Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

A Voice in the Wilderness
The transforming power of truth

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 category'.

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 truth.

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 dynamism.

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 truth.

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 manipulation.

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 honoris causa.

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.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus