The Great Story

Ecclesiasticus 44.1-15; Hebrews 11.32—12.2; Matthew 5.1-12
A sermon at the service to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the foundation of the University of St Andrews

In the University Chapel of St Salvator
Sunday June 26 2011

by the Rt Revd Professor N. T. Wright, DD
Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity
St Mary’s College


‘Let us now praise famous men,’ invites the ancient Jewish sage, and since he was a generous-hearted soul we may assume that, had he been writing today, he would have agreed that this included the women as well. In a passage that has become almost as famous as the people it commemorates, Jesus son of Sirach, who lived about two hundred years before his namesake Jesus of Nazareth, lists the categories of people he has in mind. It might almost be a roll-call of the kind of people a mediaeval university hoped to produce: rulers, wise counsellors, far-seeing leaders, musical composers, poets, and others whose well-earned wealth would make them centres of stability in the community.

Elsewhere in his book the writer adds, to this list of arts and humanities, the various sciences, particularly medicine. But the point of the list is not to be exhaustive. It is to sketch, quickly and sharply, the kind of people who form the deep roots of a healthy, flourishing community. Only in an age as rootless as ours could anyone imagine that a society can invent itself from scratch overnight; that by cutting down ancient trees one can make space to build a brave new world. No: what we do here this year, and what we do in this place today, is to celebrate, like ben Sirach, those who, whether known or unknown, laid the foundations for the glories that were to come. In this year of celebration we are looking back to the beginning, not for antiquarian interest merely – fascinating though our early history is – but in order to remind ourselves what we are about, what sort of a community we consider ourselves to be.

It is of course possible to tell the great story in very different ways. Ben-Sirach was unashamedly triumphalist. The heroes he goes on to describe – Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and so on, were all great men doing great deeds, and the climax of the whole list is the High Priest of the writer’s own day, Simon son of Onias, whose appearance in the Temple liturgy was like a sort of theophany. Thousands of years of famous leaders, and now here we are. We’ve made it. And not only was this a highly selective and self-congratulatory way of telling the story of Israel. It was premature in announcing its glorious climax. Within thirty years political tensions had boiled over, pagans had desecrated the Temple, Judas Maccabeus and his noble little band had led a successful revolution, and nothing would ever be the same again. You can’t be too careful when you celebrate your history. You never know what’s going to be around the next corner.

That’s why we do well to remind ourselves, in this year of all years, that when we tell the great story of founders, benefactors, pioneers, and great leaders of the past, what we are doing is celebrating the innovators, the people who dared to think differently: in our case the Scots who were fed up with having to travel to France for an education when they could use their own resources and provide a better future for their own people while they were at it. Here is the irony: the people who make it onto the lists of heroes are usually the people at whom contemporaries raised their eyebrows, shook their heads, and muttered into their beards that it probably wouldn’t work, that it was an idea thirty years too late, or too early, or whatever other excuse the academics of the time made, as they always make, for refusing to change the light bulb and instead starting a seminar to discuss how good the old bulb had been.

This is why, of course, the progress of a great University, like the progress of the ancient Israelites, was not and has not been the smooth, easy upward path to which a highly selective reading of history might pretend. Here we are in this great chapel, with Patrick Hamilton’s monogram in the roadway outside, and the old episcopal palace just up the street providing a vivid reminder, not lost on your preacher this morning, of what can happen to bishops when there’s revolution in the air.

But perhaps the biggest change that would strike everyone from Bishop Wardlaw six hundred years ago through his successors for at least the first four hundred years of the University is the shift of focus that came about through the Enlightenment, in which of course the Scots helped to lead the way. Time was when the main talking points would have been inner-Christian debates: realists against nominalists in the fifteenth century, Protestants against Catholics in the sixteenth, covenanters against quasi-papists in the seventeenth. Now the talk might be more about whether Christian faith belongs on the agenda at all. For all its explicitly Christian foundation, this university like so many others has been for many generations what people sometimes term a ‘secular’ university. This is, however, a rash designation. The concept of secularism, and the underlying implicit thesis which sustains it, is itself a highly contentious term. It refers, if to anything, to a fragile and unstable pause in a conversation. When you’re out on the sea and the wind drops, you don’t assume you’ll have calm water for ever. You wait and watch for the next wind to arise. As the events of the last two decades have shown abundantly, banishing religion, or faith, to the sidelines, or kicking God upstairs to the attic out of sight, has not in fact produced a smooth-flowing, generous-hearted world. Anything but. You can try to simplify the world by screening out some of its key elements. But, as any psychiatrist will tell you, the elements you screen out will come back to haunt you. That, arguably, is what’s happened in recent years, as the shrill secularists and the equally shrill fundamentalists hurl their anathemas at one another. I regard it as a sign of health that, though the University is no longer primarily concerned to train theologians and canon lawyers, the study of Theology flourishes here unchecked, reaching out already into wider spheres of culture and art, and ready to make its vital contribution to society once people realise what they’ve been missing all along.

But for that we might need to tell the great story somewhat differently. Our second reading today is part of a passage which echoes the list of heroes in ben-Sirach, but which has a significantly different character. The letter to the Hebrews, which has already spoken of Jesus as the true High Priest, knows well that Jesus, in fulfilling that ancient Jewish role, has deconstructed it by himself being the sacrifice as well as the sacrificer. So the writer tells of the ancient heroes, not simply as the Great and Good of the tradition, but as vulnerable pioneers, including explicitly the women, going out into the unknown, and, in the passage we heard, as torture victims, mocked and beaten, imprisoned, sawn in two, wandering in deserts and mountains, people of whom the world was not worthy. And it is that anti-heroic list, woven together with judges and conquerors and kings, that leads the eye up to the strange, paradoxical climax which is Jesus himself, the pioneer and perfecter of the faith, who came to his place of royal glory through suffering, shame and death. What the Christian gospel has to offer to the notion of a great history upon which we stand is not, as some might imagine, a kind of religious dead hand, a closing down of options, a fixed system enforced by a grim, self-satisfied priesthood. No doubt that caricature has often been realised in fact. But it is a caricature none the less.

No: the message of the early Christians, which lies at the heart of the notion of a Christian foundation whether it be a University or a hospital or a family or indeed a country, is that true greatness comes through sacrificial love, that true leadership consists in self-giving service, and that truth itself, the ultimate quest of all University life, is not something we can simply discover, put in our pockets, and use to our own advantage. Truth, as the best researchers in every field know well, is more mysterious than that, because the world, and particularly human beings, are more mysterious and interesting than that. Truth is something that happens when genuinely humble people pause long enough before their subject of study to hear and see what is truly going on, rather than inflicting their own theories on it. Truth then comes to expression when they, or others, purify the dialect of the tribe, and manage to say the new thing, whatever it is, in new and appropriate ways. Universities exist to foster the conditions within which that birthing of truth can take place.

When research and teaching are seen in that light, the secularists will be outflanked. As our fifteenth-century forebears would have known instinctively, you are much more likely to solve the puzzle when you have all the pieces on the table. Before our culture collapses under the critique of postmodernism; before our politicians descend into complete unprincipled pragmatism; before democracy itself is dismantled by its own inner contradictions – we urgently need the larger vision of the mediaeval University, no doubt in radically new but still holistic forms, to teach a new generation that truth and beauty are more than fantasy, that public policy is more than Machiavellian scheming, and that we are best served when the will of the people is brought, by whatever means, into a dynamic dialogue with the will of God. It is no accident that, at the time when this University was founded, truth and beauty were seen by most as reaching their climax in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and that his reframing of power and policy lay at the heart of the task of a wise society, needing in each generation a fresh supply of wise leaders.

All of which brings me, perhaps surprisingly, to the Beatitudes. I fear sometimes, these days, that people know them best through their Monty Python parody: we are glad the meek are going to get something, because they’re always being dumped on, and as for the cheesemakers —  But there are more important misunderstandings to correct.

For a start, the notion of blessing itself (blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek and so on). Blessing is not primarily about what God promises to do to someone. It is primarily about what God is going to do through someone. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – in other words, when God sets up his sovereign rule on earth as in heaven, it’s the poor in spirit through whom he will do it. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth: in other words, when God wants to sort out the world, to put it to rights once and for all, he doesn’t send in the tanks, as people often think he should. He sends in the meek; and by the time the high and mighty realise what’s happening, the meek, because they are thinking about people other than themselves, have built hospitals, founded leper colonies, looked after the orphans and widows, and, not least, founded schools, colleges and universities, to supply the world with wise leaders. Blessed are those who are hungry and thirsty for justice; because they, unlike the time-serving lawyers who bully witnesses for their own professional kudos, will be a sign of hope in a crooked world. Blessed are the merciful – notice how Jesus balances out justice and mercy – because the vision of a rule of law without exception, needing no divine or royal interventions to establish equity, is a dangerous oversimplification, producing a society without mercy. Blessed are the peacemakers, and if we haven’t learned that after the twentieth century, what hope can there be.

Which brings us to the second misunderstanding. Ever since Nietzsche it has been customary to sneer at the apparently wimpish vision of human life in the Beatitudes: the meek, the mourners, the merciful, and so on – when surely everyone knows that the people who make the world go round are the arrogant, the go-getters, the people with sharp swords or at least sharp elbows, the pushy, the proud. Actually, all Nietzsche did was to articulate what many people, including many would-be Christians, had believed de facto for centuries, but the point is that they, and he, were wrong. Every professor knows how frustrating it is when a student comes to class so arrogantly convinced of their own theory that they cannot pay attention to the evidence. (Sometimes, of course, students feel that about professors, too, and that makes its own point.) A University will thrive and flourish, and a society led by its graduates will thrive and flourish, when the Beatitudes’ different, upside-down vision of human flourishing takes effect: when people realise that humility and meekness before the evidence and before one’s peers are the marks of real academic strength; when they recognise that a hunger for justice and a love of mercy form the elusive centre of healthy societies; when they discover that, having invented a thousand clever machines for making war, it is long overdue that they should find one that would make peace.

Of course such people will be mocked and sneered at, and perhaps even burnt at the stake or thrown out of windows; or even, simply, not given a First, or not awarded tenure. But this ancient Christian vision, Jesus’ vision, of human flourishing, and of the fact that this human flourishing brings God’s strange rule to birth on earth as in heaven, is something that Bishop Wardlaw and his successors six hundred years ago would have understood. And I think they would want to tell us that, for all the differences between their day and ours, it would be worth looking again at this holistic vision of what it means to be human, what it means to be a University. Life isn’t going to get any easier in Scotland, in Europe, in the world as a whole, in the next few decades. We urgently need a fresh supply of people with a vision to excel, not for their own pride or pay, but for what has to be done in the world. Aien aristeuein, says our motto, ‘always excel’, which in its original context in the Iliad almost certainly meant, ‘always excel in bravery’. In learning afresh, this year, to tell our great story, perhaps we might get a fresh glimpse of what excelling really means, and also what courage really means. An institution like ours, in praising the famous men and women and the ancestors who begat us, needs to tell the story in such a way that we sustain the vision of powerful, strange, paradoxical wisdom that we find in the gospel of Jesus. That may, today, sound like a radical suggestion. But it is brave people who made radical suggestions to whom, today, we look back with gratitude.