A Harvard Catholic Perspective on 'Harvard's Crisis of Faith'

Cambridge, MA. At first I was secretly pleased this past week to come across the Newsweek article entitled, “Harvard’s Crisis of Faith: Can a secular university embrace religion without sacrificing its soul?” The article, by Lisa Miller, religion editor, proposed that Harvard’s relation to religious truth and practice is woefully unclear. Indeed, “in practice, the Harvard faculty cannot cope with religion. It cannot agree on who should teach it, how it should be taught, and how much value to give it compared with economics, biology, literature, and all the other subjects considered vital to an undergraduate education.” So much for Mother Harvard, the Veritas motto and all that. No surprise to me, I thought to myself. The essay simply confirmed the obvious, that Harvard lacks coherent roots for its “embrace of religion.”
     But then I realized that I am not an entirely innocent bystander — after all, for nearly five years I have been teaching at Harvard — and so the article was in some way about me too, not just "them." True, I cannot speak for Harvard, since I’ll never be here long enough to be “Harvard,” to want to speak for the institution which seems to belong largely to those who have been here for decades. But I do find myself on the spot, and so might as well say something now. There is the added factor that I am particularly motivated, since at its end the article mentions an undergraduate who is an alumnus of a Jesuit high school. He finds Harvard very unsympathetic to his Catholicism, and he is quoted as lamenting not only a lack of a classroom environment for the study of his faith, but even the lack of respect: “acknowledging the fact that religion exists and that it's not lunacy to believe in God would be helpful.” (I am tempted to suggest that a Jesuit alumnus interested in fostering his faith should have gone to BC — an excellent education and a rich faith environment! Why settle for Harvard? But that’s none of my business, and I wish our young alumnus well.)
     But here’s what I can say regarding the part of Harvard I know something about, Harvard Divinity School. HDS is mentioned in the essay only briefly: “Undergraduates with more than a passing interest in religion are pointed to the Divinity School, half a mile away from Harvard Yard, where they can take graduate-level courses about belief from people who are, by tradition, believers.” That is in part true, though it would be false to imagine that all the believers teach at HDS, while all the unbelievers teach in Harvard Yard. Better to ask, what good does religion at Harvard do — even for us who are Catholic? Again, I can speak only about HDS, and I will leave the religious politics of Harvard Yard to its experts. 
     I think there is something important to notice here. Often scholars trace the history of universities and religion as a history of decline and secularization, but that is just one side of the story. We need also to consider the opposite possibility, that Harvard and HDS have a place in God’s providential plan, as sites contributing to the retrieval and revival of intelligent reflection on religion in the United States. This is not your typical renewal, nor predictable, but an arduous spiritual and intellectual event that is unlikely to take place in Church-sanctioned institutions; it is a harrowing and purifying deconstruction of much of what believers take for granted, possible when there are no sanctions holding truths in place.
     HDS is a very diverse religious community, where some fifty faculty of all persuasions and domains of expertise work with hundreds of students from a wide variety of religious and spiritual backgrounds. Because HDS is not specifically Christian at this point in its history, this remarkable, intentional diversity is not channeled through specific values, even of a liberal Christian variety. As a result, anyone coming to study at HDS has to be able to take advantage of a spectacular array of course offerings, working with professors of all sorts — then making sense of that learning in a way that will turn out to be personally and spiritually meaningful. The beneficial result is achieved, not handed over. While this process is definitely not guaranteed to produce maturely, articulately religious persons, this good result can and often does happen. Studying at HDS can turn out to be a rich education in faith, even Christian faith, even Roman Catholic faith. We learn our own all over again, by way of questions, doubts, arguments, and puzzles, and in the midst of all this an inquiring faith, along with colleagues and friends of many different backgrounds and faiths.
     This educational opportunity is surely not for everyone and need not be. There are many fine, more specifically denominational graduate programs in theology and religious studies around the country. Certainly many a Catholic student does well not to come to Harvard, but to go to Catholic University or Fordham or Georgetown or Boston College. Some are best going to a seminary or to the Franciscan University of Steubenville. But for those who will and can, Harvard Divinity provides the opportunity think about and experience our Catholic traditions and truths outside the Church’s context, for the sake of the Church, and some of us need to be trying this path, for the sake of the Church.
     And to speak finally to the inside politics of the matter: in the perspective I have been proposing, it is particularly good — despite Newsweek’s drift — that HDS and the study of religion at Harvard are not divided, as if having a separate divinity school for those who believe (in something) and a religion department (where religions are taught-about) would improve anyone’s deep grasp of religion. Such a split might be functionally useful, but deeply dull. Harvard will do better by adhering patiently to its current difficult mix, even if it sets the university on edge. The world is already beyond the dichotomy between study-about and faith-in, a dichotomy that solves past and not future problems. It is the synergy of faithful study and study-about that makes religion at Harvard worth thinking about, an intelligent option for believers and scholars, Catholics included.
    In any case: the next time Newsweek thinks of explaining religion at Harvard, I hope they spend more — or even some — time at HDS.

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Bill Collier
8 years 11 months ago
I appreciate your comments about HDS, Fr. Clooney, and perhaps Newsweek should have stopped in and learned more about the school. The focus of the Newsweek article, however, was about the undergraduate liberal arts program at Harvard and the school's proposed core requirement that students take courses related to faith and reason. Instruction concerning a particular religion would not be required, and a broad spectrun of courses would have satisfied the requirement. Proponents rightly, in my view, made the argument that whether one is a believer, an agnostic, or an atheist, there is no denying the importance of faith in the lives of many people and as a cultural component of modern civilization. Opponents, led by Prof. Stephen Pinker, argued that faith is irrational and therefore entirely inappropriate as a subject for rational inquiry. Though Pinker et al. carried the day and the proposed core requirement was not instituted, their argument was, as Newsweek noted, ''unreasonable'' in and of itself.
Liam Richardson
8 years 11 months ago
And (cough) one might, just might, also consider the Harvard Catholic Student Center at St Paul's Parish, even closer to the Yard than HDS....
Murali Karamchedu
8 years 11 months ago
The same Harvard was also home to another remarkable member of the (science) faculty - Stephen Jay Gould. And, just as Fr. Clooney  argues for the value of learning interreligiously, he argued for sincere learning between the Humanities and Sciences (in 'Rocks of Ages' and 'The Hedgehog, the fox and the magister's pox'). Any rational learning - narrowly defined as sciences at our own peril - must seek the wisdom of religion and theology to understand the complex character of intellectual, moral, ethical and spiritual life.


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