Monday, March 19, 2007

Harvard Divinity


Harvard began as a divinity school (in 1636, 16 years after the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts)—founded, staffed and attended by Christians, with Christian pedagogy the principal curriculum, for a student body largely training for the ministry.

By the late 19th century, Harvard had begun broadening its curriculum to include other subjects, and its formerly dominant institution, the Divinity School, receded slowly over the decades in size and significance.

By the 20th century, the curriculum of the Divinity School had become considerably informed by the revolutionary criticism of the Bible that had already been dominating theological and historical studies in Europe for at least a century before that (embodied in, among others, that scholar who flourished on both sides of the divide of the fin du siècle, Adolf Von Harnack (1851-1930), who more or less identified Protestantism and its hermeneutical wing with Liberalism), reflected in the growing prominence of the views of one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), and his pupils Helmut Koester and Krister Stendahl, both of enormous importance to the academic culture of theological and religious history studies at the Harvard Divinity School, especially from the latter half of the 20th century forward. As the historian of Christianity Peter R. Jones put it in this fine article:

In spite of Marcion
s massive rejection of early Christian orthodoxy, and his denunciation and excommunication by the second century Church, the great nineteenth century Liberal historian and theologian, Adolf von Harnack, called him “the first Protestant.” For Harnack, “Protestant” meant “liberal.” The similiarly sympathetic judgment by Helmut Koester, a Bultmannian New Testament scholar, lately at Harvard, calls Marcion “a textual critic, philologian and reformer.” When these church fathers are dismissed by contemporary liberal scholars as “myopic heresy hunters,” and the terms “Protestant” and “reformer” are associated with the Gnostic Marcion, making him a virtual second-century Martin Luther, we must see that we are in the presence of a “palace revolution.”

Under the influence of this “palace revolution” (reflecting of course a broader revolution in the West at large) , Harvard Divinity School propagated a Christianity as theologically confluent with mythology, more or less dissolved in a larger matrix of religious syncretism. Philosophically, Christianity became subsumed under the dictates of modern fashions of anthropological and cultural relativism, existential doubt, and deconstructionism. And politically, Christianity became reinterpreted under a revisionist history that more or less followed the Marxian dictum of turning history on its head, by seeing material forces as primary and causative motors of therefore necessarily epiphenomenal spiritual data. (One can imagine the largely uncomprehending ears (other than, say, Thorkild Jacobsen and Gillis Quispel) of those seated in the Sanders Theatre in 1965 to hear Eric Voegelin lecture them about a humanity—in tension with divinityundeformed by those currents of the 20th century already inundating the Humanities at Harvard Divinity; and one can all too well imagine, on the contrary, the warm reception given the hideously deformed Karen Armstrong for her lecture, 40 years later, as part of the same Ingersoll Lectures on Human Immortality.)

The cultural dissolution of Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, meanwhile, was not long in coming on the heels of the 60s Cultural Revolution.

By the 1970s (and increasing zealously with each passing decade, though one does not begin to see evidence for this in the Harvard Theological Review—perhaps a more inherently conservative academic ecclesiola within the broader culture of the schooluntil the 1980s), in the curriculum of the quaintly shrunken relic of Harvard’s former heart, the Divinity School, students (whether undergraduates just sampling from the comparative religions cafeteria, or grad students choosing to get a Divinity School degree for various reasons) could easily find and take classes in Christianity (when they were not taking classes in the Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism, or in the eroticism of Buddhist Tantra, or in the Phenomenology of the Raw and the Cooked among the Chachaubunkkakowok Indians of Colonial Massachusetts, or in the lyrically open-minded mysticism of Islamic poetry) that explored how Jesus was really a proto-Marxist revolutionary, or how the sayings of Jesus were like Zen Koans, or how Christian missionaries during Western Colonialism had “raped” the Noble Savage around the non-Western world, or how Roman Emperor Constantine and a cabal of corrupt priests & theologians had in effect manufactured Christian orthodoxy in order to create an oppressive and intolerant Christian Empire and to suppress “dissent”, or how to hermeneutically deconstruct the New Testament so that Mary the Prostitute becomes “empowered”, or how to do a creative midrash on the Gospel of John to out Jesus and John as gay partners; and so forth.

Mind you, I have no significant problems with this overall transformation of Harvard Divinity over the last century—as long as its eager participants would have the sense to notice that its enablement reflects admirably upon the surrounding culture of the modern West, and, by contrast, poorly on any culture, such as Islam, where such a transformation would not only be unthinkable but also violently suppressed. Sadly, though, most of the eager participants would conclude, with a perversely twisted irony, the exact opposite—choosing in their asinine naivety and gullible multi-culturalism to embrace and assimilate within its insouciantly syncretistic pantheon of cultures an indigestibly intolerant and anti-liberal Islam. And they would have an appropriate advocate of their ignorance in the current Dean of Harvard Divinity, William A. Graham, a professor of Middle East studies whose field is Islam, and whose appallingly inaccurate presumptions about his own subject and about his own West are all too evident from a talk he gave in 2003.

Further Reading:

A video in which a Harvard professor, Leila Ahmed, shows her Islamophiliac, Occidentophobic tendencies


An explanatory comment re: supra

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