From The Chaplain: "Another Hellish Beginning"

My farewell remarks as chaplain of King’s College, Halifax, will take the form of a series of informal blogs over the course of this academic year.  I suspect that my musings will turn out to be an extended exploration of the value of a religious chapel in a secular liberal arts college in Canada in the twenty-first century.  This first blog will indicate, in the most faint and brief way, some of the themes of that exploration.

As has become the custom at King’s we began this academic year in hell.

In Alumni Hall for the past dozen years or so, the introductory Foundation Year lecture begins with a ‘welcome to hell’.  Students learn in their first lecture that hell is a good thing and that a recurring theme in the ancient world is that of the hero who must descend into the land of darkness and death to be transformed, transfigured and reborn a divine person.  In this way, the students are told, hell becomes the place of wisdom and illumination as human suffering and struggle is given meaning.  University is the place for students to join the ancients in acknowledging that ‘suffering’ is the necessary path to self-awareness.  I believe that the significance of this introduction to FYP cannot be overstated: the intellectual life is an ascetic practice.  Such a radical vision of the intellectual life is rare even among other liberal arts universities that too often in this day of diminishing resources market academic study and the intellectual life to be at the service of politics and economics.  The study of the liberal arts is thus justified by citing their power to transform society and improve the world: thus the liberal arts are useful and relevant.  My best hope is that King’s will resist this betrayal of the traditional understanding of the intellectual life as an asceticism that demands a real sacrifice of personal ambitions and cherished opinions: a self-denial and intentional withdrawal from all considerations of political expediency or practical activism.  Indeed our commitment that intellectual activity is a good in itself is what motivated us to establish the Halifax Humanities 101 programme that offers the joy of the life of the mind to those living in materially poverty, and to begin the Burnside Prison project that likewise offers the radical freedom of an intellectual community within the walls of a prison.

But the initial lecture in Alumni Hall also finds an echo – and necessary response – in the initial sermon of the King’s Chapel.  That first sermon of term builds upon the Alumni Hall theme and likewise extols the place of suffering in the pursuit of truth and wisdom.  However, the emphasis in the sermon is the suffering that is required in the ascesis of erotic love: the ordering of the unruly passions of body and soul so that our self-indulgent loves may be transformed into the focused and steadfast willing of the good.  In the pursuit of the intellectual life we journey to hell in order to recognize that what we thought we knew was only mere opinion and prejudice, and so in pursuit of a purified eros we journey to hell in order to recognize, likely for the first time, just how indulgent and self-reflexive our loves truly are.  The point I’m trying to make is only what so many of us learned decades ago from Robert Crouse of blessed memory, a beloved teacher of our College, who taught us that the pursuit of Truth in Alumni Hall and the pursuit of the Good in the Chapel are inseparable:

the truth is simply the good of intellect, and all the virtues are summed up in that steadfast willing of the good which we call charity. … To love the truth, you must know it, but to know the truth you must love it. That is the doctrine which you will find adumbrated in the Ethics of Aristotle, and more fully worked out in the trinitarian doctrine of St. Augustine, in the scholastic theology of the 13th century, and in the poetry of Dante. Loving depends upon knowing, and knowing depends upon loving. That dialectical formula stands at the very heart of the great tradition of Christian humanism in which our universities were founded. The unity and creative interplay of diverse elements and aspects and dimensions — intellectual, moral, religious — belonged to the very essence of that tradition, and it is, of course, precisely that unity that has tended to be lost in the modern secularizing of so many universities.  

But it is not as easy as all that. Unfortunately there is another hell that is with us at the beginning of this academic year, and this is hell not of our own choosing (at least not in any obvious sense).  It is the hell of loneliness and isolation that causes students to feel empty, alone and unlovable. Often called the pandemic of this iGen, it is quantified in the skyrocketing of the rates of teen depression and suicide since 2011. Universities struggle to provide more and more professional counselling, psychiatric services, and other supports to cope with the current mental-health crisis among university students.  An increasing number of students in Canadian universities find their suffering too much to bear even to continue living.

Both Alumni Hall and the Chapel have a similar, and perhaps identical, vision of the truth and the good. The challenge arises, as every FYP student will discover when they read Saint Augustine’s Confessions in Section II, when we attempt to determine the implications of the Word made Flesh for our life together. What do we do with our bodies? The rigorous and demanding intellectual asceticism of Alumni Hall attempts to embrace the body in its metaphysics; and the equally rigorous and demanding fleshly asceticism of the chapel attempts to embrace the intellectual life.  And although the different approach of Alumni Hall and the Chapel is fundamentally simply a matter of emphasis, the fact of the Word made Flesh is sometimes more than inconvenient for philosophers.  As Charles Williams notes in his Descent of the Dove, in the early centuries CE, “every effort was made to re-establish the philosophical sublimity of the Unincarnate Deity.”  Those efforts to return to the purely intellectual mode and ‘undo’ the incarnation continues to be a temptation today. But the Word made Flesh is ignored at the expense of countless suffering students whose escape from hell will not be achieved through the intellect alone. 

As the emphasis in Alumni Hall is on the intellect (the Word), so the emphasis in the chapel is on the body (the Flesh).  Simply speaking, the chapel seeks to practice disciplines of ‘exchange’ and ‘substitution’ based upon the principle of ‘co-inherence’.  “Co-inherence” is the mutual indwelling of all persons in one another.  The rational human is not an ‘individual’ who can discover his or her meaning by a solitary turning inward to a intellective union with the source of being, but the rational human is a ‘person’ who discovers his or her identity and meaning in and through others.  “Exchange” is the affirmation of this co-inherence in acts of love; its modes include sacrifice, forgiveness, and reconciliation. “Substitution” is the specific mode of exchange that insists that we can take on another's burdens of pain, anxiety, grief, loneliness, and fear. An important aspect of both exchange and substitution is that we learn how to live from others, as much as how to live for others.  

In summary, I will continue to explore in these blog posts how the Chapel complements Alumni Hall in our secular liberal arts university only insofar (1) ‘The Word made Flesh’ adds nothing to the content of the Word itself, and (2)  the principles of co-inherence, exchange and substitution practiced in the Chapel are not seen as specifically Christian virtues: they are simply what it means to be human.

For King’s students, Alumni Hall and the Chapel together offer what neither can offer alone: not an escape from hell, but a journey to Love that courageously begins where we find ourselves: in hell, together.