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Service to mark the 175th anniversary of King's College London

Tuesday 19th October 2004

An address given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at a service to mark the 175th anniversary of King's College London. The service was held in Westminster Abbey.

Sir James Frazer, author of that great ragbag of folklore and speculation, The Golden Bough, had a pleasingly simple view of humanity's intellectual progress: we moved from magic to religion to science. Having arrived at science, we could relax, and all would be well for ever. A good High Victorian perspective; but not one that commands instant assent today. Quite apart from our suspicion of neat evolutionary stories, we will probably have noticed that the scientific age has not yet produced the end of history, the age of natural and universal co-operation and welfare, that Frazer and others took for granted as the climax of the story.

The trouble is that Frazer thought of intellectual history as a process by which we advanced from bad explanations to good ones. Magic is a very bad explanation of things, religion a pretty bad one, science a good one. And this obscures two rather important truths which might be worth reflection as we celebrate a great intellectual institution. First, it isn't at all obvious that Frazer's three terms are competing for the same prize; a number of good modern philosophers of religion have pointed out, with weary patience, that religion is not fundamentally an attempt to explain things, but a system of relating yourself and the world to a fuller or truer order of reality. Second, there is an important sense in which religion and science are equally hostile to magic; but they need to have a very keen eye for the ways in which magic steals into both religion and science and distorts their real nature.

Those who founded King's were blessedly free of the textbook idea that faith and science were in competition. Surprising numbers of nineteenth century thinkers in fact shared this freedom, and research seems constantly to throw up more and more cases of blamelessly devout and theologically literate people who contributed vastly to the scientific revolutions of the age. They assumed, those founders, that theology, humanities and sciences were all, interconnectedly, significant. The Charter speaks of 'maintaining indissolubly the connexion between sound religion and useful learning.' It is telling that the greatest financial troubles of King's in the nineteenth century had to do with the rising cost of properly equipped labs – one of the factors which led to the renegotiating of the exclusively Anglican nature of the College so as to draw in government funding. Owen Chadwick comments that the growing demand for proper science teaching spelled the end of an exclusive religious policy – 'to find Anglican professors of science at a stipend which attracted reasonable men got beyond the power of the principal'. Yet the commitment to Anglican theology remained, in a unique form, well into living memory; and the end of the Anglican monopoly for teaching staff had already, by the 1960's, begun to produce great things. Almost alone among the new universities of the nineteenth century, King's resolutely stuck by theology as an essential component of wisdom; in other words, it believed what all our texts today proclaim, that wisdom is an inalienable part of the human vocation to grow into God's image, and that it is to be had by means other than just amassing information.

And part of wisdom is to know how to recognise magic and resist it. Magic is all about short cuts in the management of reality: it is about the belief that the right words and gestures will change things, with a minimum of labour; it is about the disconnection between power on the one hand, and moral discrimination, struggle and patience on the other. Which is why religion and science alike work against magic. The religious person says, 'no end is achieved in a lasting way that is not in accord with the rhythms of the universe's life as anchored in God's own purpose.' The scientist – including the 'arts' scholar and the physician – says, 'no end is achieved in a lasting way that is not worked at by feeling for the grain of reality and discovering how our acts deploy and co-operate with what is there'. There are no short cuts – for holiness or for learning. There is always the long, sometimes hard task of moulding your mind and heart and body to something prior and greater.

But magic finds its way in, so readily. Religion has nourished a sort of magical spirit at times: perform these duties, say these words, and all will be well. Obey the simple dictates of a religious authority and God's power can be guaranteed to reinforce yours. And in case science and humanities start congratulating themselves, we have to remember their versions of magic: redescribing a situation alters it; the final unified theory is around the corner; control is within our reach (given the appropriate research funding). The siren song of a future without patience, feeling our way and being surprised, is loudly to be heard in the intellectual life, now as ever.

And so the collaboration of theology and learning and medicine becomes a deeply creative matter. The theologian watches the scientist and scholar and is reminded daily of the temptations native to theology – wordspinning, businesslike confidence in the face of the absolute and mysterious, confusing the finding of a solution or even a vision with the finding of a formula. The scientist and scholar watch the theologian and are reminded of their location in a world of potential moral tragedy, of sin and grace, a world where motives are corruptible and solutions transient, a world that is in the hands of a living truth that exposes the shadows even in what is supposed to be objective pursuit of truth. And theologians, scientists and scholars look at physicians and are reminded of the fragile and needy human organism that supports all this activity, and of the steady pressure around all that we do to convert knowledge into healing effectiveness – not into efficiency and productivity, but into a vision that restores some dimension of hope and delight to the human horizon.

Of course this is a fictional picture, isn't it, especially these days; who has time now to look at someone else's field of work? Yet what is remarkable in this institution is that something of the conversation seems to persist, and the mutual commitments remain alive and creative. The new horizons opening up, especially for the medical schools, in bringing all this to the communities living in the immediate vicinity of various of the college's sites reinforce the sense of a mission to a wider public than students only. The task of resisting the lure of magic remains, and is, in this city and this society, as urgent as it ever was. The belief that magical words change things is pretty popular – in public rhetoric, in personal aspiration – and needs challenging. The witness to wisdom, and to the rewards of taking difficulty and time and depth seriously, is still a credible and a necessary common calling – even, or especially, when much of our culture is inclined to look on it as folly.

Our second reading points us to some resources for thinking about this. When St Paul contrasts the wisdom of the world with the wisdom that is in Jesus Christ, he is thinking of the contrast between a faith that sees the universe changed only by the selfless suffering of its own creator and a world that brutally excludes and slaughters those who deny its standards of success and its definitions of power. The primitive Christian gospel had to confront a civilisation in which absolute power and magical attitudes to the gods prevailed everywhere; it had to establish a new sort of space for thought and prayer and human growth, and without its new vision of a rational universe and an infinite and generous God, the intellectual history of Europe would have been very different. It was the 'folly' of Christian belief that slowly and steadily changed a whole way of being in the world: we are still catching up with its implications for our moral and political and ecological engagement.

So we are here to range ourselves with St Paul in resisting magical, uncritical, impatient and abusive approaches to the reality in which we stand; to learn from each other how to identify and to repudiate the various magics that tempt and distract us as theologians and scholars and scientists; to witness to a cultural and political environment in which magic and short cuts are so popular, about the significance of actual, gradual, draining and joyful human processes of learning and change. We thank God that this college has so faithfully maintained the alliance of mind and soul; and we pray for every blessing on the decades and – who knows? – centuries ahead of acting sancte et sapienter.

© Rowan Williams 2004

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