I assume that we will continue to reflect on liturgy and music (and various astronomical phenomena) in the coming weeks and months, but we might also find ourselves considering the relationship of faith and reason, the real subject of the Pope’s unexpectedly controversial lecture at Regensburg. Our subject is, as the Anglican Bishop of Durham, NT Wright, put it in a recent sermon, “the wisdom by which the world was made, the wisdom you need to be a fully alive human being, the wisdom by which the living God inhabits his world, breathes into it his own warm life, and brings about within it the fulfilment of his strange and beautiful purposes.”
Since we have also been reflecting on Asia and mission, it might be a good thing to remember a line from Pope John Paul II’s post-synodal exhortation, Ecclesia in Asia, “Jesus could be presented as the Incarnate Wisdom of God whose grace brings to fruition the ‘seeds’ of divine Wisdom already present in the lives, religions and peoples of Asia.”
Here is a longer excerpt from Bishop Wright’s sermon, delivered at the inauguration of a new principal of St John’s College, Durham, on October 17th of this year. If you do not have the time or inclination to read the excerpt, please take this as an invitation to meditate on two of his texts, Isaiah 60:1-4, and Colossians 1:15-20. If, on the other hand, you wish to read more, I can point you to the rest of the unofficial NT Wright Page.
The learned Bishop said:
Of course, within [the three monotheistic traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam] there are competing visions of who precisely this one God may be and how precisely he has done, is doing, and will do, these things. Those debates are hugely important, and a university with its faith communities is an excellent place to engage in them, as Durham, thank God, has already begun to do. But within the specifically Christian tradition of this university and of St John’s College in particular we embrace the call to discover fresh light amid the paradoxical darkness of the so-called Enlightenment world, and to become a place to which people will come in a pilgrimage which brings together the thirst for rigorous knowledge and the longing for God. As the prophet put it, in calling Israel to stand up and be counted after the dreary years of exile: Get up, shine your light, YHWH’s glory is rising upon you; night still covers the earth, and darkness the peoples, but YHWH will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. That may seem a somewhat grandiose vision for a university or college; but if we are to embrace, and be embraced by, the vocation to seek and express a freshly integrated wisdom we are claiming nothing less.
All that I have said so far points us forward to the spectacular passage we heard from Colossians, one of the very first and still one of the greatest Christian poems ever written. Colossians 1 encapsulates beautifully and movingly this vision of integrated wisdom, and gives it, breathtakingly, a human face:
He is the image of God, the invisible one,
firstborn of all creation.
For in him all things were created,
in the heavens and here on the earth.
Things we can see and things we cannot,
– thrones and lordships and rulers and powers
–All were created both through him and for him.
And he is ahead, prior to all else
and in him all things hold together;
And he himself is supreme, the head
over the body, the church.
He is the start of it all,
firstborn from realms of the dead;
so in all things he might be the chief.
For in him all the Fullness was glad to dwell
and through him to reconcile all to himself,
making peace through the blood of his cross,
through him – yes, things on the earth,
and also the things in the heavens.
The balance of the poem (very clear in both the rhythm and the words of the original), and its deep roots in the ancient traditions of Jewish wisdom, both highlight the stupendous claim that the God who made the world, with all its parts and pieces, is now active in remaking it, restoring it, healing it, and renewing it; and that the means by which he has done the first and is doing the second is the person, the man, we know as Jesus Christ. He is the mirror in which we discover who the creator really is; he is the one through whom all things were made, and through whom, by his death and resurrection, all things are now being remade. St Paul, in writing or quoting this astonishing and very early piece of poetic theology, is claiming for Jesus Christ what the ancient Jewish wisdom writers claimed for the figure of Wisdom – the wisdom by which the world was made, the wisdom you need to be a fully alive human being, the wisdom by which the living God inhabits his world, breathes into it his own warm life, and brings about within it the fulfilment of his strange and beautiful purposes.
The to-and-fro in early Christian theology and poetry between creation and new creation, so underplayed in contemporary theology until very recently, offers in fact the matrix of understanding within which this freshly integrated vision of the task of a university and college can be understood. When, as has so often been the case, redemption has been understood in terms of escape from the world of creation, then of course Christian faith understands itself, and is understood by outsiders, in terms of a hiding away from the realities of the world. Faith and public life, religion and politics, private devotion and academic study, are then seen as antithetical. But where the fully biblical vision of God’s action in Jesus Christ is freshly understood in terms of God’s dealing with evil and corruption within the created order in order that the new creation may be born from the womb of the old – when, in other words, we embrace the vision of Colossians 1, built on the rocky foundation of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the way that this glorious Cathedral is built on the solid rock beneath us – then it becomes clear that those who claim that death and resurrection as the centre of their life, those who love Jesus and seek to follow and serve him, are called to be agents of new creation, and that this involves exploring, understanding and celebrating the old creation and discovering its inner dynamic in order the better to pioneer the new world in which the old is to find its glorious fulfilment.