The Cathedral in Cambridge and the Sanctuary in Jerusalem
recently issued a new proposed Core
Curriculum, outlining a fresh set of guidelines
defining the requirements for undergraduate studies.
Harvard’s new curriculum establishes eight primary subject areas that all
students will have to take: Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding; Culture
and Belief; Empirical Reasoning; Ethical Reasoning; Science of Living Systems;
Science of the Physical Universe; Societies of the World; and the United States
in the World.
The nation's most famous university’s new plan – which is expected to be
formally approved by the faculty before they become binding in May, and won't
go into effect before September 2009 – replaces the previous seven categories:
Foreign Cultures; Historical Study; Literature and Arts; Moral Reasoning;
Quantitative Reasoning; Science; and Social Analysis.
As can be surmised, the most controversial category of all was around what
was finally called “culture and belief.” Last October, when Harvard’s Task
Force on General Education first issued its preliminary proposal, the committee
initially proposed mandating the study of “reason and faith.”
Louis Menand, co-chair of the six-professor committee and Bass Professor
of English, explained the importance of adding this requirement. “Religion
turns out to be an enormously important phenomenon in the world, which 30
or 40 years ago we didn’t think we had to deal with.” Menand added that religion
is often easy to disparage in a secular environment and that courses on religion
were seen as “esoteric” in his earlier days in the academy.
While some considered it bold to add “faith and reason” and a few suggested
that it is a return to Harvard's religious heritage, let’s not get too excited
about the university shedding its secular culture. “Religion is realpolitik,
both nationally and internationally,” the report said. “By providing [students]
with a fuller understanding of both local and global issues involving religious
faith, the courses are intended to help students become more informed and
Even supporters of the proposal to add “faith and
reason” to the core curriculum did so more out of
practical concerns than out of acknowledging the value of
faith. “Some may want to throw up their hands and
wish religion would simply disappear as it was supposed
to with the onslaught of modernity,” Wertham Professor
of Law and Psychiatry in Society Diana L. Eck wrote in support
of the proposal, “But realpolitik dictates otherwise.”
Roger G. Waite wrote in the Harvard Salient that, that while
this may not be Eck's view, it seems that many in the faculty
see religion more as a stain on modernity too large to be
ignored than as a part of the fabric of humanity.
So instead of the rich intellectual heritage of great thinkers like Augustine
and Aquinas who tried to reconcile reason with revealed religion, the Harvard
report suggested that “faith and reason” include topics such as “Wars of Religion,”
“Medicine, Spirituality, and Religion in America,” “Religion and Society in
Nigeria, “Why Americans Love God and Europeans Don’t” and “Darwin Seminar:
Evolution and Religion.”
But this too was unacceptable to other faculty members, primarily from the
science department, who sharply criticized the inclusion of “faith and reason.”
Psychology professor Steven Pinker rejected it on the grounds that “the juxtaposition
of the two words makes it sound like 'faith' and 'reason' are parallel and
equivalent ways of knowing. But universities are about reason, pure and simple.
There is an enormous constituency of people who would hold that faith and
reason are two routes to knowledge. It is a mistake to affirm that. It's like
having a requirement in 'Astronomy & Astrology.' They're not comparable
Though 71% of incoming Harvard students say they attend religious services
and many already elect to study religion, the committee gave in, ultimately
substituting “faith and reason” with “culture and belief.”
As the wise men at Harvard debate the significance of faith
and religion, and scholars over the world either attempt
to cut G-d out of the picture entirely or at best, try to
fit G-d into their molds – our weekly Torah portion
tells us how Moses and the Jewish people carved out a piece
of the material world and shaped it to fit G-d's mold –
they built the holy Sanctuary, thereby transforming the
material universe into a home for G-d – “build
me a holy place and I will dwell among you.”
As we read the narrative in this week’s Torah chapter about the construction
of the Sanctuary, one unusual reiteration stands out: The verse repeats the
words “as G-d commanded Moses” eighteen different times!
Indeed, the Talmud explains that this one of the reasons for the eighteen
blessings in the Amidah Prayer (Shemonah Esrei) – corresponding to the eighteen
repetitions in this chapter (Yerushalmi Berochot 4:3).
Why does the Torah have to repeat the phrase eighteen times? Why would we
think that the Temple was not being
built according to G-d’s command that we need to be reminded eighteen times
that it was? And what deeper connection is there to the Amidah prayer, besides
the seemingly incidental number eighteen?
Building the Temple is the purpose
of existence: To create a Divine home out of this material world. The entire
point of life, according to the Torah, is to spiritualize matter; to sanctify
our activities and turn them it into channels of Divine expression.
But this work is not as easy as it sounds. We live in an agnostic universe,
a world which conceals its inner nature. It takes much effort to “dig” beneath
the surface and recognize the forces within that sustain existence. Our material
world cultivates self-interest, which lead, at their worst, to greed, corruption
and all human vice and injustice.
Thus, the desperate need to ensure, at every turn, that every detail of the
Temple was being built according
to the Divine plan. Though G-d had already spelled out the instructions how
to build the Temple, now when it
came to implementing it in real time in the real world, a new reality check
was necessary, to assure that the material structure would be completely aligned
with the Divine blueprint.
One could think that living in the material world we have no choice but to
compromise our spiritual integrity somewhat. As the Psalmist says: “The heaven’s
are G-d’s heavens, but the earth He gave to man” (Psalms 115:16). It’s one
thing to build a Temple in heaven,
but down here on earth, that is the domain of man.
Whether it is Rome or Cambridge, Athens or Oxford, history is witness to academia’s attempts
to take control of the earthly domain and even at time of the heavenly one.
[By no means is this effort limited to academics; warriors, monarchs, empires
and “leaders” of all sorts have endeavored to dominate over earth and heaven
as well]. However in all of sciences’ attempts to understand or deny G-d,
one thing is always glaringly missing: The courage of humility – to acknowledge
the possibility, just the possibility, that perhaps they have it wrong: It’s
not that G-d has to fit into our models, but the other way around. If G-d
is the entirety of reality, doesn’t it make sense that we, who are small parts
of the “whole” cannot dictate the terms of the “whole;” the whole defines
its parts, not vice versa.
Evolutionary thinkers are spreading their arrogant gospel and trying to explain
why people believe in G-d. Based on the so-called laws of “natural selection”
why is it necessary for the survival of the species that humans developed
faith? Did anyone consider that perhaps people have faith because G-d actually
Reality is reality. Period. First comes reality, then comes us. And we have
to figure out how we fit into “reality,” not try to “package” reality – or
ignore it – into our confined straits.
That’s where Abraham, Moses and so many other great minds surpassed the professors
and the scientists. They came to understand, yes understand, that “the ultimate
of knowledge is knowing that we don’t know” – to know the unknowable, to surrender
our limited faculties to a far higher state of being.
This fusion of the finite and the infinite was consummated with the building
of the Temple. “Heavens and heavens
of heavens cannot contain You, but this building [the Temple] can indeed contain” the Divine. And this
empowered us all to transform our corner of the universe into a Divine abode.
But one thing is necessary to successful achieve this fusion – a continuous
alignment of your endeavors to your higher calling; to ensure that the entire
spectrum of your activities – which break down into eighteen (“chai” for life)
different components of life – are linked with “as G-d commanded Moses.”
With all our reminders and signposts, it’s never enough to remind ourselves
that we must always connect our actions – even when we are building a holy
Temple – with the Divine (see Tanchuma 11). If this is true about building
a Temple for G-d, how much more so
when we are immersed in our material lives – how vital it is that we are vigilant
to ensure that we are aligned with the Divine plan.
One primary way that we create this connection is through prayer, which is
equated with the service in the Temple. Three times every day we therefore rise up and stand humbly
before G-d in the Amidah service, reciting the eighteen
prayers, each aligning another aspect of our diverse lives,
with G-d’s plan for us (“as G-d commanded Moses”).
From the beginning of time till this very day, from the banks of the Euphrates
to the woods of Boston, from Rome
to Jerusalem, we have always been faced with the big question:
Are we attempting to confine the spirit in our limited containers; or are
we transforming our material universe into a Divine Temple?
Are we humans trying to create a G-d in our own image, or are we trying to
uncover the Divine Image in which we were created?
* * *
Question of the Week: What do you
think the relationship between faith and science will be
like in 50 years from now?
a question for future weeks.