Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Completing Goldman's The Search for God at Harvard

I finished Ari Goldman's The Search for God at Harvard.

Did Ari Goldman find God at Harvard Divinity School?  At the end of the book, he says that maybe he did.  I'm not sure how, though.  Goldman learned a lot about comparative religion, and he says that he tried to approach the subject in a manner other than passive and detached observation, but, by writing about it, he somewhat was a passive observer----on the outside looking in.  Goldman also talked with people at HDS who were on spiritual journeys, and he told fascinating stories about where they ended up after HDS----stories that gave some hope to a humanities student like myself that perhaps even I can find some line of work, however difficult the searching process might be.  One student, who before was leery about regarding God as someone who pulled strings, began to fall back on the notion that God might have a plan.  And Ari Goldman concluded that his own ministry was journalism rather than more academic work in religious studies, or the clergy.  Was this Ari Goldman's discovery of God at Harvard: reaffirming his own life's purpose?

In my latest reading, there was one point where Ari Goldman felt that Harvard Divinity School's academic treatment of the New Testament ran in the opposite direction from what he wanted: to learn about what made Christians tick.  Consequently, Goldman took a class that was a joint venture between the Episcopal Divinity School and Weston Jesuit School of Theology.  Goldman (a religious Jew) did not care for one professor's supersessionist beliefs, but another professor for the class had a more philo-Judaic approach.  Goldman still enjoyed the class, however, because of its passionate engagement with the text.  Perhaps this class had more spiritual content than the one at Harvard Divinity School, which may have focused on such topics as authorship. (Goldman says that he learned in the HDS one that Matthew was a Jewish Gospel.)

In reading Goldman's discussion of his interaction with New Testament studies, I was reminded of the situation when I was at Harvard Divinity School.  Some people took Karen King's class at HDS, but others took Daniel Harrington's class at Weston Jesuit.  I did not take either, but my impression (based on what I have heard) is that Karen King went into the diversity of early Christianity and Gnosticism, whereas Harrington delved more into the theology and spirituality within the New Testament.  An African-American student called Harrington's class a "shouting class", the sort of class where you want to shout "Amen!" at the preacher.  Contrary to what one might think, there wasn't entirely a liberal-conservative divide in which liberals took King's class and conservatives took Harrington's.  There were liberal HDS students who loved Harrington's class.  And one conservative Christian HDS student was drawn to Karen King's class because she was looking for something different.

Goldman's discussion about the future of Harvard Divinity School was intriguing.  He talked about Ronald Thiemann becoming dean of HDS and enacting reforms, such as putting HDS on a better financial footing, filling vacant posts, integrating HDS more into the broader Harvard community, and encouraging Christian spirituality at HDS by bringing Krister Stendahl back to the campus.  Goldman said that mainline Protestantism was on the rise while evangelicalism was on the decline, with the religious scandals of the late 1980's and the end of Moral Majority, and Goldman forecasted that this would help HDS.  As someone who attended HDS in 1999-2002, what can I say about this?  When I arrived at Harvard, Thiemann was no longer the dean.  But there were a lot of classes to take that were taught by excellent faculty, more people at Harvard seemed to know about the Div School and even took classes there, and there was more Christian spirituality on the campus.  While there were a lot of mainline Protestants at HDS, there was also a growing number of evangelicals when I was there----and they had their own group, plus there were evangelicals who were teaching classes at HDS. 

In terms of my overall impression of Goldman's book, I think that he should have focused more on how he found God at Harvard, since that's what the book was supposed to be about.  But he spent a lot of space talking about his family, his background in Orthodox Judaism, and his career as a journalist, much of which took place before he went to Harvard.  There's nothing wrong with this----I, as one who used to keep the seventh-day Sabbath----could identify with his story about how he sought to reconcile Sabbath observance with having a career.  Moreover, it's important to remember that Goldman came to Harvard with a back-story, as does everyone who attends Harvard or goes anywhere.  But I think that he could have done a better job in terms of integrating his back-story into his story about searching for God at Harvard.  I also believe that he should have gone into more detail about whether or not he found God at Harvard.

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