Friday, February 26, 2010

Religion at Harvard

. . . to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what’s going on beneath and behind appearances . . .
Louis Menand, professor and literary critic making the case for religion as a curriculum requirement at Harvard, quoted in Newsweek (February 22), Harvard's Crisis of Faith

Menand and others argue that university professors who sniff at religion box themselves into “slim silos of expertise,” trying in a “scientistic” approach to submit everything to empirical measurement.

Religion—the world of faith, thought, ethics, and belief—does not submit to scientific experiment, but Barbara Bradley Hagerty found that in experiments it persistently shows its face. Spiritual reality will not surrender the field because it IS “what’s going on beneath and behind appearances.”

Steven Pinker, popular evolutionary psychologist, leads the case against a religion requirement at Harvard. He derides religion by reducing it to superstition, witchcraft, and idol worship, pitching the familiar images of virgins killed on an altar and an angry god appeased. “Faith,” he says, “is believing in something without good reasons to do so.”

Understanding the reasons for faith is precisely the area of knowledge missing in Pinker and other “scientistic” rationalists. By failing to require the study of religion, Harvard remains out of step with its students and with the phenomenal rise of interest in religion as debates about it rage on in media and cyberspace.

I would like rationalists and religionists to reconsider the question, Does God exist? Knowing it's the wrong question could counteract the misleading influence of the Christian groups known as evangelicals, literalists, or fundamentalists. With them in mind, a reader of my book and blog exclaimed:
How MUCH of Jesus' teachings have been misunderstood and ignored!
Instead of absorbing the timeless wisdom of Jesus, the Nazarene, and turning inward to be fed by Spirit from within, many Christians today throw their energy into preaching an only-through-Jesus line, one that he never took and that contemporary understanding cannot support.
In this era of globalization, diversity, and tolerance, theologians increasingly understand that exclusive claims are obsolete. Their work of integrating today’s emerging insights with our 2,000-years of tradition are impeded by the popes, most cardinals, and most bishops, who, after all, are appointed by the popes. National Catholic Reporter editorialized about the toll on theologians from the 25 years of John Paul II’s papacy.
Moral theology of the sort that might raise substantial questions or handle difficult sexual or other life issues is being left to those who regurgitate the party line. . . . More adventuresome and sophisticated theologians are out there, but they’re not going to raise their heads too far above the barricades. . . .
Our best thinkers have seen what happens to careers when the accepted formulae—be it in moral theology or Christology or ecumenism—are challenged. . . . The chill that has been placed on speculation and thinking of the sort that raises discomfiting questions is probably the greatest cause for the lack of theological enterprise in this era.
Well, the hierarchs won’t win. Even at the Vatican there are good minds questioning assumptions of the past. The abusive, despotic hold on Catholic practices and beliefs is a desperate attempt for control in a whirling world.

My own experience tells me that spiritual views are changing as every kind of backlash plays itself out. When I got the first impulse to write God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky in the 1980s, I felt out of whack with most religious persons. Not anymore. Slowly, inexorably, Spirit in Her infinite wisdom effects changes despite the efforts of human institutions to stop them.

Religion in schools
I was speaking to ninth graders in a public school and asked them these questions: If I were teaching a class called World Religions, would it be OK to try persuading you to be Catholic or not Catholic? Would it be OK to tell you about the man Jesus who lived in history? About similarities between Christianity and other religions? To convince you either that Jesus is God or is not God? They got it. They understood the constitutional protection of religious freedom. They knew the difference between learning about religions and pushing certain beliefs.

I’d like to see this kind of religious instruction in schools. If we knew more about other religions, there would be more cooperation and less conflict of all kinds. We’d grow to understand the nature of religion and grow in appreciation of the Mystery. The light of other religions wouldn't preclude love of our own religion but it would illuminate the obviously mythical beliefs such as the virgin birth.


Mystical Seeker said...

Pinker, like a lot of militant atheists, just doesn't get it. He mischaracterizes religion as being about unsubstantiated belief in things, rather than understanding that religion is about things like meaning, myth, symbols, and the mediation of higher purpose through traditions and practices. Pinker comes across as a crank because he is too busy attacking religion based on his own misinformed biases rather than trying to understand it.

Jeanette said...

Thank you for this insightful and articulate comment.

Phid said...

I hope you realize that while you are attempting to tear down the claims of Christianity to truth you are attempting to construct your own "spiritual truth" - yet the grounds upon which you base your "truth" lack anything substantial. So what you are doing is replacing one truth for your *own* truth. Now, why would we believe that your personal truth is better than the Christian truth?

Jeanette said...

Truth, like beauty, lies in the beholder. Traditional Christian beliefs rose from the minds of beholders centuries ago and were passed down as authoritative truths that must not be questioned.

But they ARE questioned. Increasingly. Insistently, by more and more cradle Christians. The questions are rising from the minds of beholders today, at a later time in the evolution of human consciousness.

Religion slowly, very slowly, incorporates the new insights and then we wonder how people could have thought what they did years ago. Examples: acceptance of slavery, the cosmology placing the sun at the center of the universe, the assumption that women ought to be subordinate to men.