Faculty Panel

Embracing the Problem

On December 1, 2014, Harvard students and staff gathered on the Law School campus to remember Ferguson teenager Michael Brown and protest the grand jury’s failure to indict Brown’s killer. Protesters chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and the noontime walkout ended with a “die in.” HDS photograph/Jonathan Beasley.

By Ahmed Ragab

For people of color, religion is not simply a set of beliefs, ideas, texts, rituals, or even communities. It is also an identity that in many cases is foisted upon people, is forced upon them, is seen as intractably attached to them. Brown and black religion . . . becomes the symptom and the cause of the brown and black condition. In the white gaze, the brown and black religion is the reason why the brown and black person is boisterous, or violent, or even peaceful or lazy. . . .

Religion in this sense becomes naturalized; it becomes part and parcel of the identity of the person. . . . One of the major facets of marginalization and discrimination is the denial of the ability to be an individual. For a brown or black person, you are denied the ability and the right to be your own person. If a black teen gets shot, he has to apologize for gang violence. If your name is Ahmed or Mohammed, you have to apologize because some Frenchman shot people in the street or blew himself up. Religion in this sense becomes part and parcel of this particular identity, it becomes inseparable, sometimes it can become suffocating.

A multireligious environment is by definition multiracial, precisely because of these definitions of what religion actually means for different people and in the society we live in. Being a multiracial school, we  become part of the race situation in this country and around the world. In this view, multireligious is not a position or a place that one can be in. It is not something that we acquire by recruiting a few more students of color or a couple more faculty that speak in a funny way. It is rather an active disposition that is constantly becoming, a disposition that entails an understanding of the structures of violence and discrimination, and an active and sometimes even militant struggle to undermine and dismantle these structures. . . .

In The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois, there is a paragraph that speaks to the experience of many people of color:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter around it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these, I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

. . . In Du Bois’s terms, a multireligious divinity school is a problem space. It is a space that is full of problems and that actively seeks out problems. It is a problem because it is full of uncertainty, and intentionally so. It is a problem because it understands its position in a particular society that is built on fault lines of race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and other forms of discrimination and marginalization.

A multireligious divinity school is a place that allows these problems and these problem people to exist as they are, in their own problem-ness: celebrating their problem-ness but also their having the right to become their own individual problems, or to give up their problem-ness altogether if they choose to do so. A multireligious divinity school is a space that is very hard to describe and to define, because it has never been but is always becoming.

What is a multireligious divinity school? The answer, in my view, is that a multireligious divinity school is a problem, but it is definitely a problem worth having.

A panel of HDS faculty launched the bicentennial of HDS by discussing the outcome of the 200-year history of the School: a multireligious divinity school.

Ahmed Ragab is the Richard T. Watson Assistant Professor of Science and Religion at Harvard Divinity School, affiliate assistant professor in the Department of the History of Science, and director of the Science, Religion, and Culture Program at HDS.

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