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Essay Contest

My Dear Emily

A theological love letter from 2116.

Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

By Ryan Gregg

28 July 2116

My dear Emily,

I’m not sure how to begin this letter, and the three wads of crumpled paper tossed on the floor—my previous attempts—can attest to that. So I’ve decided in this draft to get directly to what matters most and say straight out of the gate: I love you, Emily. I miss you terribly. And I’m so sorry for going AWOL.

You know, my heart attack last month seemed at first like the worst possible timing—just three weeks after being appointed Dean of Harvard Divinity School. My dream job. But I’m already starting to wonder if it wasn’t providential. Perhaps instead of nearly taking my life, those ruptured arteries are in fact saving my life. As you know all too well, I’ve made a career writing about the doctrinal intersection between Christian and Buddhist depictions of love, but it seems that in the process of writing so much about love, I’ve entirely forgotten how to write with love, or even in love. Yes, Emily. You know this, too, don’t you? Sometimes I wonder if I even believe in love anymore. I’m like the heart surgeon who wakes up one morning at the height of his career and says, “Oh my God, I’m a Christian Scientist! I don’t believe in surgery!” Yet this forced sidelining—and HDS was so good about this six-month leave, no questions asked—is giving me time to reconsider all that . . . to breathe again, to think and remember, maybe even to dream.

Yesterday, I was on a walk down by the Flathead River, taking it slow, remembering the autumn of 2086 . . . thirty years ago now, when you and I were both first-year MTS students at HDS. Do you remember those days? I do. We certainly believed in love then. We sat by each other on the plane from the new Harvard campus in Colorado, on the annual trip out to “the Swamp,” the old Cambridge campus. That was when we first held hands, as the plane took off. Do you remember? Your hand was so delicate and warm in mine as the jets fired up. And then, sitting together on the two-seater kayak as we paddled through the old Yard . . . the old, moss-covered buildings . . . the ducks . . . our first kiss. Do you remember? I certainly do. Yes, I certainly believed in love then. It wasn’t yet a doctrine for me, a motif to be scrutinized and exploited. It was simply everything, full stop.

Emily—I think it could be everything again. As I’ve been walking around Bigfork these last few days, or in the fields, or down by the river, taking it slow as the surgeon requires, it’s like all the particles of busyness and confusion adrift in the mad fluid of my mind are settling down now, and I’m starting to see things more clearly than perhaps I have in years. In this newfound stillness, one of your thoughts has repeatedly returned to me, a mainstay from your work in Cosmic Egg Theology. I was always so inspired by the way you called attention in your dissertation to our collective amnesia, reminding the theological community that the Big Bang was first theorized by a Jesuit priest who called it the Cosmic Egg. And then—this is what has lately been on my mind—I loved how you pushed it further, arguing for the fundamental correspondence between the resurrection doctrine of Jewish and Christian traditions and all the cosmological models of accelerated eruption from the primordial singularity—light from darkness, heat from cold, life from death, Yes from No . . . a beautiful cohesion, Emily, a beautiful vision. In a real sense, you’ve always been my pastor, my theologian of choice.

“What will Harvard Divinity School, or the field of religious studies, look like in 2116?” This was the topic of the bicentennial essay contest the Bulletin sponsored for HDS students and recent graduates.

Yet I realize that the amnesia that affects us collectively—on display with every election cycle, this chronic historical myopia of the American voting public—is equally entrenched at the individual level. You know who the most forgetful person is around here, Em? It’s me. Your husband. How is it that I’ve forgotten the most basic ideas to which both of us have dedicated our professional and personal lives? I have unwittingly become an apostate of coherence, denying that the macroscopic promise of resurrection also pertains to the microscopic level, to you and me. In that sense, the angry words I said when I left for the airport, my deep pessimism about our marriage, that was all sheer blasphemy. “It can’t be saved. We’re probably done.” What was I thinking? I wasn’t. Forgive me, please. Now that I’m alone in Montana, and you’re still down in Colorado, I walk for miles and miles every day—slowly, don’t worry—and I say perhaps the first real prayers I’ve said in over a decade. And as I do, I begin to sense again the phenomenal pregnant quivering of a cosmic egg—a resurrection of love.

And on another level, far less important than the convalescence of our marriage, it seems to me that this cardiac convalescence is timely on a professional level. It is giving me a chance to pause before the heavy lifting begins, to step back and reflect about the School, about religious studies as a whole, about the flow and flux of history in general. This mood of reflection also seemed present in the faculty as I left town, with HDS just beginning its three hundredth year in operation. I find myself thinking back to this School in 1816, the year of its founding, when Ralph Waldo Emerson was barely a teenager; then I think back to 1916, and to 2016, and muse about the questions that occupied the attention of our community at those historical waypoints. I also find myself daydreaming forward a little, to 2216, wondering what religious studies will be like then, long after you and I are gone, our atoms decomposing together, clasped in a silent prayer of expectation.

The questions we are asking are still big and generous, and . . . seem essentially to be the same questions we have always been asking as a community of scholars.

I am always a little taken aback to realize how habitually distrustful of the future we humans are, from the ancient apocalyptic literatures onward. Yesterday I was thumbing around on my computer through the archive of old Harvard publications, trying to gain a sense of who we have been through the years in order to gain a sense of who we might become, and to think about how my leadership as dean in the coming years might contribute. I came across a rather bizarre essay from 2016 in Harvard Divinity Bulletin, a dystopic screed predicting what HDS and religious studies would look like today, in 2116. The world had become a nuclear wasteland, naturally. Religious illiteracy and sundry fundamentalisms had grown up together like so many “thorns and thistles,” destroying the Garden of Earth. Of course, nothing of the sort has happened. The writer also forecast that by 2116 religious scholarship would be unrecognizably distorted, a hash of pseudo-psychology and insular identity politics, some balkanized tangle.

Of course, the field today is nothing like that. The questions we are asking are still big and generous, and, to me, they seem essentially to be the same questions we have always been asking as a community of scholars. This is not because we are lazy or unimaginative, but because the infinite urgency of being human, when stripped of technical jargon, is expressed consistently in questions like these: What does it mean to be human? A good human? To relate to the divine? To love? To die well? To care for others as they also seek to love and die well? To care for the Earth? To form communities of justice and righteousness? Well, Em, I am glad to say that the  well-meaning (and quite articulate) essayist from 2016 quite misread the trajectory of our community, but, in her defense, perhaps such dire warnings serve to jar us awake a little and keep us on track. If it wasn’t for dark prophecies, the world might actually become dark. At any rate, it seems Solomon of old had a stroke of perspicacity one afternoon on his porch in Jerusalem when he looked up and down and noted that there ain’t much new under this lovely red star of ours.

Can I share with you a case in point you might appreciate? In my historical ramblings, I’ve been reflecting on a few of the major transitions in scientific thought over the last couple of centuries. It’s hard for me to believe that in 2016 they were still excited about the Higgs boson, the so-called God Particle that allows mass to be mass. And one hundred years before that, it was relativity that was blowing minds, and the elementary observation that light itself—by which you are surrounded, Em, as you read these words, such a quotidian reality—is actually at the frontier of time and space, the cracking point of the universe. That which is quite literally timeless permeates and even orchestrates our perception of time itself, and I’m so grateful to Father Jameson for helping you and me to consider how prayer can usher us into that timeless realm of light (not just in tightly theorized paragraphs but in reality).

I am nurturing a private hope that in the next century, in our so-called post-science age, we will witness a grand rebirth of mythology.

But I’m getting distracted, per usual. What I wanted to observe is the way that the recent discovery and confirmation of the properties of both dark matter and dark energy (!), while hailed as an epochal advancement in humanity’s understanding of the universe, really fits quite neatly into Solomon’s thesis, composed on that porch some three thousand years ago. What we have realized, it seems—and, Good Lord, is it refreshing to write in these generalized strokes, and not in the rigorous qualifications of peer review journals—is that the same quantum yeastiness at work in the universe is of a piece with the yeastiness in the human brain. We can now see a little more deeply into the chemical audacity by which fluctuations in gray matter translate into the epistemic illuminations of simple knowing, and also of that thicker knowing beyond the mind—the intellect beyond intellectualism to which religion has always pointed and from which it has always been derived. To me, it is clear that what our recent scientific discoveries have achieved is to thrust us back again on that old, old religious instinct for mystery, for an untamable wildness in the substance of things. I don’t mean at some peripheral point, off in some remote hinterland of empirical reality. No. Mystery is squarely in the beating heart of the whole show. It’s in my brain as I write. In your brain as you read. As pervasive and risky as the light on this page. Or to switch metaphors, it is as if our intellectual arsenal has been loaded up once again for a whole new barrage of religious scholarship, asking timelessly urgent questions in scintillatingly fresh, timely ways. Perhaps—and here I am being optimistic—even the contribution of dark energy and dark matter to the humanities will be a newfound willingness among academicians to again write “dark sayings,” that is, enigmas, riddles beyond logic, even the kind of riddles that set the framework for logical stability itself. What I mean, Emily, is that I am nurturing a private hope that in the next century, in our so-called post-science age, we will witness a grand rebirth of mythology.

Already we’ve begun to see stirrings in this direction, haven’t we? The telling incident for me was when the UN adopted the “Joseph Model” in the 2060s and ’70s in order to forestall the consequences of the Great Famine of the 2080s and ’90s, as the global economy transitioned from oil to salt water. (I’m still hopeful, by the way, that in time this will reverse some of the effects of the rising oceans and give us some of our great cities back. Maybe even Boston?) That was a huge moment, not just politically, but religiously as well. Having learned the catastrophic lessons from Mao Zedong’s so-called Great Leap Forward in the 1950s, the transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy that cost scores of millions of lives, the people of the world (and not just those of the Abrahamic faiths) were inspired by the tale of a slave boy forecasting to Pharaoh the coming of a great famine and the need to prepare for it by storing up food in advance. All through the 2080s and 90s, while you and I were in high school, college, and grad school, I remember watching news reports of, quite literally, billions of people lining up at regional food warehouses, hungry and jobless folk accessing these presciently massive stockpiles of imperishable commodities: rice, wheat, salt, sugar, beans, corn. . . . It was at that time that I first became convinced that religion is still terribly relevant, that old visions when seen imaginatively are also new visions. That’s when I decided to be a scholar of religion, and a pastor: when the Joseph Model was adopted and then saved upwards of three billion lives, according to conservative estimates.

Of course, I’m telling you things you already know, and I suspect you skimmed that last paragraph. That’s alright. Isn’t this one of the great challenges of marriage—the blessing/curse of being able to finish each other’s sentences and paragraphs? Where has all the discovery gone, the sense of magic? I believe it is still there, at a level far deeper than semantic predictability, and I think you sense the same. At least I hope you do. But let me tell you something that, as far as I am aware, you do not know. Among the umpteen decisions that immediately needed my approval after being appointed dean was a request from the Bulletin to endorse a student writing competition on the 300th anniversary of the Divinity School. The prompt, in more delicate language than this, was essentially: “What are the benefits and pitfalls of the pending integration of Harvard Divinity School into the ethical department of Harvard Business School? Project forward one hundred years, to 2216, and forecast the consequences of what many call the ‘commoditization of religion.’ ” I didn’t tell you about this, Em, because after a moment’s reflection, I decided to discourage the contest, and then I forgot all about it. My reasons were four. The first three were: 1) It was (quite understandably, and I’m in sympathy with them) a politicized prompt; 2) I don’t want to read another dystopic screed, thank you; 3) There’s no way in hell I’m going to let that merger go through, funding be damned.

But my fourth reason is the most theological, I suppose, and was the real clincher: I want to do whatever I can to counteract the insidious tendency of religious studies to reflect on the past and the future at the expense of the present. The little figurine of the bodhisattva Manjushri that I keep on my desk inspired me, with his sword of flaming light that cuts down all ignorance and duality. Endlessly parsing the syntax of past, present, and future assumes a false duality of Now and not-Now, and I want our students to dig with their pens and minds into the timeless Now, accessed via 2116, and let 2216 take care of itself. Of course, from a Christian pulpit this basic idea of compressing hope into the iridescent present might easily be recast in the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: “Do not say, ‘Look, there is the kingdom!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the Kingdom of God is within you.” Of course, I am not suggesting that there is no authentic futurity in Christianity, or in religion broadly; of course not. It’s only futurity of the wrong kind I wish to discourage, a futurity defaulting to the assumption of a purely human agency, to an exclusively empirical model of causality (a model now being revised anyway). If that happens, if our moral imaginations become so crippled and craven, then, regardless of the name, we’ve ceased to be a divinity school.

Were I to preach such a sermon though, Em, it would have to be in the spirit of Karl Barth, who used to insist that every sermon worth preaching must also destroy the one preaching it. The truth is, these words of Jesus and the sword of Manjushri are leveled directly at me, calling me out for my own hypocrisy. Not only in this meandering letter have I been guilty of avoiding the present on the pretext of “thinking important thoughts” about the past and the future, but, more generally, I am quite guilty of avoiding the command of love itself on the pretext of theorizing its doctrinal and sociopolitical ramifications. What a Pharisee I’ve become; or perhaps, in a more modern simile, I’m like a computer programmed to instantly break down and reassemble the binary ones and zeros of the word “love,” without any clue about what it actually means.

So I’ve decided something just now, although I say it not as a caprice but as a conviction—a conviction which took a week of wandering AWOL and a couple hours of writing for me to arrive at: I’m coming home. Right now. I’ll be on the next flight possible. Why? Because I want to enter deeply into this moment of life, to set aside for a time my academic theorizing about what it means to live, and just actually live—with you, near you. If you’ll have me. I don’t want to write letters anymore; I want to talk with you, face to face, voice to voice. Perhaps, I’d even like to kiss you, as we did floating once under the bronze patina of John Harvard, pressing meaning-maker to meaning-maker, an equation not as 1+1=2, but as 1+1=∞, a fusion of the sort that chemically powers the stars. The commitment of one particularity to another particularity is what unleashes such cosmic drama, and, on that account, I’m done with all these abstractions about institutions and eras. You are the particularity to which I am committed, Emily, the particularity I love. And I am coming home to be with you now. Maybe, as my heart is slowly made well again, our hearts might also, slowly—even miraculously—again be made one.

Still your,

Ryan Gregg is a first-year PhD candidate at Harvard University in the Committee on the Study of Religion. He holds a master of theological studies degree from Harvard Divinity School and a BA from Northwest University.

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