Determined to Live Past the Worst
By Will Joyner
Bulletin readers who are familiar with the day-to-day life of Harvard Divinity School know that the 2005-06 academic year has been given an overarching theme, “Celebrating 50 Years of Women at HDS.” In each semester, virtually all featured lectures and other special events—as well as weekly worship services, for example—are paying some kind of attention to the leading role this institution has played in nurturing women in ministry, women scholars, and, indeed, the field of women’s studies in religion itself.
Last summer, when this celebration was being planned, we talked about making this issue of the Bulletin an explicit tribute to women in religion—or, really, an explicit attempt to gauge, and recognize, the progress of women in religious studies scholarship. But as we began to plan articles along these lines, we quickly realized the folly, and inadequate nature, of this approach. We decided that the best way to observe the School’s celebration in these pages was simply to assure that the articles chosen for each of our departments accurately reflected the progress mentioned above. (For more information about the schedule for “Celebrating 50 Years of Women at HDS,” please go to www.hds.harvard.edu.)
So, in implicit tribute, we are very happy to point out that this issue includes writing by three HDS professors who are women, Kimberley C. Patton, Amy Hollywood, and Anne Monius; one woman professor recently departed from the School, Hille Haker; two women scholars who have been in residence at HDS at one time or another through its influential Women’s Studies in Religion Program, Emilie Townes and Shahla Haeri; one well-known woman author on religion who has had various ties to Harvard over the years, Karen Armstrong; and one alumna of the Divinity School, Mary Hunt.
A common thread throughout this issue is the broad subject of recovery, of healing, of psychological, spiritual, and cultural re-integration.
Some of what these women—and the issue’s other writers, women and men—have contributed has to do directly with issues of gender, but some does not. More important as a common thread, we think, is the broad subject of recovery, of healing, of psychological, spiritual, and cultural reintegration. And perhaps, after all, we found our way to this thread by first contemplating a “women’s issue” that would examine obstacles overcome and unique sensibilities cultivated in the not-very-long-ago past.
The bold image on the cover is linked to troubled history that goes back much further, of course. But Emilie Townes’s analysis of the layers of cultural wrongs represented by Aunt Jemima is unabashedly contemporary and forward-looking. When Emilie presented us with her essay in disjointed lines that suggested poetry, she didn’t, we believe, really expect we would publish it in that form. But we surprised her, deciding that, in this case, unorthodox form truly does serve content, visually simulating one individual’s determination not to be defined by a society’s stamp. We ask that you don’t be intimidated by the layout—just start reading, and you’ll find you can’t stop.
Although the essays by Karen Armstrong, Kimberley Patton, and Miroslav Volf are more traditionally presented, they are just as personal in purpose as Townes’s. And all of these writers are personal in the best, non-indulgent way, considering their own experiences expressly to share what might be valuable lessons for someone else who is trying to regain, or attain, a healthier place in the world. All, also, are lyrical and kind in their exposition, in tune with an urge to heal, to persist, to thrive.
Amid these featured essays you’ll find much else that’s just as intriguing, and often just as related to the subject of suffering and recovery. In the lead Dialogue article, the philosopher Gabriel Richardson Lear looks at Aristotle as a timely source of inspiration for those of us who want to live in happy self-sufficiency but contemplate, and experience, so much misery. Her ideas led me back to the Nicomachean Ethics, which is—at least in English—the sort of bedtime reading that causes one to jump up and search for a pen to make many marks in the margins. In Hille Haker’s article, on some of today’s most troubling social debates, a new kind of ethical discourse is called for, one that Aristotle couldn’t have imagined, of course, but well could help construct.
Toward the back of the magazine, Ken Johnson, who reviews art on a weekly basis for The New York Times, steps back from his usual assignment to speculate, as a religious nonbeliever, about what spiritual function visual art can have now. In this world—where paintings and sculptures are for the most part no longer made or perceived in the same alignment with religious belief as they were in the days of Fra Angelico, for example—how can one speak of art’s transcendence? Ken has some surprising suggestions, accessible to believer and agnostic or atheist alike. And, again, the essence of what is proposed is about cultural, and personal, integration.
In a very different kind of article, Shahla Haeri tells of her encounter with, and filming of, Iranian women who are intent on self-determination through the political process. Here, one detects that these women’s future will include political success that can’t exist in the present, but the knowledge of such human effort is a gain for all of us nonetheless.
Finally, in this issue we are, as usual, blessed with a range of excellent poets. We have been asked, even by poetry lovers, why we are giving poems such prominence in the Bulletin, instead of tucking them away in editorial corners. Our first response, frankly, is that we shouldn’t have to defend the prominent display of good poems alongside critical and scholarly writing—ideas clearly need getting at in all kinds of ways, to reach all kinds of sensibilities. But to go a bit further, we believe that we are choosing poems that will help our readers make crucial connections between the ideas throughout an issue. And we believe that we are providing an important kind of pause, restorative in its own right.
Will Joyner is editor of the Bulletin.