The sermon, preached in the Kirk of the Greyfriars, at the
closing service of the quatercentenary celebrations of the founding of the
University of Edinburgh, 10th July 1983.
And be not conformed to this world, hut be ye transformed
by the renewing of your mind that ye may prove what is that good and
acceptable and perfect will of God. Romans 12. v.2.
Universities have been under scrutiny and even under
judgement for a long time. It is no new phenomenon. A seventeenth century
pronouncement has been passed on many an academic since first uttered. Well
versed in books and shallow in himself. Generations of students have fallen
into the category of those of pre-war Basel, as described by Karl Barth,
'with very few exceptions, they were hard to get moving and preoccupied with
rather primitive problems'.
However, today, the loudest criticisms and the most
scathing verdicts come from those who see twentieth century universities'
function as merely existing to contribute to the prosperity of their own
vested interests as circumscribed by their own professions or industries,
while those in places of power and influence fear the return of the
universities to their pristine and true freedom and seek to keep them under
control. In many spheres, new voices repeat the old sentiments of the Nazi,
Haiser, 'Our task is to smother the forces of critical intellectualism'.
You will remember the famous woodcut in Reisch's
Margarita philosophica of 1504, reproduced many times, which illustrates
the student's progress as he gradually, by degrees, ascends the academic
tower crowned by Peter Lombard, flanked by the words, 'theology* and
'metaphysics'. This transcendent view, this supraphysical synthesis, this
supernatural dimension, was recognised as the final fulfilment of the
seeking, searching spirit of mankind: a concept of education demonstrated in
Edinburgh by the appointment of a professor of theology as 'the first and
principal master' of our university which continued until the passing of the
1858 Act when the practice ceased. What did this emancipation from theology
and metaphysics bring - freedom for science, and a practicalisation of
academic disciplines, among others. Yet, have such developments proved
worthy of the two thousand year academic search for human fulfilment?
What has scientific freedom brought? Sixty years ago,
John Dewey maintained that progress arising from science ought to manifest
itself as emancipation of the mind, freeing it to pursue new ends and new
ideals; but in fact progress due to science was confined merely to more
efficient means of satisfying old ends and old ideals. This is still true.
Such a path has not brought enlightenment.
The practicalisation of academic disciplines too has
deprived the universities of their true and fundamental contribution to the
nation's life. As our Chairman prophetically stated in his inauguration as
Chancellor, regarding post-graduate schools. These are the creative cells of
the modern university, and it is in them that the freedom of thought and
research should be fostered. Any attempt to convert - or should I say
subvert - them into commercial, professional or industrial research
laboratories is a blow at the very integrity of the university. They are the
final flowering of the tree of education ...'
'And be not conformed to this world; but be ye
transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that
good, and acceptable and perfect will of God'.
This is not merely a scriptural parallel of the pious
statement which appeared, significantly in 1943, in a Department of
Education document which said that 'education cannot stop short of
recognising the ideals of truth and beauty and goodness as final and binding
for all time and in all places, as ultimate values'. St. Paul is claiming
that the purposes of God for his world can only be demonstrated in
non-conformity to the status quo and demands a transformation brought about
by the continual renewal of the mind. Who can deny that any conformity to
the present situation of society can spell anything but mental torpidity?
As Maurice Lindsay wrote, 'Scotland's sense of change, an
endless becoming for which there was never a kind of wholeness or ultimate
Wholeness, ultimate wholeness, is this not that good, and
acceptable, and perfect will of God for his world. Where do we, all masters
of this University, fit into this providential, divine, cosmic purpose? We
can but take two of the great concepts which are meaningless apart from
divine revelation and yet coalesce with the ultimate goals of all academic
and intellectual striving. These haunting desires of the mind are wisdom and
Wisdom and truth, however, are neither winsome, fey
phantasies nor static, immovable, divine perfections as the wisdom
literature of the Bible reveals. Furthermore, Eastern Orthodox theology has,
over many years, transformed the thinking of many of us in the West,
particularly regarding the understanding of wisdom. In Eastern Orthodox
sophiojogy, wisdomology, the very essence or energy of God, is seen as
Thus wisdom is worshipped in the liturgy: Wisdom! For
unto Thee are due glory, honour, and worship to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Ghost, now and always and forever and ever. Wisdom! That we
may always be protected by Thy power, we glory bring unto Thee, Father, Son
and Holy Ghost, now and always and for ever and ever'.
Sophiology is not the sole preserve of the theologian.
Sophiology should be synchronous with every academic discipline. Every
authentic intellectual quest responds symphonically to the call of wisdom:
the inner response to the charisma of God-given wisdom. Like the members of
the University Court, we are also challenged by the inscription which stands
out from the wall opposite the Court room in the Old Quadrangle. The learned
have double insight'.
If wisdom be the one insight, truth must be the other.
Yet, without wisdom, we are blind to the truth. To the Christian, truth is
as dynamically related to divine revelation as wisdom. As we watch and pray
for wisdom, that very wisdom is the inspiration for our apperception and
formulation of truth. As a result, truth is never fossilised, truth is never
shackled to a parrot-life monologue, truth is never sloganised on a
hoarding. If wisdom be the companion to seeking, truth is the guide to
proclaiming. Yet, in the university, as in the church, there can be no
finality in any human expression of truth. Shortly after the fall of Fascism
in Italy, Elio Vittorini wrote in his diary about the 'need continually to
reformulate the truth'. 'I write because I believe in my truth, which has to
be told, and when I set about writing again, this is not because I find
other truths which can be added, but because something constantly being
transformed within the truth, seems to summon me never to stop telling it
... We must not allow the truth to appear to be dead. It is present among us
through the continuity of our corrections, our additions, our repetitions
...' To scientists such an approach is not new - the Heisenberg Principle of
Uncertainty stated this in a different way before Vittorini. Truth is always
beckoning us into the future - there lies the greater truth.
When we are counselled to turn back, even to Victorian
values, remember Lot's wife. Recognising that the primary task of the
university is to open the minds and harts of mankind to wisdom so that there
can be a creative proclamation of the truth, the hope has been expressed, to
paraphrase Thomas Huxley, that 'the University will be a place for men' to
recognise the fundamental need to receive wisdom, to define the truth 'and
not for boys and adolescents to get degrees'.
'Be not conformed to this world but be ye transformed by
the renewing of your mind'.
The constitutional duty of the General Council is the
responsibility to take into consideration all questions affecting the
well-being and prosperity of the University. Therefore, it has to find its
motivation in recognising that, without the safeguarding of those whose
primary professional duty is to seek to be wise men above all else, no
transformation of the thinking of the nation is possible. Therefore, the
Senatus Academicus, which is the very heart of the University, has ever to
be encouraged to 'seek wisdom and pursue it'. Thus, the professoriate has to
be protected by us, the other masters of the University, from being
manipulated into positions where wisdom and truth are in danger of being
ignored, derided or prostituted, or, even worse, when they are in danger of
being subtly diverted from their pursuit of wisdom and truth by bureaucracy,
vested interests, outmoded ideologies, crass anti-intellectualism and much
else. The General Council and the University Court have a constitutional and
moral obligation to uphold that academic freedom where wisdom shapes the
Finally, upon this foundation, in our continuous
non-conformity to the world and ever new reformulation of the truth, we have
to remember that a high price may have to be paid for stating the truth in
such a way as to satisfy mankind's deepest aspirations while simultaneously
receiving retribution from those who live in the shady world of information
However, we must always seek to find inspiration from the
wisdom and truth of that word of God, as John experienced it, which still
goes on shining in the dark and is never mastered by that darkness. In such
a conviction, 'Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the
renewing of your mind that ye may prove what is that good and acceptable and
perfect will of God'.
Excerpts from my reply to the Laureation Address given by
Vice-Principal Denis Harding on 10th February 1990, on my graduating Doctor
As Pascal said, 'Reason's last step is the recognition
that there is an infinite number of things which are beyond understanding'.
To articulate thoughts of the mystery of human living is not incongruous in
the presence of those who guide, year after year, men and women during the
gradual unfolding of their lives. It is this undergirding of all academic
life that has borne in on me during the years I have had the honour to serve
this ancient distinguished academic community. I have discovered the truth
of Matthew Arnold's statement: 'Following our instinct for intellect and
knowledge we acquire pieces of knowledge; and presently, in the generality
of men there arises the desire to relate these pieces of knowledge to our
sense of conduct, to our sense of beauty - and there is weariness and
dissatisfaction if the attempt is baulked'.
The relating of the pieces of knowledge requires wisdom
and imagination. This distinctive function of a university must be treasured
and safeguarded. That is what the graduates of this university have sought
to do and I have sought to serve.
There are dangers in the contemporary blinkered and
myopic moulders of public platitudes and public policy. As Marcus said: Tn
this newly emerging context of the university as part of the system of
production, the role of liberal or humanistic education becomes
increasingly problematic. As we may well ask what is the
essential role of such an education in the production system of a
technobureaucratic order whose dominant values are characteristically
expressed in forms of utilities and commodities'.
In November 1521, Martin Luther was convinced that the
universities had become the Pope's brothels (W.A., 81. 411.27-412.10).
Whether this be true or not, it is a constant reminder of the awesome danger
of universities selling themselves for monetary recognition and acceptance
by those who are unworthy. Thousands of graduates have an unceasing concern
for the welfare of the mother of our scholarship.