McWhinney, O.C., M.D., FRCGP, FCFP, FRCP
Professor Emeritus, Department of Family Medicine
Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry
The University of Western Ontario
The Secular University and the Human Spirit
June 7, 2000
President Davenport, Dean Herbert, fellow faculty members, graduates, families, and friends. This is a memorable day for you who will be graduating today, and for your families. It is also a memorable one for me. I can think of no greater honour than to be recognized in this way by my own university, no greater joy than to be with my dear wife and daughters, my son-in-law Michael who has come from the University of Saskatchewan to join us in the procession, my son-in-law Paul at home with our grandchildren, and our friends. And to be hooded by Moira Stewart, my friend and colleague for so many years.
I came to Western thirty-two years ago, on my appointment to the new chair of Family Medicine, the first in Canada. It was a courageous act for Western to create a chair of Family Medicine at that time and I would like to pay tribute to those whose vision made it possible, especially Dr. Carol Buck and Dean Douglas Bocking. Creating a new academic unit in a university recognizes the existence of a body of knowledge. At that time, the body of knowledge we now call Family Medicine had hardly begun to be articulated. There were many doubters and sceptics. It was similar, I suppose to the scepticism which greeted Business, Journalism, and Dentistry when they gained their place in our universities. The articulation of this knowledge has been one of our chief tasks, and working on this with my colleagues over the last thirty years has been a great experience. I will always be grateful to Western for this.
I came here after fourteen years in full-time general practice. Being a relative latecomer to academic life, I have an abiding interest in the question of knowledge and of the universitys place in modern life. Western was founded in 1878 at a time of great societal change. The spirit of the age was increasingly secular and public universities were soon to become secular institutions. At first an Anglican foundation, Western eventually became a secular university itself. As early as 1852, John Henry Newman, in his great book The Idea of a University, prophesied that the separation of the life of the mind from the life of the spirit would have adverse effects on both. Newman was a university president. He was also a Cardinal, but his book is actually about knowledge. What he said was that the life of the spirit would suffer by exclusion from the world of critical thought, and the life of the mind would become shallow without a foundation in spiritual knowledge. In turning its back on a whole spiritual tradition, the modern university lost the one branch of knowledge which had some claim to being a unifying foundation for all the rest. We must not confuse the life of the spirit with religious observance. They are not necessarily the same thing. Indeed, religious observance may be devoid of spirituality. As Newman predicted, the fragmentation of knowledge in the universities has proceeded apace, and the divisions between fragments have grown. None of these fragments can address the ultimate questions about the conduct of life, the meaning of suffering, and the life of the spirit. The shallowness that Newman predicted is reflected in the dissociation between rationality and the moral life. It is a rationality that is torn from its roots in our active lives, our emotions, and our traditions. It is quite conceivable, for example, that one could be an expert on ethics, and in ones daily life be devoid of moral sensitivity and without compassion. Moral development, said Newman, does not come from philosophical ethics: it comes from regenerating the very depths of the heart.
Reconciling the life of the mind with the life of the spirit may be the key issue for the modern world. How can universities take a lead in this? Not by going back to the sectarian university of Newmans time. It is now inconceivable that any organized religion or sect could bring to the university the knowledge it lacks. In their preoccupation with externals, the religions seem almost to have forgotten their own spiritual heritage. Those who still follow the spiritual path are often ignored and may even be treated as heretics.
At the heart of all the great religions, and in nascent form in indigenous cultures, there is a core of spiritual wisdom based on the experience of their sages over centuries and millennia. This is not the external knowledge of religious observance and ritual. It is not the morality of rules and laws. Necessary as these externals are, they are not a substitute for the esoteric inner knowledge of the heart. Unlike motivational speakers and the gurus of self actualization, the sages do not tell us what we want to hear. They tell us that the path to the life of the spirit is hard. It requires, in the first place a dying to the self: self surrender, self denial, selfless love. It requires purity of heart. It requires self knowledge, the most difficult and painful knowledge of all. It is painful, because it forces us to face the truth about ourselves. Adam Smith, the moral philosopher and economist, thought it was so painful that it was like a surgeon operating on himself. It is difficult because we are all very good at deceiving ourselves. But it is the surest antidote to pride, and the best protection from that hardening of the heart which is a moral danger for all of us in our professions and businesses.
At the level of these great teachings, the differences between religions melt away, and we are left with a core of wisdom the perennial philosophy passed down to us, and kept alive by those who still practice and teach the life of the spirit. This is globalization which nobody seems to have noticed: the globalization of wisdom. Since the knowledge is esoteric, the things which can arouse such passion in the religious assume secondary importance. If your sacred places are in the heart, the disputes over rituals and over sacred ground are more easily resolved. If the meaning of sacred texts is not their literal truth but their spiritual and psychological truth, you will not be caught up in endless doctrinal disputes. I dont think a follower of the great teachings will be much concerned about whether their priest or minister is male or female, or what their sexual orientation is, provided their lives pass the test of selfless love.
What would it do to a university if a person whose life and teaching exemplified the perennial philosophy became a presence on the campus a Jean Vanier, a Helen Prejean, a Helen Luke, an Ivan Illich, a Desmond Tutu, a Martin Buber, a Dalai Lama, a Ghandi. I mention these names to make it clear what kind of people I have in mind. They are people who are steeped in their own faith, but able to speak to people of all faiths and no faith. For every one of these who are well known, there are others silently following their path. We would have to seek them out. They are not to be found on the lecture circuit or the talk shows. In many ways they are at variance with modern life, and this is their importance, for the university should also keep a critical distance from the world of the marketplace.
What kind of a presence would such a person have in the university? He or she would certainly teach, but not, I think, in formal courses or as a member of a department. Perhaps the first consequence would be that some of those in the university with spiritual yearnings would find a guide. From this small beginning, what else might grow? Perhaps eventually the restoration in the university of a body of knowledge of supreme importance for every faculty and department, and another bridge between the university and the community.
Finally, I wish you all as much joy and fulfillment in your work as I have experienced at Western. Western has been for me, a very forgiving place: forgiving me for my mistakes. If your experience is like mine, the greatest danger you will encounter will be an insidious hardening of the heart as you face some of the harshness of the modern world. May your self-knowledge protect you.