McGill downtown campus during the winter. Wikimedia Commons

Hillbilly theology comes to McGill

  • September 28, 2023

Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP, Rector Magnificus of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, brought a lot of theology and a little bit of bluegrass to McGill University when he delivered the 2023 Birks Lectures.

White gave two addresses on Sept. 18-19, well suited to the academic environment and audience. The first treated the doctrine of the Trinity and the human and intellectual search for the presence of God. The second lecture, with White joking that while it was more technical than the first it was also shorter so that the brevity might perhaps compensate for the rigors of the subject matter, was entitled “Chalcedon Christology and Philosophical Metaphysics.”

The first lecture was preceded by an unlikely amuse-bouche in the form of 40 minutes of bluegrass music performed by White, using a borrowed banjo, and a trio of Montreal musicians. In addition to being the Rector at the Angelicum and founder of the Thomistic Institute, the Georgia-native is a founding member of The Hillbilly Thomists, a group of Dominicans who write and perform bluegrass music.

The name of the band is lifted from a quote of the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor: “Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas . . . I’m a hillbilly Thomist.”

It was undoubtedly a unique moment in the life of McGill University to have the strains of the Gospel standard “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” flowing from the Senior Common Room in the Birks Building.

The School of Religious Studies at McGill has hosted the Birks lectures since 1950. The series was founded through the financial support of William Massey Birks, an alumnus of McGill University and the eldest son of Henry Birks, founder of the jewelry firm that bears the family name.

The lecture series has maintained a strong connection to the Birks family through the ongoing active support of Montreal philanthropists, Jonathan and Maria Birks. Jonathan Birks is president and trustee of the Birks Family Foundation and regularly attends the Birks lectures.

Reflecting the wide range of academic interests and commitments represented in the School of Religious Studies, previous Birks lecturers include Northrop Frye, Gregory Baum, Talal Asad, Rachel Fell McDermott and Robert L. Wilken.

Professor Garth Green, director of the School of Religious Studies, expressed satisfaction with both the quality of the lectures and with the attendance. While noting that COVID had predictably had a dampening effect on last year’s events, Green noted that “this year’s Birks lecture is one of the more successful in memory.”

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