Where Shall Wisdom be Found?

Job 28.12–28; Colossians 1.24—2.5
a homily at the celebration of the 175th anniversary of the founding of the University of Durham
in the Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham
Saturday 23 June 2007

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

I was fascinated to see that we are to end this service by singing ‘Jerusalem’. Blake’s poem – or rather, this short piece of Blake’s much longer poem – has come in for some stick, partly because of its association in people’s minds with a now rather faded nationalism, and partly because, as one famous preacher recently pointed out, the entire first verse consists of four grandly rhetorical questions to each of which the answer is, ‘Er, no, actually’. Did those feet, the feet of Jesus himself, in ancient times walk upon England’s mountains green? Er, no. Was the Holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen? Pretty certainly not. Did the countenance divine shine forth upon our clouded hills? Sorry, that’s another No. And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark satanic mills? Well, now you’re asking; and what, in particular, has the building of Jerusalem got to do with the physical presence of Jesus? Even if Jesus had come as a boy to these islands, as in the ancient legend of Joseph ofArimathea (which is of course part of the reason why, as we sit here, thousands of people are getting wet and muddy at Glastonbury), why would he have wanted to reconstruct Jerusalem? When we read the gospels, most of the times Jesus refers to Jerusalem it is to warn that a city which behaves like that is courting disaster.

Nor do I imagine that Blake would have found much favour with Archdeacon Thorp, Bishop van Mildert, or the rest of those who boldly created this university in 1832 and celebrated its royal charter five years later. Nor they with him. The ‘dark satanic mills’ were not, after all, as some imagine, the cotton-mills and steel-mills of the new, noisy and smoky industrial revolution. They were the great churches, like Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral, which Blake saw as being hopelessly in thrall to the follies of the world, follies he saw all too clearly in the great thinkers of what was already calling itself the ‘enlightenment’. He faced down the scorn of Voltaire and Rousseau against the deep mysteries of faith; you throw the sand against the wind, he wrote, and the wind blows it back again. And he would, I suspect, have been deeply suspicious of an alliance between the established church and the new impetus to learning, focussed not least on a Norman Cathedral and imposing castle. Giving Blake the last word in a celebration like this could be seen as a dangerously subversive act; or perhaps we should see it more like what happens when an old unreconstructed Marxist trade unionist is given a peerage and ends his days muttering his imprecations against The System from a somnolent posture on the back benches of the House of Lords.

Blake’s insight about Jerusalem, however – the idea that there really is, somewhere, a heavenly city which is longing to come to birth on this tired old earth – is actually the same insight to which Archdeacon Thorp and the others were giving expression when they chose the first verse of Psalm 87 as the motto for the new university. ‘Her foundations are on the holy hills’; or, as a modern translation puts it, ‘On the holy mount stands the city he founded.’ The strange accident of geography that created this peninsula clearly struck a chord with clerics used to sniffing out typological and other biblical allusions. Jerusalem, like Durham, stands high above steep ravines to east, west and south. Though these are formed not, as here, by a single river but by the confluence of the Hinnomand Kidron valleys, you can see how this would appeal to our founders, as indeed it may have appealed to those who first discovered this wooded bluff and decided that this, at last, was the fitting resting-place for Cuthbert himself.

Because Jerusalem has two meanings in particular which this University was consciously tapping into and which, if we know our business, ought to inform our thinking as we look not only back a hundred and seventy five years but also on to the future. First, Jerusalem was the place of wisdom. It gained its greatest prestige under Solomon, when people came from the ends of the earth to hear his wisdom.

And the wisdom of Solomon was itself twofold. It was on the one hand the amassing, and the delighting in, an accumulation of knowledge about the natural and human worlds – trees, plants, animals, birds, music, literature, architecture, medicine. And it was on the other hand the delight in the meaning which all these things have, in themselves and in their labyrinthine complexity and interrelation, and hence the making of wise judgments about what ought to be done, not just what ought to be known. Wisdom, in the biblical tradition, includes in its wide embrace both the encyclopaedic collection and arrangement of the data, the evidence, the facts, and that strange, soft something which sneaks round the back and asks the question, But what’s it all for? What does it mean? And what should we do with it?

And though the ancient Jews knew perfectly well that the actual city of Jerusalem was a place where, often enough, incompetent or even wicked rulers could get it wrong on all fronts, they still looked to it as the place where, if you went in the right spirit, wisdom of both kinds was to be found; because it was of course the place where you would go to meet with YHWH, the God of Israel, who was himself the creator of the whole world. When you were making your lists of birds or insects, you were doing the same sort of thing with God himself that a musician does when she studies Beethoven’s notebooks to see what he was up to in one of those great quartets. And when you worshipped in the Temple, you were acknowledging that all the accumulation of facts in the world would remain by definition insufficient to acquire that deep, second-order understanding and the practical wisdom which would flow from it. As our own western world has sadly proved again and again, you can gather all the intelligence you like and still make hideously wrong decisions with far-reaching and damaging consequences. As the book of Job says, you can’t get the wisdom you need simply by digging up more facts. You get it by worshipping the God whose facts they are. And Jerusalem stands, and I think Archdeacon Thorp knew it stands, and wanted Durham to stand, for the place where you do both, and allow both to inform one another.

But the second thing that Jerusalem stands for, in the wider biblical tradition, is the notion that this present world can be transformed. Jerusalem was the place where heaven and earth came together, not in order to entice the inhabitants of earth away to a distant heaven, but in order to heal and enhance, to judge and to save, the present world. (This, by the way, was another thing which Blake got right and the Enlightenment got wrong, advocating as it did a split-level world with a distant heaven and with humans, not God, in sole charge here below.) The image of the new Jerusalem, to which the present Jerusalem of biblical times stood as a kind of long-range signpost, was all about the creator God fulfilling the work of creation in the work of recreation.

And where Blake’s questions about Jesus demand the answer ‘no’, underneath that, if we listen carefully, we might after all hear, at a different level, a deeply challenging ‘yes’. The point about Jesus is not that if he happened to travel to this or that remote island he might bring it a special blessing. If the gospels are anything to go by, he might equally have invoked upon it a special judgment. No: the Jesus we find in the New Testament is the Jesus who now relates equally to each place and each moment, and who relates as the one who re-embodies those old Jerusalem traditions, those old Solomonic traditions, so that St Paul can say that in him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. And the way Jesus does that is not by his having visited this or that country as a boy, but by pouring out his transforming wisdom on people, on communities and individuals, so that they can become in turn agents of that transformation in the world around. Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his. The new Jerusalem, the ultimate new creation, remains God’s gift; but it is already anticipated in Jesus himself, the one in whom heaven and earth have already become one, and it can therefore be further anticipated as people seek wisdom, not for themselves alone – that’s always the temptation for any scholar, any community of scholars – but for the benefit of the whole world.

And we who are faced with some of the toughest challenges the western world has known, in politics and economics, in climate change and worldview change, in the dangerous stand-off between militant fundamentalism and militant secularism – we urgently need to make our own that new-Jerusalem vision of a world judged, healed and transformed by the power and wisdom of the creator God we know in Jesus Christ. We in Durham, celebrating our birthday, need to recommit ourselves to a vision in which our multiple studies may contribute appropriately to the larger goals, both in training people for public service and in generating the wisdom our world so badly needs.

Though we must therefore answer ‘No’ to the questions of Blake’s first verse, we can rightly and wisely turn his second verse into a prayer: a prayer for energy, for focussed wisdom, for passion and compassion, for a sense of the rushing together of the heavenly and the earthly both in the academic pursuit of wisdom at every level and in the practical purposes to which true wisdom must be put. The bow of burning gold, the arrows of desire, the spear and chariot of fire are ours, to build Jerusalem not only in England’s green and pleasant land, not only in the Durham which mirrors Jerusalem both in geography and also, we hope and pray, in being a home and source of wisdom, but wherever we are called and sent from this place around the world. ‘Her foundations are on the holy hills’: and the point of the holy hills is that that’s where you go to learn wisdom, and that’s where you go from to put that wisdom into practice in the wider world.