This is the text of a sermon I preached at our university chapel recently (with slight modifications for context).1

What do Moses and Daniel have in common? Reading the account of the birth and upbringing of Moses in Exodus chapter 2 recently made me see a connection with the life of the prophet Daniel. Daniel and his three companions are sometimes held up as having an archetype of the modern university experience: leaving home and family as young people to be tutored in wisdom – a wisdom going beyond what might be learned from one’s immediate family. Christian writers like Gavin D’Costa and Chris Wright go further to suggest that Daniel’s Babylonian education will have been at odds with his Jewish faith in profound ways. The example of Daniel’s refusing to eat the meat served in the king’s court points to this, and we can assume that it wasn’t only at dinner time that the Babylonian ways conflicted with the Jewish. The ultimate conflict came, of course, when the king required everyone to worship his golden statue (Daniel 3).

Like Daniel, Moses was educated in a non-Hebrew environment – but unlike Daniel’s, Moses’ “pagan” education began more or less at birth, and so we might well be concerned about indoctrination. Whether his Egyptian schooling continued through to what is now university age I don’t know. But Moses was not robbed of his Israelite identity, as is clear from his subsequent career in defying the pharaoh to lead the Israelite people out of Egypt. Clearly, being rescued from likely death by the daughter of the pharaoh was a huge mercy, and a recipient of such grace might not be inclined to complain about the orientation of subsequent education. Or should they?

What is it that explains the ways we grow up, the ideals we fight for and the challenges we take on? A major explanation is surely our mothers. The Exodus 2 passage is set in the lectionary for Mothering Sunday – which this year fell very close to International Women’s Day. The beautiful serendipity of Moses’ story hinges on his own mother first entrusting him to a little box (“Moses’ ark”) upon the waters of the Nile, and then being appointed to look after him, even while his adoptive mother oversaw his protection and, no doubt, his education. Not forgetting Moses’ sister Miriam, we see how this episode hinges entirely upon the resourcefulness, care and wisdom of women.

In our own world, a university of some kind is an important venue where a person’s education can continue beyond the rigours of schooling. And perhaps it’s significant that it has become customary to refer to one’s university as an alma mater. This Latin phrase means “nurturing mother”. Some universities take this as part of their official name: the University of Bologna (the world’s oldest) is known as Alma Mater Studiorum, while in 2010 an international university was founded called Alma Mater Europaea, based in Salzburg. I think this is profoundly significant. In an age when university managers (including my own) are wont to speak of their “business”, when national political life and movements all too often impinge on academic freedom, and when students in many cases are increasingly detached from campus life and communities, it’s almost shocking to be told that the university is our nurturing mother.

In bygone times, a student arrived at university to be taken into the care of a tutor who stood in loco parentis. This experience perhaps continues now only for doctoral students who are closely supervised (my own experience, appropriately enough, was excellent supervision by a Jewish professor). But there is surely greater need now than ever for incoming undergraduates to discover a nurturing mother in their institutional home. Anecdotally, I hear that separation anxiety during Welcome Week at our university this year was, if anything, displayed most of all by parents! So there’s a wonderful opportunity for those of us already in this community to help newcomers feel nurtured. And it must be more than feelings! How can we build communities of thinking and living that beautifully combine individual and shared endeavours (as one of our university’s newly-adopted values vaguely espouses)? How can we build up an environment that fosters not just a love of learning, but a passion for scholarship, discovery and innovation? And how can we help students not merely to “make a difference”, but to work to conceptualise and realise the common good?

All of us are here thanks to the care of women. We belong to an alma mater designed to bring out the best in us. Let’s also remember that it’s the worldwide Church that will be the bride of Christ at his return, and that is the channel through which God sends his Spirit to guide us into the best ways of being a university – dare I say, a university fit for Christ to inherit? And as Moses was nurtured by his real and adoptive mothers, so may we nurture and be nurtured – however God guides us – in the light of Christ’s eternal kingdom.

  1. Image: Entrance to Havana University, by Aniol on Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 4.0) ↩︎
Richard Gunton
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Richard Gunton

Richard is the Director of Faith-in-Scholarship at Thinking Faith Network. He also teaches statistics at the University of Winchester. His current passions include Reformational philosophy, history of sciences, ordination (the statistical sort), and wildlife gardening. He worships, and occasionally preaches, at St Mary's Church in Portchester. [Views expressed here are his own.]


Ollie Key · March 21, 2024 at 10:05 am

Thank you for posting this Richard – a great opportunity to reflect more on your thought provoking insights, since hearing you preach on this last week.

Mark Roques · March 21, 2024 at 11:46 am

I really enjoyed these reflections Richard. Very good to be reminded of how Daniel and Moses were educated in pagan contexts. It is such a challenge to imagine large numbers of young students being nurtured by committed Christian educators.

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