Evangelizing Harvard

It is now Holy Week; this Sunday is Easter; Lent is nearly over. This is far and away the best time of the year, liturgically speaking. A rather startling number of events are commemorated in quick succession: the institution of the Eucharist and of Holy Orders, the Mandatum, and the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection.

In the midst of all this comes the Easter Vigil on the night of Holy Saturday, which contains no historical event of its own but has the honor of hosting the first celebration of the Resurrection. And in the middle of this vigil, all those who have been preparing to enter the church are finally received with whatever sacraments they lack.

Unlike those baptized as infants, who have the benefit of being in the church their whole lives, these converts have had to come to the faith on their own, exploring, reading, praying, asking, discussing. This is often a process of years, which is caution one would expect when dealing with matters of eternity. But somehow or other, they become convinced that the church is the pillar and the ground of truth, and they can do no other.

That this phenomenon occurs at all is cause for celebration; that it occurs at Harvard is, in a certain way, shocking. The conservative grapevine is always ripe with stories of the left-wing excesses of universities, and many a freshman’s religious upbringing has been brought down before his first round of midterms. The stock character of a naïve Christian teenager become atheist in college exists for a reason.

Who, then, go in the opposite direction, and what disposes them to do so? Many Harvard students now, it seems, did not arrive at irreligion by conscious rejection of religion. Instead religion has never been part of their lives, so they see no reason to encourage it to be part of their thoughts. I myself find this difficult to imagine, but as it happens people can live fairly productive lives without ever answering the question of their meaning. The nihilism that novelists and philosophers argue follows from atheism follows only in strict logical terms, and few atheists are capable of that mental asceticism.


Everyone else, however, displays an incredible ability to democratize that most undemocratizable of attainments, the Nietzschean Übermensch. They can supply enough things to do and think about that the alleged meaninglessness of their lives never occurs to them. Even if it did, it would seem plainly contradicted by the list of public services and charitable works that they had accomplished that day alone. Club elections, business deals, dating problems, and any number of other concerns are able so to dominate the mind that questions of eternity never have a chance to intrude, and if ever they do, they look ridiculous.

In fact, living as a Nietzschean Übermensch — or, at least, the unwitting version of one, if the reader will concede me this adaptation — is the default option of mankind, religious and not. The religious have to strain every day to remember that they are in the presence of God and that death and judgment await them. In most cases it is easier to focus on the details of one’s immediate temporal surroundings.

How does one dislodge the non-religious from this ostensibly urgent system of values and get them to consider the eternal verities? Here we meet obstacles other than mere force of indifferent habit. There are various scientific objections to the existence of God. There are the gross nitwitteries perpetrated in the New York Times. There are hypocrisy, lies, tepidity, sexual abuse, arrogance, and uncharity.

But there are also these converts to the church, who have managed to overcome all these obstacles and then some. They have walked through the valley of the shadow of Richard Dawkins and have not been harmed. Pope Benedict XVI has said that the saints are the best argument for the faith; likewise these converts are powerful arguments for conversion. They demonstrate the possibility of something so outlandish as becoming Catholic while at Harvard. They are a perfect sign of contradiction, not merely holding fast against the current, as the cradle Catholics do, but sailing full-bore in the opposite direction.

The zeal of the convert is indeed legendary, an inspiration to the lifelong faithful. Perhaps, more importantly, however, it is a shock to the unconverted, and shock is the first ingredient in evangelism. Not an off-putting shock, of course — just enough of a disturbance to jolt the average Johnny Harvard out of his routine of meaningful inanities and into reflection about supernatural truths.

This, from a list nigh uncountable, is one of the joys of Easter.

Liam M. Warner ’20, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Classics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.