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.