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Founder's Day Address, Alleyne's Grammar School, Uttoxeter,
Matt 5.13-16 (2027 words)
We have come here this afternoon for the Annual Founder's Day Service of your school. For some of us, including myself, this is the first such service in which we have ever taken part. Some of you have been to many., and for many of you who are about to leave the school, this may be your last.
We have gathered ostensibly as a body of worshipping Christians, which is why I as a Christian priest have been asked to address you. But let us be honest. Some of you are believing, that is, practising Christians, while others of you are not. And so, what do we share with all men that is worth talking about? I would suggest to you that it is our humanity. Perhaps we can consider together something of what it means to be a human being in 1968 - of what it means to be an educated human being - of what it means to be, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's phrase, "man come of age".
In order to get our bearings, let us begin with some of the things that man, homo sapiens, is doing this year.
Recently all of us, by means of newspapers, radio and television, have followed with interest and concern the ups and downs of Dr Philip Bleibeerg and the other heart transplant patients in Europe and Africa and in North and South America. We have avidly followed the space explorations of the Soviet Union and the United States. We enjoy viewing television programmes transmitted directly from various countries of Europe and also from the United States by means of Telstar and other communications satellites. We are in the midst of what we call the Age of Science, by which we mean the age of man's systematic empirical investigation in all fields. Just how much this is peculiarly the Age of Science is brought home forcefully by the startling fact that of all the empirical scientists who have ever lived, 90% of them, nine out of ten, are alive today. Like Thomas Aleyne over 400 years ago, we likewise are in an age of new learning, an age when man is pushing out his horizons further than ever before.
Through the endeavours of modern archaeologists and historians, we are making ancient history and pre-history faster than ever before. That is we are better able to re-construct and to understand man's past and what went before. And therefore we are better able to understand the forces in society that operate today. In such areas as market research and meteorology we are beginning to be able to forecast the world's markets and the world's weather. In a sense, we may say that man is moving out from the present moment in both directions along the time line that stretches from the past to the future.
If man is beginning to explore the dimensions of time, he is also exploring the dimensions of space. At this very moment the great dish antennae of the radio telescopes are scanning the heavens and picking up energy patterns from radio galaxies and quasars that are apparently 700 million light years away, i.e. approximately 4 x 1022 miles away. The astronomers have poured into our ears the information that there are hundreds of millions of galaxies, and there are hundreds of millions of stars in each galaxy. Who knows how many stars there are in each galaxy with planets like our earth, perhaps teeming with life?
And then there is the other direction. For in my little finger, we now know that there are billions of molecules, many of them made up of millions of atoms, and physicists bend over their cloud chambers chasing after innumerable sub-atomic particles, many of which have such a short life that they can only be detected by the effects that they leave behind them. Man is reaching outward to galaxies of stars and inward to galaxies of force fields.
It has been estimated that each year there are 200 new technical journals being started. And these are being founded not to glut the market but to meet the ever-growing need to communicate the results of valuable research in an ever-increasing number of disciplines. Truly our horizons are not merely expanding: they are exploding. But it is not only that we know more than we did before, but also - and this is important - that we know much more than we ever did before of how little we know.
Have you ever heard of scientific laws? We have all heard of the Law of gravity, of the first and second Laws of thermodynamics, Charles' Law and Boyle's Law for gases. I would suggest to you that there are no reputable scientists today who will speak of scientific 'Laws', as if these were something absolute and given, only waiting to be discovered once and for all. Scientists today in all disciplines instead speak of "working hypotheses" - working theories that appear to fit the data at hand, but only working hypotheses that they must be ready to modify or even to jettison tomorrow if need be. For almost every field of empirical investigation is being turned upside down approximately every ten years in our day. Thus we do not understand what is really going on today if we speak of "Science" as if it were an objective body of cast-iron data and conclusions, a collection of hard and fast laws, neatly discovered and tidily catalogued. Instead of talking about "science" we come closer to reality if we speak of the activity of "sciencing", of people "sciencing", of you and me "sciencing". And this is an activity in which we can and do engage in every field of human endeavour. Thus the educated man is not the one who knows the answers, but rather the one who can discern the questions and problems of today - and he either has the tools or he will develop the tools for seeking the answers - answers which he knows will, in turn, lead to deeper questions and a deeper quest.
It is this ability to build on the past and past experience without being blinded to the possibilities of the present and the future that marks the educated - and that is what we wish you to be, that is what your teachers have been trying to help you to become. In a very real sense, we are trying to help you become of age.
It is this greatly increased ability of our day to know the world about us and to control it that is part of what the German martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, meant when he spoke of modern man as having come of age. But it is only part. We are confronted by the other part when we daily scan the newspapers, watch the telly and listen to the radio for the latest news about Czechoslovakia and Russia, concerning the plight of those starving in Biafra, about hopes for peace between Biafra and Nigeria, between the Arab world and Israel, between North and South Vietnam. We encounter this other part of man's coming of age when we read of the disenfranchized in Rhodesia and South Africa, when we read of those seeking equality of opportunity in Watts and Wolverhampton.
Man is come of age not in the sense that we are now perfect, but rather, as Bonhoeffer claimed, in that you and I are now confronted by the real problems of men everywhere: we can no longer pretend that they do not exist. And also we are come of age in that we have the tools and resources of medicine, transport, industry, agriculture and the like with which to tackle them, so that we cannot say that we can do nothing about these problems and hence they are no concern of ours. We are come of age in that we are now accountable: we cannot say, "Oh, I didn't know" and we cannot say, "Well, I couldn't do anything, anyway". We are accountable, and especially so as we are educated.
We have seen two points: 1) we today are brought face-to-face with the inescapable problems of men, women and children throughout the world, and 2) today we have at hand the wherewithal with which to realistically attack these problems.
But there is also a third point, which is probably the most important of all. We have seen that to be truly educated today means to be open to the possibilities of a situation, it means being willing to be proven wrong, and this goes for people as well as for things. It means being willing to approach individual people and situations as fresh and unique, as capable of teaching us something we never knew before. He who is bound to the past cannot escape from it. But equally he who will not learn from the past is doomed to repeat it.
The opposite of the educated man is the person who says, "My mind is made up. Do not confuse me with the facts." We all have a bit of him within us. We recognize him in ourselves when we want simple answers to complex problems; when we want to keep to ourselves; when we erect cocoons around those who might otherwise bother us; when we use stereotyped images to throw up between ourselves and those we almost meet; when we type-cast others so that we need only to reach into the pigeon-holes of our mind for pre-determined opinions about them, pre-set reactions to them, and standardized solutions to their problems and ours.
It is much easier and cosier to stick with our kith and kin, with our kind of people, whom we think we understand, and who make minimal demands on us, on our time and our energies. But the truly educated man is open to each human being whom he meets, be he a West Indian, Pakistani or Indian, be he Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist, be he an American, an Irishman, or even an Englishman.
In the words of John Donne, the 17th century Anglican priest and poet, "No man is an island". The impoverishment of one man is the impoverishment of all. We are bound together in our common humanity, so that Donne, speaking of the tolling of the passing bell that was rung at a person's death, also added, "Never ask for whom the bell tolls. The bell tolls for thee".
In the words of the Book of Micah, there is nothing that can substitute for doing justice, showing loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God. And in the words of the Sermon on the Mount, you are called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. It is up to you to be the seasoning in this community, in this nation, and in the world; it is up to you to become a guiding light that will give others an example to follow.
I would like to end with some word from Christopher Fry's play, A Sleep of Prisoners (pp. 47f.):
|... we can make a
By old measures. Expedience and self-preservation
Can rot as they will. Lord, where we fail as men
We fail as deeds of time.
The blaze of this fire
Is wider than any man's imagination.
It goes beyond any stretch of the heart.
The human heart can go to the lengths of God.
Dark and old we may be, but this
Is no winter now. The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move,
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul men ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
Is exploration into God,
Where no nation's foot has ever trodden yet.
Where are you making for? What is done
Will never lie down: lie down, lie down!
Where are you going? It takes
So many thousand years to wake,
But will you wake for pity's sake[?]