Careers plus care for “the groaning needs of the world”

Professor Andrew Bradstock has provided his Humanities graduation address for wider publication (University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, Saturday 19 May 2012).

But that’s enough about jobs – you know this sort of stuff. It’s been in the news a lot recently. Let me give you another suggestion. Even more than thinking about your career, give some thought to your calling or vocation.

In some ways a vocation may seem rather like a job, but the two are not the same.

Asking the vocational question, rather than just considering a career, takes you deeper. It involves asking, if you like, a spiritual question: what you want to ‘be’ rather than what you want to ‘do’. What you want to achieve beyond a successful career. What you can do, not just for yourself, but for the greater good.

If you noticed that I am involved in ‘theology’ perhaps you were expecting – or fearing – a sermon. Well, you decide what this is. But whether you consider yourself ‘religious’ or not, I want to encourage you to think about your ‘calling’, as well as just the opportunities you may have as a graduate of the University of Otago.

Look at your talents, your gifts, your learning, and ask how they can serve a wider purpose. Think carefully about the opportunities that arise, and don’t take them just because you can. Be led by what a former Prime Minister in the UK used to call your ‘moral compass’. Think about how you will live, as well as how you will earn enough to live.

If you are fortunate, you may find your career and your calling meet along the same path. I consider I am very privileged to have a job which enables me also to connect with my deepest concerns. In addition to teaching and research, I am tasked with promoting serious, informed and scholarly reflection upon the kind of society we have.

My responsibilities at the Centre for Theology and Public Issues include encouraging and contributing to fresh thinking and action about the challenges we face as a country and a global community. In this work I am driven as much by my deepest convictions as by a desire to meet my ‘personal goals’ or achieve ‘success’. And there are many in our University who would say the same, indeed people in all walks of life – whether medicine and nursing; school-teaching; law; sport; the arts; business; the media and many more. It’s a wonderful privilege.

But whatever direction your life takes from this point, keep in mind your vocation. As many people will have told you, you have enormous potential as a graduate of this university. But be your own person. Don’t accept what other people tell you is possible or ‘realistic’. Use what you have learned here to serve, of course yourself, but also a higher purpose – what one commentator calls the ‘groaning needs of the world’.

As we face the very real and impending threat of global warming and rising sea levels, think about how you can most effectively be an agent for positive change.

As we see violence and aggression met on every occasion with more violence and aggression, think how you might promote an attitude of peace.

As we reflect that thousands of children still die every day from preventable diseases, and lack of food and water, think how you can leave the world a better place than you found it.

For the first time in history we have the knowledge, technology and resources to bring the worst of global poverty virtually to an end. What we don’t have is the political will to do so.

We have the capability, as a global community, to reduce our carbon emissions and slow the rate of global warming. What we don’t have is the political will to do so.

You can help change that if you have the moral energy needed to create that political will. Indeed, you may need to have that moral energy if you are to live comfortably on this planet into middle age. And don’t forget that positive change can come by small practical steps as well as by campaigning, by attending to what William Blake called ‘minute particulars’.

For example, tomorrow marks the end of Fair Trade Fortnight. Here in Dunedin, New Zealand’s first Fair Trade city, we held a number of events to highlight the difference that buying fairly-traded goods can make to farmers and producers in developing world countries.

If you and I and all of us in this theatre simply resolved to make our next purchase of coffee or chocolate or bananas ‘fair trade’, that would make the world a bit more just – because we would be joining with millions of others across the world who have also made this choice, who are gradually, but inexorably, changing the rules of global trade.

So my message to you is this. As you face the future you have a choice between cynicism and hope. A choice between believing nothing can change, and being committed to make it change. And by ‘hope’ I do not mean a vague feeling that maybe things will one day get better.

As the American writer and activist Jim Wallis has put it, hope is primarily a decision, a decision based on what you believe at the deepest level, your most basic convictions about the world and what the future holds. You choose hope, not as a naive wish, but as a choice, with your eyes wide open to the reality of the world – just like the cynics, in fact, who have made the decision not to hope.

Thus the antidote to cynicism is not optimism but action – action grounded in hope. And without action we change nothing, however sincere and committed our beliefs. As that inspirational leader of the Digger movement in 17th-century England, Gerrard Winstanley, put it,

‘Action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing’.

There’s a striking verse at the beginning of the 11th chapter of the New Testament book of Hebrews:

‘Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’

– or as my favourite paraphrase puts it,

‘Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change’.

For any significant change to occur there has to be a ‘tipping point’ when a ‘minority perception’ is embraced by the majority. This has happened in my lifetime with the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the gaining of civil rights by African Americans. It happened in earlier times with movements for women’s suffrage and the abolition of the slave trade.

The challenge you face, I suggest, is whether you will be part of the process that leads to a tipping point for the issues we face today – or not. Will you use the knowledge and skills you have learned at this University to develop a ‘wisdom’ that understands the world and can discern how to change it?

Will you be prepared, if you find yourself one day in line to manage the systems that keep the worlds of politics, or commerce, or education, or media, going, to think not just how you will manage or fit in with them, but how you can change them.

Above all, do not wait for others to give the lead, or bemoan the inaction and cynicism of those we might have expected to lead. As the saying goes, we are the ones we have been waiting for.

Congratulations, and go well.

Andrew Bradstock
Howard Paterson Professor of Theology and Public Issues
Director, Centre for Theology and Public Issues
Department of Theology and Religion
University of Otago