Prof. John Lydon, CATSC & WUCT Treasurer, delivers a keynote address at the First International Research Conference on Christian Studies (IRCCS) 2018 at the University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka
The first International Research Conference on Christian Studies at the University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka organised by the Department of Christian Civilisation in collaboration with the Centre for Performing Arts, Jaffna took place on 7th-8th of December 2018. The conference theme was ‘Towards a New Christian Humanistic Ethos’ intended to develop a humanist manifesto to address the many problems that exist in the world today due to inhuman actions. The conference opened with the lighting of the traditional old lamp, procession and welcome dance for guests. The inaugural opening addresses were given by the Bishop of Jaffna, Rt Rev.Dr Justin B. Gnanapragasam and the Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna Prof. R. Vigneswaran.
The Conference aimed to provide a platform to document through empirical research, the efforts of Christians in local and international contexts to create a new culture based on human values. In addition, to propose in an effective way how they could still fulfil their human and social responsibilities of creating a new humanistic ethos amidst the present world beset by perennial challenges. These include, among others, conflict, violence, poverty, injustice, corruption, anti-life concepts and practice, individualism, the negative impact of globalisation and pervasive environmental challenges. Contributing to a new humanistic ethos is seen as a way articulating the social responsibility of Christians. The Conference raised awareness among those who belong to other religions to speak out and work for a better society based on shared human values. The Conference also sought ways in which Christians and the followers of other religions can work together to address issues of social responsibility that they have in common to create a new humanistic ethos.
Based on this overall aim, the objectives of the Research Conference were: to revisit the history of Christianity in local contexts and reflect on its influence and contribution to create a new human culture by documenting them; assess the contribution of Christians to safeguarding the values of local cultures, art, architecture and literature from destruction by the colonial powers and by the postmodern trend of globalisation; to defend the value and dignity of each individual human being as a child of God thereby contributing to a new human culture void of any discrimination; to appraise the theological contribution of modern Christianity which has formulated rich conceptual foundations to address the issues of gender, cast, political oppression and violation of human rights and to defend the liberty, equality and dignity of the women, children, differently-abled, oppressed and marginalised; to elaborate the contribution of recent Christian Theology of Religions based on the documents of Second Vatican Council and to rediscover and affirm in a new way the concept of pluralism, inter-religious living, dialogue and collaboration. Finally, to facilitate researchers, scholars, resource persons and practitioners to share their findings about the new trends in Christian thought.
A New Christian Humanism in Education
Professor John Lydon, Programme Director of the MA in Catholic School Leadership, St Mary’s University London and Treasurer of CATSC was invited to be the keynote speaker by Rev. Dr. N.M. Saveri, Director, Centre for Performing Arts, Jaffna. His paper entitled ‘Catholic Education and New Christian Humanism’ addressed developments around the concept of a new Christian humanism in the context of education. It began by articulating a brief conspectus of the Vatican’s Congregation of Catholic Education’s latest document before seeking to explore the provenance of the term humanism in a Christian context. It then continued to root the term in a Christological context, emphasising the importance of dialogue, before arguing that it is essential to refrain from ‘sloganising’ the term, suggesting that its classical origins are reflected in a modern ‘return to virtues’ as opposed to an over-emphasis on the often nebulous use of the term ‘Gospel values’. The paper concluded strongly by suggesting that ‘a new humanism’, grounded in a sacramental vision, is particularly timely in our contemporary global context. A further address was delivered by Dr David Fincham, also of St Mary’s University, London, on Christian Humanism as a contested concept. Prof. John Lydon also chaired two parallel academic sessions on the topic ‘Christian Thinking and Humanist Ethos’.
The role played by Christianity to create a new humanistic ethos cannot be neglected. The world history bears witness to the fact that wherever Christianity stretched it roots, it toiled hard to eliminate the social evils of slavery, discriminations, superstitions and other inhuman practices and has ventured in creating a new human culture through its education and social commitments. Its contribution to bring out a decisive notion of the new humanism opened up new frontiers to the dignity of human race with its values and originality. In this milieu, this Research Conference focused on the contributions of Christians in order to assert once more the need to construct the contemporary societies on human values. In the midst of individualist, consumerist and pragmatist trends of the present globalised world, such affirmation is vital in order to safeguard the value and dignity of each individual and to initiate a better society. Christianity proclaimed its humanistic ethos based on the teachings of Jesus Christ; however, the declaration of the new humanism is beyond any religious character or motives. It is universal and it is applicable to everybody without any differences of religious, ethnic or nationality.
Revisiting the roots of the humanistic ethos promoted by Christianity is a need of the time because the degradation of human values has greatly affected human life and society. The theme also ventured further into other areas of human concerns. The deviation from the human values has affected the natural and environmental patterns and the whole human life situations. It has affected the family life, social life, cultural values, gender perspectives, religious convictions and educational systems; above all the whole pattern of human history has been affected.
A Welcome Return and International Partnerships
Prof. Lydon was making a welcome return to Sri Lanka as he had previously been invited by Tamil Catholic Chaplaincy in the UK, following a visit from the then Rt Rev. Bishop Thomas Savundranayagam, Bishop of Jaffna to St Mary’s University in 2010, where he discussed the opportunity for priests from the Diocese to study St Mary’s on the programme. During that previous visit, Prof. John Lydon delivered a series of lectures and seminars to seminarians and catechists. He also met with key Catholic education figures in Colombo including Very Rev. Dr Pacidus de Silva, Rector of Aquinas University College and Fr Stephen Ashok OMI, Director of the Centre for Society and Religion, to discuss potential collaborations between the institutions.
When not delivering lectures and seminars, John spent time with the Tamil community in Jaffna, visiting schools, including one in which Rev. Fr Robinson Joseph, graduate of St Mary’s MA programme, is a Headteacher. This fruitful link has led to further Sri Lankan priests on the MA programme including this year Rev. Fr Elmo Arulnesan and next year Rev. Fr John Rexon.
Christian Humanism in Action
Perhaps the most important and certainly the most moving part of the latest experience involved Professor Lydon, his wife Marguerite and Dr Fincham visiting various projects which can only be described as ‘Christian humanism in action’. They first visited a Salesian project which engages young people on the peripheries in training opportunities resonant with St John Bosco’s first trade schools in the 19th century. They then visited a home for orphaned girls led by the Good Shepherd Sisters, enabling young girls to take their place in society empowered by a genuine holistic approach to education. Their visit to the home for disadvantaged women animated by the Missionary Sisters of Charity was, undoubtedly, the most moving, made more poignant by the fact that Marguerite Lydon had met Saint Teresa in Calcutta and her sister had worked with Mother Teresa for two years. Following Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, the women put on a short concert. They rely on benefactors who pay the equivalent of £50 per day for their daily meals.