One of the bits of conventional wisdom about Harvard is that it is “godless,” a soubriquet cast upon us in 1886 when, as part of President Charles W. Eliot’s experiment in undergraduate liberty known as the “elective plan,” the College abandoned compulsory attendance at Morning Prayers. At that time, most colleges regarded moral education as one of their duties and, together with courses in moral philosophy that were often conducted by The Reverend President, they expressed that duty through the system of compulsory chapel. There, the students would be instructed in the Bible and addressed by their elders on their moral and religious duties. To reduce chapel to an optional extracurricular activity seemed to many of the devout a substantial abandonment of the College’s religious identity and an abdication of its responsibility to the undergraduates to whom the College related in loco parentis.
Today, discussions on compulsory chapel seem quaint and far removed from the issues of the day. Chapel flourishes at Harvard, but on a voluntary and unobtrusive basis, although there still remains a rule discouraging, if not prohibiting, the holding of academic exercises between 8:40 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. Monday through Saturday in term (the time set aside for chapel) a rule that is routinely ignored by those courses that dare to meet at 8:00 a.m. Religion, however, continues to be a subject that arouses passions and suspicions in a place that to many is still professedly “godless.”
Take, for example, the modest proposal of the reformers of the Task Force on General Education, who dared to suggest that in a 21st century world, where religion is a big deal in nearly every significant geopolitical situation, Harvard undergraduates should be required to have some knowledge of religion. Under the category of “Faith and Reason,” the reformers proposed to take advantage of the considerable academic resources available in the Divinity School and the concentration on the study of religion. There was considerable student interest, and not a few faculty members began to speculate on the construction of new and collaborative courses in this field both ancient and new.
Some, however, were not so sanguine, and in the person of Johnstone Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker they found an advocate to express their anxiety about the role of religion, particularly under the category of “Faith and Reason” in a required undergraduate curriculum. Old hostilities to religion as a legitimate area of inquiry were aroused, as was the specter of sinister creationists and out-of-the-closet Jesuits. It was bad enough to have a large and visible chapel here, but to give faith and reason a place in a curriculum long ceded to scientism seemed to be just too much. The reformers backed off, the rubric was removed, and the fears of legitimizing piety were put to rest, at least for a while.
Yet religion can never really be “put to rest” at Harvard, for it is in our institutional DNA and, with very few exceptions, all of our presidents before 1869 were clergymen. Our senior governing board, the Overseers, still has as one of its honorifics, “The Reverend,” and our most solemn assemblies are usually opened and closed with prayer. When I teach my Harvard history course, many are surprised by the large role that religion played in the foundation of the University, and shocked to learn that Henry Dunster, our first president, was eased out of office because of his unorthodox views on infant baptism. Because most historians of Harvard read its development as a progressive and welcome move away from those earliest religious identities, and hence tend to minimize them, the very existence of such an identity is news to a lot of people. The president’s gown, for example, is a form of clerical rather than of academic dress, and the Corporation’s official seal still reads “Truth for Christ and the Church;” both are functioning contemporary vestiges of Harvard’s religious past.
Even more to the point, Harvard’s contemporary religious scene is both vibrant and complex. It is not the case that a vestigial religious minority, Protestant and Christian, continues to defend itself in the face of a rampant and pluralistic secularism. As a result of Harvard’s own changed admissions policies over the last thirty years, more religiously varied students than ever before now choose to practice their religions here; and many, the products of a secular generation of parents, actually discover religion here for the first time. They are either introduced to the traditions of their ancestors, or they discover a practice that makes sense to them. The varieties of religious experience, as William James once wrote, are alive and well here at Harvard, and although religion may make some of our colleagues nervous, it cannot be excluded from the fact of modern Harvard. While the stock of the Puritans may be thinning out, the piety in old and new forms by which they established this place is very much alive in the hands of their diversified descendants.
While the professional bashers of religion, such as C. Richard Dawkins, Chrisopher E. Hitchens, and Sam Harris may look with surprise and even alarm at the persistence of religious belief at such a place as Harvard, it is probably fair to say that the will to believe will outlast their critique and that religion at Harvard, both debated and affirmed, will always be at the center of our institutional identity. We may not be a godly place but we are anything but godless, and that is what makes the place so interesting. It is no accident that our most significant ceremony, commencement, occurs in the space demarcated by the rational bulk of Widener Library and the spiritual aspirations of Memorial Church. If we are shaped by the space in which we live, we are better and richer for being shaped by the stimulating and complementary forces of faith and reason. No university or college worthy of the name need fear either.
Peter J. Gomes is Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in The Memorial Church.
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