Sunday, September 13, 2009

Truth Values and The Future of Faith

It was a week that drove me to chocolate in quantity, up until Thursday evening when I left work behind to head over to Harvard Yard where Harvey Cox was celebrating his retirement after 44 years. Harvey exercised his ancient cow grazing rights as Hollis Professor of Divinity, by bringing a lovely Jersey cow to the yard, named Faith.

Harvey asked our church choir to sing Robert Louis Stevenson's poem The Cow (set to the tune of Amazing Grace) and then one verse of Amazing Grace as the benediction to the event, so I was part of the event, as well.

Harvey was also celebrating the publication of his latest book The Future of Faith, and I took the opportunity to get an autographed copy. This is an important book, perhaps a necessary one for people of faith, as a guide to what lies ahead in the Age of Spirit, as we leave behind the Age of Belief, the Christian era since the Emperor Constantine's takeover of Christianity in 355 CE.

Harvey emphasizes that beliefs and faith are not the same thing, and that we are leaving behind the Age of Belief where a list of items that we must believe was enshrined in our religious lives. Rather, in the Age of Spirit we have increasing numbers of spiritual, not religious people, who do not believe in all/any of the items in the creeds, but instead understand that practicing our faith is more than reciting a litany of what we believe. Actions speak louder than words, and doubt is perhaps a necessary part of the way of faith. For Harvey this was highlighted when an acquaintance described himself in conversation as "a practicing Christian, not always a believing one." (p. 16) I've only had time to read the first thirty pages, but recommend this book to you.

In Harvey's speech at cow/retirement celebration event, he said the arguments about science versus religion are dead (or at least need to be). His perhaps prophetic look at faith (like all prophecy, we'll have to wait to see) dovetailed nicely with the second profound event of my week—an outing with friends to see the play Truth Values by Gioia DeCari at the Central Square Theater. It only has one more week in the run, and I highly recommend it. It is a one-woman show, an autobiographical look at the actor/author's years in trying to make it through the math maze as a Ph.D. student at M.I.T. She captured in her writing and in her acting the essence of the time and place, and of the dilemmas and sexism facing women in math and the sciences.

In one early scene DeCari attended the Good Friday service at the MIT Chapel and is struck by a mathematics professor's reading of Pilate's question to Jesus: "What is truth?" That reading spurred her research about truth values. But what are those? Not what we unsuspecting lay people would think. In one interview about the play, she said,
I especially liked the idea of using the math research I was doing at the time as a central metaphor. The title, “Truth Values," is a technical term for the notion of true vs. false. My research examined the consequences of adding other values between true and false, sort of a formalization of the idea of nuanced choices. This resonated with the choices I was facing in my life at the time…
The common theme in both Harvey's celebration and book and in DeCari's work is that a binary, black/white approach to human behavior and motives, to passions and faith, to truth and beliefs, and human relationships with creation, is inadequate. Asking if you believe in one creedal statement as a litmus test of Christianity is as untenable as asking if, because you are a woman, why aren't you at home raising babies rather than learning math.

DeCari's play reminded me of how much I don't want to be put in a box because someone has a preconceived notion about who I am, or should be. I suspect and hope that Harvey Cox's book will help us find a path out of the belief boxes that Christianity has been trying to maintain for the past sixteen hundred years into a faithful and faith-filled life.

Moral: Faith and art (with a side of chocolate) are better than just chocolate for a tough week.

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