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The word on the street is that a lot of the professors here, and a lot of students too, are unaware of just how much significant religious commitment exists among undergraduates at Harvard. Religious life isn't exactly the first thing that springs to mind at the mention of Harvard's name. Yet many on Harvard's campus are quite astonished to discover that “godless Harvard” is anything but.
I believe that I first truly met the Christian God at Harvard.
Though I came from an Anglican family, it was here that the old creeds and old hymns to God in the Highest first really came to life for me. Since then, I have been an active member of the Christian student community on campus. I have taken great pleasure in tracing the footsteps of the many giants of Christian thought who, for better or worse, dominated Western thought for at least a millennium. And I have urged that there be more thoughtful engagement with Christianity on this campus.
There is a gap to be filled. We are no longer in the era of Christendom, when the language of Christianity still hummed and buzzed, full of the imaginative categories that made it meaningful and alive. Today, the significant residue of Christian language and thought that is still present in our culture has largely been evacuated of its meaning—of the richness, the thought, and the feeling behind it.
So, for example, when we hear the word “sin” today, one's first thought is of Christians who “put themselves down, with writhings of unease, for perfectly normal human behavior,” as Francis Spufford puts it. The perils of fiery eternal judgement spring to mind. Either that, or we opt for some entirely watered-down, giggly concept, as in, “Aren't these chocolates positively sinful, Leticia, darling?”
Christianity has a lot more to say about the concept of sin than any of that. Sin is complex, and it involves nuanced ideas about freedom and responsibility, fear and safety, power and oppression, self-harm, abandonment, death. When properly understood, the concept of sin illuminates humankind's smallness and bigness in the world. It is above all a liberating concept.
Lose the imagination of the past and you lose the present. The effect is most clearly seen in Western literature. Marylinne Robinson, the Pulitzer-winning author of “Gilead,” has written for The New York Times on the centrality of the Bible to any understanding of subsequent Western literature. It isn't just a matter of catching the biblical allusions. Catching the intended religious feeling matters. T.S. Eliot notes that the Bible had the effect it did on Western literature “not because it has been considered literature, but because it has been considered the report of the Word of God.”
Some, trying to understand the ancient appeal of Christ, have relearned the ancient language of sin and grace, providence and glory, and found that the forms of the modern world also clicked, bright and quivering, into place under that eternal light. As the psalmist writes, and as is coincidentally the motto of Columbia, “in lumine tuo videbimus lumen.” In Your light we will see light.
Christianity is not trapped in the past. To many apparently sane modern people, the ancient faith remains as fresh as ever. For some of us, St. Augustine's almost offhandedly tender address to God, “Our hearts are restless till they rest in You,” rings as true today as it did in the fifth century. There is needed just a little translation between the ancient and modern imagination for the conversation about Christianity in the 21st century to be fruitful.
This column takes its title from Francis Spufford's marvellous book, “Unapologetic.” Like Spufford's book, this column is an exercise in unapologetics, in two senses. In the first sense, it is not an exercise in Christian apologetics—a systematic rational defence of Christianity. In the second sense, of course, I am not very contrite.
While we're at it, this column will be an exercise in unpolitics, too. The usual treadmill of conservative social, political, and moral topics are too often just a distraction from Christianity.
Instead, this column will be the confessions of a skeptic and a mystic trying to speak truthfully and live faithfully before God. “True stories, real experiences,” as Bret and Jemaine put it. At the end of it, I expect Christ will remain a little mysterious. He remains that way to me. But that is right and good. You wouldn't want a tame religion, I hope.
Warm wishes for a chilly semester.
Et gloria in excelsis Deo.
Stephen G. Mackereth '15 is a joint mathematics and philosophy concentrator in Mather House.
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