THE UNIVERSITY SERMON

Preached in the. University Church of St. Mary the Virgin

at 10.15am on Sunday 26 November 1978

by J.R. Lucas, MA

Fellow of Merton College

 

The Sin of Pride

It is meet and right that pride and humility should be the two human characteristics on which University sermons have to be preached. Left to myself, although I might have picked on my modesty as something I should share with you, I should have given the pre-eminence to other among my sins than pride. My greed, my sloth, my avarice or, in this salacious age my lust, are subjects on which I could tell you much that might interest you. Pride lacks immediate appeal. We are not sure what it is, or whether it is a bad thing, when we think of it in purely individual terms. But when we consider it collectively, we can see that it is, together with humility, something Oxford is peculiarly well qualified to preach on. We all of us are proud of our university. We were proud, and our schoolmasters were proud, when we first got our places here. We are, dons and undergraduates alike, proud of our colleges, each grateful that good fortune has brought him to the best college in Oxford, and anxious that everyone else should secretly acknowledge it to be the best. Our parents were proud when we took our degrees, and although we profess to be unconcerned with classes, we are deeply content to record our firsts when occasion requires us to do so, or have our contemporaries allude to them as opportunity offers. We are studious, as dons, not to pull rank, safe in the knowledge that others will do it for us, and that we shall receive the deference due to a fellow of an Oxford college. In an age that is egalitarian in theory but elitist at heart, Oxford men have benefited greatly, as other forms of social eminence have been eroded, leaving a clear field for our own claims to public esteem, which are, if not entirely unchallenged, still generally allowed. Oxford is, as we like to be told by outsiders, a centre of excellence, and a lot of the resplendence rubs off on us, not altogether undeservedly. It is, as we corporately admit on Commemoration Sunday, largely due to our having entered into other men's labours. But it is not only that we have much to be thankful for: it is also, as is our theme today, that we have much to be pleased about.

The traditional response to pride is to denounce and deny: to denounce the sin and to deny the facts on which it feeds. It is the sin of pride on which I am bidden to preach, and preachers are supposed to be against sin. If people are complacent, it is reasonable, and from the security of a pulpit would indeed be tempting, to puncture their self-esteem by pointing out the many respects in which we are not as good as we think we are, and the many ways in which Cambridge, Harvard, or even Redbrick, do things better than Oxford. But I shall neither denounce nor deny. It is partly a matter of our times, partly of style. The cruder manifestations of pride, blatant self-assertiveness, the superbia of the Romans, a bloody-minded determination to get one's own way just because it is one's own, are not very evident in contemporary Oxford. To preach against them would be to miss the target, in much the same way as if I were to preach against drunkenness. Ours is a sophisticated society, and our vices are sophisticated too: we abhor crudity, and our sins are as subtle as our arguments. To denounce these would be inappropriate, and in any case the age of denunciatory prose is past, and here in Oxford it would be foolish to condemn when to praise faintly is much more effective. Our ears are hardened to moral imperatives. The result of being told not to do something is not that we do not do it, but that we do not allow ourselves to recognise that we are doing it: and this, for reasons I shall come to later, is peculiarly so in the case of pride. Nor is it much good to encourage people to deny or suppress the facts. There was a preacher once who preached a good sermon, and was told so by one of the congregation; whereupon he said, "So the devil told me as I left the pulpit". Many Christians have thought it their duty to pretend that they are worse than they are and to make out they have not really done the good things that they have done. So, too, at Oxford we are good at self-depreciation. We do not blow our own trumpet; we put on an air of attentiveness as bores give us a piece of their own mind; and we affect a certain hesitation of speech which gives an impression, although entirely false, of a pleasing diffidence about the correctness of our own opinions. Humility is, indeed, one of our strong points. But the grace of humility that we practise, important though it is as a social grace, does not go very deep. Life runs more smoothly if we say, ‘I may be wrong instead of `I know I am right’, but in an academic community where we are often instructing the young, we often will know that we are right, and often will have to act on that assumption in the course of subsequent conversation, and hope that our opponent will be able, with our help, to see for himself the folly of his own views. We are constantly having to discriminate between opinions: we are often, as tutors or examiners or referees or reviewers, having to assess academic ability. I should be failing in my duty if I did not subject my own work to critical scrutiny, and not let it go for publication until I reckoned it was up to scratch. Whatever verbal professions we make, we cannot believe whole-heartedly in the wrongness of our views, nor can we avoid comparing our own performance with that of others; and although often we shall come to recognise that we have been wrong, and often have occasion to admit that a colleague's work is better than our own, we shall inevitably sometimes have it proved beyond reasonable doubt that we are right, and that by the going standards we have done well; and if we still fight off conceit by tightening up the standards by which we ought to be judged, and muse on the thought that even the scintillations of the most brilliant of our colleagues are, sub specie aeternitatis, but flashes in the dark, we shall be brought up short when we encounter the effortless inferiority of the non-Oxford man, and be left, where we began, with our well-grounded corporate estimation that Oxford is, all things being taken into consideration, not bad.

It would be dishonest to deny, counter-productive to denounce. We need to take a more positive approach, and appreciate pride and understand the pressures towards it, so that then we may be in a position to appreciate also the price that it exacts. Let me, therefore, with all due modesty, propose an analysis of pride. Pride is concerned with the self: individually, each man with his own achievements, aspirations and reputation, corporately with our university's record, prospects and public image. Once we have become free, rational agents, we cannot but be concerned with what we have done, what we shall do, and how our performance measures up to public standards; indeed, each man individually ought on occasion to think about himself, his work and his performance, in much the same way as the officers of this university have a duty to be often thinking about the university's position and policies. It is no part of the Christian religion to deny this. Although some of the atheistic religions of the East, together with the scientific atheism of our own culture, do deny the ultimate existence or significance of the self, and tell me that if I am to follow them through, I must embark on the systematic elimination of "I", Christianity, along with the other forms of theism, is committed to taking the self seriously. If the ultimate reality of the universe is personal, it would be incoherent to explain away in impersonal terms myself and the other persons I know in my everyday life, or to deny their importance in the scheme of things. If matter were the only thing that really exists, or Nirvana the only goal worth attaining, then I should be right to regard my acquaintances and myself as being merely fortuitous concourses of atoms, merely complicated blobs of protoplasm, the result of a chance interplay of DNA molecules and the environment, and there would be no sense in striving to help them, or in seeking myself, to make the most of our lives. But if God exists, and the fundamental category of the universe is personal, we must take each person as being not merely the chance outcome of the evolutionary process but as being also an entity in his own right, and it will matter greatly what becomes of him. Men are often led to theism by coming to realise that only a view of the universe big enough to have room for God can have room for the self: and, conversely, no world view based on the existence of a personal God can discount the status or significance of any other personal being. And therefore Christianity is inescapably committed to taking the self seriously; and although there is also self-denial in the religion of the Cross, the Christian way is not primarily one of negation. I am to love my neigh- bour as myself. It would not be much good to my neighbour, if my attitude to myself were one not of love, but of hate. If God loves us, and we are to love one another, it follows that we also must be concerned with ourselves; and if God loves us, and like as a father pitieth his own children, is merciful unto us even in our failures and the things we do wrong, it follows too that He also rejoices when we do well, and, like an earthly parent, is proud when we are given our degrees or win our fellowships; and is proud, too, of this university, when it proves itself to be, as it should be, an institution that fosters beauty, generosity and good will, and a light that illuminates the truth and guides our feet into the way of knowledge.

And yet, and yet. There is a certain sense of strain in talking of the Almighty as feeling even paternal pride, and the account I have given, right though it may be in stressing the importance of the self, is altogether too easy and too cosy to be an adequate account of what even Bertrand Russell called the ego-centric predicament. In the story of the Garden of Eden, the discovery of the self was the beginning of sorrow and the origin of sin. Once we know ourselves as free, rational agents, knowing good and evil, and capable of choosing either, the question of "What shall we do?" becomes acute, and the problem of "How can we make good?" begins to haunt us, and leaves us no rest and no peace, unless we can find God, where alone there is an end of journeying and in whom alone our restless selves can find their peace. Adam and Eve, when they ate of the tree of knowledge knew that they were naked. Pascal and Dostoievski, when they were emancipated from the shackles of custom and habitual morality, knew that if all things were permitted, nothing was worth doing, and that the prospect of freedom was a life-time of tedium, in which all there is for me to do is to kill time until in the end time kills me. The self, though precious in the eyes of God, is in itself insufficient as an object of value. It is not enough to make an activity worthwhile that it happens to divert me, nor can any action be accounted an achievement solely by reason of its being an action of mine. If my pride feeds solely on the fact that I am what I am, and have done what I have done, it becomes an empty vanity; while if it seeks to rest its case on such independent merits as I or my achievements may possess, then it must recognise that the source of value is external to myself, and my relative unimportance in comparison with that. As I think through pride, I begin to see that it betokens a certain littleness of mind. That is why it was incongruous to speak of God feeling pride. He can and does share our joy in our achievements, and is gratified at our successes: but to speak of him taking pride in them would suggest that he was comparing them with those obtained by other gods' children, and drawing comfort from the comparison; it is to impute to the Almighty the limitations of our finite selves. And once I have seen how ungodlike pride is, it ceases to satisfy me even in my human estate, and instead of being puffed up by pride, I find myself somewhat deflated by it.

If we take the self seriously, we must think about ourselves, yet can never be content to be thinking only, or even much, about ourselves, but rather, shall always be impelled to think about something better, realising that there are better things to think about than ourselves. To think too much of oneself is not to commit a sin of an interesting hue of scarlet, but to be a bore, a grey man obsessed with a grey subject. The answer to me when I keep on harping on my own excellencies is not that what I say is false, but that it is irrelevant. Of course, I may think more highly of myself than I ought to think, and then it is open to my colleagues to point out the errors of facts and of judgment in my assessment of the situation. But even if I think of myself at just the right degree of altitude, and am guilty of no falsehood in my assessment of myself, I am still in danger, if I spend too long on that topic, of digressing from the main business of my life, which is the pursuit of truth and the sharing of knowledge. And so too, if I set my sights on success in Oxford, I doom myself to disappointment. Although many people come up to Oxford in order to get on in life, they will, if they are wise, in due course go down, because success in those terms is not what Oxford offers. If I stay in Oxford in order to get on, I shall get nowhere. As year succeeds year without my succeeding at all, I shall decline into that state of nervous irritability common among middle-aged dons who realise that they have missed the boat, and are now eating out their hearts by the quiet waters of futility. Fruitless to seek comfort then in the complacency that Oxford often also engenders. For if the question be put ``How good am I really?", the spiritually despairing response is as much the right answer as the socially complacent one. They are both right answers to the wrong question. For the raison d'être of the university is not to enable either me individually or us collectively to succeed in outdoing others, but to enable us all to seek truth and share knowledge together. It is only against that background that it makes sense to talk of success either individually or collectively, but once those goals of the intellectual life are in the picture, all questions of success, whether personal, or corporate, become purely peripheral. Just as it is a background assumption of all serious discussion and argument that we are, neither of us, concerned to maintain his own opinions simply because they are his own, and we both would rather exchange his own opinion for the true one than persist in believing one that was false, so it is the background assumption of the whole university that what we chiefly value is the dissemination of knowledge and the discovery of truth.

Devotion to truth is not peculiar to Christianity. There were many who sought truth before the coming of Christ, and there are many seekers in Oxford today who do not accept Christianity but who would accept the philosophy of life I have just outlined. Indeed, we may say that the working philosophy of the academic is still very much that of Plato, and engenders an attitude of intellectual humility, which is very often to be observed among academics, and which could well be taken as an adequate prophylactic against the sin of pride. And it might reasonably be asked then whether there was anything specifically Christian to be said about the self, or whether Christianity was anything more than baptized Platonism, adding emotional fervour to a purely rational insight into the nature of the case. To this question, our answer should be that Christianity is baptized Platonism, but is more also. For the Christian, God is the truth, as well as the way and the life, the search after truth is a form of worship, often for many of us in Oxford, more real than anything that goes on in church buildings. But Christian teaching extends over the whole of life, and not only academic life, and is a complete way, and not only a special vocation. It also penetrates deeper, and plumbs to the depth of our being. And for this reason it not only enjoins us to take the self seriously, but enables us to come to terms with the self. We have to think about ourselves on occasion, but when we do so we see ourselves in the right perspective. This means that when we do have to think about our-selves, we can do it reasonably dispassionately. Many people, especially in our own, irreligious age, find it very difficult to think about themselves, or acknowledge them-selves. For them it seems to follow, as it did for Plato, that since to be selfish is immoral, the way of morality is absolute selflessness, and that if I would be truly good I must eschew the use of the words 'I' and 'mine' altogether, and either lose my identity in that of a collective or impersonal whole, or abdicate all responsibility and power of making decisions. Although much that passes for religion, in our own age as in the time of Jesus, is based on hatred of oneself, we should see this as a pathological state of mind, not a religious one. History is witness to the impossibility of thus banishing the self, and the unwisdom of the attempt. We easily think ourselves to be selfless organs of an impersonal ideal, and often succeed in forswearing the more obvious signs of self-aggrandisment: but since we have to make decisions, and have to make up our minds what we are going to do, we cannot escape from our position as originators of action; although we may forgo wealth or luxury or fame, we still are self-assertive in our exercise of power and influence, but blind ourselves to that fact, believing that it is only zeal for the greater good that animates our actions. Particularly if we have often heard pride preached against or selfishness slated, we are prompted by our pride to deny our pride and not to see the part that self-esteem plays in determining our course of action. We deceive ourselves all the more easily because it is ourselves that the deception is about and for the sake of some high ideal that it is undertaken, and we are naturally ready to believe that it is only on a matter of principle that we take our stand. Or else, seeing self-assertiveness in any stand, we lose all courage of all convictions. In the troubled years of the student movement it was very noticeable how senior members of this and other universities felt inhibited from standing up for anything. "Who am I", the faculty member would ask himself, "to tell anyone anything?", and his inability to give a rational account of himself was reflected in a general failure of nerve. But Christianity, because it teaches me not to set too much store by myself, enables roe not to be too downcast at the account I have to give of my own self. It is a poor thing, I admit, but my own. And I can live with it, because of the different view of what is really important that the Christian message conveys. It conveys an insight and an assertion: the insight that the important thing in the good life is not doing well but loving and being loved; and the assertion that we are in fact loved, loved by God, the ultimate reality in the universe, apart from, often in spite of, and always antecedently to, anything we do.

And therefore, although it matters what we do, and we ought to give thought to what we do, why we do it, and what will come of it, our failures are not fatal. And this applies in the academic life too. It does matter what I think. It matters that I should think well, teach well, write well, even that I should examine well, review well, write references well, sit on committees well; and I ought regularly, although only occasionally, to reflect on my performance, seek to better it where it is sub-standard, and consider how my talents should be put to best use in the years that remain to me. But I should not be unduly cast down by my inadequacies and failures, nor set much store by what seems to be success. For that is not the point of a university. The point of a university being to seek truth and share knowledge to-ether, what is important is not a nicely calculated assessment of academic merit, our own or other people's, but the opportunities it affords for entering into the knowledge of other men, acquiring new knowledge for ourselves, and passing on know-ledge to others; for insights, intimations of truth, and intellectual friendship; for libraries and laboratories, lectures and tutorials, common rooms and conversations, the Bodleian catalogue and the University Press. If those are our values, we need neither deny our own existence nor be downcast at our own feeble showing - at the fact that, as the former Rector of Exeter put it when he preached on pride four years ago, we ``have not come off", - ``because our dominant concern is not with ourselves, and in so far as we do think about ourselves, our response will be one of gratitude for those good things we have been able to receive or achieve, rather than repine at the littleness of our own contribution.

We have come full circle. We started with Oxford, which we were proud of, proud to belong to, proud of ourselves for belonging to it: we end with the university, which in its universal commitment to truth makes the prowess of any particular place or any particular person irrelevant to the issues that deserve our main attention and concern. And in following through the triumph of truth over self-centredness, we have been following out Our Lord's own teaching as recorded by St. John (7: I6b-l8) which includes my statutory text for this sermon, when he rebuked the Jews who were commenting on the alpha quality of his performance, and said that it was not to be thought of as his, intended to enhance his own reputation, but as God's, intended only to be true, with no taint of self-assertiveness in it. And equally for us hearers and learners, we learn to recognise the truth and distinguish it from clever self-assertion inasmuch as we abate our pride and subject our wills to the discipline of something other than ourself, making for truth, whom we call God, and to whom be all honour, power, dominion and might, henceforth and for ever. Amen.

 

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