JHI Alumni Spotlight—Jason McKinney

October 5, 2022 by Sonja Johnston

Jason McKinney—now an Anglican priest working in Parkdale—joined us as a Chancellor Jackman Graduate Fellow in 2009-2010 when our theme was Pressures on the Human. His project was titled Apocalyptics, Dialectics, and Happiness: Walter Benjamin and the Philosophy of History. Jason provides an overview of the project he worked on while at the JHI and some insight into his fellowship experience. He also updates us about his current work and shares why he thinks the humanities are important.

JHI: Can you summarize the project you worked on while at the JHI?

JM: As a 2009-2010 graduate fellow from the Department for the Study of Religion, I spent my year at the JHI completing the first couple chapters of my dissertation. It was an examination of the concept of happiness in the work of the German-Jewish thinker, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). Benjamin saw the profane experience of happiness as relating to the messianic idea of redemption, but in a rather strange way. As profane, happiness could not attain the immortality promised in (Jewish or Christian) redemption. But it could attune itself to – and strive for – a different, natural, form of eternity: “the eternity of downfall.” “For nature,” Benjamin says, “is messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away.” My dissertation was entitled, On the Metapolitics of Decay: Walter Benjamin’s Will to Happiness.

JHI: What was your JHI experience like?

JM: The staff and fellows, the collaborative environment, the level of intellectual engagement, the birth of my second child, the endless espresso!…all made for a unique and memorable experience that I still recall fondly. But there was also an underlying melancholy for me. Benjamin’s reflections on downfall and decay were no doubt conditioned by the ravages of WWI and its political and social aftermath in Germany. I don’t want to stretch the analogy too far, but I wonder, these many years later, how much the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath conditioned my attraction to Benjamin’s work, my ambivalence toward the university system, and ultimately my decision to abandon aspirations of full time academic employment.

JHI: What are you doing/working on now?

JM: Shortly after completing my PhD in 2012, I was ordained as a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Toronto. I have been living and working in the Parkdale neighbourhood ever since. Along with liturgical and pastoral responsibilities, I have worked with the church and local partners in anti-racism, community economic development, affordable housing, and popular education. I was also part of the first community elected board of the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust. Although my output is minimal, I still try to maintain a practice of teaching, research and writing. I am an adjunct professor of theology in the Faculty of Divinity at Trinity College.

JHI: Why do you think the humanities are important?

JM: Benjamin’s insights continue to stay with me, even if I rarely mention his name anymore. In leaving the university for the church, I know that I have simply traded one decaying institution for another. What has been key for me is finding a way to live, serve, share and thrive amidst decay. For this I continue to lean on the insights of the humanities (philosophy in particular) as part of a larger spiritual practice of reflection, contemplation, collaboration and action. By way of example, my current rhythm includes leading weekly worship services, planning an affordable housing project, supporting a literacy program for racialized youth, and reading Spinoza’s Ethics with a small group of clergy colleagues.