- Christ Church - https://christchurchwindsor.ca -

Sermon for Encaenia 2017

“Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground”

What he wrote in the dust of the ground we do not know. We only know what he said which in turn was written down. They are some of the most powerful words of compassion and forgiveness ever written in the dust of our humanity. “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone”. What has been written in the dust of your humanity during your time here at King’s-Edgehill?

The last day of the term, the last day of the school year, and for you, the last day of High School. Hooray! “O Frabjous Day, Callooh, Callay,” I hear you say. Finally, and, at last, I hear your parents quietly mutter while clutching their wallets and worrying about their stockmarket portfolios! In every sense, today marks a milestone, a sense of accomplishment, a kind of ending. Alleluias everywhere! Today you are the pride of the School, of your parents and grandparents, of relatives and friends, and of cultures and communities from all over the world. On this special day with so many of you who have come from far and near to celebrate, our school is even more a microcosm of the world than usual. A special day that requires a special designation. Hence Encaenia.

Encaenia is the traditional name for this service, just as the event which follows is properly known as Commencement, both terms conveying a sense of beginnings, it seems. Endings and beginnings recall us to the principles which belong to identity and purpose, to the true character of institutions and to our lives within them.

Encaenia is a Greek word that refers to a sense of renewal of purpose and identity, specifically, to a dedication service. Its origins lie in the annual dedications of holy places but has become associated with “the annual commemoration of founders and benefactors at Oxford University in June” (O.E.D) and by extension to the academic institutions derived from the medieval universities of Oxford and Cambridge throughout the English speaking world, even such places as King’s-Edgehill School here in Windsor. We are recalled to founding principles and ideals that remind us that we are part of something greater than ourselves without which we are less than ourselves.

Ah, merely a tradition then? No. If merely a tradition then nothing worthy of consideration let alone commitment. A living tradition is another thing and one which requires a certain mindfulness. Otherwise, we become quite literally traditors, traitors, those who betray what has been passed on to them by passing it over, that is to say, throwing it away as worth nothing. Living traditions are about our faithfulness to what has been passed on and to which we hold ourselves accountable. It is about letting them live out in us. Seeds are planted. Words are written in the dust of our being. And such is the real dignity of our humanity.

The crisis of our contemporary institutions is whether we will live from the animating principles that belong to their foundations or succumb to our technocratic obsessions that so dominate our minds and our lives and reduce everything to utility. All means and no ends. The challenge is to recover the primacy of the ethical and the intellectual.

We might just begin to realize that there is a problem when Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking state that AI, artificial intelligence, is the greatest threat to our humanity. The problem is not technology itself whether one is an exuberant cheerleader having a virtual orgasm over the latest iteration of iPhone or a handwringing pessimist about its dominance and distraction; at issue is how we think and use it. At issue are ethical, spiritual and intellectual questions. After all, we make the machines that unmake us. Think of the robot woman in Albert Camus’ novel The Outsider; even better, think of the guillotine. We make the machine that literally takes off our heads. These are the telling metaphors for the technocratic culture. The only question for institutions such as our schools is whether they are factories producing automatons and robots that increase corporate and government profit at the expense of human life or the breeding grounds for Jihadis reacting against the nihilism of contemporary culture by blowing it all up.

There is nothing new about this, “nothing new under the sun,” we might say with Ecclesiastes. It is a question not simply about what we do but how we think. As the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor observes, the greatest challenge and question for our modern unease is not what it is that is right to do but what is it that it is good to be.

We forget that the greatest revolution in human culture was not the Neolithic revolution some 5,000 years ago which produced such an incredible array of inventions that transformed human life materially, socially and politically or its modern successor in the so-called scientific revolution that resulted in the industrial and post-industrial cultures of our present time. No. It was what the philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, the axes upon which human culture turns. Roughly between 800 and 300 BC or BCE, there was a remarkable burst of intellectual, spiritual and ethical interest that arose in distinctly separate parts of the world: Confucianism in ancient China, Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism and then Buddhism in ancient India, Zoroastrianism in Persia, the poetic and philosophic developments in ancient Greece and then Rome, and Judaism in the Middle East. They are all marked by a turn to the ethical, the spiritual, and the intellectual, each in their own unique and special way.

These moments gave place to the post-axial age which witnesses the nature of their interaction with one another which resulted in the emergence of such things as Christianity, rabbinical Judaism, and, later, Islam, as well as the subsequent developments to both Hinduism and Buddhism, and to the emergence of Daoism in China. All these things have had an enormous influence in the shaping and development of human life and culture.

The first lesson which Jillian read was from Ecclesiastes. It is the most overtly philosophical book of the Hebrew Scriptures. It captures eloquently one of the themes of the religious philosophies of the Axial Age for it examines the whole range of human activity and finds it all wanting: the pursuit of pleasure, wealth, power, worldly knowledge, natural religion. “Omnia vanitas”. All is vanity. “Vanity of vanities” is the framing maxim and the recurring refrain; vanity here meaning futile and empty, purposeless.

Ecclesiastes asks the philosophical question about the Summum Bonum, the greatest good, which it has the honesty of recognizing cannot be found “under the sun.” The finite world cannot account for itself. It has the honesty of asking the question without presuming to have the answer. Yet it does not end in despair, but in the ethics of purpose. “Fear God and keep his commandments for this is the whole duty of man.” There is a wisdom that may be found in thinking and in ethical activity.

Such has been the purpose of Chapel as well as every other aspect of the educational programme of the School. At the very least, there has been that constant exposure to the weight and significance of such questions, and perhaps, just perhaps, to a way of understanding that has been written in you.

Confucius, Siddhartha Gautama – the Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus, all wrote nothing, with two exceptions. Everything we know comes from what others wrote down about what they said and did. The Bhagavad Gita in the Hindu tradition is one of the smriti, the remembered writings. Moses, it is said in Exodus, “wrote all the words of the Lord”, referring to the Law as the Ten Commandments but then it is also said that God has written them in tablets of stone. Later Jeremiah will speak about God writing the Law upon our hearts.

The second lesson which Tristan read picks up on these themes. Jesus and Socrates wrote nothing except what both wrote in the dust. With Socrates, we know what he wrote. According to Plato in the Meno, he drew a square in the ground to show that Meno’s slave boy, who never had the advantage of an excellent education in Mathematics at KES, actually already knew certain mathematical axioms and principles. Learning as remembering is about the recalling of principles both in mathematics and in ethics that are somehow written in our being. “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground” but we do not know what he wrote.

It is a unique and special story and one which is found only in what becomes the canonical gospel of John. A woman is brought before Jesus accused of adultery. At issue is what will Jesus say with respect to the Mosaic Law about her being stoned to death. Note that she has become simply a thing, an object in the pursuit of the agendas of others, in this case, against Jesus. Twice, Jesus bends down and writes “with his finger on the ground,” first before he speaks to her accusers and then after. It is a compelling scene. “Let him who is without sin among you, be the first to cast a stone at her.” They all went away, beginning with the eldest. “Has no one condemned you?” Jesus asks, and then says, “neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” What is it about? A denial of the Law? No. Its deeper truth and fulfillment. For the Law speaks in the heart. It is compassionate intelligence, intelligence with compassion. That is what is written in the dust of our humanity.

“Nothing diminishes humanity more than intelligence without compassion,” the celebrated Canadian novelist, David Adams Richards observes in his latest novel, Principles to Live By. The title is ironic since this motto is betrayed by those who have charge over orphans and children and yet, the novel points precisely to the moral and ethical principles necessary for life. Here, Jesus bends down and writes. He counters our self-righteous certainties and assurances about how to run the world and other peoples’ lives, our judgmentalism and conceit, our sense of entitlement and privilege. He treats her not as an object, a thing, but as a person. That remains our challenge. The French novelist, George Bernanos wisely observes that “between those who think that civilization is a victory of man in the struggle against the determinism of things and those who want to make of man a thing among things, there is no possible scheme of reconciliation.”

More than a millennium and a half later, Shakespeare would draw upon the same gospel teaching in Portia’s famous speech about “the quality of mercy” in the play, The Merchant of Venice. “Mercy seasons justice” for “in the course of justice none of us should see salvation.”

Amin Maloouf’s novel Balthasar’s Odyssey, set in the mid-seventeenth century, explores the interaction between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. At one point, he describes a conversation between a Jew and a Christian about the greatest of all texts of scripture. The Christian says it is “the love of God and the love of Neighbour” to which the Jew replies that, yes, that is indeed fine and it is also found in various verses in the Jewish Scriptures, yet the greatest text, he suggests, comes not from a text of Scripture but from the heart of Jesus, “Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone”.[1] [1] They are words which speak to our hearts and our minds and belong, I think, to a real education, one that is about compassionate intelligence. Such is the divine compassion in the one who bends down and writes with his finger in the ground, “tam antiquo, tam novo,” truth ever ancient and ever new (Augustine). Such, too, is Encaenia.

Encaenia is always a bit bitter sweet. We are both glad and sad to see you go. We have been through so much together in the very busy and demanding life of the School. For some of you, King’s-Edgehill has been more than half of your conscious existence! But whether you have been here for one year or for seven, there are things that have been written in you and that are now a part of you awaiting to be read out in your lives. We have sung and danced together, struggled and complained together, studied and thought together, run and jumped together. IB or not to be, and now IB done! “Just fantastic!” as the Headmaster frequently says. “Splendid!” say I. “You’re good to go,” says the Captain. And you are. Yet there are, I think and pray, many, many memories and many, many lessons yet to be fully grasped, things that will grow and mature and stay with you. Right, Patrick?

The prefects have been exceptional in the leadership which they have shown throughout the year and that has in no small way defined the graduating class. One of the delights for me, and I am sure for others, too, has been the privilege and pleasure of being with you in your learning and to see your delight in such things and in your care and compassion for one another. And what a delight! Hannah and Diala stepping up to serve and Liam helping to get the morning miracle underway. And morning after morning here in Chapel to hear Julia and Taylor, Emma and Jillian, Sabrina and Liam, well, perhaps not Liam, singing hymns after the service while tidying up the books in the pews! Priceless. Things written and sung in your very being.

Adios amigos, you have become quite dear to our hearts. Au Revoir, Aufwiedersehen, Gruss Gott, Adieu, Go with God, but go with compassionate intelligence as the guiding principle written in your very being.

“Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground”

(Rev’d) David Curry
Encaenia, June 2017

[1] [2] An acknowledgement, perhaps, that though part of the canonical Scriptures, the story does not appear in some of the earliest manuscripts of John’s Gospel.