Faith is an extraordinarily difficult concept to discuss, write about, and legislate on. By its very nature, it refuses to conform to the ways of this world. It dares to say that something (or someone) unseen or untouched or unheard could be vastly more meaningful that what we can see and touch and hear. It dares to say that the world is not as it should be, that we are called to something much more sublime than the societal status quo.
For people of many traditions, faith is not simply another interest or activity. It is not a competing viewpoint, worldview, or lens, but the very compass that orients us to ourselves, to others, and to the divine. As C.S. Lewis once wrote of his Christian faith, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
Faith can be a simple matter. But it can also be a matter of immense complexity and nuance. It can demand intellectual rigor on a level rivaled by few academic disciplines. If we are to reckon substantively and meaningfully with faith, we must bring hearts and minds ready to challenge and be challenged, push and be pushed, listen and be heard.
The events of the past few weeks at the College have shown that many of us are not up to such a task. In the wake of Harvard College Faith and Action’s hosting of a controversial speaker, revelations about the circumstances in which one of their student leaders was asked to step down, the imposition of “administrative probation” from the College, and the Undergraduate Council’s condemnation of HCFA, the past few weeks have posed a major challenge to the future of faith at Harvard. The outcry and outrage, though, reflects the College’s incapability to engage faith with the nuance and complexity it often requires.
The Crimson Editorial Board chose a “race to the bottom” tactic of branding HCFA and its leaders as hateful, a tactic which has the strategic effect of putting an end to all reasonable discourse. Once you brand someone with such a red-hot label, you cannot un-brand them. “You’re just full of hate” is not a statement that can be engaged or reasoned with. This was a dangerous, sensationalizing move.
The UC condemned the organization and refused to invite its co-presidents to a Sunday “Community Time,” a space presumably with the intent of fostering conversation and dialogue even on difficult Harvard issues. The Finance Committee Chair was quite callous in his swaggering “not gonna be getting a dime from us” exposition on stopping HCFA’s funding from that committee. And of course, the College was initially less than clear on the details of what “administrative probation” actually means.
The issues and policies at play are not nearly as black and white as any of these actors seem to believe. There is a real difference between asking a faith leader to step down because of their sexual orientation, and asking a faith leader to step down because of genuine theological disagreement over how we ought to live. There is a real difference between external ministry fellows influencing and coordinating activity in a Harvard student group, and external ministry fellows with seminary degrees providing pastoral care and spiritual mentorship to Harvard students.
I firmly believe a battle for the soul of the College is about to ensue. These are issues that will not be ferreted away by the fickle collegiate news cycle. The question in play is of the greatest magnitude: May campus religious organizations govern themselves according to their values without retribution? The largest Christian fellowship at the world’s foremost university is being sanctioned. That is no small matter.
A matter of faith with such extraordinary implications must not be approached with platitudes, close-mindedness, stubborn dogmatism, and incivility. Neither, though, should it be approached with fear or timidity. On the contrary, we should not fear to be bold. But so far, we have proven ourselves utterly unworthy of the challenge of difficult discussions on intensely important questions.
In all of the hysterical noise regarding HCFA recently, though, there have bright spots, reasoned and empathic voices bridging the gap between those in and out of faith traditions. The recent Crimson op-eds of Veronica S. Wickline ’16 and Tyler S. Parker ’17 reflect the standard of level-headedness, empathy, reason, and personal poignancy that can indeed accompany such an intensely challenging issue.
I believe Wickline frames the issue best, writing “If Harvard wants to enforce its view of how Christian communities should operate, let it understand the debate it is entering.” To this I would add an exhortation from the book of Isaiah: “Come now, and let us reason together...” What Harvard has done to HCFA is far from reasonable.
Grace M. Chao ’19 is an Economics concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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