Too Close?

What with the US Navy admitting that UFOs are real and all, it seemed like a good idea to watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind over the holiday weekend.  Like many of my generation I saw it in a theater—itself kind of a distant memory—back in 1977.  I’m not sure why it’s been on my mind lately, but since it’s a long movie it takes a long weekend to accomodate it.  As we settled down to classic Spielberg scenes—lots of khaki and crowds and desert locations—it was a reminder of how silly we all looked in the seventies.  (What were we thinking?)  Other than that the film has aged pretty well.  The plot, although not action-packed, is probing and has several moments that seem to have inspired Poltergeist.  What made the film blog-worthy at this time, however, was the wearing of masks.

When Roy Neary and Jillian Guiler arrive at Devil’s Tower the governmental cover-up is in full play.  A nerve-gas leak—and who can check out whether such a thing really happened?—has a mask-wearing restriction in place.  I wondered where one could get a gas mask today when the crowd scenes of the pandemic won’t even leave a roll of toilet paper behind.  Checking for rubbing alcohol to make homemade hand sanitizer I found it selling for $300 per gallon on Amazon.  Where are we going to get a gas mask in circumstances such as these?  That particular scenario never really stood out to me before although I’ve seen the movie many times over the years.  Back when I was a student at Boston University the school tee-shirt worn by Barry Guiler was the interesting cultural context.

Films that survive the years take on different aspects over time.  Some suggest that a branch of the military admitting to the reality of UFOs during a pandemic was intended to underplay the event.  Others have argued that a similar release of information many months ago received similar lackluster interest.  If there are aliens out there, I have trouble imagining that they’d travel all this way for a synthesizer concert at a national monument that received a major uptick in visitors due to the movie’s release.  Maybe we love our fictional aliens more than the possibility of meeting those that seem to be vexing our navy?  The movie was the right choice for the circumstances, it seems to me.  Some things about the seventies are worth revisiting from time to time.  Strangely, in retrospect, life seemed simpler then.

Qaulity Education

Perhaps it’s from having a stubbornly blue collar, but snobbery has never appealed to me.  While in seminary at Boston University, I applied for a transfer to Harvard Divinity School.  In spite of being accepted, I stayed at my alma mater and paid the consequences.  There’s a strange loyalty among the working class, you see.  And now I’m finally seeing my former mistress, academia, taking a turn toward the lowly but worthy.  The title of a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education says it all: “As Scholars Are Driven to Less Prestigious Journals, New Measures of Quality Emerge.  Hmm, why might that be?  The industry mantra, “publish or perish” has grown more aggressive over the years and the number of publishers has decreased.  Your academic net worth, it seems, can no longer be based on how elite you are.

People are funny that way.  We’re very impressed by those paraded before us as successes—as if some kind of magic clings to those who are where we wish we were.  In academia where you went to school matters more than what you’ve proven yourself capable of.  If you attended the “best” schools your work will be accepted by the “best” journals and publishers.  What rarified company you’ll keep!  For the rest of us, well, we have the numbers.  And blue collars aren’t afraid of hard work.  Let the academic aristocracy enjoy its laurels.  Laurels are poisonous, however, for those with an eye open for parables.

Primates, according to those who know them best, can see through pretense.  I often wonder if our political chaos isn’t based on this simple fact of biology.  As a priest I knew once told me, “We put our pants on one leg at a time too.”  This didn’t prevent many postulants I knew from anticipating the day when they would be ontologically transformed.  Priesting, I was informed, would make them better than the laity.  Closer to God.  Here it was, even among the clergy—the desire for prestige.  Chimpanzees will take down an alpha who abuses his power.  Nature has a set of balances.  Tampering with them leads to, well, scholars being driven to less prestigious journals and the like.  The net result, as the Chronicle suggests (if read one way), is that the last shall be first and the first last.  Probably it’s the result of reading too much Bible in my formative years, but I’ve always appreciated parables.

Digging Even Deeper

What does it mean to exist for someone else? Isn’t this the very definition of slavery? Yes, we may voluntarily give ourselves to someone for the sake of love, but woe to the person who thinks he owns his spouse. Human beings may be an acquisitive lot, but that doesn’t excuse it. To be civilized, after all, means to be more advanced than we are by nature. These thoughts follow on hearing one of my colleagues interviewed on Game Plan on Bloomberg. In the light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Francesca Levy and Rebecca Greenfield are interviewing people in different professions to see what inappropriate treatment women receive at the behest of men. Their job is, unfortunately, not one where it’s difficult to find examples. In this particular case, they interview Beth Alpert Nakhai of the University of Arizona. Dr. Nakhai is an archaeologist and she describes the perils faced by women in the field.

In 1987 I volunteered on the dig at Tel Dor in Israel. I had just graduated from seminary, didn’t have a job, and was pretty sure I’d be going on to graduate school. Tel Dor, like many digs, had different loci excavated by different university teams. I was on the Boston University area, B1, next to the section being worked by one of the universities in California. At one point one of the seasoned men—I can’t remember who—remarked to me that digs in Israel were great because of the three A’s: “alcohol, adultery, and archaeology; in that order.” It was intended as a joke, but it had that time-worn feel of a sentiment that’s been around for a while. At the time I thought little of it. I was there only for the last A, and, had circumstances been different, I might’ve made that my career choice.

Listening to Beth’s interview, however, showed me the darker side of careless remarks like this. Archaeologists often work in remote locations where local laws treat women differently than men. University professors have great power over graduate students and are able to make or break careers. Often married men leave their families in safe locations while they spend their summers directing teams that include female students and other volunteers. I’d never thought of the experience from that angle before. As a man I didn’t have to worry about anyone coercing me into an unwanted physical relationship far from prying eyes or legal systems which, at least in theory, protect women. The truly sad thing about all this is that forces are, especially now, at work to make women victims again even in this country. The point of archaeology is to try to understand civilization writ large. And yet, civilization in the advanced world is now moving backward. How long before we too are buried under a pile of shiftless dust waiting to be discovered by some future excavators whom we can only hope are more advanced than we are?

Scholarly Synchronicity

Simon Parker STH Professor April 2, 1999 PORTRAIT

Simon Parker
STH Professor
April 2, 1999
PORTRAIT

One of the great ironies in my life is having been basically ignored while I was employed in higher education only to have people make overtures to me once I no longer had the resources to undertake the task. I’ve been asked to peer review articles, and write articles and contribute to books. I even had a series editor try to get me to write a monograph. Thing is, I don’t have regular access to a library, and I spend eleven hours a day either at work or getting to and from work. When am I going to find time to write a well-researched book or article? Well, I’ve been working on my Society of Biblical Literature article since May and it should be ready by November. If it weren’t based on pop culture, I could never have managed it under present circumstances. Still, when a colleague asked me to contribute to Simon Parker’s Festschrift I couldn’t say no. Although I didn’t take classes with Simon, he was Academic Dean when I was at Boston University School of Theology. Although I didn’t know it at the time, we shared an interest in Ugaritic studies, and we exchanged articles and ideas via letter when I was in Edinburgh. We became friends. Simon died suddenly the year I lost my job at Nashotah House.

Since that time I’ve written over a couple thousand blog posts, and read a few hundred books, but that’s not the same as academic research. I’ve been worried about what I might contribute to do honor to a scholar and a gentleman. Then I tried looking at some old files from two laptops ago. Of course the new laptop can’t open them (that’s why Scrivener is a lifesaver). I pulled out a paper that I wrote the year I lost my job. I never did finish it, but it was well underway when my confidence began to crumble. After translating it to the new decade, I opened it only to find the first footnote dedicating it to Simon Parker. I stopped, stunned. That can’t be right. When I wrote this I knew nothing of a Festschrift. Then it hit me. I had originally written the article just after I learned of Simon’s untimely death. Do I still believe in signs?

So now I have a base from which to start. I have only a couple months to bang it into shape, and I also have to finish my SBL article. While at Nashotah House I produced an article a year and a second book (published only last year), i.e., the “academic standard.” Nobody invited me to contribute. Now that I have no time, people are finally interested in what I might have to say. Not interested enough, of course, to offer me an academic position, but it does look like the publication record might continue after all. It won’t be what it could have been had I had a library, but I am nevertheless honored. One of the accolades that academics covet is having colleagues care enough to write something for you. I guess that’s been on my mind for a decade in the case of Simon Parker. I only hope that I can do him proud from where I am.

Holy Trilogy

AtwoodAlumni magazines, thinly disguised appeals for money that they are, seldom merit much time. This doesn’t stop me, in any case, from sending notices of my new publications or blog, since I, like most fellow alumni, have never been cited as notable. One of the thousands who graduated and amounted to nothing. Once in a great while, however, I feel a slight twinge of pride when one of my three mothers does something of which I’m particularly proud. Most often this is Edinburgh University, although once in a while Boston University also catches my attention. A recent copy of Edit—an alumni mag that began some time after I graduated, American-style—has a familiar face on the cover. Well, not familiar in that I know her, but familiar in that I’ve read several of her books and feel like I know her. Margaret Atwood was given an honorary degree by my old school, and I am pleased to be a, albeit lesser, co-alum.

Over the holidays I picked up a copy of MaddAddam, the third and long-awaited conclusion of the trilogy of the same name. As my regular readers know, I have a soft spot for dystopias. In spite of attempts by many writers to paint a brighter future, it seems that given how far we’ve let things go, collapse before reform feels inevitable. The apathy I find when we read about the vastly disproportionate disparity between haves and have-nots, and the surging of deep, animalistic, primate, rage at injustice doesn’t seem to me a healthy mix. Atwood, although I can’t yet speak for MaddAddam, envisions collapse before florescence. The same may be declared about A Handmaid’s Tale. Complacency, it seems to me, is the real enemy.

And universities continue to send me alumni magazines that instead of inspiring me, rub my face in my own mediocrity. I spent thousands of dollars and thousands of hours on my education and I am paid less than most janitors at most colleges. Not that I was ever in it for the money. I did, however, envision a hopeful future where I’d be teaching, perhaps at a small college somewhere, writing my thoughts in books rather than blogs, and having a modest impact on the world for good. Instead, I have found myself living in a dystopia. As I roll over and see that 3 in first position on my bedside clock on a table with the legs broken off, I know it is time to face the cold of a drafty apartment so I can await the bus to pay for another day’s privilege. My comfort is that Margaret Atwood made an impression on Edinburgh University, and will soon be making another impression on me.

Just Justice

494px-Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS

It was not intentionally because it was Martin Luther King Junior’s alma mater that I chose to attend Boston University School of Theology. King’s legacy there was certainly a perk, but I had found the seminary engaging because it had a rare combination, at least in my limited experience, of academic rigor and a strong sense of social justice. Too often, it seems, academic enterprises become dispassionate and social justice becomes one of those squishy human element sorts of things that really can’t be quantified. We pursue knowledge without really thinking if its impact will be positive or not. At least fair or not. Fairness is a concept rooted in belief, and, as studies of primates show us, it is very deeply embedded in us. What has it to do with academic achievement?

This Martin Luther King day, I’m concerned about how difficult social justice is to find, even in those places where we expect it to reside. Taking second place to doctrine in many churches, social justice is more of an uncomfortable requirement than a true passion. This winter I’ve noticed more and more homeless on the streets. Our “economy” seems to dictate that many have to be losers so that few can be big winners. Instead of helping them out, I see authority figures come along to shoo them out of the way before those who have jobs have to come that way. We don’t want to be reminded that we might lose everything as well. Affluent society requires victims, and we can be very academic about it.

I have to admit to relegating holidays to that mere Monday off work. The relentless wheels of capitalism ever turn, and only with reluctance do our companies grudgingly give us ten days spread throughout the year to recuperate. The next slated holiday comes in May. Will there be social justice by then? With the eventual warming of the air by that season, will we simply blend those without homes into the less well-dressed and pretend that we have achieved a fair society after all? What do we really celebrate today? Is it just another morning to sleep in, or is there something more to it? A dream that won’t be extinguished until fairness is established? Seems like a worthy idea, at least in theory. But until then you’ll find us at our desks, working to keep the system strong. And hopefully, we won’t forget to dream.

Religion Fiction

Children brought up in a religious environment, according to a recent BBC story, are more prone to believe in fictional characters. The story, based on research from my alma mater, Boston University, suggests that if children are taught to believe miraculous stories at a young age, they will more likely believe that fictional figures are based in reality too. Undoubtedly this will be seen as yet another brick in Montresor’s wall by those who can find no good in religion. The reasoning will go something like this: believing in no religion is the “neutral” position. If we raise children in a religious context, we are inclining them toward a fictional belief system and making them less likely to reason their way out of it. Therefore, we should raise children secular.

Even in the BBC story there are dissenting voices. Perhaps children who learn about Jesus find Thor a more compelling character. Perhaps they are open to possibilities that logic shuts out. Our brains have two hemispheres for a reason. I often wonder whether it is possible to be fully human while ignoring about half of what evolution gave us to work with. Logic tells me that religious belief serves a survival function. And my creative side still appreciates the possibilities that my Manhattan brain is forced to shut down every day when I punch the clock. If there’s nothing more than work, perhaps believing in fiction serves a valuable function after all. But I suspect this is playing right into the rationalists’ hand. Pass me another brick, will you, Fortunato?

The jury, however, is still out on the nature of reality. Even for materialists. Gods of the gaps tend not to survive very well. The question is actually much larger than that. We don’t know the nature of ultimate reality. We’re not even sure what reality is yet. Can a parent who believes in God, after the experience of growing to maturity in a heartless universe, be blamed for teaching their children the same? No humane parent raises their child purposefully teaching them falsehoods. Yes, some children are damaged by religious upbringings. Some are damaged by materialist upbringings as well. What seems to have shifted, in my humble opinion, is the popular perceptions of religion. What used to be understood as the foundation of a civil society is now challenged as a harmful fantasy that encourages children to grow up into terrorists or non-functioning adults. The belief that we can raise children with no biases, however, is clearly fiction. Until we have the full truth, there should be room for both Gilligan and the Professor on this island. But then again, I was raised to believe in the divine world, so what do I know?

Fact or fiction?

Fact or fiction?

Sects for You

Oxford University Press has a religion blog. (Well, who doesn’t these days?) Apart from being jealous about their numbers, I find some of the posts fascinating. A recent entry by Linda Woodhead on the approval of women bishops in the Church of England was particularly well done. Woodhead is known for her in-depth knowledge of religiosity in Britain, and she begins her post with a distinction between two types of churches that I find most helpful. She mentions the “church type” that embraces society and tends to have less trouble keeping up with social changes, and the “sect type” that insists on keeping a long distance from the evils of society. She points out how the Church of England went from the former to the latter and how its numbers have subsequently declined. Her article made me realize that for much of my life I’ve found myself among the “sect type” believers. Fundamentalists, among whom I grew up, are naturally suspicious of the world. Grove City College, where I cut my critical teeth, was dead-set against change. And Nashotah House—need I utter more than its very name?

Sects are indeed concerned about being right. Not only being right, but being the only ones who are right. I recall a New Testament class in seminary at Boston University where an unnamed professor said, “If anyone can join, what’s the draw? Barriers are important.” Christianity, he claimed, grew strong by excluding others. This professor would have a difficult time being retained by many seminaries today. The “church type” church realizes that without embracing society it will embrace empty collection plates. Unless, of course, you court conservative political causes, for which there seem to be bottomless pockets of money available. Sects thrive on the feeling of superiority. Knowing that we got it right and everyone else got it wrong is cause for great rejoicing. Others are encouraged to join, just as long as they jettison their point of view. We are the Borg.

It is no wonder that religions struggle in a world with the Internet. Too much information, 24/7. Religions you’ve never heard of are suddenly right there at your fingertips, and the believers are sincere and convinced. Some are sects and some are churches. Some are open to any belief system while others have just what the (church) doctors prescribed. To me this raises a fundamental question of religion: what is its purpose? Is it to seek the truth, or is it to exclude others and make members feel special? Truth is an expensive commodity. Indeed, nobody has a universally accepted version of it yet. While some religious believers will not rest while the search continues, others made up their minds centuries ago. And those believers use sects to get what they want.

Photo credit: Peretz Partensky, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Peretz Partensky, Wikimedia Commons

As a Child

At a certain age, when alumni magazines arrive (and they will), one starts first by opening to the necrology. Who didn’t make it as far as me, after all? There’s a poignancy to it—knowing that at any age we’re vulnerable—but many of us felt a kind of immortality in our younger years that is only belied and effaced with the passing of time. The articles in the alumni magazines feature those who made it better than you, fellow students and faculty who made a genuine breakthrough. You should be proud of having the privilege, they seem to say, of having attended in her or his shadow. But once in a while, those self-serving articles do touch on the issues of the necrology where I always start. Boston University’s most recent edition boasts an article “You Are What You Feel” by Barbara Moran.

Bost

Intellectuals, in what I like to call the Spock Fallacy, frequently suggest that rationality is the whole story. Or at least the better part of it. If the left brain could only just subdue the right, and all decisions could be logical, wouldn’t this world be a better place? Better, maybe perhaps, but not human. We require our emotions for more than just feeling good. Studies suggest that thinking would be difficult, if not impossible, without them. So Bostonia profiles the work of Natalie Emmons, suggesting that ideas of immortality are more than just cultural relics. Perhaps our brains reason eternity for ourselves from some deep well we’ve not yet discovered. Emmons, and co-author Deborah Kelemen, are psychologists who study children’s idea of prelife—where we were before this. It is pretty difficult to imagine the world getting along without us. But the research suggests that intuition, rather than culture, gives us religious concepts such as immortality.

Substituting intuition for an actual essence, however, puts us in that odd place of using a word we can’t define. Scientists frequently fall back on intuition as an explanation for animal behavior that, in most instances, seems to suggest thinking that couldn’t have been acquired the usual way. How do salmon, fish that hardly seem like doctoral material, know to return home and swim upstream? How do newly hatched sea turtles know to crawl toward the water? Birds and butterflies to migrate? Instinct is a handy fallback, for sure. The research of Emmons and Kelemen suggest that children reason (note) prelife based on observations of actual life. The mind is the product of the brain. In my department at Boston University, another set of variables applied, focused mainly on surviving through the other end of the journey. It is with those in mind that I thumb through the necrology and hope, irrational as it may be to do so, that maybe the children are right.

Paging Dr. Asimov

Who remembers Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots? Plastic “robots” in the boxing ring trying to knock each other’s block’s off was a form of entertainment for kids of the ‘60s before such things as humanoid robots actually existed. So when Boston University’s alumni magazine had an article about dancing robots, I had to see what was up. As regular readers will know, I’ve been exploring some of the problems with reductionism lately. This idea, that humans and animals are just fleshy machines, breaks down when we try to design robots that can do some of the most basic of human activities. Sometimes we dance and we don’t know why. Apart from Wall-e’s dance with Eve, robots have trouble getting the concept. Graduate student John Baillieul notes that this isn’t about “some high school guy who had trouble getting a date, so you get a robot. The ultimate goal is to understand human reaction to gestures and how machines may react to gestures.” Having actually been a high school guy who never even got to the prom, I’m wondering how depressed our robots get when the fem-bots all look the other way.

Rockem Sockem

The reductionistic outlook suggests that we can eventually program robots to respond as humans would, responding fluidly to situations, allowing them to over-ride their “instinct,” which, the article implies, equals programming. We have no idea what instinct is. It is something all biological creatures have, from the heliotrope following the sun to the human dancing her heart out. Do we want machines to replicate our most intimate emotions? Even our most reliable chip-driven devices sometimes freeze up or rebel. My car has recently got the idea in its mechanistic brain that the right-hand side rearview mirror should be rotated as far to the right as possible. We bicker about this all the time when I get in to drive. Well, machines know best. They, after all, are the shape of the future.

So programming robots so that they can react in real time to non-verbal cues, like all sentient beings do, is a desideratum of our mechanistic Weltanschauung. Notes Rich Barlow, the article’s author, “bats, for example, camouflage their motions so that they can sneak up on insect prey, a fake-out familiar to anyone who’s tried to swat a pesky fly.” My question is who is the pesky fly in this robot-human scenario? Who acts irrationally and unpredictably? Isn’t our instinct to smash the fly a result of our annoyance at it landing, yet again, on our sandwich with its dirty feet? And what is that stupid dance that it does when it’s all over our food? Reductionism must, by definition, reduce instinct to the level of a kind of genetic programming. Even this aging blogger, however, knows what it is to dance without knowing why. He also knows what it feels like when your date goes home with somebody else, something to which he’s not convinced that we want robots calculating an “instinctual” response.

King’s Highway

Sometimes I forget the beauty of the Bible. With its constant current of misuse in our society, it is sometimes easy to forget that, like an abused child, the Bible is not to be blamed for being the victim. As a civilization we owe a great deal to it, and even on its own, when we overlook the insensitive and sexist parts, it remains a literary masterpiece. Just over a year ago I visited a true friend I’ve known since high school. He is not a religious man, but in his living room, on a stand, stood open the Bible. It is more than a jingoistic symbol. Even the more we become aware of other great spiritual writings: the Rig Veda, the Tao Te Ching, the Gilgamesh Epic, we shouldn’t let the sublime messages from the Bible escape our notice. Even in this secular, workaday world, the words of the Sermon on the Mount often come to me, grand and resplendent. Parts of Isaiah still bring tears to my eyes. Writers from Shakespeare to Bradbury drew on its noble sentiments.

The Bible comes to mind when thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. Our chronological spans overlapped by just five and a half years, but I followed him to Boston University School of Theology, walked the same corridors he did, meditated in the same chapel. Even then, some two decades after his martyrdom, his vision had not been fully realized. It still remains unfulfilled. At Brown University in May of last year, I was fortunate enough to be in the crowd when John Lewis received an honorary doctorate. His remarks to the crowd were humble, few, and profound. He said he never thought of the civil rights movement as a way to greatness. He was only trying to help. He admonished the affluent, the comfortable sitting on a hot Ivy League green, “Find a way to get in the way.” Injustice must come to end. The color, gender, sexual orientation, place of birth or financial status of no person should ever be used to judge her or him. With remarks I’ve heard about President Obama, most vulgarly on Facebook, we still have a long, long journey ahead of us.

In a day when the internet weaves millions of people into a fabric that should remind us we are all part of a whole, some still insist that their shading, location, or special pedigree make their part of the cloth the most valuable. Even as revolutions against injustice—something with which Americans especially should sympathize—take place in “backward” nations by using social media, we in the “first world” still judge one another by the origins of our ancestry and the mythical superiority of our skin tones. The greatest asset the United States offers to the world is its unique blend of people from everywhere. Our country demonstrates what can happen when people from every continent put their minds and wills together to work for the common good. This clashes with the biblical brand of separatism, I know. But even Isaiah, even if it is in his third incarnation, reminds us, “Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the Lord, to serve him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant; Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.”

Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS

Soul University

ExcellenceWithoutSoul Cambridge, Massachusetts is a likable town. As students at Boston University my friends and I would occasionally take the red line to Harvard Square and shuffle through the leaves of that venerable institution that gives the square its name. One of the treats was stopping in The Coop, the Harvard bookstore that made us all feel smart. While at Harvard last year, The Coop was part of my professional, editorial remit. I spied a book entitled Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future?, by Harry R. Lewis. I have often thought about how higher education has slipped its moorings these past few decades, and wondered what an erstwhile Harvard dean had to say about the matter. The leaves on campus weren’t so abundant last October, but I felt that same inferiority complex that being on the Harvard campus always gives me. Of course, I had received an acceptance letter from Harvard Divinity School when I considered transferring there, but it was easier to stay at BU and complain.

Lewis’s book is a somewhat nostalgic consideration of how Harvard has evolved from a seminary to a powerhouse university—the powerhouse university—in the new world. There is no doubt that Harvard is our oldest institution of higher education, and there is no doubt that it has the money to be “the best.” But by what measure? This is one of the questions Lewis asks, repeatedly. Still, the assumption is always lurking in the background that Harvard is the best, but as Lewis notes in the book, there is no one best doctor just like there is no one best book. Harvard is good, but so are many other schools. They all suffer from the same indifference in a society that takes education for granted. The real problem is that we like simple solutions. Take a look around you—you’ll see what I mean.

It is difficult to feel sorry for Harvard. The elite of the elite, it has that time-honored patina that antique specialists love so much. What it doesn’t have it can afford to buy. There is no doubt, however, that as Harvard leans, so tilt the other universities of this country. In my professional field I’ve seldom met an unemployed Harvard Ph.D. Those of us who attended even older universities (yes, the Europeans came up with the idea first) with even more recognizable alumni—has anyone heard of Charles Darwin or David Hume? Adam Smith?—are used to being passed over for positions while Harvard writes its own checks. Elitism may be at the heart of the problem. It’s not that I wish hard times on Harvard, it’s just that I wish we’d be honest about the academic enterprise. Has higher education lost its soul? To find the answer we’re going to have to look beyond Cambridge, Massachusetts. But the leaves in autumn are certainly pretty, if not so abundant as they were before.

The Future of Theological Education

It is almost like stepping into a time warp. To be honest, it is difficult for me to admit that I graduated from Boston University School of Theology a quarter of a century ago. Standing here outside 90-92 Bay State Road, where I once lived, is like looking into a shattered mirror. Behind those doors much of what made me who I am took place. Perhaps I left some of myself there. I don’t even know if the property is still the single student “dorm” for the school of theology or not. Kenmore Square has transmogrified from an area that felt like Times Square in the ’80’s to an upscale dogtown. When I stepped into 745 Commonwealth Avenue, it was like being hit in the face with a combination of nerve gas and roses. The hallways look wider now then they did back then. The hallways where so many of my assumptions curled up and died. They still have chapel and community lunches. The Boston Book Annex is closed.

Boston University has sure poured a lot of money into the Back Bay redevelopment. Whence that sense of personal offense when I see a multimillion dollar new building there and recall the financial aid interviews where I was told, like in a Bruce Springsteen song, “we’d like to help you out, but we just can’t”? Has social justice come to live in these halls? In those days anyone who didn’t have an oppressed status was a minority. And I learned as much about hate as I did about love within these implacable walls. Is it ghosts that I feel rushing through me as i walk down Bay State Road, and stare out over Storrow Drive? I’m not sure of the future of theological education. Until schools of theology can lay down their swords and become truly ecumenical, can any change truly occur?

Theology is an exercise in the unknown. When I donned my red robe and graduated here, the world seemed to be full of possibilities. A lot of erosion can take place in twenty-five years, you know. I thought I was contributing to the future of theological education when I studied the Bible so minutely that no single letter existed that didn’t have a prehistory deep in the realm of pre-Israelite society. I assumed that truth was the end goal of theological inquiry. Problem is, for many, the end goal was written two millennia ago and we of the lost generations ever since have as our task simply to reinforce the crumbling foundations and assure our benefactors that we did have it right, we have had it right, all along. As I write this a very able colleague at another seminary is undergoing what can only be considered heresy trials for teaching the truth. Is theological truth so fragile? Maybe this is why it has taken a quarter century to return. Maybe this is the future of theological education. Those of us who still believe in theological education seem to be a dying breed, along with the ghosts of Bay State Road.

Doubting Peter

As a student at that university across the river from Harvard, it was clearly a matter of institutional pride that Boston University could claim Peter Berger. He was one that Harvard didn’t manage to get. Of course, I never took any courses with Professor Berger, but his work on sociology of religion is still considered the standard in the field. When his recent book, In Praise of Doubt, appeared a couple of years back, I knew that I had to read it. Originally published by an academic press, it was unnecessarily expensive (well, as the minion of an academic publisher I now realize the rationale for the prices, but I still get spasms in my wallet every time). When it appeared in paperback I finally located a copy that I could justify buying. I was not disappointed.

This little book begins innocuously enough, but by the end you find yourself realizing that you’ve just downed a potent draught. We are all familiar with doubt, but what many of us do not stop to consider is its role in different religious perspectives. Moving us through absolutism and relativism, In Praise of Doubt demonstrates how either position may lead to a “fundamentalism” of sorts, and for the same basic reason: neither position professes enough doubt. Having been raised in a fundamentalist environment, I knew that doubt was the great enemy. Certainty was the only true sign of faithfulness. The problem, for me, is that I’ve always harbored doubts. The more I learned, the less certain I became. Doubt had acquired the stench of sin, and I tried to avoid the very element that constituted my personality. Berger has finally given doubt its due.

In a world of extremists—extreme religionists and extreme atheists—the still, small voice of doubt is frequently drowned out. Doubt, however, has a noble pedigree and even more remarkable progeny: tolerance. Those who are certain tend to have little tolerance for those who differ, or worse, those who challenge their views. The doubter, as Berger (and co-author Anton Zijderveld) asserts, is less spineless than s/he appears, being open to the fact that no one has all the answers. No matter how eloquently Hitchens, Harris, or Dawkins may grow, they do not have all the answers any more than (god help us) Pat Robertson, Rick Warren or Tim Tebow. Probability and logic tend to suggest the former are closer (much closer) to the evidence than the latter, but who knows? It might even be possible that the Evangelical camp may one day learn the virtue of a little uncertainty by reading this book. But frankly, I doubt it.

The Body Apocalyptic

We are all products of our upbringing. Our early assumptions, although sometimes challenged and overcome, are generally with us for life. So it was that my progression of education led me to a small, conservative college to major in religion. Compared to what I learned at Grove City, the historical criticism firmly in place at Boston University sounded downright sinful. Nevertheless, it made sense, so I followed reason. At Edinburgh we were way beyond historical criticism in that wonderful, European way. Somehow in the midst of all the excitement, I missed Post-Modernism. “Po-Mo” has, like most recent movements, been quickly added to the pile of the passé, but I find it refreshing. I just finished reading Tina Pippin’s Apocalyptic Bodies (Routledge, 1999). This may have been one of the first truly Post-Modern biblical critiques I have read, and it was fascinating. Pippin is taking on especially the book of Revelation. If more people had read her book there would have been less panic back around May 21.

I find feminine readings of the Bible enlightening. As a member of the gender largely responsible for a book filled with sex and violence, it is often difficult to see how the other half of the human race might read that same text. Having grown up with a literal understanding of Revelation, I never questioned whether it was a good or a bad thing. The end of the world must be God’s will, therefore, by definition, good. One of the beauties of a Post-Modern interpretation is that everything is thrown open to question. Pippin does just that. Noting the ennui associated with eternity, she asks a question that always lurked in my mind—isn’t too much of anything eventually a problem? Eternity itself becomes problematic. Where do we go from here?

Perhaps the most striking comment Pippin makes is in the context of her chapter on the monsters of the apocalypse, “Apocalyptic Horror.” She compares Revelation to horror movies and demonstrates how all the elements are there in the Bible. She notes, “There are many monsters in the Apocalypse, but the real bad ass monster sits on the heavenly throne.” Pippin explains that God, in Revelation, joys in killing off humankind. As many of us have come to learn, people are generally good; at least most people have done nothing to deserve the heinous punishments gleefully doled out in Revelation. That, of course, raises the sticky question of ethics as applied to the divine. Here the book of Job comes to mind where our hapless hero declares that even though he is innocent, God still can count him guilty. It is the human situation. And Job was a good guy. Pippin’s little book challenged many of the assumptions with which I’d grown. Anyone who can read such a book and not worry about being a good parent is more Po-Mo than me.