At The Meritocracy’s Vatican
Tonight at dinner I received a text from a friend, asking if I was okay. He hadn’t seen much blogging from me. It’s nice to be missed! I am in Cambridge, Mass., this week, at a program on Harvard’s campus. I don’t know that I have permission to blog about it, so I won’t get into detail here. It’s perfectly ordinary, but you never know. It’s been really good, and I’ve been spending time with a wonderful, diverse group of people. But I misjudged how much free time I would have during the day. I haven’t been able to blog as usual. Sorry about that. I’ll be home soon.
I have only been to Harvard once before this, on a tour of colleges with my high school class of junior, in the Spring of 1984. I remembered exactly nothing of it, except eating ice cream at a Früsen Gladjé (‘memba them?) shop near Harvard Square. Such is the mind of a 17-year-old who had his heart set on Georgetown and its School of Foreign Service. Harvard looms so large in our national consciousness, at least among a certain class of people, for whom it is the ultimate gateway to the heights of the American meritocracy. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t this lovely, modest red-brick campus. When I think of academic grandeur, I think Oxbridge, but really, that’s all about the architecture. Harvard’s endowment — $36 billion — is by far the largest in the world. For what that’s worth.
The architecture and the overall feel of this place is deceptive. This does not look like the Vatican of the Meritocracy, but I suppose you would expect that in New England.
I can’t get a read on this place. I haven’t been here long enough, and won’t be here long enough, even to start. I invite you readers who live in Cambridge, or the Boston area, or who graduated from Harvard, to help me out on this point.
One thing that struck me walking around was passing a couple of old-line Protestant churches — I mean, really old-line, like, from the 17th century — and seeing what they’re passionate about, according to the banners and flags they display: gay rights and Black Lives Matter. Above, a scene outside a UCC Church (founded 1633). The photos are of victims who died in the Pulse nightclub shooting. Nothing wrong with memorializing them, but it’s telling that this is what the church wears on its sleeve, so to speak. It’s where this parish’s heart is. Around the corner is the Unitarian Universalist church, which claims the same roots as the UCC parish; they separated in the 19th century, with that parish becoming Unitarian, and the separated brethren (the conservatives!) becoming the parish that is now affiliated with the UCC.
No idea how many people go to those churches. Yesterday, somebody tweeted to me a link to Matthew Rose’s paywalled new piece in First Things, an excerpt of which you can read here. It’s about the 50th anniversary of the infamous “God Is Dead” Time magazine cover story. Excerpt of the excerpt:
Elson and his editors at Time, however, were prophetic in giving Death of God theology such attention. The United States today looks a lot like the society van Buren, Altizer, and Hamilton wished to midwife. Their ideas about the relationship between Christianity and secularization express, in exaggerated form to be sure, some of the most deeply felt religious intuitions of our culture. They also anticipated a crucial but under-examined phenomenon of our time: the institutional defeat and cultural victory of liberal Protestantism.
And so, fifty years on, to revisit the Death of God movement is not to witness the absurd apotheosis of sixties-era religion. It is to encounter a moment, at once traditional and radical, when liberal Protestantism sought a new dispensation to justify the moral supremacy over American life that it continues to enjoy to this day.
I feel that I walked through Rose’s point today. The religious traditions epitomized in these two historic churches at the very gates of Harvard are dead, dead, dead in American religious life. But culturally, they have won. Go inside the Vatican of the Meritocracy, and you will find far more people who believe in the values espoused by these churches that few people attend than you will find people who believe in the tenets espoused by the 15-million strong Southern Baptist Convention.
Anyway, what matters to me is that I ate two dozen Island Creeks on the half-shell last night at Russell House Tavern, after 11, when they were only a dollar. Best thing about Boston? Their glorious oysters.