Dr. Mark W. Hamilton, professor of Old Testament, was the featured speaker at Abilene Christian University’s August Commencement, held Aug. 9 in Moody Coliseum. He served as editor-in-chief in 2009 of The Transforming Word: a one-volume Bible commentary, and is now working on a textbook introducing the theological and literary dimensions of the Old Testament for Oxford University Press. Hamilton earned two master’s degrees from ACU and a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible Ancient Near-Eastern History from Harvard University. His wife is Dr. Samjung-Kang Hamilton, an adjunct professor of religious education and children’s ministry in ACU’s Graduate School of Theology. The Hamiltons have two children, Nathan (’13) and Hannah (’17).
Here we are together, come to celebrate the achievements of our graduates, both those who squeaked by and those who soared above the fray. Here we are together families and friends assembled to laugh and weep and feel proud. Here we are together to …
Why are we here together? Surely it is not just to celebrate. You can do that better on your own time, dispensing with the tedious speeches and the funny costumes so ill-suited for August in West Texas! No, we are here together engaging in an old and honored ritual that like all rituals concerns the ideals we share, the company we keep, the dreams we dream. We are here together to find ourselves in the great assembly of men and women who strive to learn to be human beings in our own time and for the noblest purposes. Here together we affirm that we are not afraid of the uncertainties of the future nor cowed by the crises of the present nor intimidated by the achievements of the past, but we seek the tranquility that comes from mastering the storms of life.
Speaking of achievements from the past, let me borrow some words from one of the great masters. In his speech accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, given in December 1950, William Faulkner spoke in his wonderful Mississippi drawl of the storms of his own time, the generation that had rotted and bled in the trenches of Flanders and Gallipoli, roared heedlessly through the ’20s and starved in the ’30s, only to see its victory over fascism and mass murder betrayed by the mushroom cloud and the relentless pursuit of Modern Conveniences. As he claimed,
“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself … .
He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”
As people who live in a time of glands rather than the heart, we may profit from his insight that only the eternal human truths are worth writing about, and we might add, the only things worth living for. As an aside, we should also consider the curious fact that most of us are no longer afraid of hydrogen bombs, though it’s not clear why, given their capacities and ours. No, in spite of our substitute fears of terrorism, which like all fears contains a small kernel of truth wrapped in a thick layer of lies and coated with a shiny shell of self-service, mostly our modern world seems washed out, seems to reek “not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope … pity or compassion.” Faulkner, like all great artists and all great prophets, knew us too well.
Yet here we are together, not to wallow in our fears nor to pretend away our banality, but to call each other to something else. As Christians, we share Faulkner’s view that humankind – all of us, all our systems, all our nations, all our ideologies – are deeply flawed and unworthy of our ultimate loyalties, which can go only to God. And we share his view that the pursuit of the things of the soul offers the only adventure worth having. So how are we to have it?
I hope – all of us hope – that you who are graduating will not see today as the end of an era, even for those of you who will never get another grade on another paper ever again. Today is just a comma, a pause connecting the different parts of your life. The adventure of the soul now enters a new phase, building on your past, leaning into your future. In many senses, your real education begins today, for you will now turn to account the numberless facts and ideas, values and commitments that you have stocked your brain with to learn more and more about your place in the world. What will you need as you enter the new and richer life of learning you will undertake?
Four things, at least. Imagination. Trust. Courage. Love. You will need imagination, not just because the old solutions do not address the new problems we face, but because the deepest issues we humans have always confronted have never been solved at all. Rebuilding families, renewing communities, reinvigorating schools and businesses and churches will take more than the go-along-to-get-along approaches we have often preferred. These great activities, which you will undertake in your life unless you settle for just making and spending money – a very pitiful way to live for human beings, I think – require us to ask again and again “What if?” and “Why not?” and “What good may come?”
Also, you will need to trust others and be trusted by them, for the challenges we face in days ahead require us all to work hand in hand to enlist all our best ideas and weed out our worst prejudices. You will need to trust not only those who look and act like you, or those you are taught by your culture and upbringing and education to admire, but also those we are all taught to despise. If you are to take up the high calling of being social entrepreneurs, you must do more than, as people used to say, bear the “white man’s burden” and go solve other people’s problems for them. Can you see that in each problem lies the resources for its own solution, and in each human heart lies the capacity for sacrifice and hope and, most important of all, for closeness to God?
And you will need courage because many will smilingly say to you, while furtively fingering their worry beads, “press more slowly, accommodate, don’t offend, go slow” even when everyone else around you is crying out for bold leadership. You will need the courage of change and self-awareness. You will need the fortitude to know the difference between patience and sloth, between imagination and self-service. This is the sort of bravery that allows us to be joyful in the pursuit of all that is good and noble.
And most of all, you will need love, for without love there can be no way to resist the twin idle luxuries of self-promotion and self-pity, no way to see the other as the fellow traveler in God’s journey. Without love there can be no society, no humanity, no soul, and no future. With love – with the knowledge that the God we serve lives among us, renewing human beings, reviving the dead, and expelling the powers of chaos and evil, and with the commitment to live in that knowledge for the sake of my neighbor – in short, with love, many things may be better than they are. And because God is love, all these other things are possible. For in the final analysis, life is not a fight we must win, nor an ordeal we must endure, nor a burden we must drag about, but a celebration, a joy-filled experience of the mysteries of grace as it soaks into all the creation.
So here we are today, united as a community of love, called by God, challenged by the saints and even the far more numerous sinners who preceded us. Here we are today, aiming at a higher world in which freedom will not mean an evasion of responsibility, nor our success imply another’s failure. In that world, empty bellies and empty minds and empty hearts will be filled with the best things. For in that world, love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice will create victories full of hope for one common humanity cradled in the arms of God. None of us is alone. We walk together, arm in arm, linked in our hopes and in our prayers, seeking the world that God has prepared for us all. We have much to celebrate and much to do. Let us begin this day to do it.