Wednesday, March 25th, 2009
This year Cambridge University is busy with its 800th year commemoration, as the signs attached to the lampposts on the main roads coming into the city make clear. The opening ceremony for the year was a brilliant light show projected onto the Senate House and Old Schools one blustery evening last month. Never have I seen the city centre more crowded but the show accompanied by church bells was worth it. Part art-tech extravaganza, part historical panorama and part entertainment, with Quentin Blake’s delightful cartoons prominent, it was designed as a celebration of the university’s achievements. Science, naturally, was to the fore with references to Newton, Babbage and Darwin while Milton, I saw, represented the arts. But unless you count the church bells that accompanied the show, there seemed precious little mention of religion. That is in Cambridge, cradle of the Reformation and home to the Puritans, let alone with colleges named Jesus, Christ's and Trinity, etc! Was this secular bias? It seemed so unless there are other events, which acknowledge the Christian contribution to the university’s history.
This is curious really, poor history apart from anything else, from people who should know better. I was particularly struck by this, as recently there have been two publications which have recognized the positive impact of Christianity on the culture. And the extraordinary thing is both are by atheists. People whom you would expect to be among Christianity’s cultured despisers turn out to be Christianity’s cultured admirers.
The first was an article, just after Christmas, by the Times columnist and very open homosexual Matthew Parris. He recounts that since a childhood spent in Malawi he had recognized that the schools and hospitals he saw were the work of the missions. But while he had been prepared to acknowledge this, he felt the faith behind these good works was merely their prop. Now however, after a recent visit, he understood how the faith itself was truly transformational and liberating. The title of the article was: ‘As an atheist I truly believe Africa needs God’, and the subtitle was: ‘Missionaries, not aid money are the solution to Africa’s biggest problem - the crushing passivity of the people’s mindset'. He explained how he had seen in the Africans who had become Christians a curiosity and openness to life, a self-confidence and sense of dignity as well as a very practical diligence and honesty, which a traditional African way of life simply did not provide. Amen to that.
The second publication was a book by the Italian Senator and academic, Marcello Pera, entitled, ’Why We Must Call Ourselves Christians'. Again an atheist argues that for Europe to be truly liberal, relativism must be resisted as it breaks down the framework that ensures our freedoms. He acknowledges that in the Christian idea of man being made in the image of God, humanity is given a value found in no other culture. He is worried about the new biotechnologies, the poor state of public and private ethics and the growth of Islam and insists that the Christian foundational roots of Europe be clearly recognized.
It’s fascinating stuff and it’s no wonder that Pope Benedict XVI has warmly reviewed the book.
Let’s hope that in its celebrations the university shows a similar clear-sightedness.
This article first appeared in Christian Heritage's March Newsletter. It is reproduced here by the kind permission of Christian Heritage.