Dare to know — begin: A new era dawns at the University of Otago

The University of Otago’s new tohu (symbol) and ikoa Māori (Māori name) were launched at a dawn...
The University of Otago’s new tohu (symbol) and ikoa Māori (Māori name) were launched at a dawn ceremony. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
A university’s purpose is to delve deeply into the wisdom of all the world’s traditions, James Harding writes.

This month saw a very significant development for the University of Otago when its new tohu ("logo") was revealed, along with the new name for the university in te reo Māori, Ōtākou Whakaihu Waka.

Instead of a literal translation of "University of Otago," the te reo name is a metaphor that faithfully reflects the context of this place.

It suggests the image of the prow of a canoe ploughing through the ocean waves, and it can be taken to mean "a place of many firsts".

It is exciting to be a part of the university at a time like this. There is a sense of looking forwards to a future that has yet to unfold, but in which we all have our part to play.

This is a particularly exciting challenge for those of us who teach subjects such as theology, which depends so much on delving deeply into the past. What does this mean for us, and what part might we have to play?

When I was at school, more years ago now than I would care to remember, we all had to study at least two years of Latin, and we were then encouraged not only to do three more years of Latin, but to consider taking up Greek as well.

One good reason for this, we were told, was that a major IT company had a preference for employing people who had studied classical languages.

This was because studying such languages encouraged exactly the sort of mental agility that was needed to work creatively in IT.

As it happens, I did take three more years of Latin, but did not take up Greek until I went to university, a decision I have often had cause to regret.

These days I teach students to interpret the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, and to read it accurately and thoughtfully in its original languages (most of it is written in ancient Hebrew, with a few chapters in Aramaic). It may not be obvious why this sort of study is worthwhile in the modern world. Why expend such a lot of effort to learn to read ancient texts that seem to have so little to do with the world in which we live now?

Over the past few weeks, I have been teaching a paper entitled "God, Suffering, and Justice in the Hebrew Bible". This has meant delving deeply into the way people more than 2000 years ago wrestled with some of the hardest questions about the meaning of life.

Why do we suffer? Why do venal and wicked people prosper at the expense of others?

Does it make any difference if we believe in a just and merciful God, or does that merely create deeper problems still?

Is belief in such a God little more than self-delusion on the part of those not emotionally strong enough to face life in the real world?

There may be no immediate practical or economic value to wrestling with questions such as these. Yet there may be a more profound reason why it is valuable to engage with such issues.

Whether or not we share the faith of the people who wrote the biblical texts, whoever they may have been, we can learn from their attempts to develop character and to find wisdom.

Indeed, whether we devote our energies to studying the epics of Homer, the tragedies of Sophocles, or the Book of Job, engaging with how people in ancient times confronted the most difficult questions of life can help us to find the wisdom we need to face the challenges of today.

I think this is where the modern name of the University of Otago in te reo Māori may have something in common with its old Latin motto, Sapere aude, "dare to know," or "dare to be wise."

Perhaps the most well-known use of this motto was by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who at the beginning of his famous essay "Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?" (1784) wrote the words "Dare to know — have the courage to use your own understanding."

The motto does, however, have a longer history. Its first use was in a letter of the Roman poet Horace.

Horace writes that someone who delays a decision to live rightly is like a fool who waits for a river to run out before trying to cross it. One who has made a start of something is half done, so "Dare to know — begin!" (sapere aude; incipe!)

That, I think, tells us something important about what our university is for: to delve deeply into the wisdom of all our traditions, so that we can begin to have the courage and the insight to face the challenges of our world, together.

Associate Prof James Harding teaches in the theology programme at the University of Otago.