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Address at the Commemoration of Benefactors

7 February 2007

The Rev'd Professor George Newlands (Dean of Trinity Hall 1982-1986)

In the name of God…

(Jn 3.16.)  

Benefaction is a good thing.  It is better to give than to receive – though perhaps not if it is a peerage.  Academic institutions in the UK are waking up to the painful fact that we do not have a culture of giving on the same level as exists in the United States, and so our research suffers in proportion to our funding deficiencies. Heads of academic institutions are increasingly charged with the primary task of fund raising . If we are to move further up the league table of the world’s top universities – without which there will be no entrance to the Kingdom of heaven – not to mention Goldman Sachs, we need more financial muscle.  We  begin to feel uncomfortable. Talking of the Kingdom, we  discover that the Church of England is now so impoverished that our leaders have to avoid  giving offence to wealthy  pressure groups, in order to stay afloat.  Think of Jesus secluded in the wilderness,  writing out grant proposals to the Herod Family  Research Foundation.

Without benefactors we should not have the  unquestionable delights of Trinity Hall today, architectural, cultural,  intellectual and social. Without the crusading Bishop Bateman,  perhaps a kind of fourteenth century cross between Donald Rumsfeld and  Pat Robertson, without  the rather improbable  Sir Nathaniel Lloyd, without the decent and generous Dr Eden,  we should not be contemplating this chapel of sanctified memory and the prospect of  memorable dinners. As a college we have reason  to be grateful for the provision of that five letter word which churches are reluctant to mention- money. Without resources visions remain unrealised, ivory tower pipedreams: in the real world  the hungry remain unfed. As individuals we are only too aware of how much we depend on funds.

Yet the benefactions that we receive personally are very often of a different kind.There are  the imperceptible acts of concern and thoughtfulness which cumulatively enrich our lives in so many ways. There are the friendships and the collegiality which create the most positive aspects of our working lives. There are the     

gestures of love and affection which create the most basic foundations of our personal and family lives. In Trinity Hall I would guess that most if not all of us have had tangible and enduring experiences of this kind of basic benefaction. I certainly have, as my life has been touched at various points - by the great and the good,   by the less great but still good,  by the moderately great and tolerably good. Indeed I have been  lucky in this place to have experienced the  undeserved friendship of a number of amazingly generous people – whom I shall not embarrass, in life or in death, by naming them here and now. So yes, it is meet right and our bounden duty to commemorate our benefactors, and to mean it.

But what, you may well ask, has any of this to do with God?   What benefactions has God given to this college, and indeed to the world?  Why should we be grateful to God?  The traditional answer is still the best one. God loved the world so much that he gave his only son for our salvation.   Over the years we have largely phased out the meaning of this breathtaking claim. Not least we have wrapped it in pious jargon which has effectively removed it from serious discourse. It is not so long since Christmas. God, the hospitable God,  came down at Christmas. The world turned upside down.  In the sign of transformation of the wondrous birth in Bethlehem, God, as Luther put it, was made small for us. The creator of the universe comes to be in the being of another, in the being of a fragile, vulnerable child. Ave verum corpus natum ex Maria virgine. Women are the witnesses of incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection.  The Christ child  grows in wisdom and in stature, not by magic but by experience.  He loved us from the first of time. He loves us to the last.  It is always hard for us to get our minds round complex and sometimes counter-intuitive imagery. But that is partly what we are at university for.

The gods  of the ancient world were in many ways terrible gods, imposing all kinds of dire penalties on their followers to drive them to submission and obedience - and  Christianity was soon to follow suit. But to substitute one tyranny for another was to miss the breathtaking radicalism of the Gospel.  Love came down at Christmas. God came out  at Christmas, we may say, reflecting on the current traumas of the Church of England, and she surprised us. Lectio difficiliorpotior, as we say in Glasgow.  The real daring is not the daring of trendy ecclesiastical pressure groups, but  the daring of God in Incarnation. John Calvin  ( patron saint of miserable Scottish religion, and bringer of cloud, rain and midges)  reflecting on the Gospel said this, ‘We ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love; here there is no distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God, and not in themselves. (Inst. II.8.55.) You, all of us,  are made in the image of God. This is an image of relationality, not  limiting but transformational . Jesus Christ is the icon of unimaginably unconditional love, of self-giving undetectable, of everything other than  manipulation and domination. Here now is God for us.   This is a gospel for those at the bottom of the league tables, and a challenge to those of us nearer the top of the statistics to be generous and hospitable in turn. 

God is a generous God.   Not a God of tribal partiality, hate, discrimination. Who would believe this today?  Negative imagery  has been operative  in all the major religious traditions. Against this there is a persistent tradition in Christianity and in other major religions that there is a God of love, compassion, justice and fairness, forgiveness and reconciliation.  I want to suggest tonight that the imagery of hospitality may be one useful avenue towards realising this goal.  Think hospitality, as the deep substructure of all worthwhile religion. Hospitality comes in many shapes and forms, and this concept too potentially has positive and negative elements. Hospitality has to be conceived: it also has to be actualised, if it is to be a gift which can be unwrapped and enjoyed. 

A long tradition of Christian hospitality stems from an attempt to respond to the perception of the call to service of a loving God. Beyond explicit mention of hospitality there is a rich stream of reflection on the nature of God as unconditional love,  generosity , compassion.  We are accustomed to think of the doctrine of God in Christian doctrine as a reflection on divine being and action. I want to suggest a  concentration on hospitality  Augustine speaks of hospitality.  For  Thomas the hospitality of God is not as strange as is often thought. .Luther and Calvin can speak of hospitality- Calvin sees it as a duty to migrants. Schleiermacher’s  Christmas Eve dialogue is a celebration of hospitality. Hospitality may not be what we think of initially in these contexts - the theologians were by no means uniformly hospitable. But the  leitmotif is  there. We can find the same confidence in divine hospitality in poetry, e.g. in Auden and Hopkins, in music, in the Christian Mozart and Bach and the Jewish Copland and Bernstein,  in Alf Houkom’s “The Rune of Hospitality.”  We find hospitality in art, in Leonardo and Michelangelo,  in the famous Rublev icon of Trinitarian hospitality, in Chagall’s Mainz stained glass. 

God is understood differently in different world religions.  But they do have aims and aspirations in common, arising from their different visions of God but targeted towards the same human race. There are some bridge concepts which link the religions in their quest for the realisation of God’s will for humanity: one of these is the divine  hospitality.  There remain for  the world religions equivalents in different ways of  the visions - of the compassion of Allah, the righteous love of Yahweh and the self- dispossessing love of God in Jesus Christ and so on. I want to suggest that each of these visions can make a substantive contribution to the understanding of God  as the ground of human rights, and the notion of hospitality as central to God.

God is a God who cares.  Here is a link, if you like,  with a humanist as well as a religious vision. A theological humanism has links with a secular humanism, in sharing the framework of ultimate care. Its distinctive contribution is the suggestion that human caring is also a matter of grace and spontaneity, not simply of enlightened self-interest.  For those of us who believe in God through Jesus Christ, this human grace is the fruit of the self-dispossession to us of the divine rights of God. For all who believe in God, it is a trace of God, differently construed in different faiths, in the created order. But however construed, there is created  a  human rights  imperative, as a consequence of the reality of the hospitable God in an often inhospitable landscape.      When human rights violations hit people they  are not abstract but specific. You  know what goes on. Armed conflicts continue everywhere. Capital punishment increases. Stoning and flogging are not just  journalistic fantasies. Children and juveniles are routinely  murdered or  and recruited as child soldiers.  Conscientious objectors are suppressed. Rape  becomes a resource of military strategy. Deaths in Custody occur with mysterious regularity. People disappear. Discrimination flourishes in unexpected places And so it goes.

How does the hospitable God act? God acts through people. God’s hospitality is expressed in personal commitment and in church engagement. It has implications in almost all areas of human life, perhaps  not least in politics, in its theory and its actualities. Christians do not conduct politics through coercion. Jim Wallis, an American  moderate evangelical, puts it thus in his classic God’s Politics.

Prophetic faith is the best counterpart to fundamentalist religion. We bring faith into the public square when our moral convictions demand it. But to influence a democratic society, you must win the public debate about why the principles you advocate are better for the common good. That’s the democratic discipline religion  has to be under when it brings its faith to the public square.(Wallis, 2006,71) 

God is  pure hospitality, unconditional love. This theme was instructively underlined in a Times article by Martin Amis on the film United 93,which  some of you will have seen,a film about the passenger revolt on board one of the  9/11 flights. In this bleak but immensely moving account love is the vital thread. Ziad Jarrah, the pilot and leader of the hijackers, phones his fiancé just before boarding the plane and says just six words into his cellphone – “I love you, I love you.” Mark Bingham, one of the group who attempt to rush the hijackers,  phones his mother and simply says, “ I just want you to know that I love you.” Amis comments:

Love is an abstract noun, something nebulous. And yet love turns out to be the only part of us that is solid, as the world turns upside down and the screen goes black. We can’t tell if it will survive us. But we can be sure it’s the last thing to go.

We are to be mindful of human rights.  We are to contribute to Amnesty and its sister organisations. But this is only first aid. God , the generosity of complete self-dispossession, calls us to look at the deep structures of our world with different eyes. Hospitality is not just for  special occasions, like tonight. God’s hospitality in incarnation invites us to look again at global economics, at market structures, at the depth structures of our political and social arrangements.  At Christmas we hear the Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings across the way, and the bidding prayer touches us with its very familiarity – ‘ And because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us at this time remember in his name the poor and the helpless, the cold, the hungry and the oppressed, the sick and them that mourn, the lonely and unloved.’ Perhaps we ought to think that this is a call as relevant to February as it is to Christmas. It is  a call not to charity but to solidarity and effective structural change.

In the end I come round to our scripture readings – sero te amavi .  Let us praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us. Not perhaps the most obvious motto for an ante-natal clinic. Without the women, there would have been no famous men in Trinity Hall.  Colossians offers  the last words of our readings. Slaves, be faithful to your masters.  Fellows please note, everywhere in the Bible we are exhorted to be comprehensively obedient to the Master, and I’m sure we are. Two hundred years ago we  abolished slavery. Senior churchmen parade in sackcloth and ashes to repent of ancient wrongs, and we may perhaps  hope that  they will  pause momentarily to reflect on  contemporary discriminations. Let us indeed praise famous men, but recall too with Colossians that our lives are hidden with God in Christ.  We are called upon to act. But only God sees what the reality of our actions means, and mercifully takes away the sins of the world, our very own sins.

Yes, we should remember our benefactors.  And because we have been given much, we need to be benefactors too.  Not to make us more sensitive, or more caring – if that happens fine, but it’s hardly the point, but to respond to the call of God to let hospitality and benefaction permeate the created order. Of course we shall not succeed in doing this as we should. Perhaps we can make a small difference here and there. For this it is  worth remembering our benefactors ,  not least the God who gave us life and love, by giving us his life and his love. In the end, love is all we have left,  thoughtfully targeted and persistently directed love. Amen.


4 Feb 2007

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