Ivy Grows Ecumenical
SEARCH for God at Harvard - at the place whose very name represents to most Americans the seat, if not the apex, of intellectuality? That is what Ari Goldman, a New York Times religion correspondent who was raised in orthodox Jewish schools in New York, did for one year. He persuaded the executive editor of the Times that he could cover religion better if he had a broader perspective on religious affairs."The Search for God at Harvard" relates Goldman's odyssey at the Divinity School, but it is much more than that. It also tells how he wrestled with some of the requirements of orthodox Judaism as he grew up, but through understanding the core of his religion, he still finds it the center of his life. The feeling he has when his wife lights the candles at home each Friday night is one that many readers must wish they also could experience. When he began his first course on Christian theology at the Div School, as it is called by the students, he realized that "studying Christian theology conflicted with studying Jewish religion in a dualism that has been called Christian creed versus Jewish deed." "The Orthodox Judaism I was brought up with never bothered itself with God-talk. Instead, Judaism was focused on doing, what we call mitsvahs, good deeds which we were told made us better Jews." If his description of Judaism does little to change one's impression that its practice is ritualistic, Goldman does explain well how the ritual, if understood, fulfills the etymology of the word religion as a binding back - in his case, to specific events in the Jewish experience. Goldman thought he might find a greater sense of spirituality at the Div School. What he found, instead, was a school somewhat in transition. Although it was founded in 1636 as a training ground for Puritan ministers, Harvard had outgrown its original cocoon by the time of the American Revolution. In the 19th century, it was led almost entirely by Unitarians, the most eclectic of Christians. Today the Divinity School faculty includes Christians from almost the entire spectrum of Christianity, as well as scholars whose approach is mainly from an academic base. The school, Goldman found, did not provide spirituality. The students built that in their relationships with each other. Some came with a strong commitment to become ministers after graduation. Others were closer to the start of their spiritual searching. There was the young woman from a Unitarian home, expecting to become a minister. There was the middle-aged former businessman whose business and personal life had both crashed, hoping eventually to become an Episcopal priest. Goldman says he did learn, at least somewhat, how to look at another religion from the inside without being of that faith. Beyond being a look at a young Jew's maturing in his own faith and religious practice, this book provides a valuable insight into the changes going on at one of America's leading divinity schools. The new dean, Ronald Thiemann, is himself a Lutheran minister. The school recognizes its Christian roots and is in fact a repository of some of the most vital elements of the American religious experience. At the same time, like the university of which it is a part, it exists today in a global context. Christian ecumenism is now joined by the need for global religious ecumenism. The balance the school must find is an honest appreciation for the religious experience of all men and women, while recognizing the need each of us has for the specificity of individual experience. And, applying this to Harvard, that specificity would seem to require a continuing commitment to the core of Christianity.