On the Question of Relevance

Why twelfth-centure India and Haitian voudou matter.

Krishna playing the flute. Courtesy Anne Monius

By Anne Monius

There are those, including myself, who might find me an odd, even less-than-ideal, choice of convocation speaker, those who might suspect that an Islamicist dean asking a professor of South Asian religions to kick off the new academic year signals the demise of some core set of traditions and values at Harvard Divinity School, the death rattle, perhaps, at the end of a gradual but steady erosion of a once clearly articulated and highly visible mission.

Personally and unapologetically, I profess no particular set of beliefs nor engage in any practices that one could call, by any stretch of the imagination, “religious.” (Even putting on academic battle regalia twice a year makes me a little nervous.) Worse still, perhaps, my intellectual pursuits focus on a time and place that can only be called remote from our own: the southern half of the Indian subcontinent of roughly a millennium ago. While this makes the detailed particulars of my research thrilling for three elderly professors at the University of Madras, even my own mother, bulwark of loving patience and endurance that she is, has a hard time getting past page two of anything listed on my curriculum vitae. And I, of course, am not alone in this here at the Divinity School and across Harvard University; our course catalogues are every year rife with invitations to consider the antiquities of ancient Greece and Rome, the origins of Tibetan monasticism, the ritual practices of the Yoruba and of the voudou communities of Haiti, the Buddhist sacred mountains of Thailand, and the seventh-century world of the prophet Muhammad.

Yet long gone are the days—if such halcyon days truly ever existed—where the intrinsic value of pursuing such interests, both individually and institutionally, went unquestioned. Drawing road maps between the remote and the near at hand, explaining—even defending— the relevance of the seemingly arcane and obscure increasingly becomes something of a full-time job, both in the classroom and beyond. In the world as characterized by much of the public discourse in this country today, you students are all either signing or renewing your lease to live and work in the so-called ivory tower of higher education: a pedestal lofty, remote, privileged, and, in the eyes of many conservative critics, hollow at its core. Alongside the war in Iraq, public discourse in the United States today is characterized by what Al Gore has recently called “the assault on reason” and “the systematic decay of the public forum,” what Jurgen Habermas has described as “the refeudalization of the public sphere.” To this war on reason and systematic decay of the public forum I would add an overwhelming, media­driven assault on complex thought in general and sympathetic imagination more particularly.

Anne Monius speaking at HDS's 2007 Convocation.

Anne Monius speaking at HDS’s 2007 Convocation.

Most disturbing, perhaps, is the current role that religion so often plays in public discourse in this country in the actual limiting of civic imagination, serving in public rhetoric to render the complex gray either black or white, the complexly and particularly moral simplistically universal, the complexly interwoven communities of illegal immigrant and Mayflower descendant, Iraqi and American, into simple equations of “us” and “them. ” This is not a public arena, by and large, that embraces—or seeks to fund—studies of twelfth-century India, Haitian voudou, or those sacred Buddhist mountains of Thailand.

What is true in the public arena is also true—dare I say it?— to a certain extent in higher education as well, even here in one of the most celebrated research universities in the country. One need only consider the recent debates about Harvard College’s new undergraduate program in General Education—in which the only two categories of coursework from the old Core Curriculum not represented in the new scheme are Historical Studies A and Historical Studies B—to think that the institutional sun may one day set on twelfth-century India and those sacred Buddhist mountains of yester year’s Thailand.

Indeed, what I will unabashedly call the public war on complex thought—of which the growing institutional neglect of the humanities can perhaps best be understood as a symptom—most often takes place under the rubric of “relevance.” In a world that daily presents us with pressing issues of social justice and even planetary survival and economists who perpetually insist that resources are limited, the question of “relevance” is most often, in the sphere of public discourse, thinly defined solely in instrumental or functional terms of immediacy. Can it cure cancer? Can it make money? Can it give us insight into the mind and tactics of Osama bin Laden? Can it reduce our collective carbon footprint?

In the university setting, this instrumental view of “relevance” is increasingly heard in the student question: will this course or this internship further my career goals? Will it speed the completion of my degree? (For those of you in the doctoral program, by the way, that’s actually not a bad question!) In our own faculty discussions at Harvard Divinity School, the issue of relevance has evolved in a slightly different direction, with an overwhelming emphasis, as far as I can discern, on the contemporary, in hiring colleagues and offering courses that speak directly to the issues that demand our attention from the front pages of The New York Times.

Yet, is this all there is to “relevance”? In perusing our considerable course offerings, should you responsibly jettison any class that does not speak to contemporary issues or serve a particular real-world end that you pursue? I cringe at the very thought, both in terms of individual students and what that might mean for our larger civic body. Whether we call it the assault on reason, the war on complex thought, or the demise of the civic imagination, it is our publicly impoverished notion of “relevance” that concerns me most as a powerful constraint—perhaps the most powerful constraint today—on our collective intellectual lives.

What is “relevant” about what we do at Harvard Divinity School, even those of us at the more arcane end of the intellectual spectrum? How can someone like myself possibly defend that to which I devote most of my waking hours when I might be working on poverty alleviation in South Asia or, somewhere closer to home, writing about social justice rather than the work of poets cremated more than a thousand years ago? What makes twelfth­century India—or Haitian voudou, for that matter— “relevant”?

The more we come to understand about those who live outside our own orbits, the less likely we are to fear or loathe them.

Perhaps the most obvious answer is the one that underlies centers for interreligious dialogue around the world, that generated the explosion of introductory college courses on Islam after 9/11, that was the inspiration of our own Center for the Study of World Religions, and that is inscribed in Harvard Divinity School’s Mission/Vision statement, which reads, in part: “An exemplary scholarly and teaching community requires respect for and critical engagement with difference and diversity of all kinds.” The world, as we know, is a complex and diverse place; put bluntly, the more we come to understand about those who live outside our own particular orbits, the less likely we are to fear them, loathe them, or mow them down with assault rifles.

This approach to the question of relevance also often includes a distinctly historical component, offering various interpretations of the adage “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it”; Cullen Murphy’s recent book—Are We Rome?—for example, makes a compelling case that the United States eerily follows the patterns of Rome’s transition from republic to empire (and we should take heed, lest we follow it in demise). In my field of South Asian religions, the case for studying Hinduism would include the fact that Hinduism is no longer a religion tucked 10,000 miles away from our shores, where it can be safely ignored, but a vital and growing part of the American religious landscape; to learn something about Hinduism is to learn something about your neighbor, your co-worker, your new son-in-law. This is both a valuable and urgently needed understanding of “relevance,” but I believe it to be simply the tip of the iceberg.

Beyond providing a foundation for mutual understanding and respect, immersion in the world of the “other”—whether it be geographically, temporally, ideologically, culturally, socially, or economically remote from our own—also provides critical perspective on the familiar and the near at hand. It is this point that informs one requirement of the new master of divinity curriculum at Harvard Divinity School: that students take at least two courses in a tradition outside their own. The great medieval devotional mystics of India all insist in their poetry that it is not simply the encounter that matters, but also the way in which the encounter returns you to your own world with new questions, fresh vision, renewed purpose. I grew up resenting every minute of my childhood spent in Roman Catholic Mass; only after two decades of studying South Asian religions, reflecting on the intellectual allure for me of Hindu ritual, iconography, and literature, have I recovered any interest or insight into the religious lives of my extended family.

We all live, obviously, in the contemporary world, moving in our own orbits and communities large and small, but how many among us have the perspective on the contemporary, on the here­-and-now, that can only come with knowledge of something beyond the now and the near? Where do new ideas, new angles of interpretation, fresh insights into one’s own world and circumstances come from? Many of the most productive, I would argue, emerge from careful consideration of the questions others have posed, the ways in which others in time and space have thought about what it means to be a human being living diverse landscapes fraught with tension, disagreement, and uncertainty.

My colleague in East Asian studies, Michael Puett, who himself works on the philosophical and religious texts of ancient China, opens the first lecture in his introductory course, according to student reports, by pounding the lectern and shouting, “Take these texts seriously, and they will change your lives!”  What he means, I suspect, is that the content of the seemingly obscure and arcane also matters, that we can actually learn something important, something significant, something real—in terms of ideas, methods, values, theorizations, human facts—from even the most remote time and place. In stark contrast to the impression one gets reading pronouncements from Washington or tuning into Fox News, religious thinking and practice has, for so much of human history, been the very place where Michael Moore’s central question in his recent documentary Sicko—who are we?—has been worked  through  not only in times of quotidian calm but also in situations of juncture, crossroads, crisis. In the study of religion, one so often encounters human beings in extremis, at their most confused, their most panicked, their most depressed, their most traumatized, their most emotionally overwrought, their most profoundly reflective. One need only take a course or two at Harvard Divinity School to realize that our postmodern, postcolonial world has no monopoly on confusion, fears of relativism, stumbling answers to the question of what we must–or should—do, worries about loss of faith, shoddy ritual practice, community breakdown, violence, wars, technology, even globalization and “the other” suddenly brought near.

Smart people asking important questions should always demand our attention, no matter how far removed from our own particular set of temporal, geographical, and sociopolitical circumstances they may be. When I look to my own field of premodern South Asian studies, I see theories of ritual and epistemology, ethics and aesthetics, polity and society from which we can only learn. As a friend on the staff here recently pointed out to me, a thousand years before George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Sanskrit literary culture produced a substantial body of highly sophisticated political criticism through talking-animal stories that combined scathing critique with both humor and high art. I spent much of the past year on sabbatical, working on the relationship between ethics and aesthetics in a collection of medieval South Indian texts; time and time again, I was struck by the presence of something never theorized and hardly mentioned in modern Euro-American conceptions of “religion,” namely, humor. In sharp contrast to our notion of the “religious” as “the somber” and “the serious,” I have come to see through this material how humor might be theorized as an explicitly religious value, as something that provides one with distance from the particular here-and-now (when you laugh about something, you set yourself apart from it) and allows one to pursue something beyond the overbearing force of the immediately present. How might the inclusion of “humor” as a central feature of “religion” help us to retheorize religion more expansively? That’s clearly a topic for another day, but perhaps the ways in which humor critically distances one from immediate and overwhelming particulars might help us to understand why more and more Americans get their news from Jon Stewart and Bill Maher.

For those of you entering Harvard master’s and doctoral programs, what lies open to you in the semesters ahead is an unbelievably rich array of opportunities not only to train your powers of intellectual analysis but also to train your imagination, to consider the actual content of human religious thought in all its frustrating diversity on its own terms, to consider what it might teach not only you personally but also our radically impoverished public square. You may well be entering an ivory tower removed from the mainstream, day-to-day concerns of working- and middle-class America; having myself come from the lower economic end of that America, I often can’t believe that I actually get paid to read, think, and teach about material I so love and find so important. But the perception that research-level universities, particularly in the humanities, are somehow cut off from the values, ideas, and ambitions of the bulk of our nation’s citizens has been, and continues to be, absolutely devastating to the quality, scope, and depth of public discourse in this country, particularly on matters relating to religion, ethics, and human value. Yours must be a work of imaginative and thoughtful translation; the real world, so called, needs you back very badly.

Our mission at a university-based divinity school is to prod students again and again with the question, “What kind of thinker do you want to be?” With Harvard Divinity School’s new curriculum, the hefty Divinity School course listings, and the wealth of course offerings in both the wider Harvard arena and the Boston Theological Institute, a student’s task here is to develop and follow a course of study that helps him or her to become the kind of thinker he imagines or hopes eventually to be. Even if you’re absolutely certain you’ll be applying for PhD programs next fall, go ahead and take that class on religion and children’s literature just because your secret favorite book features a poet-mouse named Frederick.

If we are an ivory tower, it is because the opportunities you have here to expand your intellect and your imagination, to take seriously as humanly viable ideas the ideas of thoughtful people in other times and places and to think critically about your own assumptions, are opportunities that not everyone in this country enjoys and that current policies of public education, I would argue, often actively work to limit even further. To borrow an image from my favorite corner of the globe, take our catalogues and wallow in them, like a water buffalo in a mud hole on a hot summer day. For, as the Tamil proverb asks, vittuvanukku etu paratecam: To a learned person, what land is foreign?

Anne Monius was Professor of South Asian Religions at Harvard Divinity School. This essay was delivered on September 17, 2007, as the Convocation address for academic year 2007-08. See video of the event on the Harvard Divinity School website.

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