Commentary Magazine

The Search for God at Harvard, by Ari L. Goldman

New Age Theology

The Search for God at Harvard.
by Ari L. Goldman.
Times Books. 283 pp. $20.00.

A religion reporter for the New York Times and an Orthodox Jew, Ari L. Goldman came to Harvard Divinity School in the fall of 1985 seeking professional enrichment. Immediately upon his arrival, however, he found the institution “in the throes of its own administrative and philosophical nightmares”: the dean had left, the acting dean had just died, and several important faculty positions were vacant. More ominously, the ethos of the school represented anything but the religiousness, sobriety, and self-restraint that the catalogue had led him to expect. Anticipating, for example, that the Divinity School Orientation Dance would be “an evening of hymns and mulled cider,” Goldman and his wife were in for a shock:

As we approached, music was blaring from the Refectory, and lights were flashing on and off. We checked the invitation to be sure we were at the right place on the right night. What we encountered inside was spiked hair, fishnet stockings, short skirts, and couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, dancing to U2, Michael Jackson, and Duran Duran.

The countercultural features of Harvard Divinity School were not, however, altogether unwelcome to Goldman. It is true that he came “to study theology, not to become radicalized,” but he reports that he has since found the sexual politics pervading that institution actually to have been a step or two ahead of the thinking of the rest of society. Furthermore, even during his stay at Harvard, Goldman increasingly found himself hungry for something more than dry academic study: he wanted to learn how adherents of other religions feel. He sought not just information and analysis, but spirituality. “It’s here,” a fellow student reassured him, “but it’s hidden under a real thick layer of intellectualism and politics.” One may doubt the implication that intellectual rigor is at odds with the life of the spirit, but Goldman’s experience abundantly confirms the student’s other point about politics displacing religiousness.

Already at orientation, Goldman saw that the pervasive politics of Harvard Divinity School exhibited what he, with admirable understatement, terms “a decided left-wing tilt.” Indeed, his narrative suggests that political correctness has taken the place of theological orthodoxy. The chapel services, for example, were usually just a political forum on matters like the Sandinista revolution or gay rights. A course on “The American Catholic Bishops and Public Policy: A Feminist Perspective” proved to be one long diatribe against Catholic teaching on the vexed question of the status of the unborn, with Cardinals Ratzinger and O’Connor predictably cast in the role, as Goldman puts it, of “unmistakable villains.” A female student complained to him that the women’s-studies courses often involved “a declaration of war on men,” a point vividly brought home when he happened upon a women’s martial-arts course held in the formal reception room of the school:

I peered in through a window in the door one day, and the instructor gave me a look that said, “You are the enemy. Get lost.” Inside, several women were pummeling an imaginary man into submission on the floor.

The vacuum into which all this politicization and radicalization rushed was created in large part by the relative inattention of Harvard Divinity School to what one would have expected to be its central preoccupation: Christianity. The low estimation of traditional Catholicism is hardly surprising in an institution of venerable Protestant heritage: the only new element was the focus on sexual issues, plus the possibility of having dissident Catholics rather than Protestants offering the critique—a safer arrangement at all events. Goldman also notes a conspicuous lack of regard for evangelicalism, one bordering on intolerance, but this, too, is not unusual in a school whose Protestantism has always been liberal and very characteristically Northeastern.

What is altogether novel in the situation Goldman sketches was the neglect even of “mainline Protestantism,” a neglect that he traces to a certain embarrassment. “Religious truth did not seem to exist at the Div School,” Goldman writes, “only religious relativism,” and the fear of giving offense in a diverse community was so overpowering “that Christian spirituality did not emerge.” Goldman’s keen reporter’s eye focuses on an especially graphic illustration of the point: during a slide show on Christianity (in a course on “World Religions: Diversity and Dialogue”), “One of the high points was a slide showing Christians and Native American Indians raising a totem pole together, interfaith cooperation at its best”—but no help to Goldman in understanding “how Christians feel about themselves.”

Despite these disappointments, Goldman finds his experience at Harvard Divinity School to have been highly rewarding. The courses he took were nearly always good, and those who taught them were expert, well-prepared, and often entertaining as well. The outstanding exception was his encounter with a priest who taught New Testament at a nearby Jesuit seminary and gave his students “a dose of Christian triumphalism, maybe even a touch of anti-Semitism”: no relativist he!

One could wish that Goldman had refrained from the sophomoric exercise of offering thumbnail sketches of major religions—two pages each on Hinduism and Buddhism, three on Islam—but the excitement he felt in his year of studies is palpable and refreshing. More profound are his deftly drawn mini-portraits of students he came to know, some with life stories that are deeply moving. These portraits give a sense of the rich variety of religious expression in America today, even if much of that variety necessarily falls outside the boundaries of Harvard Divinity School.



But this is only part of The Search for God at Harvard. Goldman’s own life story is so prominent throughout the book that one often has the sense of reading an autobiography rather than an account of a year on leave, as the author continually—and often awkwardly—shifts the focus of the narrative from one phase of his life to another.

The distinctive element in Goldman’s personal story is his lifelong allegiance to Orthodox Judaism, and the book is dominated by a sense of the oddity of his identity as an Orthodox Jew both at Harvard Divinity School and at the New York Times. The particular form of Orthodoxy that claims Goldman’s allegiance is one that is immersed in the Gentile world yet able to uphold traditional Jewish observance. Those he most admired as a student at Yeshiva University, he tells us, were “the people who succeeded in their professions while grappling with the constraints of halakhah, or Jewish law.” His own grappling is a major subject of his frequent autobiographical flashbacks, and one of the messages of the book is that worldly success can be combined with traditional practice.

The problem is that too much of Goldman’s grappling with halakhah amounts to a willingness—usually conflicted, to be sure—to throw off those traditional constraints. Already in his Orthodox high school, he is surreptitiously disobeying his rabbi’s instructions by beginning his day with a newspaper instead of a prayer: “I just threw the paper away before I got to school.” This is only the first of several clashes between Goldman’s love of journalism and his commitment to traditional Jewish practice; in some of them, despite his emphasis on his Orthodoxy, journalism scores an impressive victory. Something similar may be said of his disarmingly honest account of his “grappling” with the issue of sexuality before marriage. In all these cases, Goldman’s narrative undercuts his protest that he has been waging “battles” to remain Orthodox rather than compromising with modernity. The truth may be that he still does not see the full measure of incongruity between his behavior as he reports it and the Orthodox Judaism that he never lets us forget he professes.

The chief reason for this strange blindness is that, for all his complaints about religious relativism at Harvard Divinity School, Ari Goldman still instinctively thinks of Orthodox Judaism not in terms of its cognitive claims or behavioral norms, but rather as an odd but precious legacy of his family history. In particular, it was Orthodoxy that sustained him after his parents were divorced when he was six years old. He calls it “the one comfort of my childhood.” “I clung—and I continue to cling—to it,” he writes, “like a raft in a turbulent sea.” But when the obvious suspicion arises that his motivation for observance is inadequate, he grabs for another life raft: “One of the lessons of Div School was that there are no wrong reasons.”

It is here, if anywhere, that Goldman’s Orthodoxy ought to have led him to challenge the prevailing ethos at Harvard Divinity School, instead of internalizing it. For the rabbinic tradition insists not only that religious observance be performed, but also that it be recognized as a divine commandment and thus practiced as an act of obedience and self-subordination. Goldman’s understanding of religious practice is, in a sense, the reverse: he seems to view it as his personal means to self-realization. “[E]Very time I have violated [the Sabbath],” he writes, “I have felt like I missed a great opportunity—the opportunity to be myself.”



What his year at Harvard Divinity School at its low point ought to have shown him is precisely the danger in this trivialization of religion, replacing theological depth with emotional uplift. When religious traditions retreat from a world of shared and authoritative meanings into the inner recesses of the self and its private history, other forces, not all of them benign, quickly fill the void, and it is not long before the traditions lose the priceless capacity to distinguish themselves from the ideologies of the moment. The success of political correctness in institutions like Harvard Divinity School, with its longstanding skepticism about traditional religious types of orthodoxy, signals a shift of historic proportions in American culture. It suggests that influential segments of liberal Protestantism are undergoing a process of ideologization that is distancing them not only from traditional Protestantism, but also from historic liberalism.

When Goldman ends his tale, he is again covering religion for the New York Times, with a vastly enriched knowledge of his subject but still no critical perspective on the experiential conception of religion that has been with him since childhood. When he sits in a black Baptist church, he relates, he “feel[s] swept away by the incredible combination of pain, joy, and music ricocheting through the building.” In a Russian Orthodox church, he “feel[s] a sense of mystery and transcendence,” and at a Quaker meeting he “feel[s] a serenity [he has] never known before.” Toward the beginning of his tale, at a Roman Catholic funeral mass for the acting dean of Harvard Divinity School, he fantasizes that he, an Orthodox Jew, will take communion—in clear violation, it must be noticed, of the unqualified norms of both traditions. The suspicion grows that Ari Goldman’s own lifelong focus on religious feelings at the expense of normative structures played a major role in his difficulty (which is hardly his alone) in finding God at Harvard.

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