Speech by Douglas M. Johnston, May 23, 2009
Good afternoon, and thank you for that kind introduction. It is a distinct honor to be with you today, and I’m very grateful to Dr. Hendricks, Dr. Yang and Dr. Jenkins for making this possible.
To alter slightly something that Doonesbury cartoonist, Gary Trudeau once said, “commencement speeches were invented largely in the belief that outgoing seminary students should never be released into the world until they have been properly sedated.” Well, I am here to assist in the sedation process. You may wonder why I was selected to receive an honorary doctorate from your distinguished institution. Well, for one thing, I’m old; and contrary to popular thought, old people are not just a bunch of cranky, boring, denture-wearing, useless has-beens who are bad drivers. That simply isn’t fair. Some of us are quite good drivers. But growing old is a wonderful part of life; and as we age, we do become wiser. Because of this finely-aged wisdom, I feel confident in my abilities to advise and encourage you, without totally ruining your lives.
On a more serious note, I would like to speak to you about an important, but seldom-mentioned, aspect of life – the need to make it meaningful. As individual human beings, we are all searching for significance. We want to make a difference; we want to leave a legacy. Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson once put it “to leave the world a bit better.” The normal trappings of success – wealth, power, position, knowledge, even friendships – can grow hollow if we are unable to satisfy this deeper longing. This hollowness, in turn, can lead to living what Emerson’s close friend, Henry David Thoreau, referred to as “lives of quiet desperation.”
Ten years ago, a good friend of mine by the name of Os Guinness wrote a book entitled The Call in which he described the convergence of 3 factors that are fueling an unprecedented search for significance in our time. First is the longstanding quest for meaning that has been common to all generations. Second, is the seemingly unlimited opportunity for choice and change in all that we do, which has given a huge boost to the expectation that we can, in fact, live purposeful lives. And third, the fulfillment of this search for purpose has largely been thwarted by one stunning fact: out of more than a score of great civilizations in human history, today’s modern Western civilization is the first to have no agreed-upon answer to the question of the purpose of life. Thus more ignorance, confusion, and longing surround this topic than at almost any time in history.
In today’s world, we in the West have too much to live with and too little to live for. As Os so succinctly puts it, “some feel they have time, but not enough money; others feel they have money, but not enough time. But for most of us, in the midst of material plenty, we have spiritual poverty.”
The mere fact that you found your way to UTS suggests that you already enjoy a formidable head-start in this quest. Religion gives most people their reason for being, so a seminary experience, by definition, can be a very enriching time. While this is so, it is only a beginning. The fact that yours is an international as well as an interdenominational experience takes you even further in your understanding of (and ability to deal with) the diverse dimensions of the human condition. But beyond your multi-faith experience and commitment, something more is needed and that something is vision. As our old friend Emerson also said, “Hitch your wagon to a star.” That star, to my way of thinking, is vision; so let’s take a look at what that means.
Vision is that compelling noble idea, which if courageously and effectively pursued, will provide you with the answer to how you can leave this world better than you found it. Because we all have different gifts, different understandings, and different outlooks, vision is highly personal. And while your vision may not appeal to everyone, it is something that responds to the deep longing for meaning within your own heart – indeed, within your very soul. For me, personally, that vision relates to interfaith peace-building. But before I go further with that, let’s look at some of the characteristics of vision.
First of all, why is it important? It is important because so many Americans and others from around the world spend their lives as “trappers of money,” earning and accumulating as much as they can, and then dying and leaving an inheritance. Sounds pretty empty, doesn’t it? Indeed, when you stop to think about it, there is almost nothing you can buy for yourself that will feed your soul. The only thing that does, is reaching beyond one’s self to enrich the lives of others, including, as Jesus encouraged, “the least of these.”
As for the timing of when you acquire your vision, that is totally unpredictable and not something you can necessarily plan. In my own case, to the extent that I can be accused of having a vision, I can assure you it was acquired largely by default. I have often been asked how I made the transition from the political/military arena to that of interfaith peacebuilding. All I can say is that it was an evolutionary and highly circuitous process that began while I was teaching a course in international security at Harvard University. While discussing nuclear doctrine one day, it occurred to me that…
- We and the Soviets were spending trillions of dollars/rubles on weapons systems, the sole purpose of which was that they not be used because we were enhancing deterrence, while half of the rest of the world continued to starve to death. Seemed pretty ludicrous.
- This thought and others led to a felt need to create a new synergy for peacemaking.
- 5 years later, was finally in a position to act on it.
- 7 year project to develop the concept
- Resulting book on religious peacemaking widely heralded: more than 60 reviews following publication.
- Fall of Berlin Wall and its aftermath an instrumental factor in the positive response.
- Later felt a need to “walk the talk” by establishing ICRD.
At ICRD, we practice faith-based diplomacy, which at the macro level, simply means incorporating religious considerations into the practice of international politics. At the operational level, it means making religion part of the solution to intractable identity-based conflicts that exceed the grasp of traditional diplomacy. By identity-based conflicts, I mean ethnic disputes, tribal warfare, and religious hostilities. This then, became my vision.
I established our Center at the age of 60, so one could say that my vision came rather late in life – which gets back to the business of timing and predictability. If I had planned for this in advance, I would have focused my studies on religion and conflict resolution. Had I done so, chances are things would not have worked out – at least not for me – since the pioneering phase of the ground that we plowed in the 1980’s and 90’s was largely dependent on my political-military background. At the time, policymakers felt that religion was irrational and unworthy of their attention; and conflict resolution was thought to equate to pacifism. To turn things in a different direction, it took someone with credible credentials in their own field. Today the context is completely different and ideally suited for any of you who might be inspired to move in this direction. In fact, I would highly recommend it, because the work is exciting; and it feeds the soul.
I will close with a story to illustrate a final – again unpredictable – aspect of vision – that of impact. Among the seven countries in which our Center is currently engaged, our Flagship project is in Pakistan, where, for the past 5 years, we have been reforming the madrasas. Today, one reads a lot of bad things about these religious schools, but they weren’t always that way. From the Middle Ages through the 16th century, they were without peer in the world as institutions of higher learning. Indeed, it was European exposure to them that led to the establishment of our own university system in the West. Little things that we don’t think much about, like funding a chair in a given discipline or the mortar boards and tassels we are wearing today – these came out of the madrasas. Anyway, a participant in one of our workshops turned out to be a Taliban commander of some renown…
- Expressed view that he didn’t know what America wants
- Led to a meeting 2 months later in mountains of Pakistan to address Taliban senior leadership on that question.
- Two hour session in which 5 major questions arose.
- Developed a confidence-building measure to point toward peace based on commonly held religious values.
- Associated networking later enabled ICRD to play an instrumental role in freeing the
- 21 Korean hostages from the Taliban.
Who would have guessed that the inspiration to write a book in the 1980’s would lead to the rescue of 21 Korean missionaries in 2007? Thankfully, it is not required that we know in advance where our vision may take us. It is only necessary that we feel that it is the right vision for us and that we commit ourselves fully to its implementation, wherever that might lead.
So, I thank you again for this undeserved honor. May God bless each of you as you seek and find your own particular vision. My prayer, though, is that as we come to the end of our time on this terrestrial sphere and step up to face our Maker, we can say without equivocation that we have run the race, and we have done our best. Clearly, some of us are closer to that happy moment than others. For those of you who are just embarking on this exciting journey, please accept my heartiest congratulations on having reached today’s important milestone. And may I thank you once again