Alex Woelkers

Alex Woelkers walking with young students abroad

Alex Woelkers
  • Philosophy

Class of: 2008

B.A. Philosophy and Theology with a minor in Mathematics 2008

I graduated in 2008 with a double major in Theology and Philosophy and minor in Mathematics. My honors thesis was in theology: The Theology of John Ziziuoulas: Contributions to Anthropology.

Since graduating from Carroll I have been a high school theology and math teacher, worked at a residential treatment program for severely emotionally disturbed children, volunteered working at a mission school in Guatemala for one year, finished my MA in systematic theology (my thesis was about St. Irenaeus’ treatment of human flesh), and most recently, spent almost six months volunteering at a boys’ orphanage in Jinja, Uganda.

In the future I hope to continue my study of Catholic anthropology, which (as I learned from my professors at Carroll) demands serious attention to both the philosophical and theological approaches to the Church’s doctrine, especially as it was articulated at the Second Vatican Council and after, and the application of this anthropology to current questions and situations in our world. In the future I hope to both study more theology and philosophy and to be able to continue my service work in the third world, either as a volunteer or in a paid position with a Catholic organization.

It has been my experience that the Church’s vision of the human person offers us the fundamental values necessary for truly integral human development. This Catholic anthropological vision needs to seriously and positively engage the questions and perspectives of our contemporary world in order to raise cultures to a more human level where dignity, freedom, and truth truly order society. Nowhere is this more true than in those societies and communities that are most underdeveloped, underprivileged and marginalized. To bring holistic development to individuals, families, communities, and societies that are so oppressed by the cycle of poverty, only an elevation of the culture alongside the development of economic and political opportunity can produce development that is truly human: that results in a more human existence for those who are dehumanized by poverty. My theological and philosophical engagement with the ideas about the human person and their effects in our world has always compelled me to put the Church’s anthropology into practice by serving those who are in greatest need and living in solidarity with those whose humanity is most diminished and dismissed in our world. In between studying and teaching It has been my joy to volunteer in places like Guatemala, Haiti, India, Uganda, Dominican Republic, Kenya, Rwanda, Mexico, and of course, here in the US.

Although the Church’s anthropology is unequivocally theological, it engages Catholics in a discussion with the world that is truly philosophical, and for this reason I am profoundly grateful for the philosophical training I received at Carroll. My degree in philosophy taught me to think well, to write well, and to read well—which is one of the greatest gifts anyone could receive. Beyond that, the disciplines of philosophy that my professors at Carroll modeled and formed have instilled in me an attitude of intellectual charity: a humility that understand that every perspective holds some element of truth that can contribute to an integral humanism and can to that degree can resonate with whatever is authentically Catholic. My philosophical training made me value the capacity for meaningful engagement with any serious human perspective, a reverence for truth rather than ideology, and a preference for dialogue over self-justification.

As the post- Vatican II popes keep calling the Church to renew and deepen our sense that every Catholic is fundamentally called to a missionary vocation, I find myself grateful time and time again for the way my philosophy prepared me to turn outward to the ideas, cultures, and people who are leading in our time rather than looking inward. This has made me a more dynamic and faithful Catholic, and to love the beauty and truth of the Church and her vision of the person more and not less, because to turn outward toward others is precisely the call of the Gospel.

This is the fundamental hermeneutic of the Christian life, and the key to understanding rightly the Church’s life and teaching (is this not precisely what Pope Francis keeps reminding us?)—and for this reason the Church’s mission is strengthened wherever philosophy is practiced in earnest— this has certainly been my experience. If the Church seriously believes that we are saved through the incarnation and Paschal mystery of God-made-man, then salvation must mean the truly integral development of the human person. That is a serious claim—it is based on faith in the revelation of Jesus Christ and is thus properly theological, yet to offer the fruits of this claim to the world is to engage in a philosophical exercise: an exercise of not just speaking the truth but witnessing to it by the way we treat others, especially the poorest. That gets me excited, and makes me so grateful to be wading through a post-modern world with not only a strong Catholic faith but also a strong formation in the practice of reason (philosophy, that is).

How has philosophy helped me?

Although I thought that I had ‘double majored’ in unemployment, I have found that the serious study of the human person through philosophy and theology has actually made me extremely attractive to the people I have wanted to work for and work with—you can teach anyone technical skills or professional practices on the job,but you can’t teach them to think. If someone already knows how to think well, they can learn anything...

More importantly if someone has a strong vision of the human person, is self-reflective in a positive way, and holds strong and intelligent values about what makes for truly human existence, that person is prepared to offer much more to their work and the people around them than simply the ‘product’ they produce: they will invest in what they believe in and in the people around them. In my experience, this has led me to be extremely successful in jobs I was ‘hopelessly underprepared for’ and to be extremely appreciated by the people I worked with.

What is philosophy?

I think philosophy is the art of asking right questions and in the right way. In a world where so many foolishly seek a right answer, a quick or convenient answer, an easy answer, or a self-serving answer; we are easily blinded to the fact that it is the questions we must get right if we are to be wise— any answer to a unwise question is a foolish answer, no matter how right or wrong it may be.

Albert Einstein once said something akin to this “A question cannot be answered on the same level of consciousness from whence it is raised”. Philosophy is about seeking wise questions, and then learning to use our reason not to justify answers but to raise our level of consciousness to a new level that capable of more wisdom than what we possess. That is the way of entering into a mystery... and philosophy above all is about the recognition of reason’s power to enter into the mystery of reality, but not to possess or circumscribe that mystery. That is why philosophy seeks truth and wisdom, where all the other sciences can only seek knowledge.

My advice to philosophy students

My advice to philosophy students is, first of all, to enjoy the beauty and truth of philosophy. Secondly, don’t be fooled into trying to decide which philosopher is right or wrong, or whether you agree or disagree—seek first to truly understand a philosopher: what they say, why they say it, who they are saying it to, and when they said (give a fair historical reading!). You will learn much more this way, and be far less frustrated.

Also, be grateful that you are able to study at a Catholic philosophy department—even if you are the farthest thing from Catholic (whatever that is, I am not sure I can say), the Catholic foundations of this school make it truly value philosophy for all that it is without needing to make it into something it is not- let this not be lost on you.