À la recherche de Dieu à Harvard

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Clearly this is a fusion of Marcel Proust’s classic – whose title I have previously modified in À la recherche de moins de temps -and a pretty catchy title of a surprisingly enjoyable book (by Ari Goldman, a NYTimes journalist, an Orthodox Jew, who took time off from work to go to Divinity School):

The Search for God at Harvard.

The trigger for this post is that on Saturday, August 20th – coincidentally, in 2013, on the same date OrganJet app, Want a Kidney? There is an app for that! was featured in Best Apps of 2013 – I was back at Harvard, at Kennedy, not Divinity, School – as a guest speaker in World Economic Forum’s Schwab Social Entrepreneurship program, that I mentioned in Die Freuden des freigeistigen Tayur  – for the first time since 2019 (as the 2020 and the 2021 programs were affected by COVID) that I had then posted about – with 39 folks from 19 countries:

Indonesia. Nigeria. Ghana. Turkey. UAE. India. France. Brazil. Israel. South Africa. USA. Spain. S. Korea. Mexico. Portugal. Venezuela. Myanmar. Peru. Italy.

Of course, since I had considerable time before the class, I went to my temple at the nearby Harvard Square:

  Harvard Coop Book Store.

Among many books that I perused, I found myself re-reading Ari Goldman’s book (I have a copy at home, purchased in the 1990s):

The Master of Theological Studies, one administrator described it as “the most popular and the most useless of our programs.”….Theology is, simply put, the study of God and of God’s relationship to the universe….The intention is to encourage students to examine critically their own thinking about God with a view to reconstructing it appropriately for contemporary life.

Cool. Of course, I was most curious about his chapter on Hinduism:

..illustrate a very different concept: the idea of the “manyness” of God. It is an idea alien not only to the Western religious imagination but to the our entire cultural construct….So Hinduism introduced me to a new concept: henotheism. Rather than the worship of one single God, henotheism is the worship of one God at a time.

Yup: We Hindus have many Gods. And, as you can surmise from Weston Brahmin, I frequently (but not exclusively!) pray to (channeling Arundhati Roy):

The God of New Things.

I have previously written about New England TranscendentalistsEmerson and Thoreau, in particular, who were also very strongly influenced by Vishnu Purana and the Bhagavad Gita. Emerson’s address to the Harvard Divinity School (July 15, 1838) has been well publicized, with this Huff Po Blog post as one example:

Divinity School Day: Ralph Waldo Emerson Shocks Harvard

What happened after this?

The result of Emerson’s attack was to ban him from Harvard for more than 30 years, and only when he became famous and known as the conscience of the nation was he invited back and finally made an Overseer of the university.

As I walked into my session, God was on top of my mind, as was Emerson. I met Julie Battilana (who is French) before the session, at the coffee break, when she informed me that in her introductory session she had prepared them for me:

He can be provocative.

Me? No! I said. I told her she should have told them to expect the opposite! It would have been even more dramatic.

After the first hour or so when they discuss the case as if I am not there, it was my turn to respond to their discussion, give updates, debate whether what I did and want to do is “right or wrong”, and given the nature of the topic – Organ Transplantation – it allows for wide ranging opinions, some intense, covering diverse areas of discussion. I opened with:

I was surprised to be invited back after 2019. I thought not only would I be banned from Harvard, I would not even be allowed to land in Logan. Indeed, if any flight was to approach Logan with me as a passenger, it would be rerouted in the air…..I am not trying to agitate you. It so happens that who I am, how God made me – a shallow and frivolous, a happy go lucky type of person – naturally agitates many people. Add to that my maximally inverse interventions that lampoon the status quo. It is not my problem if you get agitated.

We had a spirited discussion. Some of the participants were indeed sympathetic to my position and saw merits of my approach, so it was not “one versus all”. But real fun is always to debate folks that fundamentally hold a different worldview from you, isn’t it? Did I go too far this time with my provocations and ridicule of the various established institutions (including Harvard)? Did my “maximally inverse” strategy of trying to find the most contrarian intervention – send patients to organs (using private jets if needed, democratizing Steve Jobs), use video intervention to increase second person consent (and not hope that those who gave first-person consent will die soon in a medically reasonable way) by Making Death Enhance Life – and urging the participants to think differently – indeed suggesting that many of their points in the discussion were not just simply wrong, they could not have been more wrong! – go too far? Was my exhortation of leisure and entrepreneurship – a la Bertrand Russell and Joseph Schumpeter –  and the need for imaginative playfulness in tackling serious social problems way too insensitive (given that they are very serious people solving very real problems)?😳

Among other events (like my meeting with Amartya Sen that I have written about in To Split, or not to Split), I could not resist retelling of the conversation with the wife of a transplant recipient (that I have previously mentioned in Portrait of an Academic Capitalist as a Young Man):

Are you from God?

No Madam, I am from Pittsburgh.

Back in Pittsburgh (it was just a day trip to Boston, a Transcendental Engagement), I received the following emails:

Dear Sridhar,

We just ended the day and I wanted to make sure to immediately reach out to tell you how much the participants enjoyed and valued your insights. They (and we!) could not be more grateful! …. The participants could not stop talking about the case during dinner!

We are hoping to run the program again in March. We will be in touch as soon as we have a date. Hopefully, we can then invite you to stay with us for dinner so that we can all catch up. Our teams at Harvard and at the Schwab Foundation/WEF would love to do so.

More from us soon. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of the summer!

With gratitude,

Merci!

Julie

I thought she was just being polite. Then this:

Dear Sridhar,

Thank you for joining us yesterday in the middle of your busy schedule and sparking such an outstanding exchange with our community. It was fascinating for us to see their engagement and the vibrant environment you created, how you challenged their perceptions and inspired them. What a brilliant start for the first day!

We would certainly love to have you back in March. Look forward to working out the dates and being in contact soon.

Thanks again for your time, energy and rich sharing. Have a lovely end of summer,

Maria Ines, on behalf of the Schwab Foundation team

What? Well, I suppose there is always the next time to get banned!😏

The summer is indeed coming to an end, and our next academic year begins next Monday. This past academic year, in addition to a virtual visit to INSEAD, I visited my three most previously visited places in-person, one more time each: MIT, Cornell and Harvard. Back to School!

 

 

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