Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Putting Christ Back into Georgetown

My final column in today's Hoya is a seasonal (and perhaps perennial) lament over the displacement of Christ for other gods - particularly Mammon - both symbolically and in the daily practice of Georgetown University.

Indeed, things are worse than I thought (and I thought they were bad to start with): the student editors of the paper made several changes to the piece, one quite egregious. Where I had written (about the new campus building of the business school) "We might be tempted to conclude that the newest religiously naked building is solely a temple to Mammon," the editor added at the end of the sentence, "— the biblical personification of wealth and greed." When I asked for the condescending definition of the obvious be removed, I was informed that the student editors found the reference obscure and had needed to look up the definition of the word. These are students at one of the best universities in the United States, who apparently had never heard of Mammon - a common piece of cultural and Biblical inheritance that was once intuitively understood by nearly anyone with even the most basic cultural (including Biblical) literacy no more than a quarter-century ago. Today's students may not know the name of the very God that too often they worship.

In any event, here is the column as originally written:

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In recent years, there has been an effort by Christians of different stripes to “put Christ back in Christmas.” Noting the ubiquity of the anodyne phrase “Happy Holidays” – even when a holiday (or “Holy Day”) greeting is exchanged between Christians – something of a movement has been launched to insist that Christ remain the central focus of Advent and Christmas.

A similar effort is needed at Georgetown, a place that should by all rights have little difficulty making Christ the central focus of its campus life. I have been thinking this in particular in recent weeks as I daily pass the Hariri Building, noting with disappointment that not a single religious image was incorporated on its vast exterior. In comparison to the great and noble campus buildings of Healy, White-Gravenor and Copley Halls – which are richly adorned with religious iconography, in acknowledgment of the Catholic character of the university – we might be tempted to conclude that the newest religiously naked building is solely a temple to Mammon.

However, if our newest building evinces no external acknowledgement of the university’s Catholic identity, this is hardly a radically new development. It is striking that the campus of the nation’s first Catholic and Jesuit University should have such a dearth of images or icons devoted to Jesus or the Saints of the Church. Even worse: where apparently there were once symbols, at some point some were removed. An old photo of the Main Stairway in Healy Hall shows there was once a bust of the Sacred Heart of Jesus centrally on display on the landing between the floors. This was once a prominent space displaying the image of Jesus; one is hard pressed to think of any currently significant campus space where a statue or image of Jesus is present. As for other icons: in the porticos at the front of Healy’s main entrance – where today there are two unremarkable urns – there were to be statues of John Carroll and St. Ignatius of Loyola. The University has been exceedingly active putting up self-congratulatory video displays and expensive media equipment in the Hariri Building, but has lost interest in meaningfully filling prominently empty sacred spaces elsewhere on campus.

Of course, such religious iconography would be meaningless without the accompanying practice that such symbols are meant to reinforce. Daily afternoon mass in Dahlgren chapel is exceedingly sparsely attended. Might attendance increase with the exemplary presence of various campus leaders and faculty, demonstrating that there is no meeting or lunch appointment more important than daily communion? What of encouraging the restoration of the norm of beginning classes in prayer? And should we not create a new administrative position devoted to the mission of hiring Catholic faculty, or faculty with a strong interest in and dedication to the Catholic identity of Georgetown? We seem to have an administrator for nearly every activity of the University, but not this centrally critical facet in the ongoing life and character of the institution.

What of incorporating in a prominent and serious way the teachings of the Catholic “Theology of the Body” (so beautifully articulated by Pope John Paul II) in our first-year orientation activities, in contrast to most campuses where a more mechanistic theory of sexuality reigns? And what of devoting occasional space on the University website – where we regularly call attention to students who have been awarded various honors and awards – to proudly acknowledge the decision of some of our extraordinary students to enter the priesthood or the convent? I have known several young men in recent years who have decided to enter the Jesuit order and at least one young woman who is a novitiate in the Dominican order – why do they receive no official acknowledgment or place of pride in our public pronouncements?

Georgetown, aspiring to mimic its religiously disaffiliated peers, today shies away from firm identification with its faith tradition. But, by dint of drift, it finds itself increasingly unable – much like its academic peers – to address the pervasive utilitarianism and materialism of our day. Today, we increasingly treat the world, its resources, and fellow humans as means to our individual ends – whether in economics, politics, sexuality or biotechnology. Our main political alignments are no great help in stemming this tendency, with the Right endorsing unfettered economic utilitarianism and the Left defending reproductive and bio-technological utilitarianism. Today, it is increasingly only the firmly grounded religious traditions – and above all, Catholicism – that resists this great and nearly unstoppable philosophic trajectory of modernity. Far from being ashamed of our grounding in this great tradition, we should embrace and commend it for a broken world. Putting Christ back into Christmas is to commend His presence one day a year; putting Christ back into Georgetown is to exemplify a year-round commitment and life-long devotion by a community of witnesses.

5 comments:

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

I liked this column a good deal, and I'm thankful once again that I'm a professor at a small Christian college that has managed to maintain a confessional identity.

Alright, I'll confess to a couple deadly sins here--I'd trade paychecks with you for a couple months if someone offered. But even with all of our shortcomings, at least we have Christian faithfulness as our telos.

Patrick Deneen said...

Nathan...

I'm game - if you'll assume my mortgage payments for the same couple of months.... Never has so much been paid for so little...

AT said...

"My final column"?

Robert said...

I especially enjoyed this insight,"Today, we increasingly treat the world, its resources, and fellow humans as means to our individual ends." I attended grad school at Georgetown in the early 90's. I was struck by its nominal Roman Catholic character. May God Bless you on this crusade, because you will certainly suffer slings and arrows....

Tess said...
This comment has been removed by the author.