Making Meaning in 2116
A Tricentennial Address
By Chris Lisee
On July 15, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his then contentious but now celebrated Commencement Address not a quarter mile from here, in a room in Divinity Hall that would later be named Emerson Chapel. In that speech, Emerson challenged the practice of “historical Christianity,” finding it to be lifeless as Ezekiel’s dry bones, and he lamented what he saw as declining religious fervor: “In the country, neighborhoods, half parishes are signing off,—to use the local term.”1 The struggles faced by preachers of his day seem all too familiar: declining church membership, anemic spirituality, brevity in speech writing [pause for laughter].
Scrub ahead to 2012, when the Pew Research Center began publishing reports about the rise of the “nones,” comprised of atheists, agnostics, and people who believed in nothing in particular.2 It seemed that Emerson’s declension narrative was playing out again 174 years later. The closure of many houses of worship through the first half of the twenty-first century fed the narrative that belief was dying, that faith was fading away. We understand today that this narrative was wrong. The data wasn’t pointing at changes in individual faith, but rather at cultural change: people were finally willing to admit in polls that they did not believe the way they were taught to believe. We know that there have always been people who doubted their own faith. It just took until the early 2010s for a critical mass to feel comfortable saying it in public. Fortunately, around the same time, there developed an understanding in academia that faith is inseparable from other aspects of identity.
It was believed, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, that religious narratives were no longer coherent, that people no longer found meaning in stories, ritual, and history, and that this was bad because traditional religion was an essential force in shaping character. What was not understood was that humans are complicated and contradictory productions of personal and generational histories and geographies and a myriad other factors.
Levels of traditional religious participation are at their lowest, probably, in millennia. Harvard Divinity School still offers ministry training (for Buddhists, Muslims, Humanists, and others, as well as for Christians). Professors still teach these religions, from biblical interpretation through contemporary practice. Traditional religion will be around for quite some time, though it feels more of a niche than ever. So, instead of looking at what has remained the same these three hundred years, let us turn to how Harvard Divinity School has changed.
Where did all the nones look for meaning? For many, it was science. However, many are now finding science to be an ineffective alternative to more traditional forms of faith. Throughout the past century there has been a growing understanding that science requires interpretive frameworks in order to be understood. Meaning is rarely bundled with scientific discovery; it must be created through narrative. And because science changes with new discoveries and cultural shifts, its narratives are subject to change. Europe and China now each have a majority doubting science’s ability to provide meaning, and the numbers are growing rapidly in America, just as the “nones” did a century earlier.
The upshot of the cult of science is that divinity schools are finally able to contribute to scientific discourse. Pragmatist and existentialist modes of interpreting the world, as in the work of philosopher William James and anthropologist Michael Jackson, are enjoying increased popularity. There is a better understanding that religion is not limited to an adherence to scripture and a belief in divine entities. Religion seems today to be more of a disposition, a way of interpreting the world, a way of making meaning. As a theologically liberal institution, HDS has understood this for some time: it was among the first divinity schools to establish programs to study this phenomenon further and to train leaders to navigate this gestalt shift. Today, our Center for Community and Meaning Making is at the forefront of this work. Some have criticized HDS for straying from the traditional practice of religion. I would advise them to take a closer look at the history of this institution and the liberal theology of its graduates and professors. Who could have predicted that what was criticized as the tepidness of Unitarian Universalism would actually prove to be its great strength?
Perhaps the greatest development of the past century, however, is memory expansion. When HDS celebrated its bicentennial year, people could neither expand their minds with microchips nor directly connect their brains to the Internet. Who could have predicted how disruptive this change would be, economically, culturally, politically, and spiritually? Memory expansion allows ordinary people to have extraordinary recall, to boost their brains with petabytes of information and enhanced processing power. It also allows them to run programs that construct arguments on the fly; in effect, one can now argue on autopilot. For a price, one can install the knowledge bases and logic engines of great, and not-so-great, philosophers and thinkers. For those who can afford it, the world has become a life-sized game of intellectual Pokémon; the more money you spend on sophisticated data sets and logic engines, the more you know and the stronger your arguments become.
Initially, philosophers had a field day with this innovation: Can one be truly human if one does not think for oneself? I think . . . quickly and deeply . . . therefore I am . . . somehow better? But because of the post-neoliberal ethos and tremendously powerful marketing of our time, philosophical questions were swept under the rug. Today, very few doubt that memory expansion is a good and natural part of human evolution. Those who do doubt it are outgunned by people with superior processors. This is a shame, because we know corporations distribute knowledge bases with built-in biases regarding their industry. GE-produced chips, for example, will tell you plenty about solar energy, but not much about missiles and EMPs. The knowledge-base software market is unregulated, and a massive ongoing ad campaign has effectively quashed hints of dissent.
Naturally, institutions of higher education balked at the idea of their students taking every test open book, as it were, especially with the introduction of logic engines. But they soon found they could profit from memory expansion by licensing their professors’ books, lectures, and research data. Students are now required to have memory expansion to a certain capacity and must purchase the libraries applicable to their field of study (this in addition to tuition, fees, and room and board!).
This narrative is all too familiar: a technology promising greater equality, opportunity, and democracy is twisted into a pay-to-play model that mostly benefits the wealthy. Education is the way to get ahead, but top-tier memory expansion is prohibitively expensive, even as many employers now require certain knowledge bases for employment. Critiques of this state of affairs primarily focus on the economic implications: education is a basic right, and for those at the bottom rungs of the education ladder, the only way to get ahead is to take out massive loans in order to cover the cost of memory expansion. In other words, memory expansion and knowledge bases are keeping preexisting societal divides entrenched.
Harvard and its divinity school can help correct this unjust imbalance. Fact: well-endowed schools could provide free knowledge-base software. The University could provide its knowledge bases free of charge, ensuring that all have access to a vast top-tier knowledge source. This is only part of the solution, but it would be a start. And, because this is a moral issue, I propose that Harvard Divinity School students and alumni should be leading this campaign for change. I realize this solution does nothing to address the post-neoliberal ethos and politics that created this mess in the first place. I can’t help but sheepishly recall Audre Lorde’s words: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”3 The true structural problems lie in our economic systems, which penetrate every aspect of our lives.
But here, perhaps, is a crack in the foundation of the master’s house: many who have had their memories expanded have experienced, at some point, an existential crisis. This is somehow considered “natural,” and people are expected to “work past it.” In reality, the superhuman ability to recall vast stores of information gained without experience is ultimately unfulfilling, and perhaps even contrary to living a good life. It turns out that a wealth of neither money nor knowledge can buy happiness, a sentiment which might seem obvious to many, and yet traditions both religious and secular want to hold on to their orthodoxies regarding “proper” knowledge. For a long time it has been assumed that education will secure our futures and save our souls. We are beginning to understand that this may not be true. Pure knowledge may help us get a job and support ourselves, but only in a particular context—and, even then, it may do little to feed the soul.
In fact, memory expansion is fueling dangerous varieties of fundamentalism, as some grow increasingly dependent on knowledge bases to do their thinking for them. As with all fundamentalisms, this one is not based on the fundamentals per se, but rather on cherry-picked information interpreted in a particular way. Theories of science and capitalism have become the new religious texts for some, programmed just as addresses are into cars, as your DNA is into your ID.
This fundamentalism draws on the myth of linear history, rooted in certain Judeo-Christian beliefs later internalized by Western science and economics: that we are heading toward utopia, and that we will arrive there soon, if only we believe and act correctly. The people making memory expansion technology and knowledge bases are evangelists of this dangerous myth. Their creed is as follows:
I believe in Science Almighty, explainer of heaven and earth.
It was conceived by the power of humans and born of ingenuity.
It judges rationally the living and the dead.
I believe in the perfectibility of humankind,
power of incentives,
single comprehensive history,
and the search for everlasting life.
Such messages come at a great cost to real people caught in the compounding realities of poverty, inadequate education, and poor health. The fallacies of this utopian narrative have been repeatedly demonstrated, but people cling to them because they are comforting, and because the big memory expansion companies are masters of the art of PR. We therefore need tools, not only to dismantle, but also to build something better. I will not pretend to have thought through even a science-fictional way to fight the greed of large, power-hungry institutions and corporations. I hope that HDS will play some role in this because I remember the brilliant, driven, thoughtful people I encountered while studying in Cambridge. I would also like to suggest we start with community, a coming together for a single purpose.
Why community? Because humans have not evolved beyond the need for physical connection and close communication, and probably will not within any timescale our minds are capable of entertaining. We are social creatures who need to share with one another: information, emotion, sensation. That is why it is so important to be here today, sweating, shaking hands, and breathing in the air exhaled by our neighbors.
Since Emerson delivered his Divinity School Address, much has changed for Harvard Divinity School, the study of religion, and the practice of ministry. What has not changed is humankind. Amid the growth and decay of physical, cultural, and institutional structures, human impulses have remained remarkably consistent. Just as there has always been a sense among some that God is not real and that religious movements exist only to benefit an elite, there is a sense among some of us here today that our lives should be put to use serving others or beautifying the world in some way. For some, this impetus stems from a sense of the divine, for others, from humanism. Despite being a “divinity school,” HDS does not seem to care where your convictions come from, only that you have them. You can see it in the theses of decades of MDiv students, in the articles of Harvard Divinity Bulletin, even in the Alumni Career Stories videos the Office of Career Services collected. Literature, businesses, art, public policy—all have been affected by HDS alumni working to achieve a greater, more just world.
This influence is crucial today, as we strive to build a new sacred canopy amid the collapse of old beliefs. The way forward, as it was once before, starts with tent making and leads to true meaning. Many have rejected traditional religion as a means of meaning making, and some are beginning to reject science as well, even as others turn to it, charmed by its empty promises. It is up to us to find a new way.
Chris Lisee received an MTS degree from Harvard Divinity School in 2013. This is an excerpted and edited version of his submitted essay.