Tracing Anglicanism's Relational Path

16 February 2017

Tracing Anglicanism's Relational Path

If a college or university changes its name, its membership, its curriculum, even its location, is it still the same institution? Theologian Jeremy Law posed this question, a variation on the famous paradox of Theseus’s ship, at the beginning of CUAC’s 2017 Triennial, held in January at Madras Christian College in Chennai, India. It was his way of challenging the eighty delegates to reflect on what happens when CUAC’s historically church-based institutions find themselves in an increasingly secular world. Can they still think of themselves as Anglican? And what does that mean for their students, faculty, and staff?

Theseus’s ship was a wooden vessel of great antiquity displayed by the Athenians. Each year, when any of its planks rotted, they were replaced with new wood. Over time, the entire vessel was rebuilt. Was it still Theseus’s ship? Yes, argued some ancient philosophers, because the idea of the ship had survived its radical refurbishment.

How we think about mental as opposed to material continuity offered the Revd Dr Law a  jumping off point to introduce the 2017 theme: Identity & Diversity: Citizenship, Vocation, and the Common Good. He outlined the path the Triennial’s keynote speakers would subsequently follow in tracing Anglican education’s relational approach to the pursuit of wisdom.

As Dean of Chapel at Canterbury Christ Church University (UK) he has had ample opportunity to experience the practical effects of secularization, but he chose instead to approach this existential challenge from a philosophical vantage point.

Consider, for example, the opposing notions of Cartesian versus relational identity. The Cartesian self, Law explained, was self-contained, detached from material existence, clearly marked off from everything that surrounded it. It was a self that saw other selves as potential competitors for resources or status; it regarded diversity as a threat. It was the self we inhabit as consumers when we use a credit card to buy something online – or when we go to college just in order to get a high-paying job.

Relational identity, on the other hand, “requires another in order for me to be me,” he said. It is not hermetically sealed off from the world; it does not feel threatened when “the other” appears. It expresses itself through conversation, not speech-making. It is what we have in mind when we ask if our universities are “collections of individuals” or “communities of citizens.” It is modeled ultimately on the concept of “persons” found in Trinitarian theology.

In this context, of course, a theory of boundaries becomes essential. We have to distinguish one thing from another, or else all becomes “mush.” A cell must have walls to preserve its biological integrity. But these walls must be permeable enough for one cell to communicate with another, and be nurtured, or the individual cell dies.

A Christian attempt to become educated, then, raises questions of formation (are we to be consumers or citizens?), purpose (do we prepare for a job or fulfill a vocation?), defense mechanisms (do we dictate or discuss?), and diversity (do we feel threatened by it or welcome it as healthy?).

Reminding his audience that “India’s destiny has been shaped in the classroom” – at colleges like Madras Christian – Law encouraged the delegates to experience being in Chennai “not as tourism, but as an opening up to new perspectives.”

In 2015 the Revd Dr Jeremy Law was named CUAC’s first Distinguished Fellow. He was largely responsible for the 2017 Triennial’s intellectual content and led its chaplains’ post-conference.