My son does not believe in God.
At least this is what he says, with all the authority his nine-and-a-half years can deliver. This, despite the fact that we have gone to church—not consistently, but often—since he was a baby, at the Episcopal church near Emory that I have attended since I moved to Atlanta thirteen years ago and where he was baptized when he was five months old.
He makes this claim, I suspect, largely for the shock value. It gets a dramatic reaction. At school, he has actually been reported to his teacher—twice—for declaring his unbelief, as if he were running in the hall or saying bad words. When asked why, he readily replies that he believes in science and the Big Bang, and somewhere along the way he has gotten the idea that God and the Big Bang are mutually exclusive propositions. No amount of mild-mannered suggestion to the contrary can sway him.
Although I have, of course, played it cool—I know better than to challenge a rebel—I can’t deny that his insistence on this point has troubled me somewhat. But in the months since we began working on this special issue of Emory Magazine, I find I have gained new perspective on the development and practice of faith.
Swamy and Shyamala Mruthinti, who immigrated to Augusta, Georgia, from India twenty years ago, have worked hard to raise their three daughters—all Emory students—in the Hindu tradition. Far from home, they took upon themselves the grave responsibility for imparting the teaching and principles of the world’s oldest religion. The Mruthintis are proud that their daughters have continued to practice and explore the faith while at Emory, seeking new understanding rather than rote ritual. “They have not blind faith,” says their mother, “but knowledge.”
Unlike the Mruthinti children, Emory graduate student Kim Boykin grew up in a secular household with little exposure to religion. While in college, she found herself drawn to Buddhism, even spending a year at a Buddhist monastery for rigorous Zen training. Later, she became interested in Christianity, and more specifically Catholicism; she moved to Atlanta from Colorado to study theology at Candler, and has continued to learn and practice both Zen Buddhism and the Catholic faith.
Joseph Greene is a pre-med student majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology. But after attending a Jewish high school, where Judaic and secular learning went hand-in-hand, he has actively sought to recreate that experience in college through the Jewish Studies department. Joseph has engaged in subjects ranging from Israeli politics to Jews of the American South; he says these classes have enlivened his science-centered education with “some liberal arts flair.”
Emory scholars have long pushed the boundaries of the safe and sure when it comes to religion. From Thomas Altizer, the Bible professor who put Emory in a national spotlight in 1966 with his radical “death of God” theology, to our current scholars of Islam, who are candidly examining the damaging stereotypes and sloganism dividing the Muslim world, University faculty ask courageous questions and are resolute in their search for meaningful answers.
In an essay that appears in this issue, President James W. Wagner notes that it has always been the task of universities to test the limits of knowledge. “Why should we not bring similar intellectual rigor to the largest questions of all,” he wonders, “the questions of meaning we confront singly and in community as we contemplate our origins, our brief life together, and the mysterious ending we call death?”
Why, indeed? At a time when American religious life is politically charged and hotly contentious, the University Strategic Plan names religions and the human spirit as a theme that will receive dedicated study, resources, and initiative in the coming months and years. The work of these scholars, students, and leaders—more of whom are featured in the following pages—will continue to probe the deepest of mysteries, with impact that will undoubtedly be felt far beyond Emory’s gates.
When my stubborn, skeptical young son begins to form a more mature approach to faith—whether it be in God, the Big Bang, or both—I am encouraged by the notion that he might do so with such thoughtfulness and deliberation. His yen for science gives me hope that he will not be lulled by the comfort of easy belief, but rather do the hard work of real faith, the kind that tolerates doubt and questions assumptions. I hope he studies the hard-won conclusions of other thinkers—including those with different views—before coming to new ones of his own.
Only then, in the words of Emory mother Shyamala Mruthinti, will he be guided not by blind faith, but knowledge.
—Interim Editor Paige P. Parvin 96G