Thursday, February 14, 2008

Nathan Empsall '09 wrote a letter to the D defending himself against classmate Lucy Stonehill '10's editorial last week that criticized his behavior in a class discussion, but the editorial board chose not to print it. He blitzed us an electronic copy of the letter.

About the letter, Nathan writes:
The D has refused to let me respond to Lucy Stonehill's op-ed "See You in Hell," even though the column made my identity as the unnamed classmate painfully obvious to those who know me well or were in the class. According to Editor-in-Chief Katy O'Donnell, "The campus dialogue on this issue has run its course--at least in the Opinion page of The D--and the Opinion editors must also consider space constraints and other logistical minutiae." I readily admit that I took several days to reply, but I find that a poor excuse to deny a man his defense when attacked.

The letter:
Though she was courteous enough not to mention my name, I was the classmate taken to task for "religious zeal" in Lucy Stonehill '10's column "See You in Hell." Though I was at first surprised – I hardly recognized our discussion from her description – I am now grateful. Her column has given us the chance for a rare but valuable public discussion of religion. With this response, I would like to explain just what was said in class, and examine an unfortunate disconnect between atheists and people of faith.

Stonehill spent much of her column accusing me of "regurgitat[ing] memorized snippets of Sunday School 'fact' that leave no room for alternate interpretations" without ever actually telling the reader what my arguments were. It should be understood that the assignment was not just to "read and analyze the Genesis creation story", but to compare that story with another culture's creation tale and understand the distinct traditions. Stonehill insisted on a very literal reading of the Biblical text, which, if accepted as the only proper interpretation, would lead students to believe all Christians believe something that they in fact do not. I did not dismiss her literal reading, but I did try to broaden the discussion by adding the metaphorical interpretation held by many mainline Christians and the academic view that Genesis has four authors and two creation stories. This is what Stonehill dismisses as "obscure religious reasoning" and "isolated, irrelevant examples." How, I ask, can including multiple perspectives be considered "rigid close-mindedness?"

Stonehill's main argument, that religious zealotry has no place in the classroom, is well taken. Unfortunately, in implying that all religion is religious zealotry and focusing the majority of her column on our discussion, she distorts her otherwise valid point. As has been noted in subsequent opinion pieces, we all have different individual perspectives that shape who we are and how we contribute. This diversity can enrich both academic and cultural discussions. Lucy's background and beliefs, whatever they may be, are a welcome addition to the classroom, as should be my own Texas roots and Episcopal views.

This brings me to my larger point, that there is an acute lack of understanding between atheists and people of faith. I do not mean to imply that Stonehill is an atheist – I don't know what her beliefs are – but her article is an effective springboard for the topic. She argues that personal "creeds" should be checked at the classroom door. This suggests that faith is like a winter coat – something that can be worn when appropriate, but shed when things get a little too warm. I beg to differ. My faith is not a lens through which I view the world, but the actual eyes behind that lens, irrevocably attached to the head. I can no more set aside my belief in God than I can set aside my belief that the earth revolves around the sun.

I am reminded of two friends who experienced a painful breakup. Though neither realized it at the time, they grew apart because of faith issues – one was a devote Christian, the other an atheist. The atheist asked the Christian to make certain sacrifices of faith that seemed reasonable, and was offended by the Christian's refusal to make those sacrifices for the sake of their relationship. The atheist did not realize that the existence of God is not something we choose to believe, but something we see when we look around us, as real as the Collis porch. Spirituality is not another idea in the world, spirituality is the world, and we can't prioritize anything above that no matter how much we may want. The only difference I see between telling a Professor I slept through a midterm but still expect an A and telling God I forgot about faith for a few hours but still love Him (or perhaps Her) is that God matters more than any professor.

Yet just as there are things atheists do not understand about people of faith, there may well be things I do not understand about atheists. I will happily discuss the topic with anyone so inclined.

I should also note that I have never called myself a "priest-in-training." While I do hope to become an Episcopal priest, seminary is years away. Given the matter's seriousness and the unpredictable nature of the future, it is something I try not to talk about very often.

Just as I believe in evolution, I also believe that adherence to a particular faith is not a pre-requisite for a happy afterlife. It is in that spirit that I say, no, Lucy, I will see you in Heaven.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is pretty weak. About 1/3 of it is a response to Stonehill, and as Empsall admits, it's a bit late. Moreover, others have already cogently come to his defense. But perhaps the D should have published it after all.

Stonehill's initial op-ed sounded juvenile and unreasonable. After this, I'm starting to understand where she's coming from.

The response starts off well enough: (1) the professor's assignment was broader than Stonehill says it was, (2) there are differences among Christians just as there are differences between Christians and other faiths, and (3) pointing out no. 2 and talking about a nonliteral interpretation of Genesis probably added to the class discussion. Fair enough. Defense made.

Then it goes of on a rambling discussion of faith and atheism that is self-righteous, patronizing, and perhaps an apt illustration of just what pushed Stonehill over the edge in the first place. We get it. Religious faith is more than just a hobby or an opinion and nonreligious people often ignore, forget or fail to comprehend that.

Nathan Empsall said...

Anonymous - I don't consider the discussion of faith and athiesm a direct response to Stonehill so much as I view it as taking an advantage of a rare opportunity to talk about an important subject. I certainly don't mean to be patronizing - is there some other way I should explain what it is important to who I am and why I can't ever set it aside?

Nathan Empsall said...

BTW, just to clear up the definition of "late", I submitted it to the D on Monday - late, yes, but not quite as late as having it posted on Friday would imply.

Anonymous said...

Now the letter has been published. End of story.

John Bruce said...

I think this points to a serious deficiency in elite schools -- the students apparently assume that they're being taught intellectually respectable material, when in cases like Stonehill, they're simply getting upscale conventional wisdom. The Ivies are setting us up for future Enrons, where the elite goes along to get along.

I assume Stonehill will graduate with a respectable GPA and go on to a successful career as whatever, where her views will serve as a useful accoutrement.

This is one reason I've become increasingly skeptical of the alumni insurgent movement. There has been no serious move toward curriculum reform -- the only on-campus success the alumni insurgents can point to is the return of Beta, and the public face of the Greek system over the past several months is simply narcissistic (I don't want to hear if Stonehill is in a sorority).

The College is failing its students and its society in producing Stonehills, but there's been no effective voice expressing this in the Dartmouth community.

Anonymous said...

You have really lost me this time, Mr. Bruce, when you say that the College is failing its society in producing Stonehills. Lucy Stonehill and Nathan Empsall have expressed their very different views about religious faith. It's OK that Lucy is an atheist and it's OK that Nathan believes in god. Both can become great contributors to our country and our world.

Nathan Empsall said...

While I have appreciated most of Mr. Bruce's comments on this subject, I have to agree with the most recent anonymous comment this time. I think it is unfortunate that Ms. Stonehill seems to regard all religion as religious zealotry, as it has been observed before that the tyranny of atheism is just as dangerous as the tyranny of religion. However, while the hypocrisy of such a stance should be vigorously revealed, I would never suggest that the College is failing because some of its students (and even professors) hold certain viewpoints. That is one a potentially arrogant judgment to make about other individuals and their motives, and two it misses the mark - the problem is not so much with our academic institution sas it is the larger society they are a part of. The elitist "go along to get along" mindset, I think, is somewhat beside the point given that societal feel. As a religious relative of mine observed, when the religious right dominates our politics and accusations of theocracy sprinkles our airwaves and comes to define the MSM's view of religion, of *course* there will be a backlash among atheists. Remember also that their views are not going to be heard - at some point they are almost bound to rise up in frustration, like conservative talk radio after 40 years of Democratic House rule. The go-along attitude comes more into play with views of money than religion, I think. Here, societal understandings at large are the real issue.

John Bruce said...

The problem I see with Ms. Stonehill's views are that, as far as I can make out, she feels that all religious people are zealots, and they all read the Bible literally. How does this differ from simple bigotry? If she were to assert that all members of a certain ethnic group have low intelligence, would we simply say she's espousing a legitimate view?

Ms. Stonehill is a bigot. There seem to be folks who say that if she's matriculated at an Ivy, that makes it OK.

Mr. Empson, I've encountered some Episcopal clergy -- not all, but some -- who do have the subtlety to grasp this point. Hope you'll work on your reasoning skills.

Nathan Empsall said...

Mr. Bruce, I agree with you about Lucy's points. I told her in an email that it would seem our biggest disagreement is her implied view that all religion is religious zealotry, and that that is short-sighted. However, while I would never say that this is made ok by her presence at an Ivy League institution, I would also not blame the institution for it. The days when a college can fully decide how it will shape an individual are long gone, and there is no longer a common Dartmouth experience. The only thing I share with a music major who plays in three ensembles, takes a term in London and a term in Glasgow, joins a Greek organization, and lacks religion is the dining hall experience and view of the Green. With hundreds of diverse professors and scores of life-shaping extracurriculars to choose from, my reasoning is that it's a little silly to blame Dartmouth for the way its fringe turns out. There's really no control over all the minutiae.

Stonehill is wrong and is being somewhat hypocritical. That's not ok. You and I don't disagree there - our disagreement is over the role Dartmouth plays in that.

Anonymous said...

It is reasonable to diagree with Lucy and say that she is "wrong and somewhat hypocritical" but concluding that she is a "bigot" based on her column is a leap of reason which amounts to childish name calling.

John Bruce said...

Mr. Empsall, the reason I made a point of "curriculum reform" above was precisely because Dartmouth (not uniquely) has abandoned any notion of what core abilities a liberally educated person should have. If someone wants to focus exclusivly on a musical career, there's always Julliard, and for a musician, Julliard is probably a better choice. If you want to focus on music at Dartmouth, you'll wind up second rate (my guess is you'd be better off at USC for music). A second rate musician who doesn't know how to think. And you think this is OK?

My rector has given us a list of recommended Lenten readings. One of them has been putting me back through Plato's dialogues, with much reference to the Greek text. I'm glad I studied that at Dartmouth, including the Greek, and including the philosophy courses. (My rector went to Cambridge, of course.)

But I chose that at the time, and it was even then possible to get a degree with the Ivy equivalent of basket-weaving courses. And my Greek instructor, I now realize, was third rate, and there were many missed opportunities even in the curriculum I chose for myself. I wasn't getting serious advice from my advisor, either.

What on earth, Mr. Empsall, is the point of the rigorous selection process for an Ivy, when, once you get there, you're left on your own? An 18 or 19 year old is not in a position to decide his or her intellectual course. What on earth is the responsibility of an institution if not to guide untrained minds and bodies? And what does it say if it produces bigots, and people get upset if you point out that that's what they ate?

I hope that, in any future discernment process, you ask whether the church universal needs more namby-pamby.

John Bruce said...

By the way, 8:03, Stonehill refers to "acts of religious apology — in other words, denial". I don't know what on earth this is besides bigotry.

Anonymous said...

Please calm down, John, you are going off the deep end here.

John Bruce said...

Excuse me? A Dartmouth sophomore is on record as equating religious apology with denial. This surely represents a flaw in this person's education -- how big of a step is it, for instance, to saying all Catholics are in denial? And how far is this from the issue that, as some credibly say, the Holocaust wasn't so much aimed at Jews as at believers, the Jews being only the most prominent candidates? This is surely bigotry -- and we have one or more folks who won't identify themselves here who apparently think it's unfair to call this what it is.

Apparently each year, a fair-size contingent graduates from Dartmouth thinking this sort of thing is even enlightened.

Anonymous said...

Folks, there's no sense arguing. Disagreement with John Bruce is a sign of a flawed education. Back in his day, no one was ever immature, the required curriculum ensured that everyone had critical skills and an appropriate level of knowledge about the world. Except that's apparently not true either, since it was possible to basket-weave one's way to a degree and to take Greek from a third-rate instructor. Also, even though people did LSD back then, it obviously had no permanent effects on their mental faculties.

If this doesn't make sense, ask and be regaled with a rambling response that mentions whatever books J.B. has read lately, and explains how class is the only lens through which to view life.

Of course, don't challenge him on it, because that'll just show that you're the product of a faulty education.

This isn't a defense of the Stonehill op-ed. It's fairly juvenile and sounds like it was hastily dashed off in anger instead of being the result of a lot of contemplation. But it doesn't equate religious faith with zealotry, and the slippery slope argument that claims that Stonehill is approaching Holocaust denial/misinterpretation is just silly. Also, the responses to the Stonehill op-ed were pretty articulate and reflect well on the education people are getting these days.

Perhaps Dartmouth has changed for the worse in some ways over the past 39 years, but it's quite the leap to go from an immature op-ed by one person complaining about the way a religious person discussed his religion in class to the conclusion that the Dartmouth curriculum is responsible for churning out Holocaust deniers.

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