Jesus, Etc.

Smiling in all-knowing way, the Rev. Peter J. Gomes wags an authoritative finger at me and diagnoses, “You’ve got a

Smiling in all-knowing way, the Rev. Peter J. Gomes wags an authoritative finger at me and diagnoses, “You’ve got a little religious bug, a little religious virus.”

That’s one way of putting it. I’m addicted to Jesus classes—it’s only my third semester at Harvard and I am unintentionally on a straight-line path toward a degree in the Study of Religion. Last year, I took a course at the Divinity School, as well as a freshman seminar on Christian literature. This fall, I entered shopping period with but one space to fill. My social studies-mandated schedule of Ec 10, Social Studies 10 and Historical Studies A-73 begged for a “fun” class. After toying with the idea of taking an art elective or an easy Core, I returned to my friend Jesus for a third helping—in the form of Gomes’ Religion 42, “The Christian Bible and its Interpreters.”

Last spring, my seminar professor began the course by innocently asking us to share a bit about our religious backgrounds and ourselves, as well as to explain why we chose the class. As we went around the table, the answers came in varying shades of religious faith. Even those who weren’t Christian—the son of a rabbi, for instance—had been born into some semblance of religion and had either pursued faith on their own or at the urgings of their family. When it came time for me to give my spiel, I found myself strangely fumbling for the right terms. “I’m probably the least religious person here,” I said sheepishly, not mentioning that “least” is probably better represented by “not.” More than a little defensively, I quickly added that I had grown up in a non-religious family. My mother and father never pushed religion on us—understandably, as my mother is atheist and my father is, as far as I can tell, Christian in spirit but indifferent in his daily life.

I’ve never once wished I’d gone to church as a kid, or that I’d read the Bible more. During high school, my lack of religion seemed to be more a blessing than a curse. So much of what I witnessed in my so-called pious peers struck me as, if not unabashedly sinful, surely hypocritical. In response to the first-hand accounts of religious conversions that we read during my seminar I had the overwhelming urge to roll my eyes. To this day, when people start to talk to me about their “faith” or their “relationship with God,” I still have a hard time staying focused on what they are saying. As a subject, I find religion extremely interesting, but when it comes to real-life application, I’m at a loss. I’ve begun to wonder what I expect these classes to accomplish.

Gomes, who is Plummer professor of Christian morals and Pusey minister in the Memorial Church, ushers me into his cozy Mem Church office and waves me toward the plush couch. He settles himself in the chair opposite me, calmly folds his hands in his lap and fixes me with a pensive gaze. I try my best to look studious and upstanding as I explain to him my situation. I’m writing a personal narrative, I begin. Pause. Well, I don’t really understand religion, I admit. Sometimes, I even have a hard time relating to very religious people. I ask him if he has a similar problem with people like myself. “If I’m too religious, I do,” Gomes confesses. “I can intimidate people.” Shrugging his shoulders, he says, “I think they think I’m going to try and convert them or think ill of them. I don’t think religion should produce that in people.”

I think of the people I’ve met though my intellectual adventure in religion. I was one of three or four undergrads in my Divinity School class; the rest were twenty- and thirty-somethings well on their way to the pulpit. Their faith seems unshakable and, in a way, reminds me of a friend I had in high school. She was a card-carrying, Lord-praising, constantly evangelizing Christian fundamentalist. I saw her faith as suffocating her; she saw my lack of religion as a temporary step on the way to enlightenment. I’m sure she never regarded me as a bad person—merely a confused soul.

When I tell Gomes this, he shakes his head and gives me a sympathetic look. We couldn’t talk about anything, I exclaim with exasperation. Homosexuality, evolution, abortion—all taboo. Emboldened, I defiantly tell Gomes that I’ve also met very religious people who have struck me as being, strictly speaking, bad people. He smiles and leans forward. “Would you be surprised to find out that you aren’t the only one with questions like these?,” Gomes asks. “There are lots of people like you—they’ve seen lots of religious people they don’t respect yet they still have a great deal of religious curiosity in their lives.”

The problem is that I don’t know what role, if any, I want religion to play in my life. One of my best friends suggests that my inexplicable interest is a sign that I shouldn’t be in Social Studies. Self-described as “spiritual, but not religious,” she is a Religion concentrator. It’s actually more common for non-religious people to study religion, she assures me, because the kind of classes you take force you to stand back and judge different faiths. She relates something a girl in her tutorial said: “I chose to study religion because I am pious, but I’ve found that by studying religion I’ve become less so.”

I’m still not certain why I’ve taken the classes that I have. In some way, they seem almost gratuitous—they’re not really practical and almost certainly will not factor into any future career. When I sit in section, surrounded by Divinity School students and devoutly religious undergrads who liberally sprinkle the discussion with direct quotes from Scripture and refer constantly to their well-worn pocket Bibles, I feel useless. So much of what they regard as fundamental truth appears, to me, the equivalent of a fairy tale. Approaching the material from my non-religious standpoint, I get the sense that any opinion I have is inconsequential.

To my surprise, Gomes promises me that, in the context of religion classes, my role should not be that of a passive bystander. “The Bible is too important to be left just to divinity students,” he explains passionately. “They’ll get it one way or another. So when someone like you falls into my orbit, I’m delighted.” I can’t keep the skepticism off of my face as I think how much more meaningful these classes must be to religious students. As if sensing my doubt, Gomes expands, “You chose this course, in place of other courses. It is just part of the trade for divinity students—one hopes that this is helpful but it’s what you have to do. Choosing this class suggests a level of interest, involvement, engagement that is relatively high.”

I lie when I say that I’m a non-believer. My belief is there, though it surfaces rarely and in strange forms. When I was younger, my mom would frequently go on business trips. Every time, after we’d dropped her at the airport, I would lie in my bed and pray into my pillow that her plane wouldn’t crash. I didn’t know how to pray, so all I did was whisper to God over and over to please protect my mommy. Lately, religion has regained a tiny bit of its appeal. A part of me still wants to believe, as I did then, that there has to be something besides just this reality. I wish this the most when things are going wrong or when I’m scared; it’s comforting to think that, somehow, if I hope hard enough, everything will right itself.

And so, I find myself occupying a strange limbo between the non-believer that I used to be and the believer that I don’t think I want to become. In his final bit of advice to me, Gomes reassures me that I will find what I’m looking for. “You’ve got an itch that has to be scratched,” he tells me, only partly in jest. “These are questions that will not go away for you—that’s why you take these courses, that’s why we are here having this conversation. Religion is going to be a piece of unfinished business for you until you get some clarity. At some point or another, you’ll be at the place you’ll want to be.” As I’ve taken these classes, I haven’t gotten that type of clarity. But maybe three more years of religion electives will help.

Mollie H. Chen ’05 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. She enjoys sailing, long walks on the beach and the condescension of Divinity School students.