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The Spike [or Victoria University College Review 1954]

Religion in the University

Religion in the University

If we are going to get any profit out of a consideration of the place of religion in the University, it is necessary to take a long view of the matter. Religion is concerned with the permanent interests of mankind and it ill becomes its friends to be looking for short cuts or to be snatching at temporary gains. More than others they are bound to endeavour "to see life steadily away to see it whole" and act accordingly. So I propose to offer to readers of Spike a few general ideas about the place of religion in our economy.

If I begin by saying that Victoria College has always been a very religious place, I don't want to be misunderstood. I am not thinking so much of the fact page 18 that the Student Christian Movement has always been very active here as of the fact that the prevailing spirit of the place has always been rationalistic, and I think that Rationalism is really a kind of religion. It rests on a positive and bold and very far-reaching assertion about the nature of things that is in held as an article of faith. It believes in Reason and seeks converts. To this belief the College has been very faithful in a world where the opposite religion, the cult of the irrational, has been making immense and steady progress.

I would like to make my point more definite by referring to my old teacher and friend, Sir Thomas Hunter. Once upon a time Tommy Hunter was a kind of bogyman in many an orthodox household of the Province, and he was in fact a vigorous denier of the truth of the Christian Religion. But no one who knew him well could fail to be impressed by his kindness and his courage and his fidelity to the truth as he saw it. I was a student under him for five years; at more than one point in my private fortunes I sought and followed his advice; for many years I used to talk with him almost daily about the affairs of the College and the world; and I count my association with him one of the blessings of my life. He certainly had enemies, for he had a sharp tongue; and he was feared, for he had an intense belief in freedom of thought, which is nowhere popular in governmental and commercial circles; but he was, certainly in his later years, very respectful of convictions that were sincerely held. He certainly had a deep dislike, which he did not conceal, of dishonesty and insincerity and pride and self-seeking; but in moral questions he never left his students in doubt that there was a right and wrong side; and one usually came away from a lecture or from an argument feeling that life was a big thing and that great issues were at stake. Those are but small things.

Now Sir Thomas more than anyone else has embodied the spirit of the College; and what I am asserting is that the general temper of his mind, as distinguished from his opinions, was religious.. No doubt it was a very special kind of religion; but religion it was, and, so far as it went, it was a good religion. A well-instructed Christian no doubt believes much more, but at any rate he believes that the universe is rational, the creation of a rational Being.

Since I first came to the College, nearly forty years ago, there has been a change in the state of opinion and a notable increase in the number of those who accept and practice the Christian Faith. When I came to the College in 1916 it was not easy to find a single member of the teaching body who went to church but I have lived to see quite a big proportion of them doing so. This, of course, I regard as a good thing; but I hope that we shall always remember to be grateful to those who stood up for the rights of reason in days when far too many of the friends of the Faith were only concerned with the cultivation of devout emotions.

When we discuss the place of the Christian Religion in the University we do well to remember that the universities of the western world came into existence during the Ages of Faith and the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge were endowed by Christian men for the promotion of learning and the propagation of the Christian Faith. This combination of religion and learning survived the Reformation and was never more fruitful than during the Seventeenth page 19 Century, when it could be said "Clerus Anglicanus stupor mundi," and when the clergy of the established church were so active in the founding of the Royal Society for the Advancement of Science. It was, on the other hand, in the Eighteenth Century, when the Christian Religion had lost its hold on the minds of educated man, that the universities went to pieces.

We do well to remember something else.. Our forefathers founded and endowed universities because they believed that God was a rational Being and hence that the world that he had created was rational too and ran according to law. In order to see how deep this idea went and how far it led men we have only to dip into the works of the Thirteenth Century St. Thomas or the Sixteenth Century Hooker. Indeed a very distinguished mathematician and philosopher of recent times, A. N. Whitehead, of Cambridge and Harvard, has gone so far as to say that it was the mediaeval theologians who implanted deep in men's minds the idea of the rationality of the physical universe that led them to assume the principle of the uniformity of nature, upon which all the triumphs of modern scientific induction depend. Modern science, he tells us in his remarkable little book "Science and the Modern World," is "an unconscious derivative of mediaeval theology."

If there is any truth at all in this it is worth reflecting upon whenever we approach the subject of the place of the Christian Religion in the universities of New Zealand.

I haven't any proposals to make.. What I would chiefly like to see is simply a greater awareness within the university of the immense debt that is owed to the church by all who care for learning and a somewhat greater willingness on the part of the university to assist the churches in their purely academic aims. I think it is true to say that in both these matters there has been an advance; but I venture to hope that it may go further.

Harold Miller