This year’s Queen’s University Graduation Dinner marked the retirement of Senator George Mitchell as Chancellor of the University. It was a great honour to be there, along with so many of the people who have played such a key role in Northern Ireland in recent years. Irish President Mary McAleese spoke of the important role that Queen’s has played in the development of life in Northern Ireland and recalled that she and her husband Martin arrived at Queen’s exactly 40 years ago and that it had such a great impact on her life.
In recalling his involvement in the peace process, Senator Mitchell recalled how that in 1997 when the talks were not going well that he was tempted to give up. He flew back to the US for the birth of his son, Andrew, and with the new baby in his arms, thought again about returning to Northern Ireland. On asking his Belfast staff, he discovered that 61 babies had been born in Northern Ireland on the same day as Andrew. As he reflected on their future, he determined that he would return to continue to work with the people here in seeking a settlement. That effort proved to be successful.
But Senator Mitchell, in typically humble mode, acknowledged that if there has been any success in the peace process then it is due to the people of Northern Ireland and their representatives, not to him. And so he invited John Hume, Reg Empey, Monica McWilliams, Bertie Ahern and John Alderdice to stand and to receive the applause of the gathering. It was a moving moment.
Now President Obama has asked him to be the US peace envoy to the Middle East. Someone at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem asked Senator Mitchell how long the conflict had been going on in Ireland. “About 800 years”, he replied. “800 years?” said his enquirer. “Such a short time! No wonder you sorted it out so quickly!” It seems that Northern Ireland has just been the appetiser for George before he addresses the main course of conflict resolution in the Middle East.
It has been a great privilege to visit a number of women recently who have all reached their 100th birthday. What has amazed me is how well they all are keeping, how alert they are to everything around them, and what fun there has been at their birthday celebration.
I arrived to visit Maud Nicholl at Woodgreen, near Kells. A woman met me at the door and ushered me in, and only when I walked into an empty living room did I realise that the person who greeted me was Maud herself. She did not look like a 100 year old.
Some younger people might say, “Oh, I wouldn’t like to live to be 100.” Maybe it’s time to revise some of our categories. If 80 is the new 60, then 100 could be the new 80! Using that scale, I’m not even 40 yet!
It’s 40 years ago since I first set foot on the Coleraine campus of what was then known as the New University of Ulster, and 36 years now since I graduated. So it was really good to be back at one of this year’s graduation ceremonies at the Coleraine campus.
We were received warmly by the Vice-Chancellor and the Provost and entertained to a beautiful lunch at which I was invited to say grace. Then I had an opportunity to be with Rev John Coulter and his fellow chaplains for a short service of thanksgiving just before the graduation ceremony. It was most appropriate that those moments were taken in the middle of the day to acknowledge God’s help and goodness in the lives of the graduands.
In his address, the Vice Chancellor spoke of the university’s commitment to diversity and how that the educational experience of higher education was enriched and enhanced by a diverse student population. He reported that UU has been able to welcome many international students into its degree programmes. My friend, Professor Manny Ortiz would agree with his emphasis. He says, “Education is who you go to school with.” Friendships formed and lessons learned from classmates probably have more lasting and memorable effects than the formal curriculum which is taught. Almost forty years on, I have forgotten much of what I learned in the courses I took, but the names and memories of my fellow students are still vivid.
While there was clear evidence of diversity in the student population as well as much diversity in the range of degree programmes offered, I was looking for something that united all these people engaged in such widely different areas. Is it tolerance or respect or freedom or personal development? After all, it is a university. What is that unites geography and biology, computing and media studies, history and art?
It is not by accident that in Western Europe the universities had their origin in the monasteries which were centres of learning as well as prayer. Christians believe that the God who is at work in the world of economic life is the same God who sustains the world explored by nuclear physicists. When that divine integrating centre is lost, then the sciences and the humanities become distant from one another and communication between them begins to wither.
Postmodernism expresses its suspicion of all metanarratives and unifying principles. But when God and Christ are left out of our thinking, then other gods quickly arise in an attempt to unify human thinking. There has been the effort to explain all human behaviour and beliefs within an evolutionary, naturalistic paradigm. Human worth has been assessed in terms of “utility”. All moral discussions have been reduced to a universal language of rights. And others have tried to evaluate education systems solely in terms of their impact on the national economy. I believe that all of those gods and idols will ultimately fail us.
The Bible says that it is Christ who is the centre around which everything turns. “He is before all things and in Him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1). The question is: Without Christ, can universities be universities? What is the point of education and learning if it is not “to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever’? That’s why the thanksgiving service conducted by the chaplains was an essential and important part of yesterday’s graduation.