Past, Present, and Future Tense: Harvey Cox and Amy Hollywood

September 6, 2006
Harvey Cox
HDS professor Harvey Cox / Photo: Steve Gilbert

Soon after the 2004 presidential election, HDS professor Amy Hollywood was asked to participate in a panel discussion on the outcome of the voting.

Hollywood remembers, "All I did was to present a hypothesis that I'd read in a smart web newsletter, Religion Watch, which suggested that the shift in the vote in Ohio and Florida didn't have to do with evangelical Protestants or Pentecostals but was related to a shift in the conservative Catholic vote." To Hollywood's surprise, her attempt to "complicate the blue state vs. red state, Jesusland vs. Canada kind-of picture" so prevalent at the time immediately rendered her public enemy number one on the panel. "All of them wanted to kill me by the time it was done," she said, "either because they thought I was vilifying Catholics, or because I was refusing to vilify Protestants, or because I was talking about religion at all and the election wasn't really about religion."

Hollywood, a relative newcomer to the HDS faculty, told this story during a recent conversation over lunch with far-from-newcomer Harvey Cox, who has taught at HDS since 1965, most recently as the Hollis Professor of Divinity, and who, in 2005, celebrated the 40th anniversary of the publication of his seminal book The Secular City. Hollywood's appointment as the first Elizabeth H. Monrad Professor of Christian Studies came a full 40 years after Cox joined the Faculty of Divinity, and their fields are quite different: Hollywood, who taught previously at the University of Chicago Divinity School and Dartmouth College, is a historian specializing in mysticism, with strong interests in feminist theory and psychoanalysis. Cox is a theologian and American Baptist minister who explores urbanization, world Christianity, Jewish-Christian relations, and Pentecostalism. Nevertheless, the two scholars have some important things in common. They are both holders of endowed chairs at HDS (the Hollis is the oldest such chair in the country, established in 1721, and the Monrad one of the newest). They are also both scholars who possess a willingness to engage in conversations in the public square, in spite of often finding themselves to be a lone (and sometimes lonely) voice in those discussions precisely because they refuse to resort to simplistic explanations or one-sided vilifications.

Sitting at lunch, still surprised by the ire she had evoked in that post-election panel, Hollywood turned to the veteran Cox for advice, well aware that she may face similar encounters in the future: "You must have this all the time, Harvey. When everyone in the room wants to kill you, what do you do?" Chuckling in commiseration, Cox gave one of his characteristically wry responses: "Leave!" he told Hollywood. "Always be sure you know where the closest exit is."

Cox and Hollywood don't choose to leave, of course, but continue to accept the mantle of the public intellectual. Their reasons are rooted in deep commitments to the public good. "I think it's a responsibility, even a duty of intellectuals to try to stay in touch not just with each other but with people outside the academy, and I've always thought that," Cox explained. "The purpose of higher education, including divinity schools, is related to the needs of the society. My identity models for this have been Ken Galbraith and, when I was younger, Reinhold Niebuhr, who was the epitome of the public intellectual. I was sort of pushed into it at one point, because I was so active in the civil rights movement and started being asked to be a spokesperson, which got me into the Rolodex of reporters."

Hollywood also sees a glaring need for intelligent and thoughtful voices to be engaged in contemporary discussions on topics of religion, and likewise admits to a sense of having been propelled into a position of public responsibility. "When I started out," she said, "I was perfectly happy to be doing academic and historical work, and didn't necessarily see myself as trying to have a broader voice outside of the academy. But things have changed in a way that made it obvious how important it is for people to be religiously literate, and by that I mean to be able to understand and discern the complexity of what's going on in the religious communities in the U.S. and around the world."

"It's been appalling to me how bad the understanding of religion can often be, and the lack of that religious literacy is getting us into lots of trouble," she said. "That's why I have felt more called in the last six or seven years to talk in different ways and in different contexts about my work."

"Amy's hit it pretty well," Cox said, adding, "The great irony is that American society is the most religious among industrial societies, in that more people call themselves religious. It's off the charts. But the degree of ignorance Americans have about religion, often including their own, may be higher than anywhere. It's a bizarre combination of factors which makes for uninformed strong feelings, most decidedly a bad mix."

Cox has seen many ups and downs in the public's interest in religion, but both he and Hollywood note that the interest in religion has exploded since September 11, 2001. "Everybody is interested in religion in one way or another now, whether they're scared to death of it, or they've gotten intrigued by it," Cox said. "The degree of interest in religion compared to what it was 40 years ago is astonishing."

Hollywood agreed, saying, "the sense of the broader public relevance of religion in the United States and well beyond has changed enormously in just the past five years."

Although both Hollywood and Cox can give all too many examples of ignorance and sometimes bigotry about religion, they are quick to say that they are continually heartened by their students from HDS and the wider Harvard community. "HDS and Harvard students bring a wide range of questions to their studies here, and many aim to go out and engage in broader discussions of politics and religion," Cox said. "In fact, I just had lunch the other day with a few alums who are engaged in religion journalism."

After having taught undergraduates at Dartmouth College and graduate students at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Hollywood says that the range of students at HDS has been one of the most gratifying aspects of her teaching experience so far. "As opposed to graduate programs in religion where everybody is on the PhD track, here you have students on that track, but you also have people who are going to do public policy, journalism, or who are going to be ministers," she explained. "A whole range of things are bringing them to the study of religion, so they come at the material with different agendas. Though that makes it more challenging to get everybody on the same page, I find it very invigorating in the classroom. The conversations are more interesting."

Perhaps not surprisingly, both professors have been actively engaged in recent efforts to renovate the HDS curriculum to, as Hollywood puts it, "make the curriculum match up with what students are already doing and also to changes in the faculty." According to Hollywood, one of the most important facets of the changes in both the MDiv and MTS curricula is what faculty have come to refer to as "a 'de-centering' of Christianity within the HDS curriculum." Herself a feminist scholar of Christianity and mysticism, Hollywood wants to make clear that this is "not the doing away with, or making unimportant," but simply "a recognition that there are a lot of students and faculty in the Divinity School already, and there will be more in the future, who are coming from different religious traditions, and/or want to study different religious traditions, and/or want to do comparative work between Christianity and other religious traditions."

"It's already alive and happening," she said, "so how do we set up a curriculum that allows students to make use of the enormous resources of the Divinity School and of the University as a whole in order to study Islam, or to engage in work that might lead to leadership in Buddhism or Christianity?"

Far from the stereotype of a veteran professor who digs in his heels and resists change, Cox welcomes the latest curricular review, as he has done throughout his long tenure. "It's like the return of the seven-year locusts," he joked. "Every once in awhile you've got to go through the process, no matter how painful it is, or you find yourself with an extremely outdated curriculum."

Having chaired the committee that ushered in the last set of major curricular changes, Cox is able to take the long view. He remembers how some faculty and alumni objected to the introduction of the Stillman Chair of Roman Catholic Theological Studies. As it was, the Stillman chair ended up being enormously significant, and was followed by chairs in Jewish studies and, more recently, in Buddhist studies and Islamic studies.

Cox noted that Amy Hollywood represents what he considers to be two of the most important trends in contemporary religion: the emergence of women into public life, including as scholars and religious leaders; and the increasing fascination and interest in religious experience. "I always think of Pentecostals as 'mainstream mystics,'" he said, "and Amy's work on historical and contemporary mysticism figures into this." Hollywood notes that Cox's work on Pentecostalism highlights some important questions that she has been thinking about, including the way Pentecostalism brings to awareness "central aspects of the Christian mystical tradition," and the fact that "various traditions of secular liberalism and mainline Christianity have been unsatisfying for a wide range of people."

With his clear regard for the original thinking and hard work of recently arrived professors like Hollywood and Wallace Best, with whom Cox co-taught a class on global Pentecostalism, Cox indicates that HDS students continue to be in good hands with the younger generation of professors as well as the older one. Hollywood's respect and affection for Cox is equally apparent.

"Part of what makes it such a pleasure to be at Harvard Divinity School is that it is a place that has been home to and nurtured top scholar-intellectuals like Harvey," she said. "I think we are in a moment when what we do here—attempting to think in informed, complex, critical, and creative ways about religion—is important to much larger communities than our own."

—by Wendy McDowell