There's a potent symbolism to this event. Harvard represents the pinnacle of learning in the Western world. Founded as an institution deeply rooted in the particular traditions and truth claims of Christianity, Harvard has become one of the supreme exemplars of the pluralistic secularism of Western elites, and the Memorial Church nicely suggests the marginalized status of Christianity in the modern university.
But of course it is not only Christianity that is marginalized. In the second edition of his World Christian Encyclopedia, published earlier this year, David Barrett reports that more than five billion of the world's six billion people are "religionists," that is, believers in one of the great world religions or in one of the manifold indigenous faiths to be found everywhere human beings have settled. What about the confident assertion, emanating from academic precincts for much of the twentieth century, that religion was about to wither away? Clearly that prediction was laughably wrong. And the stubborn persistence of religion, the brute fact of it, like it or not, is one reason for the modest "return" of religion in forums such as this Harvard conference.
Another reason lies in the complex legacy of modern science. The spectacular achievements of science have been seen by many, both inside and outside the scientific guild, as negating the transcendent claims of any and all religions. But increasingly this notion is contested, again both inside and outside the guild. Aided in no small part by the many-sided initiatives of the Templeton Foundation, a robust conversation about the relation of science to religion is underway in many settings, and the Science and the Spiritual Quest II conference at Harvard exemplifies this trend as well.
In one sense, then, events such as this should be deeply encouraging to Christians and other religious believers. What a dramatic change from the overweening secularism and scientism that peaked, perhaps, in the 1960s! But this "place at the table" comes with a price.
Last week we noted that Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul's critique of Islam is premised on the superiority of modern skepticism. The truly intelligent man evolves "beyond belief," beyond the distinctive claims of any religion to a "universal civilization" that takes the best from all the world's streams of thought. For many of the speakers at Memorial Church, something like that vision seemed to be the goal.
Indeed, this was apparent when a couple of the speakers referred to the events of September 11, interpreted as evidence of the terrible consequences of the lust for "certainty" that characterizes religion at its worst. Is a catechism always—potentially, at least—fuel for terrorism? Isn't it in the very nature of religion to deal in absolutes?
Those are the kind of questions that conversations such as this one at Harvard inescapably raise. The best place to deal with them is at the table. Today, from 3:00 to 9:00 p.m., the conference will be telecast to colleges, universities, and seminaries throughout the United States. The topic of this six-hour session is "What Does It Mean to Be Human?" Are Christians prepared to give an answer?
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Also see today's The Washington Times coverage of Science and the Spiritual Quest II.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Beyond Belief? | Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul's accounts of Islam presuppose the superiority of modern skepticism.
Covering Islam | Getting beyond the feel-good bromides. (Oct. 8, 2001)
Christian Scholarship … For What? | Academic speakers affirm the value of beholding God's creation. (Oct. 1, 2001)
Myths of the Taliban | Misinformation and disinformation abounds. What do we know? (Sept. 24, 2001)
The Imagination of Disaster | "We thought we were invulnerable." Really? (Sept. 17, 2001)
More Sex, Fewer Children | Mixed messages on condoms, contraception, and fertility. (Sept. 10, 2001)
The Strange Case of Napoleon Beazley | The latest poster boy for death row chic. (Aug. 27, 2001)
Apocalyptic City | The dream and the nightmare of megalopolis (Aug. 20, 2001)
Megalopolis Forty Years On | The ambiguous face of the city. (Aug. 13, 2001)
The Future Is Now | You want the news? Read science fiction. (Aug. 6, 2001)
Memorable Memoirs | Whether telling us about the Spirit in the South or the crumbling atheism of a Chinese immigrant, these books provide windos into others' lives. (July 30, 2001)
The Distorted Story of Memoir Inc. | There are many good autobiographies out there, but do those who write about them have to pretend they're the only books worth reading? (July 23, 2001)
Looking for the Soul of CBA | Nearly anything that can be said about Christian publishing is true to some extent, thanks to the industry's ever-enlarging territory. (July 16, 2001)
Give Me Your Muslims, Your Hindus, Your Eastern Orthodox, Yearning to Breathe Free | Immigration's long-ignored effect on American religion is garnering much attention from scholars (July 9, 2001)
Shrekked | Why are readers responding passionately about a simple film review? (July 2, 2001)
Debutante Fiction | The New Yorker should have paid less attention to the novelty of its writers and more attention to their writing. (June 18, 2001)