Chapel undertakes to provide a programme of instruction in the principles of ethics particularly as those are represented in and through religion and philosophy and as they pertain to the ordered life of the School community. At the very least, it should be clear that these questions are of central importance for an education which is serious about character. For character implies a story, “a story about living for a purpose which is greater than the self” as James Davison Hunter notes in The Death of Character.
In Chapel the great story of the Fall was followed by the classic story of Cain killing Abel, the first murder, read on Thursday and Friday of last week, and on Monday and Tuesday of this week. Both stories concern the awakening to self-consciousness. They are about how we are called to account albeit through contradiction and denial, but nonetheless, called to account, to the idea of responsibilities and duties. This is the positive in these stories, we might say. They raise the important question in our own times about what it means to be a self which, they suggest, have altogether to do with our relationship with one another and with God. The Cain and Abel story, for instance, is really the negative form of the central ethical teaching of the Judeo-Christian traditions about the inseparable nature of the love of God and the love of neighbour illustrated most movingly in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Self-knowledge and the knowledge of God are inseparable as the wonderful words of God to Cain indicate. “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” As such the story of Cain and Abel provides a critique of reason not unlike Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus Rex. Oedipus is driven into contradiction with himself, discovers the negation of his knowing, and as such awakens to the greater truth of himself in the city and for the city. Powerful stories about an ethical understanding.
These stories are the counter to what I like to call the ‘Manichean Moralizing’ of our contemporary world: being told what to think, say and do by the cultural elites of our day. The Manichees were an ancient phenomenon associated with gnosticism, an extreme form of dualism which reduces the world to them and us, to the opposition of good and evil, not unlike the demonization of the other in our polarized political culture of endless division and animosity which proscribes and denies discourse and discussion which is the essence of academic life. The counter is to think more deeply about the nature of our humanity in community.
This is wonderfully (and blessedly) set before us in the readings on Thursday and Friday that belong to the western Christian Feast of All Saints, a counter to the innocent and not quite so innocent nonsense of Halloween which bears so little relation to its origins both pagan and Christian. Yet there is a nugget of truth in every form of nonsense. Halloween is really the Eve of All Hallows’, All Saints. In the greyness of nature’s year, in the time of the scattering of the leaves, and in the culture of scattered souls and minds, there is the great spiritual gathering of the Feast of All Saints. It provides the great vision of the unity of our humanity with the whole of the created order in praise and thanksgiving to God. It does so through the idea of redemptive suffering. The “great multitude which no man can number” - something beyond human calculation - “are they which came out of great tribulation”. There is something more to our humanity than the endless conflict unto death of one another, the war of each against the other. There is the greater unity that is achieved through the qualities of our life together in an ethical understanding.
The lesson from Revelation on Thursday is complemented by the reading of the Beatitudes from Matthew on Friday, the great charter of love, we might say, that turns the world on its head, on the one hand, and redeems it, on the other hand. The blessednesses are about spiritual truths found in the midst of the tribulations and confusions of our world and day. “The poor in spirit” are the humble who are open to the wonder of God contrary to the arrogant proud who presume to dominate (and destroy). Thus theirs is “the kingdom of heaven”; such is the meaning of their openness to something greater. This complements the eighth Beatitude of “those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Theirs, too, “is the kingdom of heaven”. “They that mourn shall be comforted”, for as the lesson from Revelation puts it, “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.” There is more to us than the hardships of misery and loss. “The meek shall inherit the earth,” for gentleness is wisdom, the wisdom that knows that the world is God’s world, not the playground for human arrogance and folly. “They which hunger and thirst after righteousness shall be filled”; their desire realized in community with God, the principle of all truth and mercy. “Blessed are the merciful”; mercy begets mercy, the most perfect and highest form of justice. “The pure in heart” see God, the Pure One in relation to whom we are made pure and whole. And “blessed are the peace-makers, for they shall be called the children of God.” The peace of God moves in them to make peace in the midst of the divisions and discontents of our troubled world.
The vision of All Saints is about the vocation of our humanity. We are called to be saints, not in the perverse presumption of puffing up ourselves but in the humble and honest openness to the ethical truths which shape and inform human character. Far from the dismal realities of the Unreal City, as T.S. Eliot describes the modern world in The Waste-Land, All Saints’ recalls us to the truth of our life with God and with one another, a city of harmony and love, of care and compassion, of truth and righteousness. Things worth pondering and worth seeking. Such is the necessity and significance of an ethical education. It gives us a way to think about character and its formation in the midst of the uncertainties and difficulties of our time, not as the victims of malign forces and of one another but as agents, as living souls committed to the good of one another through the principle of the Good.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK Teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy