The typical definition of the word “humanities” might include famous thinkers like Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas, or famous works of the classics era.
But Tony Cunningham and Bill Pelfrey had a different idea.
“He (Pelfrey, a 1988 SJU graduate) wished to fund a lecture series that would make the humanities ‘personal’ in the sense of testifying to how the humanities affected the lecturer’s life, and how they might affect the lives of students in meaningful ways,” said Cunningham, a professor of philosophy at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University.
“Bill likes to think of the series as the ‘un-lecture’ series in the sense of being lectures that engage with the ‘business of living,’ not just arcane academic issues,” Cunningham said.
That’s why they created the six-part Grand Illuminations: Speaking from the Heart series, to be spread over the 2021-22 academic year at CSB/SJU.
Cunningham will deliver “This Story May Save Your Soul,” the first un-lecture of the series, at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 29 at the Gathering Space in Sacred Heart Chapel, Saint Benedict’s Monastery. His talk, which is free and open to the public, will address themes of human vulnerability by focusing on Charles Frazier’s novel “Cold Mountain.”
“Aside from grappling with this particular story, the lecture will also address how stories in general serve the great purpose of leading a good, meaningful life,” Cunningham said.
“Cold Mountain” was a popular book and Frazier’s debut novel in 1997. It made publishing history when it went to the top of The New York Times best-seller list for 61 weeks, won numerous literary awards, including the National Book Award and went on to sell over 3 million copies. It was made into a movie in 2003, starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger.
The American Civil War-period novel deals with a Confederate soldier named Inman, who was wounded and fatally disillusioned in the fighting at Petersburg. He decides to walk back to his home in the Blue Ridge mountains to Ada Monroe, the woman he loves.
His trek across the disintegrating South brings him into intimate and sometimes lethal converse with slaves and marauders, bounty hunters and a goatwoman, both helpful and malign. At the same time, the intrepid Ada is trying to revive her father’s derelict farm and learning to survive in a world where the old certainties have been swept away.
“The humanities should illuminate meaningful human lives by way of both content and inquiry,” Cunningham said. “By dealing insightfully with profound human experiences like love, loss, disappointment, failure, success, oppression, betrayal, violence and mortality, the humanities offer vital life lessons, and by wrestling seriously with questions that defy easy and unequivocal answers, the humanities honor the intractable difficulties of living a good life.”
“The Grand Illuminations lecture series initiates conversations about weighty things for human lives. The lectures are public occasions where we come together and turn our minds honestly to things that matter, speaking plainly and sharing our thoughts and ideas, along with our doubts and questions. The lecturers come from various disciplines — philosophy, history, English literature, classics. They all share a common cause, to speak from the heart about things that matter in a human life,” he said.
Cunningham, who has taught at CSB/SJU since 1991, is a former National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow and the author of two books – “The Heart of What Matters: The Role for Literature in Moral Philosophy” and “Modern Honor: A Philosophical Defense.” He believes that with the right stories, people can “read for life” in the sense of cultivating a deeper appreciation of human lives and character.
The series is entirely funded by a generous donation from Pelfrey and fellow SJU graduate Steve Halverson ’76.