a sermon at the Commemoration of Benefactors, Emmanuel College, Cambridge
November 22 2006, 6 pm
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
‘Let us now praise famous men.’ Yes, indeed. But there is always a paradox about Commemorations. Looking back on a famous past slides easily into nostalgia for an imagined golden age, when heroes walked the earth and went about teaching Hebrew, making scientific discoveries, founding colonies and colleges, and generally being Great and Good. But we often forget that hindsight’s heroes were the risk-takers, the people who weren’t prepared to accept the status quo, who dared to dream new dreams and to put them into practice. It is remarkable enough that the young John Harvard went off from here to the New World, braving the hazards of travel and of early colonial life. But it is the more remarkable that when he died only a year later, leaving his library and half his estate to found a college in Massachusetts, he was already so highly thought of that they named the new college after him, making his name perhaps the best known among Emmanuel’s famous former members. The point is this: he didn’t know he was being Great and Good. He simply glimpsed a new vision, and went for it, quite literally, with everything he’d got.
But he’s just one of many. Let us, indeed, praise the famous men and women who have made this place what it is; but let us realise that if they could speak to us they wouldn’t say, ‘Make sure you maintain the traditions we handed down to you exactly as we left them,’ but, ‘What new challenges do you face? And are you prepared to meet them with our kind of cheerful, innovative energy?’ Jesus once told a story about a master who entrusted his servants with his wealth, intending them to take the risk of trading with it and making some more. They weren’t, of course, supposed to go off and steal some more and pretend they’d earned it – which would be the equivalent of mere novelty without respect for tradition. But mere nostalgia about a glorious past – tradition without innovation – is the equivalent of wrapping up the money in a cloth and burying it in the ground to keep it safe.
The author of this evening’s reading – Ben-Sira, writing the book we call Ecclesiasticus and inviting us now to praise famous men – did not, alas, quite avoid the latter danger. The splendid, stately passage we read introduces a long list of heroes from the Jewish tradition: Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Aaron, Phinehas, and so on through many prophets, priests and particularly kings. But the climax of the list (ironically, since those with a smattering of biblical knowledge will know most of the other names in the list but not the ultimate one) is Simon son of Onias, who was High Priest at the time the book was written (around 200 BC). Ben-Sira writes as though the entire history of the world, and especially of Israel, had been merely the prologue to this moment, to his own day, with the high priest in the Temple and all well with the world. Commemoration has led merely to self-congratulation. Here’s our great history; here’s our great leader; and aren’t we simply the cat’s whiskers?
Pride came before a fall. A generation after Ben-Sira wrote his glorious but self-serving list of famous men, the Syrians had swept in from the north, overrun Judaea, and desecrated the Temple, leaving the people of Israel with a terrible choice: collude with pagan oppressors, hide in shame, or join the revolt. You may not know the history, but you might just know the music, because it was Judas Maccabaeus, best known now through Handel’s opera, who led that revolt (roughly two hundred years before the time of Jesus), drove out the invaders, cleansed the Temple, and thereby established a royal priesthood very different from the one Ben-Sira had in mind. That state of affairs lasted until the Romans came and messed it up again, and until, under that hated Roman rule, Jesus himself burst on to the scene with an explosive mix of tradition and innovation, declaring that it was time, at last, for God himself to become king, and going to his crucifixion in the belief that this would win the real victory at last. And the next great catalogue of Jewish ‘famous men’ (and women, incidentally), after the fashion of Ben-Sira’s list, was written by an anonymous Christian about forty years after Jesus’ day with Jesus himself as the great name at the end of the list. That list (it’s in the letter to the Hebrews) was saying to Jesus’ followers, You, too, have a choice: collude with pagan empire, hide in shame, or join the revolutionary new way of being human that Jesus has launched. A different kind of commemoration of heroes, a different kind of High Priest, a different kind of revolt. Let us now praise famous men; but, in putting Jesus at the climax of the list, we redefine the very notion of fame, of priesthood, of what it means to be human, and indeed of praise itself.
The questions faced by Ben-Sira and by the writer ‘to the Hebrews’ were in fact not unlike the stormy and complex questions faced by academics and churchmen in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Walter Mildmay founded this College and put in the long-lived Laurence Chaderton as its first Master. Mildmay had lived through horrible times, with the political and religious pendulum swinging violently this way and that, sending many good men, including some of his undergraduate contemporaries, to the block or the stake. The questions of the day were, What should the public religion of the country be, and what form should it take? It would have been tempting for him, as a senior respected civil servant, either simply to collude with whichever political wind was blowing at the time, or to retire to his estates and let someone else figure out what to do. He did neither. Instead, he founded this College as a place of learning, with, to be sure, a preference for one particular theological direction – great innovators are seldom shoulder-shrugging neutrals – but with an underlying principle deeper than that: the belief that wisdom for the wider task will be found not by hiding your light away in private, and certainly not through the stifling of study, thought and enquiry, but through its fostering and flourishing. This College was founded as the embodiment of one answer – in my view, the right one – to the question, How can a society move forwards wisely in the wake of great and frightening social, political and religious upheavals?
That is of course the question which once again faces our country and our world. None of us imagined, five let alone ten years ago, that half of today’s news stories, and certainly the ones generating most heat, would lie at the jagged interface between religion and public life. Muslim veils, Christian crosses, faith schools, even now university Christian Unions: suddenly we are facing new questions, or rather some very old questions we thought we wrongly thought we’d sidelined. And part of the frustration I feel in these discussions is that ancient wisdom often gets forgotten – ancient wisdom about how healthy religion and healthy society go together, about how robust and clearly held convictions can lead, not to dogmatic closed-mindedness, but to a cheerful spirit of study, thought and enquiry. To speak from a specifically Christian viewpoint, if God is God, then the facts are kind; if Jesus is Lord, then healing and new beginnings are the order of the day; and if the Spirit of Truth is at work, we shall be led into all truth.
In place of this open and hospitable kind of faith, we face two equally unhelpful alternatives. First, our politicians (and many of our cultural and intellectual leaders) have reacted to the events of 9/11 and subsequent atrocities by calling for a new sort of closed mind, a mind already made up on the basis of post-Enlightenment secularism. This pseudo-religion, like the Syrian tyranny of the second century BC, has tried to sweep away the very sight and sound of faith from its brave new world. Thus both in this country and in America (not least, incidentally, in Harvard itself) it is widely assumed that the only good religion is a private one, and that public life must proceed, in this dangerous post- 9/11 world, by keeping faith, any faith, out of sight, mind and public life. Just as the French Revolutionaries tried to restart the calendar from the year 1, so this secularism quietly reframes the list of heroes, hoping that those who went before, like Mildmay, Chaderton and the others we honour here tonight, will be remembered fondly but not too well, lest anyone should actually think of trying to imitate them in the more complex and challenging tasks they attempted, of reconstructing a society in which faith and public life worked together with mutual benefit. Like Ben-Sira, the secularists have been happy to keep reciting the list of praiseworthy ancients, but only so long as they reach one particular climax, a secular world whose high priests in the media, the arts and the sciences – not to mention in politics! – keep assuring us that, despite appearances, we are living in the best of all possible worlds. But, as with Ben-Sira, pride comes before a fall, and secularism has shown itself impotent before the new challenges.
Second, though, we have seen a new fundamentalism, an anxious, edgy dogmatism which is at best a dangerous parody of genuine faith. Most Muslims, in the mediaeval as well as the modern world, didn’t and don’t want to blast people out of their way, or off the planet, with yet another jihad; but, sadly, some today do. Most Christians, in the mediaeval as well as the modern world, have held and practised the faith with a cheerful openness (the technical term is ‘humility’), ready to learn more, to follow Jesus into new patterns of obedience and belief; but, sadly, some today are trying to insist (as did some in Mildmay’s and Chaderton’s time) that their precise pattern is the only possible one and is to be insisted upon wherever possible. That’s what happens when faith is starved of the fresh air of public discourse and so goes mouldy in its private, self-enclosed world.
Secularism and fundamentalism, of course, feed off one another, each telling horror stories about the other in order to justify more and more extreme positions. Sometimes they even combine, as when the secular might of a superpower colludes with unhealthy religion to gain a spurious legitimation for wanton but profitable violence. The path of wisdom, as Mildmay and Chaderton knew, is to find ways in every generation of addressing the real questions in more depth, and to do so not by going along with current fashion, nor by shutting down or circumscribing study, research, thought and enquiry at the highest level, but by encouraging and facilitating them, risky though that may be.
That is why, though some in our day get queasy at the thought, a venerable Christian foundation like this College needs to honour and develop the place of its Chapel, its praying heart, not as a place to escape from the real questions but as a place to gain fresh perspectives upon them. And that is why, though some Christians get anxious about this, Christian faith needs to express itself in the open, at the centre of public life, not to force its views down everyone else’s throat but to discover how to engage with the real world with the right blend of humility and conviction. A College like is thus an excellent place – and its founders had exactly this in mind – for fresh generations to learn that religion and public life do indeed belong together and can be mutually informative and life-giving.
We, like our forbears, have a choice. We can if we wish collude with the secular empires of our day. Or we can hide away in secret and snipe at the world from a safe distance. Or we can learn the harder but far more rewarding path of engaging, cheerfully and creatively, with the issues of the day, contributing where it’s most needed as only a healthy faith can, following Jesus in his explosive combination of tradition and innovation. We urgently need to rediscover, and in the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen we can rediscover, that human life is all of a piece, with its arts and its sciences, its prayer and its play, and that it is called to reflect the glorious image of the wise creator; that there is a God who speaks the truth to power and arrogance; and that there is good news which offers healing and hope to the humble. If you want to see how it’s done, Mildmay and Chaderton and their friends would unhesitatingly tell you: look long and hard at Jesus of Nazareth, and ask yourself why it is that he comes at the climax of the New Testament’s list of heroes, and what that does to the notion of heroism itself. Let us now praise famous men and women, especially those who have the courage to learn fresh wisdom from ancient roots, and to seek new and faithful ways forward in dangerous and contested times.