Oxford High Jinks

Mar 2, 2012 by

Colin Hannaford

Colin Hannaford –

Jink v.1.intr move elusively; dodge. 2. tr. elude by dodging. n. act of dodging or eluding.1

If you had been in Oxford last week, you might have enjoyed sitting in the magnificent rotunda of the Sheldonian Theatre to witness Dr Richard Dawkins, currently known as Darwin’s Rottweiler, in debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who should be known as the Welsh Hammer, discussing the existence of God and His work.

Its University organisers obviously hoped this would mirror the famous clash of 1860 between Thomas Huxley, then known as Darwin’s Bulldog, and the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, known privately as ‘Soapy Sam’.

At that meeting strong men trembled and women fainted. Its reprise was refereed – if this is not too sporting a term – by a previous Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University, Sir Anthony Kenny, himself a philosopher of great eminence, once an ordained Catholic priest, now agnostic.

I still feel indebted to Dr Kenny for refusing to let me become a philosopher.

This was in about 1968. By then he had abandoned Catholicism and was teaching philosophy in Balliol College, reputedly Oxford’s most intellectual. I had recently been told by the Army medics that I would be totally deaf by the time I was 30. They advised me to start a new career: “in which, by then, you will not need to discuss anything with anyone”.

Philosophy seemed the obvious choice. Balliol responded to my request by arranging an interview with Dr Kenny. After the usual preliminaries, he asked me what I expected to gain from it, I replied: “I hope it will help me to understand the world a little better.”

There was a thoughtful pause. Then he responded with a deep but kindly chuckle: “Oh no. I don’t think it will do that!”

Even then, I was not entirely dissuaded. I took my request to Cambridge. There I was interviewed by a member of the philosophy faculty. He was also polite; but he made much the same remarks. Finally, in exasperation, I asked him: “So, if you think philosophy is no good for anything, why do you do it?”

He pushed back his chair, lifted his feet to his desk, clasped his hands behind his head, and declared, “Because this is the best job in the world: and I’ve got it.”

I am sure now that they both did me a great kindness. I know now that few philosophers have any great interest of doing much more than describe the world: only the most dangerous, or the most careful, will attempt to change it.

Certainly no danger of any change emerged from the Sheldonian last week.

It was all very polite.

It reminded me of the contests organised between two small boys at my prep school, who were first equipped with absurdly large gloves, then encouraged to whop each other about the head, doing no great harm to each other but ‘building character’.

Dr Dawkins, in my opinion, has enough character already and, in my experience, is uncommonly polite. As befits the highest Anglican prelate in the land, His Grace, the Archbishop, never raised his voice. As if occasionally warning against holding or low blows, Dr Kenny would dart in between them from to time to explain a point of philosophy, but the final result was a draw.

Nothing at all was achieved to increase anyone’s understanding. Where it began, it ended.

A few hours later I was attending a seminar organised by Oxford University’s Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion in Trinity College and generously supported by the Templeton Foundation.

It was addressed by Professor J. G. Cottingham, whose précis I used last week. In it, he declared that ‘we need a different kind of religious understanding, one that takes account of the special conditions under which God, if he exists, might be expected to manifest himself.’ 2

I had high hopes that this ‘different kind of understanding’ – actually he called it, as scholars do: ‘a different kind of epistemology’ – is what I would hear. I hoped he would finally have the courage to abandon the endlessly compromised and hopelessly entangled articles of reason and of faith which the meeting in the Sheldonian had just failed again to resolve, and save me from the responsibility of doing it myself. I was seriously disappointed.

I pulled a hamstring last week, and could not cycle.

I drove home in such a bad temper.

On the way I was composing a variety of explanations for my disappointment. One revolved around a lengthy dissertation on the inability to see a forest for the trees.

“It is of course necessary to accept that, whilst there is no certain VERIDICAL evidence for the existence of an ACTUAL forest, if indeed SUCH can exist at all, it seems to me that if we ACCEPT the truthful INTENTION of those who declare they have seen A TREE, and even many trees, often all together and at the same time, that we may INFER that the existence is at least plausible of what may be supposed to be A FOREST. If, that is, there are ENOUGH trees.”

Half a mile later, after the station, I was remembering Charles Darwin’s musing, in a letter, that life must have first struggled into existence from some ‘warm brackish pond’.

“It’s still struggling, Charlie,” I muttered. “Down here, in this warm brackish pond, in Oxford, it’s still struggling.”

Believe me, dear readers, I am a modest man. I was brought up modest, to dislike braggarts, and never to think too highly of myself. On the way home that night, however, I found myself thinking: “Well, chum, you had better face it. You know more than Professor Dawkins, His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor, and Professor Cottingham.

BUT I DIDN’T LIKE IT!

With friends like these, God needs no enemies.

After I calmed down, I wrote to Dr Kenny to recall my gratitude; but also to declare my disappointment that a debate involving three of the most distinguished scholars in Britain, as distinguished as any in the world, had failed to produce a mutually acceptable description of God that might be understandable to, say, a ten-year-old.

I offered a description, which, I said, will pass all Dr Dawkins’ tests; will pass his own as an agnostic; and will help His Grace to understand that God is even more universally active and powerful than is commonly imagined.

My description requires three words; they can be translated into any language; their obvious truth can help billions of young people everywhere to achieve greater peace, justice, and safety.

I am still hoping for a reply from Sir Anthony, but Major Dick Channer MC, whom I mentioned last week, has already replied: “I like your words: ‘The first step is to know that God is your reason to be honest.’”

That’s fourteen. They can be reduced, of course, to three: God is honesty.

Only let it be understood that ‘honesty’ must not be static, lest it become certain.

It must be understood as a direction: like justice – and fairness.

29th February,

Oxford

1 OED.

2 Professor J.G. Cottingham, seminar announcement, OU Centre for Science and Religion, 23rd Feb 2012,

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