To comprehend the religious trajectory of Europe throughout history, David N. Hempton would suggest a walk through an art museum, as he did at the Fogg Art Museum on Harvard University’s campus.
“The predominant images of the great European works of art in this period are … the Virgin and child, a rich panoply of saints, the ubiquity of images of Jesus Christ, the inspiration of biblical stories, and so on,” said Hempton, dean of Harvard Divinity School. “Equally obvious, of course, is the decline of religious narratives and symbols in European art in the modern period.”
Hempton will address the changing place of Christianity in European culture through the lens of artistic expression at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy. His lecture is titled “Secular Europe? The End of Christendom and the Rise of Pluralism.”
Hempton has served as dean since 2012. Previously, he has served as a faculty member at Harvard Divinity School, a professor of Christian history at Boston University, and a professor of modern history at Queen’s University Belfast. He is also a member of the Royal Historical Society.
In addition to his teaching, Hempton is the author of Methodism and Politics in British Society 1750-1850, Religion and Political Culture in Britain and Ireland: From Glorious Revolution to Decline of Empire and Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt, among several others.
“I did most of my early work on Irish, British and early European history, but much of my more recent work is on American and world history,” Hempton said. “In a way, I’ve been expanding outward geographically as my career has unfolded.”
Though his recent work has had wider geographic reach, Hempton’s interest in the intersection of religion, politics and culture began much closer to home.
“What got me interested as a young doctoral student was that I grew up in Belfast during the Troubles and went to the local university in the 1970s, when Belfast was a pretty divided society,” he said. “Religion was definitely a component in that division, and competing nationalisms were also important, but I got really interested in the connection between religion and politics. That’s what got my research going.”
In today’s Europe, Hempton sees a renewed need for religious understanding.
“There are some signs in Europe of a resurgence of anti-Semitism, and there’s definitely difficulties in many countries in dealing with Muslim migrants to Europe,” he said. “I think we just need to think about these things in more creative and peaceful ways than sometimes we do.”
On American soil, Hempton is at work to help Harvard demonstrate this creativity and peacefulness through the renovation of the Harvard Religious Literacy Project and the establishment of initiatives in religions and the practice of peace.
“Things like religious literacy and religion and peacemaking are something that we’re examining with increasing seriousness here at Harvard,” Hempton said.