Archbishop Fisher: The banquet of wisdom

Archbishop Anthony Fisher blesses the assembly who attended the opening of new residential colleges at Campion College, Toongabbie. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Given what an important demographic college and university students are for movie ticket sales, it is unsurprising that many films are in academic settings.

Many are comedies such as Monsters University (2013), Legally Blonde (2001), 22 Jump Street (2014), Pitch Perfect I, II and III (2012, 2015, 2017), Acceptance (2009), Animal House (1978), The Nutty Professor (1963 & 1996), Revenge of the Nerds (1984) and Back to the Future I, II and III (1985, 1989, 1990). A few are thrillers such as The Roommate (2011), The Skulls (2000) and 21 (2008). And many are more serious dramas and social commentaries such as Good Will Hunting (1997), Higher Learning (1995), The Social Network (2010), Admission (2013), The Great Debaters (2007), Rudy (1993), Lost in Translation (2003), Mona Lisa Smile (2003), A Beautiful Mind (2001) and The Theory of Everything (2014).

There are some important messages in these films: about the way college life throws you together with all sorts of new people and new ideas, about what brilliance really is, about needing to believe in yourself and really apply yourself, about deciding what matters most to you. I am not sure what life will be like in Jordan Residential Hall of Campion College – comedy, tragedy, romance, satire, drama or thriller, or a mixture of all of the above…

Archbishop Fisher and former Prime Minister John Howard unveiling the plaque for Jordan Hall at Campion College. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

One of the films I named, The Theory of Everything (2014), is about Stephen Hawking, the most famous theoretical physicist and cosmologist in the world, who died earlier this year. The film is an adaptation of a memoir by Hawking’s first wife, Jane, and focuses especially on their years at the University of Cambridge where Stephen (played by Eddie Redmayne) was an astrophysics student. Although he excelled at mathematics and physics, his friends and professors are concerned over his lack of a thesis topic.

After attending a lecture on black holes, however, Stephen speculates that black holes may have been part of the creation of the universe, and decides to write his thesis on time. While pursuing his research Stephen’s muscles begin to fail but his romance with Jane, a literature student (played by Felicity Jones) blossoms. He is diagnosed with motor neurone disease but the two marry and have three children together. While Stephen’s fame grows his frame deteriorates, until he has to rely on an electric wheel chair and voice synthesiser.

Towards the end of the film, Stephen sees a student drop a pen; he instinctively tries to pick it up to return it, almost crying that he cannot. He goes on to give an inspiring speech, saying, “There should be no boundaries to human endeavour. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.” With such quasi-mystical thoughts we might wonder where Hawking stood on the question of God. He would ask: “What is it that breathes fire into these equations and makes there a world for them to describe?”

Here he appeared to line up with great scientists who believed in God such as Albert the Great, Copernicus, Galileo, Boyle, Bacon, Newton, Kepler, Linnaeus, Faraday, Mendel, the early Darwin, Marie Curie, Marconi, Einstein, Carl Sagan, Francis Collins and so many more. Wise men and women through the ages, Hawking knew, had concluded that there are only two possible answers: either there is no reason, no ultimate cause, no ultimate sense to make of the cosmos, it just is, the way it is, until it isn’t anymore; or there is some cause and sustainer of all that is, some ‘necessary Being’ that holds the cosmos in existence and gives it purpose, without which (or Whom) the world would not exist. The long-suffering Jane, who features so crucially in the film as Stephen’s inspiration and carer, is a devout Christian and would certainly have given the second answer. But Stephen wasn’t so sure.

Mr Howard chats to Campion College students. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

For some years Hawking was ambiguous about the idea of a Grand Design and Designer. Sometimes he seemed to hint there was Something or Someone behind it all. At other times he would make comments like: “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.” Finally, towards the end of his life, Hawking came out as an atheist, declaring that “Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation.” With breathtaking confidence in human omniscience, Hawking said that as science progresses toward ‘a unifying theory of everything’ we’ll “know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t.” But he acknowledged that humanity will lack the wisdom of God, and so he feared we will probably destroy ourselves through nuclear war, a genetically-engineered virus or an environmental disaster. The comedy, tragedy, romance, satire, drama and thrills of university life can take you in many different directions…

Our Lord’s direction to his disciples in our Gospel reading today (Lk 10:5-9) seems to be something of a blueprint for student life: eat and drink whatever’s offered, party with whomever will take you! But I think this is perhaps taking things a bit too literally… A better exegesis of this passage might be an allegorical one – take heed those of you planning to Major in Theology. Christ’s words might apply not to bodily food and drink so much as intellectual, moral and spiritual food. Our university years should not be spent hopping about from one house to another, from one fashionable ideology to another, tasting this, that and the other thing from the academic takeaway stores, all with a nutritional value for our souls close to zero. Instead, says Christ, seek the nutritious knowledge and wisdom on offer, remaining in the one house – the House of Truth. Indeed as Blessed John Henry Newman put it in The Idea of a University:

If then a practical end must be assigned to a University course… it is [that] education… gives a man a clear, conscious view of his own opinions and judgements, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought to detect what is sophistical and to discard what is irrelevant.

Campion College seeks to provide a staged banquet of knowledge and wisdom from within the household of Christ. It demonstrates how literature, history, philosophy, theology, the classics, music and technology can be joined in service of high human and spiritual goals. When we meet the graduates of the College it is even more evident that immersing them in a long and valuable tradition of learning frees their minds and expand their hearts to take to the world knowledge and skills, talents and wisdom, nurtured in this unique environment.

It is a privilege to be invited today to bless and open the two new residential buildings of Campion College, including one named for Father Greg Jordan SJ. Fr Jordan was my first headmaster as a boy at St Ignatius’ College, Riverview, and a friend thereafter. A great fighter of the faith, he did not move from house to house, but instead stood undeflected by the ideological fashions of modernity. A great fan of the Christian humanist project of uniting the arts and sciences with faith and reason, he was a great friend to this College. Indeed, he was hugely encouraging to many young adults through ACSA and otherwise. He aptly died ‘in the saddle’, so to speak, collapsing in the ambo while proclaiming the Gospel and dying soon after.

Jesus today send out into our world not just The Twelve – the first Christian priests – but the Seventy-Two in our Gospel passage, the first lay preachers. They too were charged with preaching, healing, interceding, above all proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is very near. And to be the missionary disciple Christ calls you all to be, you must have an intelligent faith, an educated faith, a cultured faith, such as this College can give you.

Enjoy your time here, my young friends, at Monsters University, with your teachers and roommates The Nutty Professors, the Legally Blonde and the Pitch Perfect, in a residential hall that I trust will be known not as Animal House so much as the home of Higher Learning for those with A Beautiful Mind and perhaps even A Theory of Everything! God bless all those who live and study here in the years to come!

This was the address by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP on the occasion of the opening and blessing of two residential halls including Jordan Hall at Campion College, Toongabbie, 7 August 2018.