Did Harari See It Coming? The Pandemic and Sapiens
TECHNOLOGY AND THE PANDEMIC
WHAT ARE WE LEARNING ?
Save the date:Wednesday, July 1st 2020 at 12:00 - 13:30 GMT
CUAC is hosting this free online seminar at the time of the postponed London Triennial. Dean Jeremy Law of Canterbury Christ Church University will engage Dr Karen O’Donnell of Sarum College UK and Dr Tim Wu, Professor of Law, Science and Technology at Columbia University USA, in conversation. What are we beginning to learn? What is being gained and lost through the digital umbilical cord that now sustains higher education in the midst of the Coronavirus? And, is there a particular Anglican perspective on all this?
The Online Seminar's timing allows for global participation across CUAC's Chapters to examine the threats and consequences of what lock down and social distancing mean for the future of Christian higher education. There will be opportunity for you to raise your own questions and observations. Registration information will follow.
Chaplains Tackle the Pandemic The Revd Nita Byrd Reflects On Recent Events
One may ask how do we embrace an embodied theology when we are communicating primarily through a flat computer screen? How does our ministry touch both souls and bodies at a time when we are told to keep our bodies apart with social distancing? These are only a couple of the questions that chaplains from Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion [CUAC] grapple with in virtual meetings. The CUAC Chaplains’ Triennial Conference was scheduled to be held in July 2020, but has been postponed due to COVID-19. Maintaining the spirit of collegiality began with regular meetings to encourage each other in ministry over the spring while many chaplains were regulated to working remotely.
New tools are being utilized by chaplains for connection with each other and with students. When the Triennial was postponed until 2021, the chaplains began meeting bi-weekly on ZOOM and formed a supportive community to address the emerging issues in higher education and chaplaincy. Initial topics included how to answer the difficult questions such as why is there suffering in the world, and how do we engage students who are miles apart due to social distancing. Now, through a CUAC Commons Virtual Space, chaplains from around the globe are able to post resources and respond to each other through this new tool.
As chaplains share experiences, a few common threads have emerged regarding how ministry is integrated into the care of collegiate communities. Chaplains acknowledge that tangible needs of students are a real concern. Therefore, a focus on self-care encourages students to pay attention to physical and mental health as a spiritual practice. The Revd Sallie Simpson, a deacon at Saint Augustine’s University in the USA, stressed that the health impact of our ministries is critical because chaplains cannot minister to dead people. Revd Rachel Kessler (Kenyon College) and Revd David Stroud (Canterbury Christ Church Cathedral) expressed similar concerns.
During this time chaplains are also spearheading responses of colleges to the needs of workers in their communities. According to the Revd Echanes Cadiogan, Trinity College of Asia has worked with area social workers to collect donations for over 100 daily wage earners who have demonstrated financial need. This has been paired with encouraging notes and prayers to the workers. Kenyon College and Hobart and William Smith Colleges also used traditional mail as a way to reach students with encouraging messages. Students expressed their gratitude for getting communication in this unconventional manner, since this generation is more accustomed to social media communication. Nevertheless, social media and apps continue to provide a unique opportunity for engagement.
Saint Augustine’s University Chaplain invited students to a virtual trivia night on an app designed specifically for campus ministries and young adults. This new app entitled YEAH, allows young adults in a geographical area to share events and ways to connect both socially and spiritually. This exciting tool can be applied to any region when it is downloaded on a cell phone. The Revd Jessie Charles at Lady Doak College in India commented that this is one more way to relay messages that stress the importance of non-traditional ways to support people. Most of all, we are called to help members of our collegiate communities to be comfortable in God’s presence. God’s presence opens our minds and desires to recognize student needs and explore new possibilities for meeting those needs. With guidance from the Holy Spirit, we can enter new territory of ministry in the months and years to come as we seek to strengthen both virtual communities and the communities in which our colleges and universities are situated. In all the varied ways that we connect as human beings, chaplains remind us that we navigate spaces where we pray for God’s Spirit to guide and inspire our interactions.
The Revd Nita Byrd is the Chaplain and Dean for Spiritual Engagement at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and previously was Chaplain at St. Augustine's University in Raleigh, NC. With the Revd David Stroud, Senior Chaplain at Canterbury Christ Church University, Canterbury, she co-convenes the CUAC Chaplain's Conference.
Hearst Scholarship Program Selects Two Bound for Sewanee
Two 2020-21 Episcopal Colleges William Randolph Hearst Service Learning Scholarships have been awarded to young women who have chosen Sewanee: The University of the South for their undergraduate education. The scholarships, worth $10,000 over four years, are granted to outstanding students with strong records in Service Learning who plan attend one of the eight institutions in the Association of Episcopal Colleges (AEC). Michaela James-Thrower, a Washington DC resident, is about to graduate from St Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, MD. She took part in her school’s week-long “Chicago Trip,” during which she volunteered at the Misericordia Center for developmental disabilities and at several cafes for low-income residents. She has also served as her school’s diversity facilitator. She plans to major in English and become a public school teacher.
Sheppard McVey has attended St Catherine’s Episcopal School in Richmond, VA, since kindergarten. She has been head of the school’s Community Service League and a volunteer for Caritas, a homeless shelter, as well as a member of the FOCUS youth group – “a place for high school students to talk about the Bible in more detail, while also relating it to our crazy teenage lives.” At Sewanee, she intends to major in “something that can make an impact on others.”
The scholarships are sponsored by the AEC in collaboration with the
National Association of Episcopal Schools and are administered by CUAC.
Did Harari See It Coming? The Pandemic and Sapiens
In this issue, Charles Calhoun looks back at Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) to see what it might say about our current crisis. In the next issue of Compass Points, the Revd Dr Jeremy Law will review Harari's more recent Homo Deus.
Admirers of Yuval Noah Harari’s 2014 bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind may recall that he leaves us at the end of his 416-page chronicle of our species on a rather sour note: “Unfortunately, the Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of.” Despite our extraordinary accomplishments – cities, agriculture, world trade, antibiotics – we have brought great misery to the world and even greater suffering to other animals. And we seem “to be as discontented as ever.” Declaring us “the animal that became a God,” he asks: “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”
Yes, there is: a highly contagious, presumably ever-mutating, still only partially understood virus for which we have no proven vaccine and only hastily improvised means of treating. COVID-19 is not a devious foreign “enemy” or curse-from-God; it’s simply another piece of creation, doing its evolutionary thing – and Homo sapiens is its lunch.
With this threat to our 70,000 years of progress in mind – global catastrophe on a scale scarcely imaginable in 2014, even among epidemiologists -- it’s interesting to look back at Sapiens, to ask if the author saw this coming. Not really. Harari is a cold-blooded realist on many subjects – he takes particular care to eviscerate religions, and he is skeptical of bio-engineering and cyborg fantasies – but the viruses that caught his far-ranging eye were mostly of the computer variety.
He can hardly be faulted for this, despite the earlier work of fellow macro-historians like Jared Diamond, say, or Felipe Fernández-Armesto. His critique of the species is a jeremiad directed at humankind, whose end he admitted might very well be near. He caught the public’s less-focused eye because he wrote of great epochal changes taking place on a vast time-scale in a tone of Gibbonesque hauteur and detachment…yet in language (often, brief declarative sentences) that even the dimmest CEO could, sort of, understand, if not remember. Here was cosmic irony for you: a bookish, gay, left-of-center, neo-Buddhist Israeli critic of capitalism who turned out to be perhaps the last of the Prophets…only his preaching found its home not on the mountain top but rather on the slopes of Davos.
Harari is a fascinating (if elusive) subject, and I highly recommend Ian Parker’s sympathetic profile of him back in February in the New Yorker (google it). So how does his diagnosis hold up in the light of the pandemic? This is of concern in the CUAC context because we still don’t know if schools of any sort can safely re-open this autumn, much less what the economic fall-out of the disease will be on higher education…other than to know that the news will not be good.
One human accomplishment that Harari chronicles is the invention of “structures” – be it as simple as the cuneiform-based record-keeping which helped the new agricultural societies of the Mideast become rich and organized and oppressive, or as complex as the public-private race to perfect artificial intelligence, which he argues might end the need for humans altogether. Higher education, it seems to me, is stuck somewhere between those two extremes. We follow ancient practices: what could be more “primitive” than a seminar? (Only the campfire is missing!) We flirt with new technologies. We wonder how in all of this there is some room to teach values, among them curiosity, decency, compassion, and an inner warning not to take ourselves entirely seriously. Can this still work? Perhaps the next year or two will tell.
In April, York St John’s University welcomed Prof Karen Bryan OBE as its new Vice-Chancellor. She has previously held senior leadership roles at the University of Greenwich, Sheffield Hallam University, and the University of Surrey, in the field of health and social care studies. She has a PhD in speech science from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and continues to publish as an active scholar in the field of communications disorders.
Dr Maria A. Lumpkin has returned to her Alma Mater as interim president of St Augustine’s University in Raleigh, North Carolina. She had previously been Chief Operating Officer, leading the team that brought a $3.5 million federal Emergency Assistance Grant to the University. A native of Columbia, South Carolina, she did graduate work at Old Dominion University, Clark Atlanta University, and Harvard Divinity School. She is St Augustine’s youngest interim president and its first female alumna to be chosen for the post.
The Revd Peter Whittlesey Gray has been named Chaplain of the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee, succeeding the Revd Thomas Macfie, who will retire in June after 14 years in the office. A native of Oxford, Mississippi, Gray has served as Rector of the Church of the Nativity in Greenwood, Mississippi, since 2013. He has degrees from Millsaps College, Vanderbilt University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. He is the grandson of Bishop Duncan Gray, a former Chancellor of Sewanee.
From the General Secretary’s Desk
While lockdowns have emptied classrooms globally, separating teachers and students, learning remotely has always been the norm in the liberal arts, as Dean Renta Nishihara at Rikkyo University in Tokyo explained to students recently. Here is what he had to say:
At Rikkyo University, College of Arts, we have a first-rate team of professors that represent each of our disciplines: Christian Studies, English and American Literature, German Literature, French Literature, Japanese Literature, Philosophy and Creative Writing, World History, Japanese History, Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies, and Education. In other words, Rikkyo University’s College of Arts represents a “place” where the study of truths beyond any era or physical space is possible.
What’s important to note here is the fact that knowledge has always been handled “remotely,” irrespective of time or location. It’s actually an extremely rare occurrence to be able to handle materials such as historical documents at the same time and place. The knowledge of mankind has been handed down through the tools of oral tradition, words and pictures, printed media, sound and video media, and digital media, surpassing time through the past, present and future, as well as surpassing physical space on a global scale, and it will continue to be handed down. As such, the learning we begin from April 30 comes with the great challenge of discovering how we can use this tool called “online” to best share the knowledge of mankind – how to understand it, interpret it and hand it down.
One other challenge for us starting is to realize our responsibility to learn while faced with this globally historic pandemic of the novel coronavirus. The original meaning of “liberal arts,” the field of study which we hold so dear, can be summed up by the following elements: (1) the wisdom that’s necessary for humans to live, (2) the sensibility that allows us to empathize with another person’s pain and suffer with them, (3) a world view informed by world history, and (4) a sense of internationality that allows us to live in a multicultural world.
Most international borders are currently closed in order to prevent the spread of the virus; however, this is the right time for us all to reflect on the world that is currently in great suffering.
Think forward to the future ahead: wish that those suffering from illness will get the necessary treatment; wish that the health of all the medical staff who are fighting for an end to infections and of those close to patients is protected; wish that the souls of those who’ve died will be at peace and that their families left behind will find consolation; and, wish that the hand of support will reach all those who are facing uncertainty and confusion.
From April 30, let’s strive to study the “liberal arts” in a manner that can embody these wishes and even shoulder their burden.
The Revd Dr Renta Nishihara
FROM THE EDITOR’S DESK
Make sure college never ends.
As with so many other groups around the Anglican world, my Dante reading group in Austin has continued to meet, despite the pandemic, thanks to that remarkable telecommuting service known as Zoom. Thirteenth-century theology meets 21st-century technology. I’m in New England, they are in Texas, but once we’ve compared notes about the weather and the lock-down, we jump into the text, and in a matter of minutes it’s as if we are in the same room. It helps, of course, that we know each other already, that we are familiar with each other’s body language and ways of thinking and speaking.
Not that the technology is foolproof. Hackers have discovered how easy it is to interrupt church groups online with, shall we say, unadorned content. Dante would have put them in his Eighth Circle of Hell, among the fraudulent. But something more serious happened today (Sunday, May 17) when Zoom suffered a massive shut-down and online church services around the world blanked out. The problem seems to have been solved fairly quickly, but it was a reminder how fragile this brave new world of ours really is.
There is special poignance in reading the Divine Comedy just now. Take the treatment of the gluttonous in the Third Circle of the Inferno, for example – not gluttony as an eating disorder, but rather as the attitude that “I deserve as much as I can possibly get.” Not that any of us in the group believe in Dante’s version of Hell (or of Purgatory, for that matter). But we believe in Dante’s project, his mapping out of one beleaguered Christian’s journey through every aspect of the human condition. It’s a conversion story, a retelling of Exodus, and it reveals its meaning – in fact, its myriad of meanings – through one exile’s experience of self-education.
We are sharing in that education rather late in life (most everyone in my group is in the “COVID-vulnerable” cohort), but I want to reassure those much younger in our CUAC colleges and universities whose formal education is being so cruelly disrupted just now, that the process never stops, that it can fill every conscious day of your earthly existence. If you want it to.
CUAC Triennial Update
Rescheduling the 2020 Triennial Conference Saved by Technology? awaits the reopening of Whitelands College in London and its conference office.
We will let you know as soon as we have a date. Our special appreciation to the 33 Delegates who have asked us to hold their fees for next year.
U.S. Government Agency Condemns India’s Abuse of Religious Freedom
India has joined the “watch list” of countries abusing religious liberties compiled by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan federal commission established in 1998 to monitor violations of religious freedom around the world.
In its 2020 report, the Commission noted in India “a drastic downturn, with religious minorities under increasing assault” and cited the current government’s toleration of violence and hate speech, mostly directed at Muslims. India’s Christians (roughly 2 percent of the country) are less frequently targeted yet face continuing pressure from political forces seeking a 100 percent Hindu country.
As “a country of particular concern,” India could face potential sanctions from the U.S., though the current American policy of closer economic ties with India makes that unlikely. The Commission calls for Congressional hearings on the matter.
Other nations on the religious freedom-in-danger list include Burma, China, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Syria, Eritrea, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.