Cambridge, MA. I am not sure if readers appreciate hearing about events at Harvard, but I cannot help returning once again to the manner in which my “new” life at Harvard — as professor, and now as Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions — keeps opening up for me the interreligious nature of our lives today. So please bear with this “diary” of Wednesday, November 10. (If you get to the end, there’s a bonus too!)
- 8AM: A small faculty breakfast discussion with a visiting scholar on her work as a lawyer with women in Africa, as she negotiates issues of women’s right, tradition and the crossing points between modern civil law and religious law;
- 9:30AM: A planning meeting for next week’s meeting of the Harvard Chaplains at the Center. These chaplains, officially/unofficially affiliated with Harvard, minister to a wide diversity of Christian and other religious traditions. Their individual ministries are important; of greater interest still is how they have learned to work together across even conservative religious boundaries, learning with and from one another in practice;
- 1130AM: Lunch with the director of a nearby university’s center for Indian studies, a Hindu scholar, to discuss a possible shared program on religious harmony in India after the recent Allahabad High Court decision on the mosque/temple controversy in Ayodhya, with an eye to wider political and religious issues that should be interest all of us;
- 2PM: A meeting with one of my doctoral students on how Hindu ritual theory affects Hindu theological reflection, in turn setting up a different dynamic for comparative Christian theological reflection on language and intuitions of the divine that go beyond language;
- 3PM: A brief time for the arts: several of my staff and I chose the right places in the hallways of the Center to hang three new icons and a piece of Hebrew calligraphy (of the opening of the Song of Songs);
- 6:30PM: At Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, I dropped in on a graduate student group dedicated to the study of Islam, to hear one of my graduate students (for whose dissertation I am a reader) give a presentation on spiritual grammars in the medieval Muslim and Christian traditions, on the issues of language, grammar, spiritual tradition, and the fruits of comparison on this basis — toward a comparative theology and spirituality of grammar!
- 7:30PM: And finally, back at the Center, a World Religions Café — a series in which residents at the Center present work in progress and topics of interest. Last night’s presentation was on the first chapter of the Book of Ruth, where Ruth has to choose whether to return to her people, her family, and her gods, or stay with Naomi and adhere to her customs and to her God, the God of Israel. The two presenters considered how scholars of the Bible and faithful believers (sometimes the same people, sometimes not) might treat Ruth’s decision from different angles. Did she convert? Were all the gods involved real Gods?
Enough for the long day that was November 10, 2010! But it was also exciting, thought-provoking. But what to make of it all? First, such conversations and inquiries do not lead to an inevitable conclusion, no single theological conclusion. That our lives are religiously diverse, inevitably and permanently so, does not mean that we need to become relativists or even pluralists – nor is it a call to arms to turn back the tide of pluralism or even to complain about it. Second, the differences among such events suggest to me that we need a differentiated, nuanced response to religious diversity – which is, after all, a religious and political and cultural and aesthetic matter, even if also a theological matter. Third, the events I’ve just described have all occurred within an academic setting, but such events are the stuff of life, and my wager is that you, my readers often experience something quite like this. You too are living through religiously diverse situations all the time, and can benefit from stopping, noticing, remembering them. Such reflection on a day in your life - like yesterday in my life - may be conceived of as a version of the Ignatian examination of conscience - now usefully extended to questions such as these: What kind of religious diversity entered my life today? What new words, images, and actions did I learn, just by noticing other religious possibilities around me? How is Christ calling me to relate to the ordinary religious diversity of my ordinary life? What shall I say, what witness shall I give, amidst the many religions that occupy my ordinary time?
As for the bonus for those who read this far: I gave my opening lecture as Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions on October 20, and the video is now on-line for your viewing. (Or: you can also skip to the end, and hear the witty and incisive comments of my colleague and Managing Director, Susan Abraham).