In Chaplain Barksdale’s World Religions course, a graduation requirement for Chatham Hall, students find and present their “ultimate concern” in a culminating project.
An ultimate concern is how Paul Tillich, theologian and author of Dynamics of Faith, defines faith. Broadening the consideration beyond merely a religious view, he writes that faith is an “act of the total personality,” serving to integrate one’s life around what is most important and most defining. In World Religions, students learn to identify what is ultimate in the various traditions that are studied, and by the end of the semester they are prepared to consider what is ultimate for themselves.
“Every semester, students seem to appreciate this challenge,” says Barksdale. “Their lives are so full that it is difficult to take time to prioritize deep introspection. This project gives students permission to take a step back and really consider for themselves what matters most.”
To complete the capstone project, students must first arrive at a concern that meets the definition of ‘ultimate,’ so it can’t be casual or fleeting. Next a student must determine a symbol to express their concern, as “faith” cannot easily be explained by language alone. Lastly, the concern must be presented publicly, with at least two people present, which really brings it to life for themselves and for others.
Students have tremendous flexibility with the project and are also given the option of how and where they would like to present. Some students have chosen to be active during their presentation and Barksdale has walked the fitness trail with them as part of their presentation. Other students have selected the bamboo forest and the Peace Garden for more contemplative settings. Students have also presented in the Black Box Theatre, the dance studio, the Chapel, and in traditional classrooms.
“I try to teach this course as an anthropological study,” noted Barksdale. “Students are engaged as ethnographers, examining history and culture as well as stories and sacred texts, to understand the origin of the religion, how it functions, what are its basic tenets, growth and expansion, and how the religion is expressed today. As students increase their religious literacy, they become more attuned to religion as an important aspect of people’s lives all over the world.
“Students enjoy connecting a text that is thousands of years old with doctrine that shapes a religious belief today. It is also eye-opening for students to see how beliefs are shaped by practices, rituals, customs, and traditions that guide individuals, families, and whole societies. I think throughout the course students begin to appreciate faith differently, and have become more grounded in what they believe through the process.”
For Phoenix Chen ’21, this meant exploring her thoughts on leadership.
“I picked becoming a leader, a really independent woman as my ultimate concern,” she said. “Basically, a better version of myself. I’ve always thought impacting others was important. Sometimes it seems like as an individual there’s not really anything you can do about what’s happening in the world, but I want to influence as many people as I can as a leader. Becoming a true leader is the service I can provide to those around me or a great number of people around the world.”
As she was thinking through her project, Chen’s own name led her to her symbol.
“My name is Phoenix. When I was born, I had some heart surgeries and it felt to me like rising from the ashes. That phrase, ‘rising from the ashes,’ has encouraged me a lot,” she said. “This project made me think about my family. I have a very strong connection with them. Chaplain Barksdale asked us to find an object to represent our ultimate concern and I chose a family heirloom, a bracelet, that has a phoenix on it. In China, the phoenix represents women in power. I thought that was a really great combination of the energy of my family with my ultimate concern.”
Chen, who will be matriculating at Wellesley College next year, is glad to bring this clarity of her priorities with her.
“Throughout the past four years I’ve brought to the School an international student’s perspective, a more diverse perspective, and my own culture to help improve the inclusiveness of our community,” she said. “Chatham Hall has really impacted me by making me realize I am a big fan of women’s education. I really became more confident at a girls’ school, and it made me home in on my ultimate concern – becoming a better version of myself, a true leader. I want to continue this kind of service to others, in a bigger community. Knowing this is ultimate for me, will give me the strength to persevere.”
Faith as an ultimate concern points to something beyond ourselves, and for Chen it is unquestionably service to others.