Washington, D.C., as a federal consultant at KPMG. “What stands out when we remember our time here?” Wahidy asked. With a sense of humor he recalled living in a dorm and trying not to fall asleep during Zoom classes. “These are the things that make each of our college years unique,” he said. He urged fellow graduates not to take any opportunity for granted and to get outside of their comfort zone. Wahidy closed with a prayer from the Hadith.

Melina Mitsogiorgakis ’22 (Orthodox Christianity), is a graduate of the IDEAS (Integrated Degree in Engineering, Arts and Sciences) Honors Program. Mitsogiorgakis will be employed as the incoming applications engineer at Lutron Electronics as part of that company’s Construction Design Development Program. “It feels surreal to me. I often tell my friends you can’t plan, you can only prepare,” she said of reaching the end of her four years at Lehigh. Mitsogiorgakis said those four years were well beyond her expectations. “Especially in these past few months, I have been overwhelmed by the presence of God, and for this and other phases in my life, I cannot be thankful enough.”

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Christa Neu

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