Wednesday

Freshers Service


Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on towards the goal…” (Phillipians 3. 4-13)


          As new students at Trinity College, you stand today on a threshold between two doors, that of home and that of a new life here.  It's the end of one thing (the forgetting of what lies behind) and the beginning of something else (the straining forward to what lies ahead).  People often linger at doorways at these times: as you left home you no doubt looked back at the familiar threshold with many memories, and parents probably struggled to say goodbye while imparting some final words of wisdom and comfort.  And now you stand here, about to enter into a new doorway, a life at university, as yet largely unseen and uncharted for you.  What words, then, to greet you as you pass out of one doorway and through another, as you strain ahead?
          Standing between doorways gives us a chance to pause, just for a short while and ask what is the goal onto which we press?  Within a University setting, you may think that the answer is obvious: you are here to attain degrees.  But I think your life here revolves around a wider concern: the shape of your journey after you have entered this new doorway will hone and craft you into a particular kind of people.  The post-nominal letters – BA (Cantab) – should indicate the kind of person you have become as much as marking an academic achievement.  So, to ask what is the goal onto which we press becomes the more personal question about identity, who do I want to be?
          In most universities, students will find different kinds of pressures on them which shape their identity.  The American scholar and theologian David Kelsey describes two different models of academic formation in his book Between Athens and Berlin (1993).  As we think at this threshold moment about who we want to be, it is worth thinking about the two models that Kelsey describes and how they will form us, who we might become.
On the one hand, Kelsey describes what he labels as the ‘Berlin’ model, by which he means a focus on transmitting skills, promoting neutral enquiry, and meeting academic targets.  You will certainly encounter this ‘Berlin’ model without even trying, as it forms the sets of skills and abilities that you will be expected to master and demonstrate.  The ‘Berlin’ model is, of course, in many ways a good one.  You will, and should, be shaped into analytical, critical, and articulate scholars who are able to reach the targets you are set.  And so you should be: these skills are necessary for the maintenance and attainment of appropriate academic rigour.
Kelsey suggests in his book, however, that the formation of identity within higher education should be about more than just skills.  On the other hand, then, Kelsey also describes a second culture within higher education, the ‘Athens’ model where teachers and learners form a community and share the common goal of personally appropriating wisdom.  The ‘Athens’ model revolves around the idea that a community searches for meanings which shape entire lives rather than only creating skilled individuals.  As Archbishop Rowan Williams commented in a speech in the House of Lords last month, “a good educational system…is one that builds character, that builds virtue.”  That’s exactly the vision of what Kelsey labels the ‘Athens’ model, a community of virtuous character.
As we think about identity, I want to commend this ‘Athens’ model to you.  It will not be a model which one can find automatically.  You will have to be intentional if you want to grow not only as a scholar but as a person.  The ‘Athens’ model concerns itself with finding connections and meaning in the world and our communities, and then letting those shape our desires, behaviour, and self-understanding.  The ‘Athens’ model revolves not so much around neutral sets of skills but around personal habits and commitments.  The goal is not knowledge, but wisdom.  Such ‘wisdom’ means something like the recognisable patterns of living practiced within a community which promote the well-being of an individual and the common good. 
If the ‘Berlin’ model aims to make adept scholars and maintain standards, then the ‘Athens’ model aims to create vital communities and make truth, beauty, and goodness experienced realities rather than abstract concepts.  Friendship and the practice of virtue, especially charity, enable people to recognise they need one.  Such mutuality and attentiveness to one another helps transform this college into a space where there may be a true and just flourishing of individuals and communities before God.
As you stand at the doorway to your life at Cambridge, look for how you might navigate between ‘Berlin’ and ‘Athens’.  Strive to do well within the ‘Berlin’ model, but do not identify yourself completely within it.  St. Paul lists all of the attributes and skills which made him confident in the fleshas to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the Church, as to righteousness under the law, blameless.  Yet, Paul sees himself as something more through the transforming activity of God, the draw of the divine, and in comparison these skills are ‘rubbish’.  While your skills will be far from mere dross, above else it is how you will act with and to one another that will define who you are.
The living call of Christ which Paul experiences is that ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive,’ as St. Irenaeus puts it.  The same call extends from God and through this chapel to you.  In a few minutes, the doorway to the rest of your time at Trinity will be open and you must, once and for all, pass over the threshold.  As you strive ahead, seize the day, be fully alive, and let yourself be transformed.  Seek the common good, find living connections with this community, and so find yourselves.  And remember, this is your chapel, and we are here for you to help you find something of the glory of God in this place and in your own lives.  Amen.