Senior Takes Home Wiesel Ethics Essay PrizeContact: Patrick Verel
Photo by Angie Chen
A Fordham senior has won the 2010 Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics for his essay analyzing a depiction of Satan in Islamic mysticism.
Joseph Vignone, who attends Fordham College at Lincoln Center, wrote “What Would Satan Do? Rethinking the Devil’s Place in Our Ethics,” based on the writings of Mansur al-Hallaj, a 10th-century teacher of Sufism.
Vignone, who is majoring in theology and history and minoring in Middle Eastern Studies, focused on Iblis—an angelic figure in Islamic theology who is composed of smokeless fire. Iblis was banished for refusing God’s request to bow before Adam, a man brought forth from clay.
“Halaj takes that story and says, ‘Wait a minute; the reason he didn’t bow is not because he was arrogant or pretentious, but because he understood the fundamental monotheistic doctrine: you shall not worship any being except God,’” Vignore said.
“Iblis, in bowing before Adam, would be worshipping Adam and committing idolatry. But at the same time, he realized that if he didn’t bow before Adam, he’d be disobeying God’s command. So he’s caught in a bind.”
In the story, God is also caught in a bind, which makes for a serious theological quandary since God is supposed to be all-knowing. Vignone said he found himself identifying with Iblis.
“We’re not meant to identify with the devil, but the devil here is right, and he’s confronted by something that’s completely bewildering—a decision that apparently has no real solution,” he said. “I feel that we face those same dilemmas in our modern society.”
To illustrate this, Vignone used the experiences of Sophie Scholl and Traudl Junge, two women who lived in Germany in the 1930s. Scholl defied the Nazis and was executed, while Junge worked as a secretary for Hitler until the fall of the Third Reich, oblivious to the carnage around her. Although Junge was pardoned because of her naïveté, she suffered immense remorse until her death at age 81.
“One woman gave her life, without bowing, like an angel, and the other just went along with it, Vignone said. “The one who went along with it—Traudl Junge—didn’t get killed, but for the rest of her life, that decision cast a shadow over her.”
Vignone, a graduate of Monsignor Farrell High School who commutes from Staten Island to the Lincoln Center campus, had never entered an ethics essay contest before. He did so at the urging of his adviser Aristotle Papanikolaou, Ph.D., associate professor of theology, associate chair for undergraduate studies and co-founding director of the Orthodox Christian Studies program. Kathryn M. Kueny, associate professor
of theology, helped edit the essay.
Vignone credited Fordham’s core curriculum with exposing him to 20th century history, ethics and Christian, Jewish and Islamic theology.
The $5,000 prize will go toward graduate school. He is currently applying for Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, and hopes to be accepted at Oxford, where he will continue studying mystical theology. He already has spent a semester learning Arabic, and would like to translate ancient writings into English.
“Islam has a very strong ethical dimension that’s often forgotten. There’s a lot of potential for that faith to be a powerful voice in the world of ethics,” he said. “It’s not all violence; it’s not all hatred.”
Founded in 1841, Fordham is the Jesuit University of New York, offering exceptional education distinguished by the Jesuit tradition to approximately 14,700 students in its four undergraduate colleges and its six graduate and professional schools. It has residential campuses in the Bronx and Manhattan, a campus in Westchester, the Louis Calder Center Biological Field Station in Armonk, N.Y., and the London Centre at Heythrop College in the United Kingdom.