'There is no disgrace in having played, but there is in
not having stopped in time.'2
'I knew a real theologian once … He knew the Brah-
mins. the Chaldeans, the Ignicoles, the Sabeans, the
Syrians, the Egyptians, as well as he knew the Jews;
he was familiar with the various readings of the Bible
… The more he grew truly learned, the more he
distrusted everything he knew. As long as he lived,
he was forbearing; and at his death, he confessed he
had squandered his life uselessly.'3
In no other town in The Netherlands could a theologian begin his valedietory lecture with this quote and not frighten his audience. Here, in the Leiden Groot-Auditorium, I need not fear this. Ever since Abraham Kuenen, we have grown used to Leiden theologians searching for valid knowledge with little or no consideration for their own faith or position. Moreover, I trust that many of you will have immediately recognised this statement as Voltaire's, and not that of a disillusioned emeritus who, tottering on the brink of his academic grave, attempts to drag down an entire Faculty of Theology with him.
Why then do I begin this Address in this way? Let me first divulge my subsidiary motive. It is the one Peter Gay ascribes to the editors of the Encyclopedic: 'I would rather flatter your erudition than undermine your faith.'4 However charming this motive may be – I would like, for instance, to recommend it to our own enfant terrible – today's Voltaire, my colleague Herman Philipse, – it is, in itself, insufficient. My main motive for this opening shot is, I hope, satisfactory, for it leads us into the heart of this afternoon's subject. In the context of
1 This valedictory lecture was delivered by the author on the occasion of his
retirement from the Leiden Chair of Comparative Religion, May 30, 1997.
2 Horace, Epistulae, I. 14: 36.
3 Voltaire, 'Théologien', in Dictionnane philosophique. quoted in Harrison 1990: 173.
4 Gay 1968.