Archbishop awarded honorary doctorate
Wednesday 2nd February 2011The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, is one of four eminent scholars who today received honorary doctorates from the Catholic University of Leuven. They are awarded once a year to selected individuals of exceptional scientific, social or cultural distinction, on the Patronal Feast of the University, 2 February.
Founded in 1425 by Pope Martin V, the Catholic University of Leuven bears the double honour of being the oldest existing Roman Catholic university in the world and the oldest university in the Low Countries.
The Archbishop said of his award:
"When I was a student at Cambridge reading a book about the history of Leuven, I never imagined that I'd be honoured in this way...The association of Leuven with so many great theologians and philosophers—not least in the last century—is very important to me."
A church service was held at Saint-Peter's Church before the ceremony, during which the Archbishop preached on of the important role of universities as intellectual communities which strive 'to place truth above ease or self-pleasing'.
"All universities have the vocation of challenging again and again the various ways in which cultures can trivialise or ignore the desires of the mind – not least of challenging the consoling images offered by the pressures of marketing and consuming, by self-interested politics seeking for scapegoats, by all the different displacements of the critical intellect that modernity and postmodernity indulge so generously, the second-bests and the casual spare areas of human energy."
"The university is and should be, not a community that is iconoclastic for its own sake, but one that tests and scrutinises the images of a society or an era."
Speaking about Christian universities in particular, the Archbishop said:
"The Christian intellectual community is an environment which honours the belief that the most basic level of human eros is the desire for communion with God. And that means that the Christian university is more, not less, passionate about the critique of idolatry and fantasy. And that means that the Christian university is more, not less, passionate about the critique of idolatry and fantasy. At its heart, whatever the diverse individual convictions of its members, lies a set of convictions about what is due to the full dignity of human beings made in the divine image. And to be faithful to this requires a persistent and constantly renewed questioning of all that diminishes and distorts or trivialises humanity at every stage of its existence, from womb to grave. "
Honorary doctorates were also awarded to Professor Timothy Garton Ash, Professor Claudio Magris and Mrs Maria Nowak. Click links on the right to view further details about each of the recipients, and photographs from the day.
A short video about each of the recipients was produced by the University. Click link on the right to view.
The full text of the Archbishop's sermon follows:
A sermon given by the Most Reverend Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury,
at the Patronal Eucharist of the Catholic University of Leuven
in Saint Peter's Church, Grote Markt, Leuven, 2 February 2011
Lectionary: Malachi 3.1-4; Luke 2.22-40
The two scriptural readings for this eucharist present dramatically different pictures. For Malachi, the coming of the Lord and his messenger is a matter of terror – cleansing fire, before which no-one can stand their ground, a whirlwind, a crucible in which everything is melted down to test its authenticity. It is the sweeping away of a certain kind of religion, one that offers to God only what is left over from human use, and which has no interest in the offering to God of justice or compassion in the human world.
And for Luke, very typically, the scene of God's visitation of his temple is a modest, prosaic one. Its central figures are a not very prosperous family from the North country (they are offering the sacrifice prescribed for the poorer classes who cannot afford to offer a lamb), and a peculiar pair of shabby old eccentrics, of the kind who still haunt great religious shrines today. Symeon announces that now he is ready to die, because he has seen the Lord manifesting himself in his temple – the Lord, whose glory, as so many psalms and prophecies say, shines forth from the sanctuary in Jerusalem. And he predicts that this manifestation will be the great life-or-death test for many among God's people, and that Mary's soul will be pierced through with suffering.
So how is this odd little episode in the temple a manifestation of God? How does this connect with the terrifying purge that the prophet depicts? What the evangelist is saying is that the judgement of God happens not in grand spectacle, not in the literal blazing of fire and the fracturing and dissolving of all things in the crucible. It is to be seen in a more profound 'meltdown' – as God burns up and melts away our fantasies of divine power and ultimate victory. What shines out, what is made manifest, in the gospel story is a promise that is just as terrifying in its way as the prophet's picture – the promise that what will heal the world is not force but stillness, the divine renunciation of compulsion and control.
God will redeem the world by being God, not by fulfilling our dreams of glorious, bloodstained triumph and cleansing. The holy territory, the sanctuary that has to be purged, is my own spirit and imagination, so readily seduced by dreams of control or success. This message is indeed a crucible in which our hopes are melted down. It will bring to light what people's real beliefs and priorities are, what their 'religion' truly is. And the closer we are to Jesus, the more acutely shall we feel the inner tearing apart that this can mean, as we let go of the false faith assaulted by the prophet – a faith that gives God only the leftovers of our lives, the spare time and the things whose absence we shan't notice.
And this speaks a word to the life of the mind, the life of this University and every place of learning; a word especially to the Christian mind and the Christian university. The health of any intellectual community lies in its willingness to place truth above ease or self-pleasing. It seeks to live from the deepest level of human desire – a strange word to use, perhaps, in relation to the intellectual life, but a necessary one. The mind is a place where eros happens, the sense of lack and urgency, hunger for joy. Stifle that in the name of skill and efficiency and satisfactory contributions to the nation's economy or whatever, and something of the essence of the intellect is buried.
All universities have the vocation of challenging again and again the various ways in which cultures can trivialise or ignore the desires of the mind – not least of challenging the consoling images offered by the pressures of marketing and consuming, by self-interested politics seeking for scapegoats, by all the different displacements of the critical intellect that modernity and postmodernity indulge so generously, the second-bests and the casual spare areas of human energy. The university is and should be, not a community that is iconoclastic for its own sake, but one that tests and scrutinises the images of a society or an era. It is bound to be, in the title of a significant collection of essays by Alasdair MacIntyre, Against the Self-Images of the Age, a necessary aspect of how societies keep themselves self-aware and free to grow and develop.
But for the Christian university, this has an added dimension. The Christian intellectual community is an environment which honours the belief that the most basic level of human eros is the desire for communion with God. And that means that the Christian university is more, not less, passionate about the critique of idolatry and fantasy. At its heart, whatever the diverse individual convictions of its members, lies a set of convictions about what is due to the full dignity of human beings made in the divine image. And to be faithful to this requires a persistent and constantly renewed questioning of all that diminishes and distorts or trivialises humanity at every stage of its existence, from womb to grave. If it is true that any university has the task of speaking for liberty and dignity in human affairs, a Christian community will insist that speaking for this liberty and dignity involves speaking in some way about God within the life of the intellectual institution: theology, when it is doing its proper work, is an active – and potentially unsettling – conversational partner for any and every other voice in the community.
And part of theology's own central task is to make space for the stillness of God to be manifest in the midst of the prosaic world; to explore how the manifestation of glory, the light that will enlighten the nations, depends upon leaving behind the fantasies that seek to associate God with force or control. What God shows us is that he transforms all our hopes and thoughts through the sheer fact of his own incarnate humility. And in that connection, theology is also there to prepare us to take the risks that this entails, the swords in the soul, and, quite simply, to face our death. Theology recalls us to the fact that we stand before God as limited and mortal beings, and that we shall only enter into the fullness of life that God intends for us if we can let go of the dream of being invulnerable. We become immortal with God only when we have accepted mortality; it is then that resurrection can happen.
The intellectual community, and especially the Christian intellectual community, needs always to be engaged in the critique of triumphalism of any kind. That is why it is so significant a disaster when universities become mouthpieces for governments. The theologian may remember the shock felt by the twentieth century's greatest Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, on reading the manifesto in support of German policy in the First World War signed by most of the leading German academics of the day. And – given that the vocation and destiny of Europe is part of the focus of these celebrations – there is here a clue about what the university, Christian or otherwise, has to say to our continent.
We have inherited a long record of European triumphalism; and while this may no longer be a political reality, its cultural echoes are still very clear – not least in the bland assumption often made that European secularism is the destined future of the rest of the world. Universities like this have the responsibility to say to our culture that the light which enlightens the human world is not the product of European civilisation – indeed, the opposite is more true, that European civilisation, with its high valuation of dialogue and critique and its suspicion of absolutism, is the product of the light that Symeon speaks of in the Nunc Dimittis. Our specific European legacy is precious, but precious as a gift among others. Freeze it into a self-image of finality and decisive authority for the rest of human culture, and it becomes an idol and a danger to the truth.
The paradox of Europe's intellectual history at its best is the belief that a relentless self-questioning can be sustained by the human spirit as an essential dimension of travelling into fuller life and light, and that this questioning is not ultimately destructive. But such confidence rests not on a self-evident secular rationality, but on the message of the gospel itself. The awareness of the gospel is often deeply buried in the European psyche, yet it is still profoundly active; it remains alive in the intuition that the truth is indeed light and joy, that the truth is somehow already flowing towards us for our life and fulfilment.
Our calling, then, is to hold the connection between that conviction, grounded in the revealed humbleness and stillness of God in Christ, and the restlessness of European cultural history, so that we have a true (and a truthful) gift for the whole world – a vision of the transfiguring energy of the God who will never consent to be anything but himself, who will never give way to violence and coercion, who moves by loving. As the prophet reminded us, that is anything but an easy vision, because it tells us a good deal about what has to die in us before the truth can become manifest, about the wounds we may feel in our spirit and imagination. Yet this is glory, for God's people and for the whole world; this is salvation, healing. When we see this, we can, like Symeon, let go, and entrust the world, the life of mind and body and imagination, to the hands of God, so that the offerings that the world makes to its creator may be the authentic reflections of his own active love.
© Rowan Williams 2011