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Sermon at the Commemoration of Benefactors, 3 February 2008

20 February 2008

The Rev'd Dr John Polkinghorne KBE DD (former Dean) preached the following sermon at the Commemoration of Benefactors, on 3 February 2008:


Ps. 16:6, The lines have fallen to me in a pleasant place; yea I have a goodly heritage.


Although my time as Dean of Trinity Hall was short – a mere three years – I experienced enough of life in this friendly, domestic-sized college to know that the words of my text can readily be echoed by any Hall man or woman. I am very grateful for my time here, and for a continuing degree of connection that I have been privileged to enjoy as an Honorary Fellow.

Of course, these feelings, so appropriate to this annual occasion of remembrance, partly arise from the simple pleasure of participation in a civilised and convivial society, but our gratefulness goes well beyond mere thankfulness for sociability, however agreeable that is in itself. There is a deeper ground for gratitude that exceeds the simple enjoyability of life in college. Academic institutions have as their primary purpose the creation and transmission of knowledge, and in so doing they stand as signals to society of an important truth that is in some danger of being neglected today. That truth is simply this: the acknowledgement of the value of knowledge for knowledge’s own sake. Of course, the growth of knowledge brings with it a welcome growth in general human capacity, including increases in technological power and the ability to get things done. All of us benefit from this, but from the point of view of the academy that is in the nature of a valuable spin-off, rather than its prime purpose. Colleges and universities certainly produce cohorts of trained personnel who make many and varied contributions to national life – as Trinity Hall has done over more than six and a half centuries, from Bishop Bateman’s clerks learned in the canon law, down to the present day, but what colleges and universities are primarily about is not producing technocrats, but instilling in their members a thirst for truth and understanding.

Let me make the point with an anecdote. Robert Wilson was a great American pioneer in the construction of the large accelerating machines that enable us to probe the properties of the basic constituents of matter. He was once appearing before a senate committee, to whom he was making a plea for the provision of some hundreds of millions of dollars for such a purpose. One of the senators said to him, ‘Professor Wilson, what will your machine do for the defence of the United States?’. Bob Wilson paused and then said, ‘Nothing – but it will help make the United States worth defending’. Precisely! A rich country that could not use a tiny fraction of its gross national product to help discover some of the wonderful secrets of nature would be a dull and spiritless community indeed.

The true vocation of the academy is the quest for truth, pursued scrupulously and without reserve. Its method will be the search for beliefs which are motivated by carefully assessed evidence. This is a procedure that inevitably involves a circular interaction between experience and interpretation. The presence of this inherent circularity implies that a degree of intellectual daring is required, for the quest will often be one whose achievement will not be the attainment of a total and unrevisable understanding, but the more modest one of a partial account of the complex nature of some aspect of reality, more adequate than that which had been available before. I think this assessment applies to science as much as to anything else. Its task is never complete and its endeavour cannot avoid having a degree of precariousness. In science, theory and experiment mutually intertwine, as theory is required to interpret experiments and experiments confirm or disconfirm theories. Nevertheless, the accumulated insight that is time and again gained by such enquiry is persuasive that we are truly on to something. The circularity is benign and not vicious. Michael Polanyi, who was a distinguished physical chemist before he turned to other interests, said of his approach to the philosophy of science that he had developed it in order to explain how he might commit himself to what he believed to be true – and he’s talking about science remember – while knowing that it might be false. I think that is the general human epistemic condition. We have to be prepared to stick our necks out a little if we are to be able to see very far. The search for truth is never free from risk.

I suppose that the impressive tale of unfolding understanding that science has to offer, makes an act of intellectual commitment rather easy to make in that case. But what about the quest for religious truth? Can it too rightly claim a place in the academy? Of course, Richard Dawkins would tell you, absolutely not. However I believe that he is badly mistaken.

The face is that, illuminating as science is, it has purchased its very great success by the modesty of its ambition. It only seeks to answer a limited set of questions – essentially concerned with how (by what process) do things happen? It deliberately brackets out the why-questions of whether there is value, meaning and purpose to be found in what is happening. As a strategy for getting on with a particular limited task, that is fine, but it would be a disastrous impoverishment to suppose that those neglected why-questions are meaningless or irrelevant. To address them, we shall need resources beyond science, including those afforded by religious insights. That will require taking into account the richest possible realm of experience.

Science engages only with an impersonal dimension of reality, the world encountered as an ‘It’, one might say. In that domain, experience can be repeated as often as desired, giving science its secret weapon of experimental testing. But we all know that there is another domain of experience, that of the personal, where reality is encountered as a ‘Thou’ and all experience has an inescapable degree of uniqueness. In that domain, testing has to give way to trusting as the way to seek understanding. If I am always setting little traps to see if you are my friend, I shall rapidly destroy the possibility of friendship between us. In religion, it is a simple fact of the spiritual life that you shall not put the Lord your God to the test. Divine reality is not to be manipulated, but it has to be encountered with an openness to awe and obedience. This does not mean that there are no motivations for religious belief, but that they are more subtle and delicate than those of science.

The insufficiency of science on its own to give an adequate account of reality is nowhere more clearly illustrated than by our experience of music. If you were to ask a scientist as a scientist to tell you all he or she could about music, they would surely say that it is neural response to the impact of air waves on the eardrum. Of course, that is true in its way and, in its way, worth knowing, but if you were to ask the same individual to tell you as a person all they could about music, they would surely have much more to say as they testified to its mysterious power to use a succession of sounds to bring us to the experience of a timeless beauty. The truth is, science trawls experience with a coarse-grained net, and many things of the highest importance and significance slip through its wide meshes.

Our Founder, Bishop Bateman, intended that the College should have a chapel, ‘properly constructed’ as he put it, and he left books and ornaments for its use. It stands here today, shaped by changes in architectural fashion over the centuries, as a kind of double witness. To its worshippers, its location at the heart of an academic community, testifies to the fact that the search for truthful understanding matters as much to religion as it does for any other form of human activity. Religion can do all sorts of things for you – guide you in life and strengthen you at the approach of death – but it cannot really do any of these things unless it is actually true. The quest for truth attainable through motivated belief is central to religion, though its motivations necessarily have a different character to those appropriate to science.

To the community outside its walls, the chapel stands witness to the existence of the sacred dimension of reality, whose neglect would greatly impoverish the human quest for a truthful understanding of the rich reality that we inhabit. In fact, I would claim that belief in God offers us the most comprehensive matrix for understanding of that reality in all its complexity. The wonderful order and fruitfulness of the universe that science explores are made deeply intelligible when they are understood as signs of the presence of the Mind and Purpose of the Creator. Our moral intuitions – those fundamental convictions that love is better than hate, that the truth is better than the lie – are made deeply intelligible when understood as arising from glimpses of the good and perfect will of God. Our aesthetic experiences are a sharing in the Creator’s joy in creation. The widely attested human encounter with the sacred, which offers us experiences of wholeness and hope, is truly to be understood as a meeting with the divine presence. As we worship in this chapel tonight, we do so in a context where we can thankfully say with the Psalmist, ‘The lines have fallen to me in a pleasant place, yea I have a goodly heritage’. Amen


February 2008

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