“In the beginning God … In the beginning was the Word.” These are two of the greatest opening lines in all literature; the one from the beginning of the Hebrew Book of Genesis, the other from the Prologue which marks the beginning of The Gospel according to St. John. For quite a few years, it has become a tradition at King’s-Edgehill School for the head boy and head girl (Spencer Johnson '24 and Ava Shearer ‘24) to read Genesis 1.1-5 and John 1.1-5 at the first Chapel services of the School year. Why?
Because they are such powerful foundational and formative passages which place us within the spiritual understanding of education which speaks to the whole person. Thus, they provide a ground of unity and purpose to all four pillars of the School in its educational philosophy: the academic, the artistic, the athletic, and the idea of service in leadership. These are not merely a list of things, like boxes to be checked off. They are all interrelated. What gives them a deeper sense of connection and unity of purpose is the spiritual experience of Chapel. It recalls us to the idea and reality of how we are all part of something greater than ourselves and to the idea of an education which constantly calls us out of ourselves.
There is something quite wonderful and quite challenging about the first Chapels. Each year we have a whole lot of new students, many of whom have never been in a sacred space and have never encountered religion – itself a challenging word – as something that is to be thought about as belonging to education. There is no subject or discipline in our schools which does not have in some way or another a connection to the religions of the world. The greater challenge, perhaps, lies in addressing the most prevalent misconception about religion in contemporary culture: the idea that religion is, first and foremost, a private or personal matter.
Chapel is not about an affirmation of the various and indeterminate forms of personal identity and/or personal faith or non-faith that are part of our current culture. Like education, religion cannot be coerced or forced. It is more a question about ideas and questions that cannot be ignored or denied; at best, my task is to offer and to point out the ways in which religious traditions in their richness and philosophical truth address questions about the world and about our humanity. It is all about the questions. Students and faculty come from all sorts of different ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and ideological backgrounds with a whole host of assumptions and opinions. Regardless of our claims to identity and personal faith, we all enter into the life of the School which is prior to us all. Chapel is simply an integral part of the history and life of the School, an integral part of the educational project and experience.
The School’s origins and history are Christian and Anglican. The Chapel service is not ‘non-denominational’ but neither is it something narrowly sectarian. A simplified version of Mattins or Morning Prayer, it belongs very much within the orbit of the forms of worship common to a great number of religious traditions both Christian and non-Christian: two hymns, a Scripture sentence, confession and absolution, the Lord’s Prayer, a Scripture reading, a homily, intercessory prayers, the School prayer, and a blessing. All pretty basic. My challenge is to speak out of the Christian understanding but with a view towards the forms of its connection and engagement with other religious and philosophical traditions regardless of the faith or non-faith claims of students and faculty.
The readings at the first Chapel services signal exactly that sense of connection between texts and traditions. The Prologue of John’s Gospel comments explicitly on the opening verses of Genesis in such a way as to bring out a way of thinking creation and ourselves within its order. “In the beginning” does not mean the start of a linear series of events in a temporal sense. This is our modern problem and misconception that swirl around the confusions and assumptions about ‘progress.’ “Beginning” here is about a principle, (ἐν ἀρχῇ - archē), which contains and informs all aspects of life. Light and life overcome darkness. “And the life was the light of our humanity.” We are part not only of a physical world, which is in principle intelligible, but a moral universe which ultimately speaks to our human dignity and freedom. Not a freedom from the givenness of being but a freedom to an infinite principle, God.
“The way up and the way down are one and the same,” the ancient philosopher, Heraclitus, paradoxically and profoundly notes. It belongs to the idea of our constantly circling around and into the mystery of the reality of which we are a part and which is by definition greater than ourselves. The poet, T.S. Eliot in the Four Quartets, uses this phrase at the beginning of the whole poem. East Coker, the second poem in the Quartets, begins with the line, “In my beginning is my end” and ends with “In my end is my beginning.” That only begins to make sense when we realize that the principle is eternal and not merely temporal. We are being presented with the idea that there is something ontologically prior to the sequence of temporal events, something of which we are a part intellectually and spiritually and which embraces the physical and material aspects of reality without negating them. We are meant to grow into them.
These two passages belong to the wisdom of the ages. Augustine, for example, comments extensively on just the first few verses of Genesis in several works and in ways that are self-consciously philosophical. Three philosophical questions are implicit in the opening chapter of Genesis and which belong to the idea of the intelligibility of creation, he says. “An sit” - whether something is, exists? “Quod sit” - what is it? And “quale sit” - what kind of thing is it? He is drawing upon Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics in reflecting on the first Chapter of Genesis. “In the beginning God” but God what? “God created.” Created what? “The heavens and the earth.” How? By speaking things into being - there can be no stronger affirmation of the essentially intelligible character of creation. Creation in Genesis proceeds as an orderly affair where one thing is distinct from another but connected to one another by its place within an order, what the Hebrews call creation and what the Greeks refer to as the cosmos, the world as an ordered whole. As we shall see this provides the basis for thinking about our humanity and about good and evil. Such are the ethical questions which Chapel seeks to ponder and consider. Beginnings and endings!
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English and ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy