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The Books I Haven't Read

The Inner Workings

By Catherine L. Tung

My father is a Presbyterian minister. I haven’t been to church in four years, initially because I found the practice constricting, now mostly because I’ve grown fond of sleeping in on Sundays. The result of all this was that my entrance into college last year also meant initiation into my father’s unofficial religious-book-of-the-month club.

The first one came around October, in a box from, with a note from my father—something generic, along the lines of “I thought you might find this interesting.” The title was Finding God at Harvard. I remember being vaguely surprised that someone had written a book on such a specific order of spiritual quest, but my thoughts didn’t extend far beyond that. Then, around November came The Search for God at Harvard, evidently the book that predated and inspired Finding God at Harvard. Christmas brought me a copy of The Search for God, and in early spring came The Politics of Jesus. The books collected on a shelf but went unread, reflecting my guilty-but-lazy position on the matter. The books occasionally escaped the shelf and got lost in the room, prompting my roommates to crack, “They should write a book called Finding Finding God at Harvard...”

The interesting part of it all was that, before the inundation had begun, I had actually enrolled in a Christian history course fall semester because it looked like a good class and because it fell under my Core requirements. I did read the books that my professor prescribed for me, and found the course generally interesting. And by the end of the semester, I had concluded that my father and I both were going about this whole spirituality thing in entirely the wrong way.

I imagine relatively few people choose their religion or lack thereof after reading a few dozen books and completing a basic course. As my math-oriented, insanely logical friend Ricky said last Easter at five in the morning, “You can’t decide, ‘okay, I think I’m going to believe in God now because I think that that would be a good thing to do.’” In other words, these decisions, although often supported and criticized alike with facts, ultimately lie in that hazy region beyond the academic approach.

Of course, it is important to know the facts of a faith—to be aware of whether it endorses charity or ritualistic killings. But once the basics have been learned, it is equally important to recognize the inherent nature of both religious commitment and atheist conviction: neither is based on fact, neither is the product of exhaustive research. Both come as a result of an intuitive decision that involves acknowledging and listening to one’s own internal sentiments, which can easily be buried under a stack of books.

This past summer, one of my friends from back home, who is half-Jewish, went to Israel through a program sponsored by American patrons and the Israeli government. When he got back we went to a restaurant in Chinatown that’s open till 3 a.m. and he told me all about it. He said the experience had been stirring, but ultimately confusing, because he had left knowing exactly where he stood on Israel and Judaism, and came back with nothing but questions.

I said that this was probably a good thing, because he shouldn’t see the issue in black and white, but neither should he resign himself to an indifferent non-opinion. It was best, for now, to be in a state of passionate confusion.

His eyes lit up. “That’s it,” he said. “I’m passionately confused.”

In a time like the undergraduate years, when many students begin looking critically at the benchmarks of their beliefs, be they religious or more broadly ideological, I am endorsing a temporary state of passionate confusion. This would mean remaining open to the options available and not committing to any one position, but also remaining as actively involved in the matters at stake as if in a state of firm conviction. Passionate confusion could include reading a book or two, but not equating issues of morality and emotion with facts and figures—that would be like reducing music to the little black dots on the page. They can only tell you so much.

This proposal can be a difficult one, especially when our classes stress documentation and empirical/cognitive processes. (“Is your source on this reliable?”) Old habits die hard, and in spite of myself I still tend to seek out the academic, university-approved options as I try to learn more about religion. Even as I write this column, I have yet to attend any of the churches in Cambridge. My father’s book-of-the-month volumes continue to sit on the shelf. I am, however, almost certain I will enroll in the class on the King James Bible next year.

Catherine L. Tung ’06 is an English concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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