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Beer, Foosball, Religion

By Ethan M. Tucker

Today is the day. Nervous first-years will finally find out where the gods of randomization have decided to house them. So I dedicate this column to you, the class of 1999. As you head off to the ice cream bashes and the Masters' open houses, as you scramble to pick up the witty t-shirts desiged for you by your upperclass counterparts, remember that the years ahead are what you make of them.

More than ever before, house life will be shaped by your individual interests, your dedication and your ideas. As even the perceived "character" of each house fades with randomization, your input will be critical. What kind of house life do you want?

One issue to consider is that of the role of religion. After spring break, the Committee on House Life will consider an Undergraduate Council proposal on religious displays. The proposal discourages house masters from spending anything on religious displays and recommends that any such expenditures be preceded by extensive consultation with students.

The proposal itself is of little import. If approved, it would be non-binding, since no one but the Dean of the College can dictate how house committees or house masters spend their money, and it is unlikely that Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 will restrict house autonomy in this way. But the proposal presents a timely opportunity to look at the issue of religion and the nature of house life in general.

Currently, most houses sponsor some kind of Christmas dinner and adorn their dining halls with Yuletide decorations. House masters pay for most of these events, often using University money to sponsor them. Such events are often defended as religiously neutral, and though I don't agree, I will say that they are devoid of religious content.

Opponents of religious displays, such as those on the Council's Student Affairs Committee, correctly attack them as parochial. But the real problem with most displays is that they are completely shallow. Sometimes they are so shallow that no one can even agree if they are religious at all. Christmas trees are ironic in that Christians often consider them secular, while non-Christians consider them religious. Several house committee chairs have told me they would be ambivalent about religious events sponsored by the house but simultaneously have defended "holiday" (a.k.a Christmas) decorations as inclusive.

Can't we find a middle ground between an insipid, iconographic form of religion and a house life devoid of it completely? We can, and we should. Interest in religion is burgeoning at Harvard, as demonstrated by the nascent but extremely active Interfaith Forum. Religion shapes many students' lives and is therefore a wonderul context for housemates to learn about each other. To ensure that this happens, events or displays should be limited to those that are open to all members of the house and which truly educate people about a religious tradition. That means saying no to Christmas trees but yes to a creche detailed with the history of Jesus' birth and its significance to Christianity.

"Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life," wrote Melbourne William Lamb. I would generally agree with the nineteenth century British viscount, but a house is not in the private sphere; it is a common home to many. Religious content can enrich house life, provided the religious impulse is used to teach others.

Several months ago, a student wrote a letter to this paper saying that he wanted his house dues to pay for beer, foosball tables and good washing machines. That's a long way from A. Lawrence Lowell's original vision of the house system. He hoped students and faculty would experience Harvard by interacting with each other outside of the classroom, in the intimate atmosphere of the houses. Beer and foosball are great, but they don't teach you a whole lot about people and where they come from. Religion is one forum for that kind of interaction, as long as it is inclusive and educational.

So enjoy the pool tables and the big screen televisions. But insist that house life also be about learning from your peers.

Ethan M. Tucker's column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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