Wednesday, March 2, 2011
March 2, 2011: Faith
Tomorrow’s post will feature the local hero to whom I alluded in yesterday’s closing line; my shift in focus for today has been prompted by learning of the death, at the far too young age of 68, of a contemporary and very American hero who was at the same time extremely local to both the Boston area and my own life and identity, the Reverend Peter J. Gomes. Gomes had been the principal minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church for four decades, had taught courses on religion and Harvard for nearly as long, and was a ubiquitous presence on campus; I can still remember a meal in the freshman dining hall when Gomes simply appeared with a tray of food, sat down at the table occupied by me and a few of my dorm mates, and began talking with us. You might think I mean talking to us, and certainly his combination of brilliance and a James Earl Jones-like baritone were sufficiently intimidating to silence us for some time; but his sociability and engaging nature were enough to get us past that and into a great conversation before he arose to return to his many other engagements and efforts.
That ability to connect effortlessly and meaningfully to all those with whom he came in contact made Gomes a powerful influence on innumerable individuals and lives, as detailed eloquently in the blog post to which I link below. So too, without question, did his 1991 coming out as gay, an announcement that he followed with a sustained, impassioned, and extremely thorough two-decade effort to delineate and then demolish the religious and specifically Christian roots of much of our modern and American homophobia. Gomes did not after this turning point make his sexual identity his sole or even necessarily his central focus—nor did he treat such gay issues as political ones, as he remained a registered Republican until 2006, when he publicly changed his affiliation to vote for Deval Patrick for Massachusetts Governor and strongly critiqued the modern Republican party in a Boston Globe op-ed—and that, to my mind, makes him even more inspiring and powerful of an American hero; he simply continued to perform all of his roles (as preacher, as teacher, as writer and theologian and moral authority par excellence) as pitch-perfectly as he always had, providing a particularly striking example of the unfortunately far from universally accepted reality that gay Americans have always been and continue to be part of the fabric of every profession and community and element of our society.
But for this AmericanStudier, perhaps the most important aspect of Gomes’s identity and perspective is also without question the most complex. I have written elsewhere here, and plan to do so at much greater length in a future post on the Treaty of Tripoli, about just how central I believe the separation of church and state was to America’s founding moment and ideas and documents; given that virtually every other country and government that existed prior to and in that moment had featured religion as part of its core, governing identity, the absence of such a role for religion in America’s political identity and public community was particularly striking and significant. Yet any reading of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, of Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative, of Chief Pontiac’s speech, of virtually any other text that we might call a foundational American document from the three centuries prior to the Constitution, reminds us of just how central faith was to all of the communities and individuals who constituted American identity. It seems to me, in fact, that we can’t really understand America and what it has meant since such origin points without recognizing how fully it represented a collective act of faith, not only in a god or gods but also, relatedly and most importantly, in the journeys and undertakings and communities and futures through and toward which all these individuals and cultures and many others moved. Few Americans have been better at articulating the value and meaning, the challenges and benefits, of such faith than Peter Gomes; and even for those of us (full disclosure) who do not share his or any religious beliefs, there’s a great deal to be said for the power of faith as an overall perspective.
The first thing I thought of when I learned of Gomes’s death, and the thing I’ve thought about most in the aftermath of that knowledge, is still that dining hall conversation. And perhaps that represents his most impressive exemplification of faith, a faith in his fellow men and women (even a bunch of college first years) that he displayed and embodied every day of his long and inspiring and heroic career. More tomorrow, on the less contemporary but just as inspiring local hero.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) A great blog eulogy to and celebration of Gomes: http://www.balloon-juice.com/2011/03/01/a-joyful-voice-stilled-rip-peter-gomes/#more-62501
2) Google books version of Gomes’s The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need (2002): http://books.google.com/books?id=NieAHXcuCmcC&printsec=frontcover&dq=peter+gomes+the+good+life&source=bl&ots=dMgHo4Lazq&sig=YxohCKQqY5WGUKYVNOuq0J9VPWE&hl=en&ei=sa1tTZKJBc3SgQePk9GMBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CDIQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q&f=false
3) OPEN: What do you think?