It is, of course, purely accidental that the University Service
occurs this year within the week of the thirteenth Sunday after
Trinity, and that our Epistle and Gospel lessons are therefore those
appointed for that week: in the Epistle lesson we have St. Paul's
exhortation to Christians in ancient Galatia, that they should "walk
in the Spirit;" and the Gospel lesson is about love of God and
neighbour, concluding with Jesus' story about the Good Samaritan.
We could perhaps sum up the message of those lessons in one simple
sentence: Life in the spirit - spiritual life - is life lived in the
perspective of love of God and neighbour; it is the life of charity.
But what has that to do with the University? Is there any more
specific message there for us, as we enter upon a new academic year?
St. Paul begins by warning us against what he calls "the works of
the flesh": "adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,
idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife,
seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness,
revellings, and such like." Quite a list, and most of the items not
totally unfamiliar in our experience of college life. But
what, really, are these "works of the flesh"?
Some of you may recall those chapters in Book XIV of The City of
God, where St. Augustine, in an argument against Virgil and the
Platonists, discusses this text, and explains that the "works of
the flesh" must always be seen as essentially perversions of
will: willing self-indulgence, willing exploitation of others,
willing worldliness. And such perversions of will are
certainly familiar enough to all of us. We share in a world
deeply scarred by sins of self-indulgence, greed and exploitation;
we are children of a century which has perpetrated cruelty and
violence to a degree unimagined in the darkest ages of our past.
And St. Paul is saying that the remedy does not lie in some legal
system, but in a conversion of will - a new spiritual life - the
life of charity.
It is precisely about that conversion of will that Jesus speaks in
our Gospel lesson, when the lawyer asks him what he must do to
inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him that he must love God
with all his heart and soul and mind and strength, and love his
neighbour as he loves his own self. "This do, and thou shalt
live." This "love" of which Jesus speaks is not a matter of
emotional attachment, or the bonds of natural affection -- his story
of the Good Samaritan makes that point clearly: it is crucial to the
story that the hero is not a Jew, but a Samaritan, a stranger, an
outcast, for whom those attachments do not exist. The love of
which Jesus speaks is charity: the steadfast willing of the good --
the absolute and eternal good which is God, and in that perspective,
willing the good of one another.
That, I think, is the basic meaning of our Scripture readings, and
it seems to me a meaning profoundly relevant to our human condition,
at all times and in all places. But we must also try to see
its particular relevance to the life of the university and to our
vocation as scholars.
The University exists for the cultivation of what our philosophical
tradition since Aristotle has called the "intellectual virtues" --
the various forms of science and wisdom; it is an institution
dedicated to the pursuit of truth. But the truth and the Good
are finally inseparable: the truth is simply the good of intellect,
and all the virtues are summed up in that steadfast willing of the
good which we call charity. Thus charity is said to be the
"form" of all the virtues: the form of which all of them have actual
life. And it involves a dialectical interplay, a reciprocity,
an interdependence of intellect and will. To love the truth,
you must know it, but to know the truth you must love it. That
is the doctrine which you will find adumbrated in the Ethics
of Aristotle, and more fully worked out in the trinitarian
doctrine of St. Augustine, in the scholastic theology of the 13th
century, and in the poetry of Dante.
Loving depends upon knowing, and knowing depends upon loving.
That dialectical formula stands at the very heart of the great
tradition of Christian humanism in which our universities were
founded. The unity and creative interplay of divers elements
and aspects and dimensions -- intellectual, moral, religious --
belonged to the very essence of that tradition, and it is, of
course, precisely that unity that has tended to be lost in the
modern secularizing of so many universities. And that loss
seems to me a very sad impoverishment and narrowing of vision.
St. Paul was surely right when he said that without charity
knowledge was worthless: "sounding brass and tinkling cymbal."
The same point is made, I think, quite dramatically by a remarkable
piece of thirteenth-century sculpture, and I'll describe it for you
as a concluding illustration. It's a work by Giovanni Pisano,
the very greatest of gothic sculptors, contemporary of St. Thomas
Aquinas, and Dante and Giotto, noted, for instance, for his work on
the facade of Sienna Cathedral, when he placed figures of Plato and
Aristotle, engaged in lively conversation with ancient Hebrew kings
and prophets and ancient sibyls -- illustrating magnificently the
interplay of human philosophy and divine revelation and human
religious aspiration. It's a wonderful illustration of
But the particular work I want to focus upon is less well-known.
It's a fond the youthful Giovanni Pisano created for the Church of
San Giovanni Forcivitas, in the Tuscan city of Pistoia. Around
the bowl of the font, he carved figures representing the four
natural (or cardinal) virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and
fortitude; and for the pedestal, he carved faith, hope and charity.
Thus it seems to me a marvellous illustration of what today's
scripture lessons are about, and what we might well have in mind as
we enter upon a new academic year: the authentic life of
intellect is grounded in and sustained by charity.
And, of course, it is profoundly right that we mark the beginning
with this liturgy, in which we are invited to eat and drink the
charity of God.
"I say then, walk in the Spirit."