Knowing and Unknowing, Concluded
By Will Joyner
The lead headline on the cover of this issue of Harvard Divinity Bulletin, “Challenging the Lines That Divide Us,” is meant primarily as a practical unifying comment on what’s inside. It is also, however, a reaction—even a defiant reaction—to much of what we here at the magazine have needed to think about during the 2006-07 academic year.
As should be obvious to anyone who follows the popular literary press in the United States and Britain, the showcasing of “science,” or “reason,” or “atheism,” against religion has become a kind of cultural sport—contrived, superficial, and gleefully malicious on the one hand, and, on the other, often impassioned, fascinating, and imperative, especially in regard to global citizenship. Above all, we Bulletin editors want for our lead headline, and the Spring/Summer 2007 issue as a whole, to convey once again our belief that this particular cultural sport—as boisterous or loud as it might get—is best conducted in a spirit of mutual respect, with an eye toward the recognition, and recovery, of common ground.
Several months ago, we expected this issue to be devoted exclusively to the latest interchanges between scientists and scholars of religious studies and theology, largely because of two initiatives in full force at Harvard this spring: an ongoing research project entitled Evolution and the Theology of Cooperation, led by Sarah Coakley, a theologian, and Martin Nowak, a professor of mathematics and biology, and an events series, “When Worlds Collide: The Study of Religion in an Age of Science,” organized by the visiting professor Philip Clayton. And, in fact, you will find much evidence throughout these pages of the latest thinking on “science and religion,” most prominently and most unusually in the Dialogue section, which is indeed fully composed of material that demonstrates the range of issues bursting from the science-and-religion package, as well as the high degree of collegiality possible in such cross-campus initiatives.
As we thought further about this issue, however, we realized that our larger purpose for Spring/Summer 2007 was to explore how and why all sorts of belief systems, or disciplines of thought and study, are in such dissonant relationship these days.
Take theology and philosophy: they’re closer relatives—or close relatives more recently—than science and religion, but are similarly estranged. So, we have included two articles, by Louis Dupré and Christine Helmer, that address this fraught relationship, one in an explicit manner, the other in more indirect contemplation of the warp and woof of empirical and theoretical realities.
Take religion and the geopolitics of war and terrorism: given the dominant tenor of contemporary world conflict, religion is getting much of the blame, but is it that simple? Certainly not, and William Cavanaugh’s essay meticulously examines the great need for, and value of, more careful distinctions. And take the belief-related fault lines within families: although Ben Westhoff ‘s personal narrative has to do specifically with Orthodox Judaism, its nuances will be painfully familiar across the faiths.
Also on this issue’s cover is an illustration. It is meant primarily to enhance the words of the lead headline—we here at the Bulletin believe it is effective in visually evoking these “lines that divide us.” At a deeper level, though, it is especially effective in communicating the anxiety that bears down on all of us who try to negotiate our way daily across a landscape of competing belief systems, and try to articulate or personify what we firmly believe amid the attendant dissonance.
This anxiety reveals itself in new ways each week, at world, national, local, and personal levels, at least to those of us whose professional lives have to do with religion. For example, in recent months, wearing my other Harvard Divinity School hat as executive director of communications, I have noticed a marked uptick in telephone calls to HDS, out of the blue, from people here in the United States and abroad who need to rail against religion in general, or wish to share with a faculty member news of a private communication from God—or, somewhat more appropriately, seek guidance for a church or synagogue group that wants to study the “God debate.”
In fielding the first two types of these “sensitive” inquiries, I can do very little for the callers. I do try to listen for a few minutes and then urge them to find someone to speak with in person. In fielding the third kind of inquiry, I apologize and demur, reminding the caller of HDS’s governing mission: providing an excellent graduate education to future scholars of religion, ministers, and leaders across the professions, according to a common intellectual rigor and with an emphasis on religious pluralism. But I also inevitably recommend an accessible book or two. Lately I’ve been mentioning Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, which, taken together, provide a much more useful, wide-ranging, informed (if sometimes infuriating) platform for discussion than, for instance, the recent books by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. And, of course, I offer to send the caller a copy of the Bulletin.
We hope that this issue of the Bulletin—featuring writers and thinkers who are dedicated to listening and talking across lines of division—will serve all our readers well as they do their own work of easing the anxiety, and strife, of competing beliefs.
Will Joyner is executive editor of the Bulletin.