Nowadays when I occasionally find myself in a pulpit one of those bad habits one gets into in late middle-age; and never, by the way, in a more famous pulpit than this oneI always have the same feeling as I look round as I do now at your faces; a deep, passionate longing to be able to say something memorable, to shed some light.
I am the light of the world the founder of the Christian religion said. What a stupendous phrase! And how particularly marvellous today when one is conscious of so much darkness in the world ! Let your light shine before men, he exhorted us. You know, sometimes on foolish television or radio panels, or being interviewed, someone asks me what I most want, what I should most like to do in the little that remains of my life, and I always nowadays truthfully answer, and it is truthful, 'I should like my light to shine, even if only very fitfully, like a match struck in a dark cavernous night and then flickering out.'
How I should love to be able to speak to you with even a thousandth part of the certainty and the luminosity of St Paul for instance in Thessalonica, when he and his companions were, in the most literal sense, turning the world upside down by insisting, contrary to Caesar's decrees, that there was another king, one Jesus. Golden words, a bright and shining light indeed. Now something had happened to him, as it had to Christ's disciples, transforming them from rather inarticulate cowardly men who ran away for cover when their leader was arrested, into the most lion-hearted, eloquent, quick-witted, yes, and even gay evangelists the world has ever known. Irresistible in their oratory, indomitable in their defiance, captivating in their charm; overwhelming in the love which shone in their faces, in their words and in their deeds. Well, what had happened to them? We can call it what we like as far as I'm concerned'the Holy Ghost descending,' 'Damascus Road conversion,' 'speaking with tongues,' anything you like, I don't mind. The point is that, as they said themselves, they were reborn. They were new men with a new allegiance, not to any form of earthly authority but to this other king, this Jesus. Ever since their time, with all the ups and downs, confusions and villainies of institutional Christianity, this notion has persisted, of being reborn, of dying in order to live, and I want to consider whether such a notion, as I understand it the very heart of the Christian religion, has any point or validity today.
In the boredom and despair of an expiring Roman civilisation, with all the inevitable accompaniments of permissive morality, addiction to vicarious violence, erotic and narcotic fantasies, it offered a new light of hope, a new joy in living, to one and all, including, perhaps especially including, the slaves. In our uncannily similar circumstances, has it anything to offer today? That's my question. Of course I can't answer it as St Paul and the disciples did. They were the beginning; we are the end. 1, too, belong to the twentieth century, with a twentiethcentury sceptical mind and sensual disposition, with the strange mixture of crazy credulity in certain directions, as for instance in science and advertising (if you happen to cast an eye through the advertisements in your colour supplements you will see displayed there a credulity which would be the envy of every witch doctor in Africa) and equally crazy scepticism, so that illiterate schoolboys and half-baked university students turn aside with contemptuous disbelief before propositions which the greatest minds and the noblest dispositions of our civilisationPascal, say, and Tolstoyaccepted as self-evident. That is our twentiethcentury plight. Let me then, in true twentieth-century style, begin with a negative propositionwhat I consider to be the ineluctable unviability and absurdity of our present way of life.
How can anyone, apart from an occasional 'with it' cleric, provost of King's or Hungarian economist, seriously believe that by projecting present trends into the future we arrive at enduring human felicityproducing more and more and consuming more and more year by year under the impetus of an ever more frenzied persuasion by mass-communication media, and at the same time watching the rest of mankind get hungrier and hungrier, in ever greater want; growing ever stronger, with the means at our disposal to blow ourselves and our earth itself to smithereens many times over, and at the same time becoming ever more neurotic about the imminence of global nuclear war; moving ever faster and farther afield, exploring the universe itself, and pursuing happiness, American style; 'grinding out our appetites,' as Shakespeare so elegantly put it, ever more desperately, with physical and even moral impunity, and spiritual desolation. It is a state of affairs at once so bizarre and so tragic that I alternate between laughing hilariously at it and looking forward eagerly to my departure from the scene, quite soon nowin at most a decade or so. This year, at sixty-five years old, I move into the N.T.B.R. (Not To Be Resuscitated) bracket, when some high-minded, highly skilled doctor will look me over and decide in his infinite wisdom and humanity whether I am worth keeping alive. As I have said, I alternate between a sense of the utter absurdity of it all and a desire to get out of so nonsensical a world.
May I, moving from general things to more particular ones, consider for instance the situation in this ancient university, with which through the accident of election I find myself briefly associated. The students here in this university, as in other universities, are the ultimate beneficiaries under our welfare system. They are supposed to be the spearhead of progress, flattered and paid for by their admiring seniors, an elite who will happily and audaciously carry the torch of progress into the glorious future opening before them. Now, speaking for myself, there is practically nothing that they could do in a mood of rebelliousness or refusal to accept the ways and values of our run-down, spiritually impoverished way of life, for which I shouldn't feel some degree of sympathy or, at any rate, understanding. Yet how infinitely sad; how, in a macabre sort of way, funny, that the form their insubordination takes should be a demand for Pot and Pills; for the most tenth-rate sort of escapism and self-indulgence ever known! It is of one of those situations a social historian with a sense of humour will find very much to his taste. All is prepared for a marvellous release of youthful creativity; we await the great works of art, the highspirited venturing into new fields of perception and understandingand what do we get? The resort of any old slobbering debauchee anywhere in the world at any timeDope and Bed.
The feeling aroused in me by this, I have to confess, is not so much disapproval as contempt, and this, as you may imagine, makes it difficult, in fact impossible, for me as Rector to fulfil my functions. Here, if I may, I should like to insert a brief word of personal explanation. 1, as Rector, and Allan Frazer as my Assessor, find ourselves as you know responsible for passing on to the university authorities the views and requests of the student body as conveyed to us by their elected officers, and as set forth in their magazine Student for whose conduct they are responsible. Their request concerning the handing out of birth pills is as it happens highly distasteful to us, as we have not hesitated to let it be known. The view of the S.R.C. officers as expressed by some of them, and not repudiated publicly by any of them, is that the Rector and his Assessor are bound not only to pass on but to recommend whatever the S.R.C. may decide. This is a role which, in my opinion, no self-respecting Rector, or Assessor, could possibly countenance, and I have therefore asked the Principal to accept my resignation, as has my Assessor.
So, dear Edinburgh students, this is likely to be the last time I address you, and this is what I want to sayand I don't really care whether it means anything to you or not, whether you think there is anything in it or not. I want you to believe that this row I have had with your elected officers has nothing to do with any puritanical attitudes on my part. I have no belief in abstinence for abstinence's own sake, no wish under any circumstances to check any fulfilment of your life and being. But I have to say to you this: that whatever life is or is not about, it is not to be expressed in terms of drug stupefaction and casual sexual relations. However else we may venture into the unknown it is not I assure you on the plastic wings of Playboy magazine or psychedelic fancies.
I have recently, as you might have heard, been concerned in making some films for B.B.C. television on the New Testament, and it involved, along with much else, standing on what purports to be, and, unlike most shrines, may well be, the Hill of Beatitudes where the most momentous of all sermons was preached some two thousand years ago. It was rather marvellous standing there looking down on the Sea of Galilee and trying to reconstruct the scenethe obscure teacher and the small, nondescript, mostly illiterate crowd gathered round him. For the Christian religion began, let us never forget, not among brilliant, academic minds, not among the wealthy, or the powerful, or the brilliant, or the exciting, or the beautiful, or the fascinating; not among television personalities or leaderwriters on the Guardian; it began among these very simple, illiterate people, and one was tremendously conscious of them gathered there.
And then those words, those incomparable words, which were to echo and re-echo through the world for centuries to come; even now not quite lost! How it is the meek, not the arrogant, who inherit the earth. How we should love our enemies, and do good to them that hate us. How it is the poor, not the rich, who are blessed, and so on. Words which have gone on haunting us all even though we ignore them; the most sublime words ever spoken.
One of the Beatitudes that had for some reason never before impressed me particularly this time stuck in my mind and has stayed there ever since. It is: Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. May I commend this Beatitude to you as having some bearing on our present controversies and discontents. To see God is the highest aspiration of man, and has preoccupied the rarest human spirits at all times. Seeing God means understanding, seeing into the mystery of things. It is, or should be, the essential quest of universities like this one, and of their students and their staff. Note that the realisation of this quest is achieved, not through great and good deeds, nor even through thought, however perceptive and enlightened, certainly not through sensations, however generated, nor what is called success, however glittering. The words are clear enough Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.
To add to the macabre comedy of our situation, into the ribald scene of confusion and human inadequacy that I have been talking about there break idiot voices prophesying a New Jerusalem just round the corner. One always, I find, under-estimates the staying power of human folly. When poor old H. G. Wells breathed his last, having produced in Mind at the End of its Tether a final repudiation of everything he had ever said or thought, I fondly supposed, and said to myself, that no more would be heard in my time of men like gods. How wrong I was! A quarter of a century later a provost of King's, Cambridge, was to carry the same notion to an even higher pitch of fantasy. No doubt, long after I am gone someone will be saying on some indestructible programme like 'Any Questions?' that a touch more abortion, another year at school, and birth pills given away with the free morning milk, and all will be well.
What are we to do about it, this crazy Gadarene slide? I never met a man made happy by money or worldly success or sensual indulgence, still less by the stupefaction of drugs or alcohol. Yet we all, in one way or another, pursue these ends, as the advertiser well knows. He offers them in Technicolor and stereosound, and there are many takers. The politician likewise, often with a nondescript retinue of academic and clerical support, offers the same package in collective terms. Underneath, we all know how increasingly hollow and unconvincing it is the Great Society, mankind coming of age, men like gods, all the unspeakable cant of utopians on the run. Our very art and literature, such as they are, convey the same thingthe bad dreams of a materialistic society. Bacon and Pinter tapering off into the sheer incoherence of a Burroughs and a Becket, with the Beatles dancing on our grave, and Allen Ginsberg playing his hand harmonium, and that delectable old Hindu con-man the Maharishi, throwing in his blessing. Communist utopianism produced Stalin; the pursuit of happiness, American style, produced Richard Nixon, and our special welfare variety has produced Harold Wilson. If that doesn't put paid to all three nothing ever will. As for the scientific utopia looming ahead, we have caught a glimpse of that, too, in the broiler houses, the factory farms and lately the transplant operations, with still warm bodies providing the spare parts for patching up others, and so ad infinitum.
So I come back to where I began, to that other king, one Jesus; to the Christian notion that man's efforts to make himself personally and collectively happy in earthly terms are doomed to failure. He must indeed, as Christ said, be born again, be a new man, or he's nothing. So at least I have concluded, having failed to find in past experience, present dilemmas and future expectations, any alternative proposition. As far as I am concerned, it is Christ or nothing.
To add a final touch of comic relief (because you know an exeditor of Punch cannot help, even in the most gruesome situations, looking around for something comic), I might add that what I have just said is, I know, far more repellent to most of the present ecclesiastical establishment than any profession of scepticism or disbelief.
I increasingly see us in our human condition as manacled and in a dark cell. The chains are our mortal hopes and desires; the dark cell is our ego, in whose obscurity and tiny dimensions we are confined. Christ tells us how to escape, striking off the chains of desire, and putting a window in the dark cell through which we may joyously survey the wide vistas of eternity and the bright radiance of God's universal love. No view of life, as I am well aware, could be more diametrically opposed to the prevailing one today, especially as purveyed in our mass-communication media, dedicated as they are to the counter-proposition, that we can live by bread alone, and the more the better. Yet I am more convinced than I am in my own existence that the view of life Christ came into the world to preach, and died to sanctify, remains as true and as valid as ever, and that all who care to, young and old, healthy and infirm, wise and foolish, with or without 'A' or 'O' levels, may live thereby, finding in our troubled, confused world, as in all other circumstances and at all other times, an enlightenment and a serenity not otherwise attainable. Even though, as may very well prove the case, our civilisation like others before it soon finally flickers out, and institutional Christianity with it, the light Christ shed shines as brightly as ever for those who seek an escape from darkness. The truths he spoke will answer their dilemmas and assuage their fears, bringing hope to the hopeless, zest to the despairing and love to the loveless, precisely as happened two thousand years ago and through all the intervening centuries.
I finished off my filming in the Holy Land by taking with a friend the road to Emmaus. Those of you who still read the Bible will remember the detailshow, shortly after the Crucifixion, Cleopas, some sort of relative of Christ's family, and a friend were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus and inevitably talking as they went along about the Crucifixion which had happened so recently. They were joined by a third man who fell into step beside them and shared in their conversation. When they arrived at their destination in Emmaus, since it was late they pressed him to come and eat supper with them. The story, you know, is so incredibly vivid that I swear to you that no one who has ever tried to write can doubt its authenticity. There is something in the very language and manner of it which breathes truth. Anyway, they went in to eat their supper, and of course when the stranger broke bread they realised he was no stranger but their Saviour. As my friend and I walked along like Cleopas and his friend, we recalled as they did the events of the Crucifixion and its aftermath in the light of our utterly different and yet similar world. Nor was it a fancy that we too were joined by a third presence. And I tell you that whe-ever the walk, and whoever the wayfarers, there is always this third presence ready to emerge from the shadows and fall in step along the dusty, stony way.
Delivered at the University of Edinburgh Service in the High Kirk of St Giles, 14 January 1968
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