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.

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