The Faith of Dag Hammarskjöld (by Kathleen McGregor)

CST student Kathleen McGregor

This post is written in conjunction with the Becoming a Public Scholar” course and is directed by Monica A. Coleman.

In Becoming a Public Scholar, we have discussed what makes a public scholar, specifically, a religious public scholar. A public scholar is not only well educated, and an expert in his or her field, there is also an ability to serve and be respected as a public conscience. Dag Hammarskjöld served in a public role as Secretary General for the United Nations from 1953 until his untimely death in 1961. His book, Markings, was published posthumously in 1964. Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash in the Congo, Northern Rhodesia, which is now known as Zambia on a peace mission. As recently as August 2011, nearly fifty years later, evidence suggests that he was assassinated.

Hammarskjöld was born to a prominent family in 1905. His father served as the prime minister of Sweden and other significant roles in Sweden and internationally. Hammarskjöld earned a bachelor of arts degree, a law degree and a doctorate in economics. He followed his father into civil service, which put him on what could only be termed a stellar career trajectory. In anticipation of his death, Hammarskjöld left his diary with a letter for publication.

Hammarskjöld’s public lectures were necessarily secular in nature. A credo he wrote for a radio program, though, revealed his faith. Markings details Hammarskjöld’s inner wrestling with creating meaning in his life, and the deep loneliness that was the result of sacrificing his personal social life for the greater good. He wrote, “For him who has responded to the call of the Way of Possibility, loneliness may be obligatory.” The theme of sacrifice emerges over and over. Yet, Hammarskjöld kept his public life and his contemplative life separate. Markings contains no details from his public secular life. Rather, the entries reveal a glimpse of what made him a human being.

The glimpse comes from the fragmentary character of Markings. The fragments are complete thoughts, but few are more than a paragraph long. I was attracted to his quotes long before graduate school. Still, his writings remind me of a bright child who completes her math homework, but does not show the work to get to the answers. The short thoughts, poetry, and prayers detail his struggle with his ego, his loneliness, and his desire to do God’s will. He also included quotes from mystics, writers, the Bible, and other sources that inspired him. Because he was intensely private, few realized that his inner calling was to take up the cross.

Hammarskjöld admonished himself, “Pray that your loneliness will spur you into something to live for, great enough to die for.” Still, other entries are short and beautiful, such as, “A landscape can sing about God, a body about spirit.” The man lived his faith. One can sense that Markings is both for himself, and in the entries towards the end of his life, for posterity. Hammarskjöld does not fit the profile of the modern, well-connected public scholar who is known for more than just their academic work. Still, he allowed his faith to inform his secular public work. He served as a conscience for the United Nations, and thus is a forerunner of the modern public scholar.

Kathleen McGregor is a student at Claremont School of Theology, Claremont Lincoln University and candidate for Unitarian Universalist ministry. Her twitter accounts are @uukady and @uugreenbeaner. Her tumblr is uukady.tumblr.com.


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