Worth Saving

FYP Tutor and Don Dr. Matthew Furlong believes in the chapel

By Matthew Furlong -October 28th, 2011

I want to begin with two disclaimers:

This is not a polemic.
I write only on my own behalf.

King’s faces many challenges, the most immediately visible of which right now is our chaplaincy’s uncertain future. The Diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island has informed the College that it can no longer fully fund the chaplaincy. Moreover, in a letter that has now been circulated in the public domain, Bishop Moxley has passed on opinions from persons unknown that, besides fiscal considerations, the chaplaincy itself is questionable. Apparently its “model of chaplaincy is no longer appropriate,” and its “style of worship is antiquated.” Father Thorne has circulated a letter emphasizing that the bishop speaks officially, i.e. disinterestedly, and that it’s inappropriate to attribute these opinions to her personally. I think that’s good sense, and only fair; besides, the source of these opinions is ultimately irrelevant. Their content is relevant, though. I think they provide an opportunity to consider the chaplaincy’s role in and relation to the College. We should use this opportunity and, in doing so, we can clarify our collegial vocation. That clarification may help steady and orient us in these difficult times. After all, if the chaplaincy’s uncertain status is a function of economic hardship, this should only intensify our attention to the present state of the world, its dominant rationality, and our place in it. Calling to mind our mission as a college and our place in the world as a community of individuals can only be a good thing. So here goes.

I don’t subscribe to a religious creed; I belong to no faith community, at least not as that notion is normally construed. I participate in no liturgy. I doubt I ever will. So I think I have all the right I need to argue that our chaplaincy as administered by Father Thorne is absolutely immanent to, and essential to, our vocation. That vocation, which is pedagogically and philosophically anchored in the Foundation Year Programme, finds its essential notion in the thinking of Father Robert Crouse. In his 2007 Encaenia address, Father Crouse invoked the idea that the university is “the beloved community of memory and hope”. This idea is key: at its core lies the Augustinian intervention in the field of memory as the milieu in which we discover the truth. In conversation with me, Father Thorne said that here we find an essential connection between truth and love: you can only love as much as you know, and you can only know as much as you love. From the educational perspective, the memory-work carried out in the Foundation Year Programme complicates and intensifies our relation to the world and to truth. From the perspective of the mission of faith, we seek to enable a contemplative reunion with the One. Here we can begin to see how the chapel and the College feed into and sustain one another. I’ll return to this issue shortly.

Father Crouse conceived of Christianity as a blending, a combination of Judaism and Hellenic philosophy. The Anglican faith community that populates the chapel continues to observe this insight, which to me constitutes something very special: a community grounded on a particularly philosophical spirituality. To recognize in historical accident the absolute foundation of a necessary truth is to embrace a real groundlessness in the style of Plotinus or Pseudo-Dionysius, as far as I can see. And it also seems to me that to relate to faith in this way is to experience it as a mobilizing perplexity, an ever-deepening problem that propels philosophical eros and spiritual amor. I find this profoundly respectable, in my own heathenish and perhaps overly Greek way.

Attending to Father Crouse’s idea elucidates why this chaplaincy and this faith community have an essential function in relation to our educational mission at the College: it offers an exemplary instance of philosophy as a way of life. This, combined with the chaplaincy’s concrete, practical commitment to an ethics, I would even say a radical ethics, of service and of community—recall the credo: for those of all faiths and for those of none—in light of the contemplative life, permits King’s to be a bulwark against the pervasive logic of economic utility that impoverishes us all and whose contestation nurtures the growing movement emanating from the streets of New York City today.
Our chaplaincy therefore helps us fulfill one of the University’s highest possible missions, which is also one of the highest possible missions of faith: resisting over-entanglement in the world of external things, commodified experiences, fleeting pleasures, consumer goods; the dissolution of experience into accidental collisions of alienated subjects and objects, with no room for thinking and living a world.

So, to reply to the opinions passed on to us through Bishop Moxley’s letter, I could not disagree more that our model of chaplaincy is antiquated. To echo my friend and former colleague Michelle Wilband, this model of chaplaincy is truly the cutting edge—that is, it enables those touched by its liturgical and ethical practice to slice through the dense mass of modern materialism; through the narrow way of thinking that has reduced so many post-secondary institutions to betraying the university’s vocation by justifying their existence in terms of economic utility and market value. David Suzuki said recently that universities used to be “places where people could explore ideas at the cutting edge of human thought.” Today, that’s in doubt. But if universities aren’t about that exploration, then they’re not about anything. King’s College, luckily, remains a place where we can still try to pursue that mission, which strikes at the heart of the present. To understand why that’s so we have to understand the chaplaincy.

The chaplaincy enables my pedagogy. Looking back, I see now that it underpinned the transformative time that I spent here as a student. I’m reminded a little of Augustine’s discovery in his Confessions: that God was there, that God had always been there. That makes me smile to myself, since I’ve discovered that the chaplaincy, with its inspiration in Father Crouse’s thinking, was always already there in my education, no matter how heterodox I may be in relation to it. And here I return to the Augustinian mode of recollection that Father Crouse thought so important.

How does this work in my teaching? How should we understand this education? To retrieve my point above about the mutuality of our educational mission and our chaplaincy, I’ll turn to the Dionysian logic that our FYP students encounter in the pseudo-Areopagite’s Mystical Theology. The movement is essentially the same in the pedagogical and liturgical-theurgical registers. It consists in simultaneously affirming and denying that the truth lies in what we observe: “Neither this, nor this, nor this, nor this …” but also and at the same time “this, and this, and this, and this …”! In other words, reality is not the correlate or designate of a proposition or even a catalogue of propositions: “Utility” is not the truth, “Marxism” is not the truth, “Liberalism” is not the truth, “Conservatism” is not the truth, “Science” is not the truth, “Religion” is not the truth, “x”, “y”, and “z” are not the truth no matter how much truth there is in them. And, necessarily in conjunction, there is so much truth in them! And that’s the truth which engenders the tricky, endless navigation and negotiation of the subject matter that appears to us in the ever-becoming world we call, and seek to make, our home. I submit that this is the fundamental, sometimes overwhelming, insight that the Foundation Year Programme works toward in its particular historical recitation and that we hope our students learn to love.
The University of King’s College cannot, in my view, completely fulfill its educational mission without the chaplaincy. Without it, there is ever less preventing our absorption into the dark night of “utility” and servitude to the imperatives of economic rationality. The chaplaincy and the College stand together for the possibility of a real way of life. Today, such possibilities are more valuable than ever. I offer these thoughts in the hope that others might find them encouraging or helpful and, although there’s always more that could be said, I’d like to close by reiterating Father Thorne’s recent wish that we bear one another’s burdens, as becometh friends.