Two of the most foundational and formative intellectual and spiritual texts are before us at the first two Chapels of this first week of school. They challenge us and strengthen us in wonderful ways even in these uncertain times. It is not that they offer certainty but rather a certain way to think about the world and ourselves. They provide an important counter to the negativity of our times. To put it simply, if you see the world as something evil materially and physically speaking, it is not a big step to see one another as evil, as enemies. In short, how we think about the world around us shapes our thinking about our relations with one another. To see the world as evil leads to a discourse of division among ourselves.
I want to begin with where we left off in the bleakness of March last spring in the time of lockdown and isolation. ‘Be careful but be not fearful’, I suggested. How is that possible? In part because of the power and the wisdom of these complementary and interconnected readings from the beginning of Genesis and the beginning of the Gospel according to St. John. They are familiar passages yet we often misconstrue their meaning. What do we mean by ‘beginning’? In truth, at least as the rich and profound philosophical and theological traditions understand these passages, beginning here really means principle, an άρχη, a principia. We begin with a principle - God as Word - from which all else proceeds and as we shall see to which all returns because all is contained within this principle upon which the being and knowing of all things depends. Such a view unites what we so easily divide. Such a view begins with the Good and the goodness of creation itself without which we misunderstand evil.
I also want to make the related point stated at Encaenia to the graduates only a few weeks ago. It is this. Do not think of yourselves as Covid-19 victims. To think of yourself as a victim is to be a victim twice over. It is to rest in a discourse of division and can only lead to the dangerous demonization of one another and to the disturbing debilitating fear of the other, allophobia and its twin, xenophobia. It leads, in other words, to separation and division in place of unity and community. Schools are “cloisters of learning,” places where a certain kind of intellectual and spiritual intent binds us together. It counters the simplistic narratives of division that see the world as evil and threatening. The word cloister derives from the Persian word, “paradise”, meaning a closed park or garden. It has migrated into the various cultures of the euro-mediterranean world, into the monasteries and to Schools and colleges where it suggests the idea of being part of an intentional culture of learning.
These readings mark the beginning of a way of facing the difficulties and challenges of our current world, rocked and reeling from wave after wave of disorder and disarray, of pandemics biological and social, we might say. They contribute to a way of facing rather than fleeing the world, a way of countering the far greater dangers of our distractions and self-obsessions. Both the opening verses of Genesis and John open us out to the grandeur, the goodness, and the beauty of creation as grounded in the principle, God as Word. In such a view, the creation reveals and conceals what is greater than itself and to an understanding of the glory and the misery of our humanity. As we shall see, we will have to think about evil not as something out there in the world but as arising from our relation to the world and one another. That discovery will be at once a fall and a lifting up. It will help us to make sense of the very things that are central to this cloister of learning, namely, the idea of the dignity and truth of our humanity as grounded in the principle, in God as Logos in whose image we are made and as such are freed from the forces of nature. They are seen in a new light.
These two passages connect to other so-called creation stories some of which they complement and others which they directly counter. They counter the idea of creation as simply beginning with conflict and chaos. In the ancient Sumerain account - one which has certain parallels to our own uncertainties - there is always the fear that chaos is greater than order, a fear about the uncertainty in things outside us, wonderfully symbolized in Humbaba in the Epic of Gilgamesh for instance, at once unknown and more importantly unknowable. With Genesis, we begin with a principle, God and that changes everything. It frees us from cowering before the forces of nature.
Chapel takes a slightly different form owing to our precautions about Covid-19. It makes for a certain challenge. Rather than two chapels each week for all students, you are divided into cohorts of your peers. This means a kind of loss of a larger sense of being together which we will have to remind ourselves about as we go along. It means, too, that I have to try to do more with less.
Chapel is an integral part of the life of the School. It relates to all four of the School’s pillars: to things academic, artistic, athletic and with respect to leadership. Regardless of your individual and personal beliefs, cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds, in Chapel we wrestle with some of the great questions that the religions and philosophies of the world have pondered, questions that never go away and which strangely and wonderfully speak to our confusions and uncertainties. Faithfulness to the School’s Christian and Anglican history and founding ideals, we read from the Scriptures but often by way of reflection upon other texts and traditions.
The simple point is that any education worthy of the name recognizes the immense contribution of those religious and philosophical traditions to every form of subject and discipline in academic life and does so through the lens of an ethical understanding which relates to an education which shapes character, an education which speaks to the whole person. Like education itself, ‘religion’, to use the uncomfortable word, cannot be forced. But however you define yourself and whatever that might mean, you are at the very least being exposed to foundational and critical ideas that have belonged to the history of these cloisters of learning which are committed to the idea that ideas really do matter and which contribute to the building up of character and community. Embrace it and grow into it. Such is our beginning, in principia.
(Rev’d) David Curry,
Chaplain, English & ToK Teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy
Here is the link to the Encaenia Homily.