Monday, May 1, 2023

Sermon for University of Canterbury 150th Anniversary Service (1873-2023)

The University of Canterbury was founded as Canterbury College in 1873, later becoming Canterbury University College in 1933 before settling on its current name some years later still when the University of New Zealand, of which the then College was a federated member, ceased to exist. This year is the 150th anniversary of the founding and various events are happening through the whole year. On Saturday just past a service of thanksgiving was held in the Transitional Cathedral and I had the honour of preaching at it. I have had a request for the text to be posted online, so here it is! 

+Peter - Sermon for University of Canterbury 150th Anniversary Service 1873 to 2023

Readings: Psalm 119:97-105; Acts 17:16-28

My UofC whakapapa:

-          1978 – 1981 a degree in Mathematics with a side interest in philosophy

-          Bert Brownlie was Vice Chancellor

-          Gordon Petersen was Professor of Mathematics and HOD

-          Bob Stoothoff was Professor of Philosophy

-     Among impressive academics who taught me, memorable lecturers included John De La Bere, Jim Thornton, Peter Bryant, Jim Wilson, Roy Kerr, and Dougal Murdoch.

-         Christian Union under successive Presidents Martin Visser, Paul Trebilco, and Alistair Lennie

We are here today to give thanks for 150 years of accessible education at Canterbury University College which then became the University of Canterbury.

In passing, we might also note that the 27th March 2023 was the 175th anniversary of formally adopting the names 'Canterbury' and 'Christchurch' for the settlement-province and principal town, respectively, both proposed by John Robert Godley in 1848.”

Today, rightly and properly, we also understand and use the name Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha for the University.

The value the university placed on accessible education from its founding was underscored on Thursday night at the Gala Dinner which was a focused fundraising effort to build a scholarship fund for 150 students this year and next from lower decile schools.

This focus is in keeping, as Vice Chancellor Cheryl de la Rey reminded us, with the founding ideals of the university in 1873.

Education is a gift as much as a right –

-          the gift includes the foresight of those who begin schools and universities, and the ability to teach and inspire which those who staff schools and universities –

-          the right is that all should be able to learn that which contributes to their flourishing as human beings.

Most societies around the globe recognise that there are obligations to enable learning for all, with the benefit that society flourishes when people are educated.

The University has contributed to the flourishing of society here in these islands and abroad.

The worlds we live in today are better worlds because of the work of esteemed alumni such as Helen Connon, Ernest Rutherford, Apirana Ngata and Rita Angus,

to say nothing of teachers such as, perhaps the most famous Canterbury lecturer of all, Karl Popper.

There is, in summary, much to give God thanks for, as we look back on the past 150 years, and as we look around in this year and see the University in good heart – not something that can be taken for granted in the ups and downs of education in a small, under resourced country such as our own.

But an anniversary is an opportunity to pause and take stock.

What, for example, is the relationship between university and church in a province such as ours which in its European settlement was a church-based settlement?

In the search for truth, what do people of the gospel say to people at the cutting edge of new knowledge?

In other words, what is the relationship between Jerusalem and Athens?

In the passage read from Acts 17, we find Paul the apostle of the good news of Jesus Christ in Athens.

In words reminiscent of life in a university we heard that in Athens, Paul

“argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day”.

And that

“… some … philosophers debated with him … “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.”

What is a university if it is not a place of curiosity about the meaning of things?

We also heard,

“Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.”

What is a university if not a dedication to the search for what is not yet known, for what is new?

Paul in Athens tried to convey a specific piece of good news to the Athenians:

that the God of the universe had entered our planet in the human being, Jesus of Nazareth,

who had proclaimed a new world order, died on a cross and been raised to life,

in order that humanity might be reconciled to God, so that a broken world might be healed.

This is the single greatest public fact in the history of knowledge.

It is a controversial and controverted fact. The Athenians were not exactly overwhelmed by Paul’s message.

It scarcely needs saying that in the history of the University more staff and students have wanted to dismiss or ignore this fact than recognise it and be shaped by it.

Thus, it is possible for Athens in ancient times and a university in modern times to get close to the greatest public truth and shy away from it; to be committed to holistic education and not quite get the whole of holistic education.

Paul bore witness to the reality of the creation and sustenance of the universe a university explores. He pointedly spoke to the Athenians about,

“… The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is the Lord of heaven and earth. For “in him we live and move and have our being”.”

In the quest for meaning of what we learn, is there meaning if cannot, do not, will not recognise the source of the universe and therefore our knowledge of it?

Is there purpose to the quest for meaning and to the search for new knowledge if we do not connect this enterprise to the one who holds the goal or telos of life?

In a sense, there is knowledge beyond knowledge – a knowing of the meaning of the universe as well as a knowledge of the universe. Something of this knowledge beyond knowledge is captured in the words of the psalmist in our first reading this evening:

“Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long. …

I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my meditation …

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”

One of the strangest things about the University is that in a church-founded settlement, there has never been a department of theology – unlike the Presbyterian-settled city and university down the road!

I am told there was a strong secularist commitment within the founders of the University.

Nevertheless, within the life of the University, commitment to the One in whom we live and move and have our being has been an important presence through its history.

That presence has been especially represented in

College House, Bishop Julius (now Arcady) Hall, Rochester and Rutherford Hall,

 expressed by

chaplains, students and staff, often forming clubs and societies such as

the Christian Union, Newman Society, Student Christian Movement, the Navigators, Campus Crusade and so forth –

-          all of whom have borne witness to the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

For this Christian presence through 150 years we also give thanks this evening.

If there is much to give thanks for at this 150 year mark, and there is, there is also much to look forward to through the next fifty years.

The challenges before the world are immense – not least because of threats of climate change and a new global war – the possibilities for the University to assist humanity find solutions and resolutions to problems and conflicts are extraordinary.

May God bless the University in all its endeavours.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Is there purpose to the quest for meaning and to the search for new knowledge if we do not connect this enterprise to the one who holds the goal or telos of life?"
Telos, you say? Hmm, that sounds a bit like natural law to me - and 'final causes', the ends to which all things are directed. But secular thinking has rigorously excluded from its purview all but material causes and effective causes - even though all nature, right down the sub-atomic level, cries out that everything acts toward some purpose or end.
Your reference to Popper reminded me of an afternoon long ago in the Otago University library when I discovered Popper's 'The Open Society' on a book trolley, and picking it up I spent the rest of the day and night reading it. Of course, I already knew that communism was evil and wrong (the words are synonymous), but this book revealed to me some of its intellectual underpinnings. I'm not sure Popper was right about Plato as one of his betes noires, but the secular European (and American) Jew has always struggled with the religious impulses of philosophy.
Have the humanities collapsed at Canterbury Uni as they seem to have everywhere else in the west? The disappearance of faith means western literature no longer has a grand narrative to tell, and history degenerates into propaganda. Postmodernism, deconstructionism and wokeism defile everything they touch. But some of us still believe in classical wisdom!

Pax et bonum,
William Greenhalgh