Where Shall Wisdom be Found?
Job 28.12–28; Colossians 1.24—2.5
homily at the celebration of the 175th anniversary of the founding of the
Saturday 23 June 2007
I was fascinated to see that we
are to end this service by singing ‘
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
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,
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
But the second thing that
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.
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.