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Being sure to ‘waste time’ at University.

September 14, 2015

This is the sermon I preached last night (13th September 2015) at the St Mary’s College (the School of Divinity), University of St Andrews Opening Service for 2015-2016.

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-9 and Matthew 6: 19-34.

Like their print version, the websites of holiday companies present an idyllic location. Late evening, orange sunlight streams through tall grass that covers gently rolling sand dunes. Delicate shadows of slender pampas grass blades are cast across a path of lashed-together logs. This walkway leads to a beach against which the pale blue sea cuts a neat boundary with a heat-hazed sky.

We know their technique. Holiday companies present us with an image that they believe resonates with our aspirations. And at the same time the pictures of holiday locations are intended to shape us. Those companies want to mould our imaginations in order that we aspire to specifically what they are offering.

University prospectuses – online and in print – share many similarities with holiday brochures. Every university across the country is filled with smiling students, chatting amiably on newly swept steps of recently painted buildings. Faculty are seen walking briskly with an upright posture. Support staff are cheerily waving to passing students – groups of whom are always racially diverse. Oh, and the sky is invariably duck-egg blue.

This is university life – everyone you meet in St Andrews gives you a friendly wave, each entrance way is swept hourly, all faculty can easily be mistaken for A-list movie stars. And clouds only pass overhead at night.

University prospectuses seek to resonate with your existing aspirations. But university prospectuses also aim to shape your hopes and your vision of the good life.

Chiming with but also moulding our aspirations is what institutions and corporations do. And so they should. Our task – as citizens and as people of faith – is to develop a critical take on what it is within us that brochures appeal to and to what vision we are being crafted.

Our reading from Isaiah is, in one sense, a prospectus – maybe with shades of holiday brochure. We have not listened to a description of a heavenly zoo. Rather we have heard a vision of life in its fullest – and, significantly, a vision in which righteous judgement means justice and equity for the poor and meek of the earth. Isaiah’s is a vision that aims to mould the aspirations of privileged people – to take them down a peg or two. The vision also aims to shape the hopes of disadvantaged people – to lift their heads towards a God who makes their concern a Divine concern.

Similarly, our reading from the Gospel is also a brochure. It resonates with our acquisitiveness and the worry that generates. This brochure moulds our aspirations – not least in terms of our desire to lay up treasures on earth. Just as Isaiah is not describing an eschatological petting farm, neither is the Gospel of Matthew specifying an economic framework. Saving for the future is not forbidden by this text! No, it’s about vision, about the quality of relationships with God, other people and with ourselves to which we ought to be reaching out towards.

Yet we are faced with a problem. That vision to which we stretch towards is under pressure. Our notion of the good life, what we hope for, the deep stirring that motivates us is being squeezed, shaped and distorted. Holiday companies do so with their brochures yet they are but bit-players on this stage. Financial institutions, politicians, media moguls, and celebrities aim to find ways to chime with our aspirations and shape our vision. To the extensive list of shaping forces we need to add universities and churches. We would be hopelessly naïve if we thought that this university and our respective Christian communities only ever shape our vision for good.

I expect we’d want our university to set before us all a vision of excellence, diligence and productivity. We’d rightly be dubious of an educational institution that had a branding strap-line that went something like, ‘mediocrity; it’s the best we can do’. This university will try to shape how you value career advancement, your future income potential, your climb up various social ladders and what this means for others who face systemic obstacles in their home communities; obstacles such as generational unemployment, lack of economic investment, a punitive welfare system and racial or ethnic discrimination. The question is not whether or not a university ought to attempt to shape your values. The question is what those re-shaped values are intended to be. I suggest to you that the most important dimension of studying Divinity at university is the set of tools it gives you to think critically about how you – and others – are being shaped. This is true for all subjects within a university education – and the physical sciences are not excluded. However, there is a singular responsibility for those of us who are students of Divinity (whether we’ve already got bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degrees or not). That responsibility is to learn to be critical in the light of the multi-layered deposit of ancient and contemporary wisdom of the Christian traditions.

To put it bluntly, we read the university prospectus in one hand, and the vision of Isaiah in the other. We read the weekly online memo about the achievements of students and faculty on one half of our screen, and with the Gospel on the other.

But that’s still not enough. The Church – and St Mary’s College for that matter – is also seeking to both chime with your aspirations and mould your vision. And this is as it should be. Who would have much confidence in a church that proudly asserts on its website, ‘worship that just makes you feel warm and fuzzy, preaching that confirms your prejudices, fellowship that lets you select nice people to network with’. Church is supposed to be transformational. However, into what vision of the good and godly life is your church – and this College – presenting to you? The critical thinking you develop in your study of Divinity – especially in Divinity but also in other university subjects… That critical thinking must also be turned towards your Christian community. The skills of interrogating practices, theories and traditions must be deployed towards religion in general and your own formation as Christians.

We would be hopelessly naïve if we thought that our respective Christian communities only ever shape our vision for good. Churches and Schools of Divinity can reinforce consumer acquisitiveness, unjust discrimination, blind patriotism, and passive submission to ‘anointed’ leaders. Your church, my church, our School of Divinity are capable of distorting us rather than shaping us for good.

How do we keep that critical edge that discriminates between the good and distortions? To pose the same question differently: how do we subvert the dominant values that are out to mould us? And what is the dominant values we need to subvert are coming from our Christian community?

It is important to play. I don’t mean competitive sports or competing against ourselves in personal targets for running or the like. By play I mean ‘non-productive activity’. That could be time alone – day-dreaming, letting sand run through your fingers, crafting something useless, reading for pleasure, or simply contemplating God. This is not musing on an essay, repairing a torn jacket, tackling a novel to discuss it with others, or the productive activity of praying for people. It is to take the importance of play seriously.

We can play with others – in a mutuality of what driven people will consider is wasting time. ‘Waste time’ with friends, if the opportunity arises with family too. Play – non-productive activity – delivers pleasure, stretches our imagination, and, says theologian Rubem Alves, it resists the control of our imagination by the dominant values of the institutions of which we are a part.

Come to university and play. That’s a strap line you won’t likely see – certainly not for schools of Divinity. Yet, to play, to preserve some space to be non-productive is vital. It helps you resist institutions’ control of your imagination so that you can be a critical participant of university and church life. Preserving some space to be non-productive is vital for your health, the health of the University and, I would suggest, the health of the Gospel.

Welcome to St Mary’s College – go forth and waste some time.

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