We all, in our way, want to be called `Professor': Faith and Reason

Have Oxford dons been guilty of pride? Margaret Atkins, who has studied at Oxford and at Cambridge, suggests that they offer a mirror of society as a whole.

We were treated last week to the disedifying spectacle of a pack of Oxford dons in full pursuit of their own glory. (Temptations, to misquote Oscar Wilde, must be resisted.) Unless they are known as "Professor", they explain to us, no one (especially Americans) will realise how important they actually are. And in any case, ought not academic distinction be awarded with official recognition?

I chose the word "disedifying" carefully. To edify is to build, in the New Testament "to build up the community". To disedify is to demolish, to break down social bonds. The Oxford dons want to reward themselves for being personally ambitious rather than dedicated to the good of the scholarly community. They want publicly to honour competitive values above co-operative. (The pretext, that American scholars are not intelligent enough to understand a different system of naming, is hardly courteous!)

None of this would have surprised St Augustine. He would simply have recognised the pride that always causes social division. Pride was the root of all sin; and the first, disastrous, acts of pride were the original rebellions against God, by the fallen angels, and by the first human couple.

Augustine's analysis is sharply relevant to the case of Oxford. To turn away from God, he argued, is to turn away from what is shared and common, to what is one's own. And to value what is one's own at the expense of what is shared is in fact to deprive oneself of what is good. The word "privation", he said, was related to the word "private". If you aim at what is private, you will be deprived.

In particular, Augustine applied this analysis to truth. Augustine saw truth as a goal to be shared. Other things were for its sake. Truth could not come from ourselves; it could not belong to us as individuals, to further our careers; it could not be private. If it was private property, then it wasn't truth.

The privileged world of Oxford dons provides a mirror for society as a whole. To encourage individuals to magnify their own achievements rather than serve the common good is literally disedifying. Its destructive effects can be seen in precise, concrete, ways. Scholarship suffers, because individuals want to push their own view rather than learn from others. Teaching suffers, because it is more profitable to put time and efforts into publishing (and publicising) one's own thoughts. Finally, happiness suffers, as a community of co-operating colleagues and friends is turned into a bunch of rivals who just happen to work in the same place. A society structured on strife has no winners.

The stark claim of Christianity is that human beings will only find true happiness by following the Cross. Resurrection comes through the acceptance of crucifixion. There are no easy fixes in this life. (We can't just redefine ourselves as "Professors".) For once, the scholars of Oxford can help us to understand why.

Human beings are intrinsically social. They are meant to live shared lives, to live in friendship with one another and with God. It is in and through loving and serving others that we find ourselves. "He who loses his life for my sake will save it." When we prefer what is "our own" to the common good, we simply end up hurting ourselves.

Unselfishness, however, is not easy. That is simply a fact of life. (To believe in the "Fall" is to believe that that's not the way that life was meant to be.) Aristotle thought that, given the right education, some human beings at least could simply learn to be good. Even for him hard work was required. Christians have traditionally argued that something further is needed: repentance. Repentance is primarily the recognition that we cannot go it alone. Left to ourselves we make a mess of it.

The root of our failure so often is pride. We quarrel because we want recognition for our own successes (as we see them). We all, in our own way, want to be called "Professor". But there is only so much recognition to go around. We have a choice: to fight over the scraps, or to repent, to rethink our values.

Lent is the period for the Church to do her rethinking. The traditional practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are there to help us in this. In prayer we remember that everything that is "ours" is in fact a gift. By fasting, we attempt to break the strong attachments to "our" things that make us so quarrelsome. By giving to the poor we try to build up, rather than destroy, our communities. At the moment we are all still learners at the art of love. Maybe in heaven there will be enough Professorships to go round.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Project Manager (Procurement & Human Resources)

Unpaid: Cancer Research UK: If you’re a professional in project management, lo...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

HR Assistant / Human Resources Assistant

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: An HR Assistant / Human Resources Ass...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on