I had the sweetest college education anyone could ever dream of. I decided to attend college in Cambridge Massachusetts, because that is where my high school sweetheart, Jan, was also going to college. The first two years there I chose M.I.T., looking forward to being a chemical engineer. But every Sunday we went to church in Boston, and one time there I heard a sermon about how many Episcopal churches were going to have to close, due to a shortage of ordained ministers. Believing in the old saying, "If you're not part of the solution, you're probably part of the problem," I pondered the obvious dilemma as it applied to me personally: does society need more faith, or more technology? I opted for faith, and decided to give up chemical engineering, and go into the ministry -- in spite of the fact that I was the shyest man I ever knew.
And so, for my final two college years I decided to transfer out of M.I.T. and go to a liberal arts college. I wanted to stay in Cambridge (for reasons you can guess), so the obvious choice was Harvard. And that's when I experienced college as I wish everyone could experience it. You see, because of my course credits from M.I.T. I had "a major" already fulfilled -- it was "Physics," which I greatly disliked, but it required no further course work.
So, each semester I was at Harvard I just opened up the catalog, looked to see what subjects intrigued me, and went and enrolled in that class. I ranged all over the lot. I took Psychology with Gordon Allport. Anthropology with Clyde Kluckhohn. The world's religions with Arthur Darby Nock. Atomic physics with Einstein's successor at the University of Prague. The development of the English language, with Dean Kirby-Smith from Radcliffe. And so forth. The names may or may not mean much to you, but they meant everything to me. For these two years at Harvard, I don't think anyone ever had more fun going to college than I did. With nothing I had to take, I just studied subjects that intrigued me, guided by some of the best minds in the world. It felt, well, so Plato-ish.
Ah! and what exactly is the reason that all these memories came flooding back, this week? Well, the February 22nd issue of Newsweek magazine had an article about Harvard. It was called "Harvard's Crisis of Faith", and in it Lisa Miller discussed a proposal "that undergraduate students should be required to take at least one course in a category called Reason and Faith." Harvard's Louis Menand, and others, were for it; Harvard's evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, and others, were agin it. It was an interesting article, but I think they got the whole frame of the debate wrong. It was all about God in "courses."
What I learned from my time there, is that the courses you enroll in are only a small part of a college education. That's because there are three steps, it seems to me, in the evolution of an educated person. The first is, you begin by getting fascinated with information, or "data." The Internet furnishes a fine example. The very nature of the beast is that it exists in packets. Packets of data. Mastering it, as you make your way through all the data that is out there, involves listening for silences as well as sounds. Listening for what's missing, as well as for what's there. For what "they" don't tell you, as well as for what they do. Only then can you claim you're "an information specialist."
The next step in the evolution of an educated person is you move on. You get fascinated now with courses and knowledges. This is still data, of course, but now it's data that has two new characteristics: the data is organized, and it is applied. Mastering knowledge means you see how discrete packets of information are linked to each other, by some internal logic or intuition; and you see how this now-organized knowledge applies in real life situations, with real life problems. With this, you can claim you have mastered a field or body of knowledge.
But there is a third step, in the evolution of an educated person. You move on, eventually -- at age 22 or 72 -- to what is in essence a larger concentric circle, encompassing all that has gone before, but now with an added outside circle or dimension. That added dimension is called wisdom. Wisdom has all the previous characteristics mentioned above -- sound, silence, organized, applied -- but with two new characteristics: context, and weight. With mere knowledge, mere coursework, you can start to think after a while that all ideas are of equal value and equal weight. But with wisdom you try to look at things in the largest context possible, and with that you realize that some ideas just matter more than others. Some ideas simply carry more weight. Wisdom lies in knowing that, and in knowing which ones. And that, in turn, depends on always looking for the largest context possible, in which to set things, ideas, people, history, exploration, growth, and so on. The impulse for doing this lies in the fact that the largest context for everythng has always inspired in humans awe, dumbfoundedness, speechlessness, and adoration -- such as those beautiful photos, lately, of the heavens and the cosmos inspire in most of us.
So, what is religion? Well, at its best it has always been simply our search for the largest context in which to set everything. And, with one important discovery: that as you move from information, to knowledge, to wisdom, you are moving to things that become more and more alive, as you journey. Knowledge is more alive than mere information. Wisdom is more alive than mere knowledge. And context -- the largest context imaginable -- is the most alive of all. So we call that Context "God." And feel, prior to any revelation from above, that He or She has personality: is sentient, alive, thinking, and -- above all -- creating.
Over the course of this evolution of the educated person, something odd happens. At the beginning, it is we who go looking -- for information, and then for knowledge, and so forth. But when we find context -- the largest context imaginable, God -- the tables are turned. The history of religions has not been "Man's search for God" but "God, coming looking for us," seeking to fill every inch of our life with His (or Her) full nature, life, and Being: a process we call "grace" (amazing grace! ).
As I put down the Newsweek article, I found myself thinking: God at Harvard? Of course. But not as a course. Rather, as the context for the whole Harvard catalog, the beginning and end of both education and Wisdom.