Graduation Address: Professor Oliver Crisp, School of Divinity

Graduation Office
Tuesday 11 June 2024

Tuesday 11 June 2024 – afternoon ceremony

Vice-Chancellor, special guests, colleagues, and graduates: I am honoured to be asked to address you here today.

As a scholar in Divinity, you may be unsurprised to hear that I spend a lot of my waking hours with what I affectionately call my dead friends. These are thinkers from the past, sometimes from centuries ago, whose literary remains we academics mine for concepts and arguments as we think and write about topics which animated these long since departed souls.

And, being a theologian, I spend much of my thinking time ruminating about the big questions in life that we all ask ourselves. Is there any meaning to it all? Is there a God? Where do we go when we die? Is there hope? Freud is supposed to have thought that there are three major topics that preoccupy humanity: God, sex, and death. (It seems he would have made a formidable theologian.) But these topics are indeed things that drive us; things that we might want to push away or set to one side, but which gnaw at us in those moments when we are not distracted by less fundamental things that take up so much of our waking hours.

One of the great gifts of university life is that it provides a space in which we can explore such questions. We may not do so by means of theology, of course. Some of us explore life questions via literature, poetry, history, the social sciences. In different ways and with different tools the natural sciences are also engaged in solving fundamental questions about the world and our place in it. We might sum up such varied procedures and topics as questions that fall under the description: meaning in life.

Take a seemingly benign example from elementary physics. What does it mean for us if our world is composed of fundamental particles that no human eye can see? How does the understanding of something so small contribute to the ways in which human ingenuity has developed weapons of mass destruction, by means of which we may ultimately destroy ourselves and the world in which we live? How might we reflect on these matters in the literature we write or the music we play or the poems we compose? In what way will the history of these developments, and the social and political implications they have, be written today and tomorrow?

We live in an uncertain world. Perhaps more uncertain today than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Our understanding of the world (generated by universities) may yet prove to have momentous implications for our future on this planet. That is a sobering thought. But that is precisely why we need the scholarly communities of our universities.

For here we must ask fundamental questions. We must face the issues of the day. Some of us will do so by looking back to the past, to dead friends who offer resources we are in sore need of today. Others will do so by reflecting on the human condition in other ways, in art, say, or in the shape of societies, their governments, and their laws. But we each have a contribution to make, however small or large that might be.

Your time here at St Andrews is coming to an end. This day, this occasion, marks the close of an important time in your life. What can a university education contribute? In my view, a great deal. You are the future. You will shape the world of tomorrow. But what will tomorrow look like? Those whose imaginations are impoverished, and who have not been interrogated by the greatest minds of the past, who have not spent time thinking about the basic questions that face us all, are less prepared to embark upon the task before us.

Those who have had the opportunity to think hard about some of these deep human problems will have a wealth of knowledge and wisdom from which to draw as they face the challenges of today.This ancient seat of learning is not simply a museum, or mausoleum dedicated to the dead. It is a place in which we can learn what is needed, by attending to the past for the sake of the future.

As you leave here, remember: this is a beginning, not an end. We need you to make a difference. Do better.

Thank you.

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