Dean David Hempton of Harvard Divinity School delivered the Edward L. Marks Lecture at Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church on April 9, 2017 and offered his thoughts on Christianity’s role in fostering human flourishing. He frames his approach through Jeremiah 29: 7, 11.
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare… For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
The dean’s personal story as a native of Northern Ireland who experienced The Troubles of the late 1960s and 1970s deeply influences his views on religious and political cultures, ethnic identities and conflict, and Evangelical Protestantism. It is through this lens through which he offered his own thoughts on the three greatest threats to human flourishing.
Violence, especially intra-societal conflict such as civil war and genocide, is a primary threat to today’s world. Citing the internationalized struggles in Belfast, Syria, Iraq, and Sudan, and the global refugee crisis, he posited that the ever-publicized conflicts with massive political, religious, and ethnic divides is a preeminent adversary of world peace and prosperity.
His second threat are global fundamentalist trends which often intersect exclusivist religious intolerance and angry political animus, clearly illustrated in the legacies of Euro-American colonialism, the ethno-nationalism of religiously imbued tones, and the sectarian interpretations of sacred texts. These concerns are amplified by recent studies of religious trends predicting the growing secularization of the West and the increasing religiosity of the global south and east. Within the next few decades, Christianity and Islam will have equal numbers of adherents and some predominantly Christian countries will become predominantly Muslim.
Because of this impending transformation of religions across the globe, the rising religious illiteracy of the West is increasingly concerning and dangerous. He introduced his third threat with this context. Today, “scientific rationalism, functionless utilitarianism, technological innovation, and the decline of the humanities has resulted in a separation of head and heart, and a diminution of empathy, emotional intelligence, and vigorous educational debates about the meaning of the well-lived life,” he said.
After describing these threats, Dean Hempton transitioned with the background of eighteenth-century England. Churches were engrained in the theory and practice of governing. Meanwhile, the rapid spread of Methodism among the Cornish tin miners in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, along with other regional outgrowths, provided fertile soil for Methodist enthusiasm. This dissemination, however, was not without its consequences. Ordinary men and women were spreading religion and threatened the divine authority of the church. Dissent from established churches was either strictly tolerated, seriously penalized, or ruthlessly suppressed.
The dean eloquently portrays the consistent persistence of Methodism. In his words, “a once disparaged religious movement, over time, displayed the capacity to advocate for and help secure three of the most important legal and humanitarian transformations in the history of the modern West: the separation of Church and State, the rise of religious toleration, and the end of state-sponsored slavery.” From Thomas Allan’s draft of the 1812 Toleration Act during the Napoleonic Wars at a time when most were arguing for restricting religious toleration, to the Methodist petitioning group for the abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade, he highlighted this denomination’s unique presence on the frontlines of combating the injustices of its time. His beautiful tribute to John Wesley’s fervent opposition to slavery is particularly noteworthy. “Christian movements have always been at their best when their agendas are about expanding human freedom, protecting the vulnerable, and fighting against injustice.”
His comments about this Methodist progress are weighted with a brief discussion of the darker, sectarian Methodist anti-Catholicism that emboldened a coercive, more bitter faction to embrace moral majoritarian attitudes. He claims that when Christians try to move across this spectrum, bad things happen. Here, politics is abruptly introduced to the discussion through a contemplation of governance. When this more zealous and bitter segment exerts enough influence, politics becomes a zero-sum game with extreme rhetoric that takes the elasticity out of culture. Dialogue across differences of opinions turns personal and public discourse is coarsened. To confront this idea, he returned to the words of the prophet Jeremiah and instructed Christians to seek the welfare of our city, to pray to the Lord on its behalf, and to find our welfare in its welfare. “This governing welfare and hope in the midst of human exile and conflict is perhaps one of the best definitions of human flourishing we can come up with.”
Broadening his focus from Methodism to religion as a whole, he described four lessons learned from Harvard Divinity School’s Religions and the Practice of Peace Initiative and reflected on their applications to modern-day society. The initiative is finding that religious peacebuilding needs to be brought into cooperation with new expertise on global development and ecological sustainability. Fostering relationships with international lawyers and human rights activists is crucial for accomplishing objectives such as categorizing war aggressions as official war crimes.
The second lesson learned is the necessity of finding space for the creative work of women who are frequently cut out of peacebuilding and peacemaking and are often the most serious victims of wars propagated by men. This involves cultivating what John Lederach refers to as a “moral imagination”. This term views the process of peace as more of an art and less of a science.
Next, the Initiative believes that nonviolence is not an outdated or naïve form of problem-solving. Rather, a holistic and successful conceptualization of peace should be supported by a sophisticated global approach that includes mobilizing religious resources, stimulating economic and social activity, and addressing political grievances.
The final lesson of this project is that religious traditions have ingrained in them deep traditions of spirituality and conflict mediation. Dean Hempton encouraged the audience to “drill deep” within these aspects and to use the constructive powers of religion and academia to “get behind international treaties against the use of force.”
The dean pleaded for spiritual peacemakers to lead efforts in using citizen diplomacy as the face against militancy. Human flourishing works best when humans want to flourish. Inclusivity of all religions and a deliberate effort to engage, sustain, and foster the potential of the human spirit is his recommendation of continuing this global effort of a collective peace. Hempton concluded with quote from George Eliot: “Religious ideas have the fate of melodies, which, once set afloat in the world, are taken up by all sorts of instruments, some of them woefully coarse, feeble, or out of tune, until people are in danger of crying out that the melody itself is detestable.”
There is no consideration of what constitutes a detestable melody or who is the judge of its quality, but Hempton urged the audience to merge individual practices of spirituality with a collective agenda of human flourishing.