Interfaith Interactions

Today is the day before Passover, the celebration of the Israelites' liberation from Egypt. It is also Good Friday for all but the Eastern Orthodox sects of Christianity, marking the day Jesus was crucified by the Romans. And, as noted by columnist Aamir Abdul Rehman '98 on this page yesterday, this is the week of the Eid al-Adha, the time of the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).

Perhaps this flurry of religious events is familiar to you: maybe your friends or roommates are going out of town to celebrate Easter or to attend a seder for Passover. Perhaps the photograph in The Crimson Monday showing the dust rituals of Hindu spring festival Holi caught your attention. And perhaps today is just another Friday for you and all of this is passing you by.

Yet no matter which of the above categories you fit into, what surrounds you is a very religious place. It is more than just the fact that the College was founded by Puritans to train their ministers, or that the Memorial Church bell begins to chime at 8:45 weekday mornings to call students to the (now voluntary and ecumenical) morning prayers. Most students and Faculty, whether they see themselves as devout or alienated, observant or ignorant, live a life attuned to religion.

Harvard is aware of religion in part because world news is dominated by it. Extraordinary religious leaders have left their mark throughout history and religious conflicts on every continent unfortunately make headlines every week.

We as Harvard students do not always confront religion in our everyday lives. But by not doing so, we miss learning from our classmates in what may be the most profound way. Harvard religious groups come in many sizes, from one to several hundred affiliated members in the largest organizations. Practically all world religions are represented. If our College education both inside and outside the classroom is meant to give us greater understanding for the rest of our lives, religion should be an important topic of study.


How can we enter here to grow in religious wisdom? There are courses on religion, but experience is more powerful than scholastic involvement. For a start, go to one of the many churches in and around the Square, attend services at Hillel and read posters about Christian a cappella groups or the next event sponsored by the United Ministry, the umbrella group for religions at Harvard. Seek out the groups you feel you do not know enough about.

But just finding some groups may be a challenge. Feel like you have not passed the Harvard Islamic Society's building recently? That's because the group meets for daily prayers in the basement of Canaday E, its fourth cramped home in five years. This may be the most egregious case of a religious group needing its own place to worship, meet, eat and educate. Prominence would help Muslims and would help all Harvard students to understand more about Islam. At the Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel building, built in 1994, Jews and non-Jews alike eat in its dining hall and learn from its classes and its speakers, which in the past year have included Cornel R. West '71 and Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Breyer. Buddhists, Hindus and members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints and other smaller groups should also not be forgotten.

Of course, not all interfaith interactions need to be in religious settings: "The biggest religion-involved issue on campus is the presence of religious activities in the Houses," says Michael M. Rosen '99, chair of Hillel and a Crimson editor. Rosen says the subject of religion in the houses is "touchy, but potentially rewarding" and feels it needs more exploration. This weekend Hillel is sponsoring seders in each of the Houses to bring religion outside its accustomed boundaries.

It does not need to take a holiday or special meal; a dinner or a moment in the mail room can be the perfect time for religious discussion. "Individual investigation and dialogue is certainly the easiest and most common mode to interact," said Tarissa Mitchell '99, chair of the Harvard-Radcliffe Baha'i Association. "The challenge is to realize that your belief is a part of your entire life and how you do everything--not just how you interact with members of your own religious community."

"Religion is a part of my life." says Lori H. Sonderegger '00, co-chair of the Ecumenical Forum. "I can't say what the Harvard experience would be like without it."

"My faith helps me keep things in perspective when a given situation seems overwhelming or impossible," says Dharma E. Betancourt '00, vice president of Applied Christian Faith. "It energizes me, inspires me and drives me." The name of the group, Betancourt says, comes from its ultimate goal: "If we do not pursue the practical application of the doctrines, religion is merely dead letter."

Thankfully, this is not the "godless Harvard" that Increase Mather, Class of 1656, feared it had become. Says Sonderegger: "It's very easy to believe the 'godless Harvard' myth if you never talk about religion and never take the time to find out if you know someone who is religious."

We need to have these interactions, to meet these people and others. Just like race and region, religion is an important distinction between students that must be respected and better understood. As intelligent people we are obligated to be as conversant about religions as we are about political parties or the classics of English literature. And it doesn't prove you know anything about religion to note that Easter and Passover overlap this year.

In our searches, we should also engage those who find the concept of religion abhorrent, divisive and destructive. They too have thought about religious issues and come to very different conclusions. As someone who considers himself some-what religious, I respect these principled atheists more than those who participate in American secular religion-by-default.

"Religion" in America is too often governed by Hallmark. St. Patrick's Day, St. Valentine's Day, All Hallow's Eve and even Christmas are celebrated without a thought to their basis in religion. The mark of true religion is that its spirituality and teachings overshadow its material forms. In my conception of religion, there is no room for Cadbury Creme Eggs.

Religion is a serious topic and not one we should shy away from. Most of my good friends are religious people in a variety of traditions. Don't be afraid. Go up to the person with the head covering or distinctive dress and ask them about it. Don't consider religion such a taboo subject. You will be surprised how it will enrich and educate any discussion. And don't be afraid to think religiously. Try it, if only to put yourself in another's shoes. You won't regret it.

Adam I. Arenson '00 is a history and literature concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.


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