At his installation address as the new principal of the University of St. Michael's College, author Randy Boyagoda struck the fear of God in the hearts of his listeners. He did it by conjuring up a godless world.
Comparing T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land with Drake's Big Rings – "The second song on his second-last album, the one he made with Future," he quickly references – Dr. Boyagoda argued both have something to offer a Catholic college nestled in the big-city, globally ranked secular university that is The University of Toronto.
It was a U of T English class that taught the undergraduate Boyagoda how to integrate faith and intellect. That is where he first understood one of the The Waste Land's most famous lines: "I will show you fear in a handful of dust." It filled him with terror.
"It's basically Eliot's account of a mundane world. If this is all there is, then this is just dust," said Dr. Boyagoda, who after graduating from U of T, earned a PhD at Boston University and has since built a career as a novelist, biographer, essayist and academic.
"I had a very divided life," he says of his early university years. "I had a devotional life and an intellectual life because I did not think the two had much to say to each other then. Because of the richness of the study [at U of T], I became a more serious Catholic," he said.
Now, after working as an English professor and director of experiential learning at Ryerson University, he will be responsible for the development of curriculum at St. Mike's, as it is commonly known. St. Michael's president David Mulroney handles the school's daily life, fundraising and administration.
Along with King's University College at the University of Western Ontario, or St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan, St. Michael's – home to approximately 5,000 students – is one of a dozen religious colleges affiliated with a major Canadian university. It is one of the few, however, where the heathen world is only a few steps away.
Dr. Boyagoda's goal is to provide a place where the questions that U of T students and faculty explore from an atheistic perspective – on science, climate, literature, geopolitics or economics – can be answered with reference to religious thought.
"What does it mean to take a religiously informed view of the leading scholarly questions?" he says. "I don't want to offer a watered-down Catholicism, nor do I want to offer a muscular Catholicism that turns people off."
It's a tough mission to take on in Toronto, or Canada, today. Catholic hospitals are being criticized for refusing to provide help in assisted-suicide cases. The Pope's opening toward the gay community is still far behind societal consensus. And yet, it could also be an opportune time. Globally, religion and modernity must find common ground. Locally, on university campuses, the kind of philosophical, humanities-focused courses offered at St. Mike's can provide succour to students looking for more than a technocratic education.
Those conflicts mean St. Michael's is relevant, he says.
"As long as I am hearing, 'Randy, why is St. Mike's not Catholic enough; Randy, it's too Catholic,' I feel that we are in the right spot," Dr. Boyagoda said.
Still, there is plenty of potential for misunderstanding between younger and older generations, between the "cradle Catholics" and the "nones" – as he colloquially refers to the non-religious students who are part of the university.
In fact, the encounter between the temporal and the sacred is rich enough terrain that it provides some of the themes for his third novel, out in 2018. It's focused on a Catholic who is working on a secular campus and is posted to a Middle East country where he encounters a Muslim man from Boston, undertaking his own journey.
"It's me trying to demonstrate how religiously informed experience matters in profound ways in our world and we lack the vocabulary," he said.
St. Mike's renewal will come from owning that space between the spirit and the flesh, Dr. Boyagoda believes. He defines it as cosmopolitan Catholicism.
"It's a Catholicism that is confidently engaged with the leading currents of secular life, out of a tradition that is historical, global and local all at the same time," he said.
In practice, it means that next year the college will offer a decidedly contemporary interpretation of St. Augustine's Confessions, in a class for first-year students. Dr. Boyagoda will lead the course himself.
"I am not going to teach it as a church doctor's theological account of a person's life," he said. "I am going to teach it as the story of a fourth-century, North African migrant intellectual who is living in the elite centre of the world and he has a conversion experience that makes him different from everyone around him."
The second part of the course will take the students to Rome for an intense period of study. To keep the program accessible, the school is already fundraising to help students pay for the cost of the trip.
And this fall, the college launched "angel lab," a group of students and their mentors interested in starting up social-justice enterprises.
The renewal of St. Mike's could also lead to new foreign students attending, particularly those from the United States. In the 1960s, almost half of students came from south of the border, attracted by philosophers like Étienne Gilson and most famously Marshall McLuhan. (McLuhan went to mass every day, Dr. Boyagoda says in amazement.)
Retaining its Catholicism is essential, he argues. A few students have told him that they won't bring up their beliefs in science classes. At the college, they can figure out how to integrate them. For them, St. Mike's can be a refuge.
On the other hand, a campus Catholicism must be respectful of other faiths. This term, video of an off-campus party surfaced where a few students had made fun of Islam.
It was the kind of sentiment Dr. Boyagoda identified in Drake's lyrics and warned against back in his summer address. "What a time to be alive/you and yours vs. me and mine," Drake sings.
"I agree with exactly half of Drake's line," Dr. Boyagoda said. "That excitement that you have when you are 18 years old, the whole world is before you. But the way Drake puts it makes too much sense for a world divided by religious matters, you and yours, me and mine."
How broad a church he can build remains to be seen.