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For Lent, I gave up going to church. It’s been a sacrifice. Now, when Sunday rolls around, I no longer feel the delightful pangs of guilt that used to follow me from meeting to meeting. In the company of friends who showed up last Wednesday at dinner with dark smudges on their foreheads, I had to slink around shamefacedly, muttering something about how I’d thought the service was at 4:30. But I wasn’t alone. The response of most of my friends when I posed the question “What are you giving up for Lent?” was “It’s Lent already?,” “What’s Lent?,” or “I’m Jewish.” Or “Fish.”
Harvard has changed. When it began, it consisted of nine men preparing for lives of contemplation and self-denial in the Protestant ministry. Now, it consists of 6,700 undergraduate men and women preparing for lives of contemplation and self-denial in the current economy. With the demise of the Reason and Faith requirement in the new General Education system, religion at Harvard seems to have completed its trajectory from prime focus of the classroom to just another extracurricular activity. On the Harvard website, “Religious Groups” inhabit a drop-down menu of activities cheek-by-jowl with “Academic & Pre-Professional,” “Arts and Performance,” “Athletics & Recreation,” “Media & Publications,” and “Public Service.” Being a person of faith is just another of a wide range of fun activities available to those who come to Harvard. When Harvard boasts to admitted students of its more than 40 religious groups, it does so in the same vein that it boasts of its nearly dozen a cappella groups. The message is clear enough: Religion, like vocal arrangements of pop hits, is something to practice on your own time.
But should things be this way?
Cult-like as my extracurricular pursuits tend to be—we wear matching hoodies, make annual pilgrimages, and spend a lot of time in nonsense chanting—I understand that they are not going to provide me with answers to the big philosophical questions. The Hasty Pudding Theatricals doesn’t know why we have toes or where HUDS gets all that squash.
I would go on about how religion shapes all major international debates and conflicts, but I have never had to take a course about it, so I am not certain how it shapes the conflicts. I just have a vague, uneasy feeling that it does and that I am not being sufficiently prepared to engage with its role in the world.
As I see some of my peers getting pumped for Purim, others giving up chicken for Lent, and others conscientiously forswearing any form of belief, I cannot help wishing that Harvard provided us the opportunity to engage with the complex fabric of religious belief both inside and outside the classroom. Harvard is a wondrously tolerant climate for debate and exchange among a wide variety of thoughts, backgrounds, and beliefs, but the voice of religion on campus is largely inaudible. In fact, if there were no food involved, it might be completely silent. Nearly everything faith-related that I have done at Harvard has been followed by free food, from going to services at Harvard’s Episcopal Chaplaincy to attending a day of interfaith discussion and dialogue hosted by the university chaplains in the fall. And that was exciting! After a fast-breaking for Ramadan, there were performances by Jewish and Christian musical groups, a humanist singing a song about the evolution of empathy, and a keynote address by Sally Quinn. The tent outside the Science Center was full of people hungry for discussion and for the free catered dinner. Harvard pulsates with life and thought of all kinds, and religion should not be left out of its ongoing discussions.
Indeed, even the people who in 2006 decided against including Reason and Faith in the Gen Ed requirements did so not because they did not consider religion worth studying, but because they felt that “courses dealing with religion—both those examining normative reasoning in a religious context and those engaging in a descriptive examination of the roles that religion plays today and has historically played—can be readily accommodated in other categories.” Harvard students are famous for allowing certain categories of learning outside their comfort zones to slip into obscurity—witness English concentrators filing into “The Magic of Numbers”—but this should not happen to religion.
In a culture that regards everything as either classwork or extra-curricular activity, religion has become just another extra-curricular, one that sometimes conflicts with fly-fishing club. But you could rise through the ranks to become president of that fly-fishing club, and “attended church” looks funny on your resume. This is why it is critical that Harvard students get the chance to engage with religion inside the classroom as well as beyond. Otherwise, faith runs the risk of becoming just like Memorial Church—something that’s clearly there at Harvard but most students are too busy to look into.
Alexandra A. Petri ’10 is an English and classics concentrator living in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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