City on a Hill

Isaiah 60.1–4; Colossians 1.15–20; Matthew 5.1–16
sermon at the Inauguration of Dr David Wilkinson as Principal of St John’s College, Durham
Durham Cathedral, 17 October 2006

by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright

It would have been a bold commentator ten years ago, let alone twenty or thirty, who would have predicted that in the autumn of 2006 the hottest topic in the news would be religion, and especially the question of the public display of religiously inspired symbols and clothing. Even now, when politicians are queuing up to speak out on Muslim veils, and when British Airways have sacked someone for wearing a cross, I find myself rubbing my eyes and wondering if I’m dreaming. Religion has come back with a bang to the middle of our public life, whence it had been banished by common consent within the split-level modernist worldview. And suddenly all kinds of people – politicians, journalists, lawyers, industrialists and even academics – are having to re-think all kinds of basic questions, and to re-learn, or even to learn from scratch, what it is that the great religions believe and why, and how this plays out in the powerfully meaning-laden public worlds of symbol and ritual. Nearly two decades ago, that farsighted thinker Professor John Bowker argued that the reason our politicians couldn’t solve the world’s problems was because none of them had read Religious Studies at university. It sounded ridiculous at the time to most people, but time has increasingly proved him right. Only a few years ago, the secularists had dared to suppose that religion was fading away altogether in our brave new world; but, whether they like it or not, nobody thinks that now.

And of course lots of people don’t like it one bit. The airwaves and newspaper columns are thick with shrill denunciations of the new intrusion of religion into public life, as people who had imagined that their own abandoning of religion was symptomatic of a wide and irreversible trend see their cherished worldviews in tatters. But the genie is well and truly out of the bottle and won’t be squashed back in. Life has suddenly become a lot more complicated, and what we do here tonight revels in that complication and commits us to wrestle with it and come up with new wisdom for a new day. St John’s College here in Durham, combining uniquely the many-sided life of a university college with the specific task of ordination training, stands both as a question-mark against prevailing worldviews and as an exclamation mark of affirmation that there is a deeper wisdom, that it comes up fresh every time you let the bucket down the well, and that this deeper wisdom is robust enough to face today’s and tomorrow’s challenges with that cheerful combination of humility and hope that always marks genuine academic life and genuine Christian life.

Some people, no doubt, see St John’s as an anachronism – just as there may be some who would like this University to cut its historic ties with the Cathedral and church in order to be free from even the smell of an older religious influence. But you don’t make the tree more fruitful by cutting off its roots, and the roots of this university are of course deep within the historic life of the church, the Palatinate, and the ancient educational role of Bishops of Durham which goes way back beyond our Founder, Bishop Van Mildert, to such earlier pioneers as Cosin and Barrington and their mediaeval predecessors. No: from the point of view of secular modernity, Durham remains something of a cheerful anomaly, whose very physical geography mocks any suggestion that the church-state split, so coveted in other circles, should be forced on us here. And St John’s College stands as a reminder (alongside, of course, other Durham colleges which celebrate their specifically Christian roots) of that holistic search for wisdom which answers – not to the flatland fantasies of the secularist, but – to the deep and multi-layered quest of many in today’s world. Increasingly, people today have become fed up with sterile late modernity and are eager for a re-integration of rigorous scholarly study across the board and a supple spirituality which will infuse and permeate the whole. Where people aren’t given this in creative and wholesome forms, they go looking for it in ridiculous and unhealthy places: hence the massive popularity of The Da Vinci Code. The point is this: the old split-level world has gone for ever, and it’s time to put back together again what ought never to have been separated in the first place.

If that sounds dangerous and difficult, as though it might compromise scientific rigour on the one hand or genuine faith on the other, we must face the fact that there is now no way back to that old divided world. We’re in this together; St John’s is a symbol of that togetherness; and, David, as its new Principal, you are called to the dangerous and hugely exciting task of holding together what many people until recently, and some shrill voices even now, are trying to insist must be separated. We thank God for you and for his calling of you to this role at this time, a role in which your own gifts, background and multiple calling have equipped you not only to lead and to teach but also to model the fresh integration of arts and sciences, of academy and church, of rigorous research and reflective faith – and, for that matter, of Anglican and Methodist, though compared to those other great divides I trust this now appears to all of us a very small gap within an essentially united family. All this may seem to place a burden upon you, and in a sense it does; but it is a burden, we believe, which God has called and equipped you to bear. And we are here tonight because we want to say to you, in the presence of God, that we are supporting you and praying for you and eager to help in any way we can as you stand at the sharp end of the boat we call St John’s and navigate it through the waves and currents of our confused contemporary culture.

As you do so, this evening’s readings give you the star by which to sail. The church has often found it difficult to meet the call of Jesus to be the light of the world. But as we find ourselves here, in this ancient city set on a hill, in a great university with a worldwide reputation and profile, we should take Jesus’ challenge to ourselves afresh, and ponder the way in which communities of faith have for too long colluded with the desire of the secular world that we should hide our light under a bucket in case we pull the world back into superstition and darkness (a ridiculous charge, though sadly there are of course some within our faith communities who seem bent on giving that impression). But to re-integrate faith and knowledge, though difficult, is not to go back to superstition but to go on to fresh understanding; and that itself is a key affirmation which grows directly out of the great monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, each of which in their different ways stresses that there is one God who made the world, sustains the world, and will at the last put the world to rights.

Of course, within that there are competing visions of who precisely this one God may be and how precisely he has done, is doing, and will do, these things. Those debates are hugely important, and a university with its faith communities is an excellent place to engage in them, as Durham, thank God, has already begun to do. But within the specifically Christian tradition of this university and of St John’s College in particular we embrace the call to discover fresh light amid the paradoxical darkness of the so-called Enlightenment world, and to become a place to which people will come in a pilgrimage which brings together the thirst for rigorous knowledge and the longing for God. As the prophet put it, in calling Israel to stand up and be counted after the dreary years of exile: Get up, shine your light, YHWH’s glory is rising upon you; night still covers the earth, and darkness the peoples, but YHWH will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. That may seem a somewhat grandiose vision for a university or college; but if we are to embrace, and be embraced by, the vocation to seek and express a freshly integrated wisdom we are claiming nothing less.

All that I have said so far points us forward to the spectacular passage we heard from Colossians, one of the very first and still one of the greatest Christian poems ever written. Colossians 1 encapsulates beautifully and movingly this vision of integrated wisdom, and gives it, breathtakingly, a human face:

He is the image of God, the invisible one,
    firstborn of all creation.
For in him all things were created,
    in the heavens and here on the earth.
Things we can see and things we cannot,
    – thrones and lordships and rulers and powers –
All were created both through him and for him.

    And he is ahead, prior to all else
        and in him all things hold together;
    And he himself is supreme, the head
        over the body, the church.

He is the start of it all,
    firstborn from realms of the dead;
    so in all things he might be the chief.
For in him all the Fullness was glad to dwell
    and through him to reconcile all to himself,
    making peace through the blood of his cross,
  through him – yes, things on the earth,
    and also the things in the heavens.

The balance of the poem (very clear in both the rhythm and the words of the original), and its deep roots in the ancient traditions of Jewish wisdom, both highlight the stupendous claim that the God who made the world, with all its parts and pieces, is now active in remaking it, restoring it, healing it, and renewing it; and that the means by which he has done the first and is doing the second is the person, the man, we know as Jesus Christ. He is the mirror in which we discover who the creator really is; he is the one through whom all things were made, and through whom, by his death and resurrection, all things are now being remade. St Paul, in writing or quoting this astonishing and very early piece of poetic theology, is claiming for Jesus Christ what the ancient Jewish wisdom writers claimed for the figure of Wisdom – the wisdom by which the world was made, the wisdom you need to be a fully alive human being, the wisdom by which the living God inhabits his world, breathes into it his own warm life, and brings about within it the fulfilment of his strange and beautiful purposes.

The to-and-fro in early Christian theology and poetry between creation and new creation, so underplayed in contemporary theology until very recently, offers in fact the matrix of understanding within which this freshly integrated vision of the task of a university and college can be understood. When, as has so often been the case, redemption has been understood in terms of escape from the world of creation, then of course Christian faith understands itself, and is understood by outsiders, in terms of a hiding away from the realities of the world. Faith and public life, religion and politics, private devotion and academic study, are then seen as antithetical. But where the fully biblical vision of God’s action in Jesus Christ is freshly understood in terms of God’s dealing with evil and corruption within the created order in order that the new creation may be born from the womb of the old – when, in other words, we embrace the vision of Colossians 1, built on the rocky foundation of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the way that this glorious Cathedral is built on the solid rock beneath us – then it becomes clear that those who claim that death and resurrection as the centre of their life, those who love Jesus and seek to follow and serve him, are called to be agents of new creation, and that this involves exploring, understanding and celebrating the old creation and discovering its inner dynamic in order the better to pioneer the new world in which the old is to find its glorious fulfilment.

This of course involves us in public and political life, as it did for Paul and the other early Christians. We can’t help that and we shouldn’t want to avoid it. And it ought to mean that we can begin to speak clearly about the issues that our politicians now can’t help addressing but about which, quite clearly, they don’t know what to say. Their modernist politics and their postmodern moralities provide them with no bearings, no guiding principles, to steer through the suddenly more complicated world they face. But we who follow the Jesus of the New Testament, who come to our tasks in university and college with Colossians 1 in front of us, ought to be able to think these things through afresh. It isn’t simply a matter of finding some kind of argument to justify having a Christian college, or indeed a Christian foundation to the university, within a secular world. That justification, if needed at all, ought to be a footnote to the larger task to which we should give ourselves, namely to address the newly complex questions of our day with the robust worldview of creation and new creation within which they can be understood and fresh ways forward within our world be found.

In Christ, Paul declares a couple of paragraphs after the poem of Colossians 1, all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden and waiting to be found. This doesn’t mean, as some lazy Christians might assume it means, that as long as you cherish a devotion to Jesus you don’t need to bother investigating the richly varied and many-sidedly glorious world we live in. On the contrary, it means that just as we are commanded by Jesus himself to recognise him in the faces of the poor and needy, so we are commanded by this passage to discover Jesus, again and again, behind the stars and the spiders, the mathematical formulae and the musical harmonies, to see and hear him through the telescope and the microscope and the stethescope, to meet him in the pages of history, to greet him in the blazing beauty of art, and to bless when we understand.

And the call of a College within a University, and particularly the calling of a specifically Christian college within a university with a specifically Christian foundation, is to be a community in which that meeting, greeting, blessing and understanding can come to birth again and again, both in the formal teaching and in the informal interactions which are one of the glories of the College system and where a good deal of the real teaching and learning takes place. And I need hardly add that the calling of a College Principal is to model, facilitate and enable that rich communal life in which the multiple wisdom of God is explored and expressed, not least in the behaviour of those who belong to it. Not for nothing is the call to be the light of the world prefaced by the beatitudes, speaking as they do of a gracious, gentle, humble yet powerful human life such as any community would do well to aspire to. And through all this a College that knows what it is about will become in very truth a place where the multiple confusions of our present day can be addressed not simply one by one, in research and writing and art and drama, but as a whole, in a community where the things that the world still wants to pull apart are cheerfully held together, in a microcosm where creation is celebrated and new creation brought into being. This is a great time to be in Durham. It’s a great time to be in St John’s. David, this is a moment of new creation, and we join our prayers with yours that God will enable you and the whole College to grasp the moment and go forward in celebration and hope.