Professor Geoffrey Hartman Theorizes at the Athenaeum

Last Tuesday, October 3, Yale Professor Geoffrey Hartman, a scholar, writer, and literary and religious theorist, gave an insightful talk at the Athenaeum about the future of religious discourse, particularly in the context of liberal arts curriculum. Hartman, a professor at Yale for nearly sixty years (and has published on topics including the Holocaust, contemporary literature, and the poetry of William Wordsworth), began his Ath talk by cautiously conceding that he was far from an expert on his own subject matter, and like everyone else in the room, theology was no more than a hobby that fascinated him. This humble segue into his discussion reassured the audience that he did not presume to have “figured religion out.”

Following a rowdy but intriguing Q&A, I sat down with Mr. Hartman to ask him a few questions. Specifically, I wanted to understand better how he believed religion could be treated as an object of intellectual discourse, while keeping intact its beautiful, imaginative and artistic components. Professor Hartman provided an explanation of how theology has fallen short of perfection in the past by providing four main problems.

Hartman first pointed out the crisis of God; that “here [we have] a perfect god who created a perfect world,” but then created the inherently imperfect human race. How can an omnipotent God create man? According to Hartman, theology therefore reflects mankind’s attempt to create perfection despite human imperfection.

Hartman’s second theological crisis confronted the view of religion as a reconciliatory and curative tool. By trying to purify the human condition, religion produces a dogmatic, morally restrictive, and enclosed prototype, he explained. This divides humanity into two classes: those who are capable of living within religion’s moral boundaries, and those who simply cannot.

Third, this distinction exiles the profane into a sort of moral “no-mans-land,” and exacerbates the problem. Hartman aptly paraphrased the German philosopher and theologian Theodor Adorno, “murderousness comes from absolute integration.” In other words, a black and white picture of religious morality produces deviants by exiling those who are not seen as morally fit.

Finally, turning the religious community into an exclusive club expanding the importance of power, which has the potential of being “murderous and solipsistic,” Hartman notes. Moreover, he pointed to the philosopher Friedrich Hegel, who asserted that history is defined by a series of power struggles, and that the only way to get past this cycle is to achieve social equality through contractual, binding agreements among groups of people.

Ultimately, Hartman argued that religion ought to still have its place in the liberal arts. His proposition that imagination in theology should “recognize itself” attempts to produce a more active, dynamic religious future, empowering individuals with the ability to adhere to and revere its teachings, but also with the imaginative capacity to change it for the better.

So where does this leave us? As Hartman rightfully asserted, the incorporation of religion into the liberal arts doesn’t necessarily disintegrate its theological components; the goal is not to achieve a secular, areligious future. Rather, the goal is to acknowledge religion in an entirely different light; not as an ultimate truth, but as a masterful work of art.