David Hempton Receives Honorary Degree, Delivers Graduation Address at Queen's University Belfast

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HDS Dean David Hempton Photo: Queen's University Belfast

In July 2013, HDS Dean David N. Hempton received an honorary doctorate of literature from Queen's University Belfast, his undergraduate alma mater, where he later returned as a lecturer in modern history. In front of Queen's faculty, staff, and students, he delivered the school's graduation address, speaking on the importance of religious literacy and running toward risk.

Vice-chancellor, fellow honorands, members of the Queen's community, families, and friends, I want to begin by congratulating the class of 2013 on your wonderful achievement in graduating from this distinguished university. It's a very special honor for me to be back in my home university and to share this occasion with you.

I am not happy to tell you this, but I have heard over 50 graduation addresses in many different universities, and I can't remember a single thing about any of them. Let's face it, these are not great odds.

You won't remember this address either, not even tonight, never mind in 10 years time. I know this is true, because I sat where you are sitting back in 1974, and I can honestly say that I can't remember a thing about it. Most of you will remember this day a decade from now as the day you did not get to hear David Attenborough speak and, instead, had to listen to some old person you had never heard of before.

Let me tell you straight away that if this is the worst thing that ever happens to you in your life, you'll be OK. Here's one tip you will thank me for later. Of the 50+ addresses I have heard, unquestionably the best was given by J. K. Rowling at Harvard in 2008. Go listen to it on the web and pretend you heard it live.

Not very far from where Rowling gave her inspiring speech, something very bad happened this year. As all of you know, on April 15, at 2:49 in the afternoon, two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring over 250 others.

The Boston Marathon is held every year on Patriot's Day, a Massachusetts public holiday celebrating the first battles of the American Revolutionary War in 1775. In Boston, it's a carnival day—partly celebrating the birth of the new nation, the arrival of spring after a harsh winter, and the sheer resilience of the human spirit.

Thousands of athletes from all over the world, some of them in wheelchairs and many of them running for charity, push their bodies to the limit, cheered on by hundreds of thousands of people in party mode. It's always a great day for the city, perhaps even for the world.

My first memories of the event are of standing at the aptly named Heartbreak Hill, around the 20-mile mark, watching the lithe African front-runners loping along at a ridiculous five-minute-mile pace. Honestly, have you ever tried running one mile in five minutes?!

I also remember, perhaps even more vividly, the wheelchair athletes only just getting the better of the reverse gradient of Heartbreak Hill with astonishing strength and almost superhuman willpower. The crowd's unrelenting support effectively wills them to the top of the hill. Watchers and participants unite in a shared expression of deep human solidarity. There is nothing better in this life than to watch thousands of people united in celebrating the achievement of thousands of other people they have never met. It brings tears to your eyes.

There were tears this year, too, but not for good reasons.

Eerie puffs of white smoke, loud bangs, blood-stained pavements, dismembered bodies, and innocent deaths turned the carnival into carnage. I watched the TV pictures in my office at Harvard just a few miles from the scene. The images were shocking. I thought there would be dozens of deaths.

Public-space, no-warning bombs are deeply cruel events, mindlessly indiscriminate in their punishments. For me, the images triggered unpleasant memories. When I graduated from Queen's some 40 years ago, the "Troubles" had just claimed its 1,000th victim, and this city was in the middle of strikes, political collapse, and terrible violence.

Boston, on the other hand, had seen nothing quite like this before. Its citizens found it hard to understand why anyone would want to do such a thing. What could possibly drive anyone to plant a bomb at the finish line of the Boston Marathon?

The motives of the Boston bombers are still not altogether clear, but some familiar themes have emerged. They include the dangers posed by angry young males dislocated from their communities of origin and disembedded from their host societies; the destructive power of ancient enmities between ethnic and religious groups passed down through many generations; and the capacity of some kinds of religious fundamentalism to radicalize the vulnerable and generate unholy hatred under the guise of religious purity.

So, what has all this got to do with you, sitting here poised between the years of student learning and accomplishment that will soon be behind you, and the years of new starts, fresh adventures, and hopefully even employment, that lie ahead?

So here is one way to think about it. Around the time of the Boston bombings, I was reading a book on the history of violence by a Harvard colleague, Steven Pinker, called The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which argues that, in the long history of our species, violence has actually declined and today, counterintuitively, we might be living in the most peaceable era of human existence.

His comforting message to you, the graduating class of 2013, is that you probably have a better chance of dying peacefully in your beds than any of your ancestors.

The reasons for this include the growth of states and legal codes, the rise of commerce and prosperity, the growing influence of and respect for women, the role of increasing cosmopolitanism and literacy in expanding our capacity for human empathy, and the effect of the escalator of reason in ordering our lives.

In all of these areas, universities and the talent they relentlessly produce all over the world, year after year, are major contributors to a better world. You are now part of that happy process.

According to Pinker, what holds us back from achieving an even better and more peaceful world are what he calls our inner demons, among which are our desire for dominance, revenge, and ideological purity—characteristics which he suggests are often made worse by religion.

Crudely speaking, good religion can reflect the best of what we are capable of, including altruism, compassion, and community service. Bad religion, including sectarianism, persecution, and hatred, can do the reverse.

As a native of Northern Ireland and now dean of one of the world's most diverse and pluralistic divinity schools, I want to leave you with three ideas to take with you.

First, many of the most difficult challenges facing your generation, from climate change to worldwide ethnic and religious conflict, will require high levels of religious literacy to solve.

We are going to need a new generation of global citizens who are religiously literate, not just in a basic way of knowing more information about the world's religious traditions, but globally engaged and morally committed.

For example, a 2013 graduate needs to know how and why predominantly Islamic countries lost economic ground and social capital to predominantly Christian countries in the early modern world and how that deeply affects our world order today.

We need to know how Russian Tsars used the Russian Orthodox Church as an instrument of imperial control in the eighteenth century, resulting in the persecution of Muslims and the demolition of mosques in the regions where the Boston bombers came from.

We need to know why Muslims are killing Muslims in Syria and how religion divides them, and why older American Evangelicals do not believe in climate change (helping to delay much-needed policies to protect our planet) while younger ones do.

Religious illiteracy is one of the most dangerous conditions of our times, even among (perhaps especially among) social elites in the West who control public and foreign policies.

Second, in her graduation address this year, Harvard President Drew Faust talked about the heroism of the first responders in the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombings. Singling out police, firefighters, nurses, doctors, runners, and bystanders, she spoke about those who ran toward—not away from—where help was most urgently needed, even though they did not know if there were more bombs ready to explode.

There were some remarkable stories of compassion and heroism in the midst of horror and tragedy. She urged Harvard's graduating class of 2013 to cultivate lives of running toward.

"Lives in which you are motivated, even seized, by something larger than yourselves, lives of engagement and commitment and, yes, risk—risk taken in service to what matters to you most," not just that which promises the most security and affluence.

If running toward risk sounds too risky to you, at least try walking fast toward something greater than your own self-interest. That's what gets the heart rate up and keeps us morally fit.

Finally, when I was sitting where you are back in 1974, things looked pretty bleak in this city. The experimental power sharing executive had just collapsed. During my final examinations, Dublin and Monaghan were rocked by bombs that killed ten times more than the bombs in Boston, and most of my generation was deeply cynical about the future.

I would love to say that I ran toward "risk," but in truth I didn't. I crawled toward a path of trying to understand how the deadly cocktail of religion, identity, politics, and conflict worked.

That crawl eventually engaged the rest of my life and, in truth, is the real reason why I'm standing here. Others, including many graduates of this university, ran toward far riskier lives of service and commitment in many different careers and vocations. You are the beneficiaries of all those lives, well lived. Even though there is much more to do, Belfast is a much happier and more exciting place to live now than it was then.         

During President Obama's visit a few weeks ago, he extolled the virtues of a new generation in promoting peace and community activism. He stated that this generation was one "possessed by both clear-eyed realism but also an optimistic idealism; a generation keenly aware of the world as it is, but also eager to forge the world as it should be."

He spoke about Northern Ireland as a potential example of how peace and integration can triumph over sectarianism and conflict in a world desperately in need of such examples. In short, what you invest in matters, not just for you and your friends and families, but also for communities and nations and those who come after you.

There is no better expression of how this works than the last sentence of my favorite novel, which I first read as a History and English student at this university. The novel is Middlemarch by George Eliot, which finishes like this: "…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

Whether your acts turn out to be historic or unhistoric, make them good ones, and may you never rest in unvisited tombs.