An Interview with Susan Harvey by Justin Sohn ’16

Susan Ashbrook Harvey is the Royce Family Professor of Teaching Excellence and the Willard Prescott and Annie McClelland Smith Professor of Religious Studies. I had the privilege of chatting with her about her early years, her journey to Orthodoxy, and her work as a professor at Brown. The following exchange is from our conversation.

1. Could you tell me a little bit about your childhood?

I was born in Rochester, NY, one of four children.  My father was a theology professor in an American Baptist seminary, and also an ordained minister. My mother was an early childhood educator and later a social worker.  Our family was very active in church and seminary life.

Two things were instilled in us as children from the very beginning: love for books, and love for religion.  Books surrounded us at home, and with them a love of learning for its own sake. Perhaps as part of this, we all studied Latin at the public high school we attended. My brother went on to become an environmental scientist, as did one of my sisters; the other is a musician. But there was always a great devotion to liberal learning, which we shared as a family.

Love for religion was inextricably tied for us to religion as the root of social justice.  We were deeply immersed in the civil rights and anti-war movements, which in many ways defined my growing up.  I knew that religion was responsible for much of the injustice in the world.  But personally, religion for me was so intimately part of these justice movements that it wasn’t until I got to college that I really began to think about religion’s oppressive powers.

We attended an inner city public high school, which had its share of racial tension and violence.  We had some inspiring teachers there, and I thought I might want to teach in such a setting as a career.

2. What was your experience of college?

I attended Grinnell College in Iowa.  It was very much like Brown, although much smaller. I had always had a deep love for the ancient world.  Simply out of interest, I took ancient Greek my freshman year. It transformed my life! It was an intensive course (#1 on the Grade Point Homicide List, even beating Orgo!), and we began immediately with Homer’s Iliad. It was thrilling and illuminating, taught by one of the greatest teachers I ever had.  I declared my Classics major in the first week.  It began a journey that led to everything else.

3. You were born into the Baptist tradition, but I understand you slowly gravitated toward Eastern Orthodoxy. The latter is not as well known in the United States. Could you tell us a little bit about your spiritual journey?

I spent my junior year of college in Greece, intending to focus on Homer and Greek tragedy.  I had never heard of Orthodoxy, never encountered it before.  On the first day, we travelled to the site of Apollo’s shrine at Delphi.  On the way, we stopped to look at two Byzantine monasteries.  I was thunderstruck.  I had never seen icons, never seen church architecture of the kind.  It was Christianity unlike anything I had known, but with an extraordinary, penetrating beauty.  I changed my academic schedule, keeping Homer and some tragedy but taking everything Byzantine-related on offer.  

My personal journey toward Orthodoxy took many years from that point.  There were really two trajectories, one academic and one religious. Academically, what I came to appreciate was that in Byzantium, the Bible and classical Greek tradition – the two great loves of my life – were brought together with singular richness.

Religiously, it was a harder journey. I had loved the church in which I was raised. But I had become deeply disillusioned with Christianity, as my frustrations over the political realities deepened. I started to ask myself: Why be Christian at all? I had to work on that at a fundamental level.  Then, because of my studies, I had come to know Orthodoxy better than the Baptists.  I spent some years visiting and participating in different churches: Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox.  But I could not find elsewhere what I found in Orthodoxy.  It was difficult because of my family history. But my parents were open and accepting of my choice;  they didn’t feel it was a rejection.  Rather, we were all exposed to a much bigger view of Christianity because of it.

4. What do you hope Brown students will receive from your classes?

I hope that students can find learning to be a life of discovery. The study of religion opens the human capacity for beauty, meaning, and an awareness of something more than ourselves.  In turn, it also reveals the capacity for oppression, fear, and evil.  I hope my classes can open religion in its tremendous complexity.

Religions are vast receptacles of human experience.  It doesn’t matter which religion students are interested in; all religions offer profound ways of encountering human life.  Religious studies is a highly interdisciplinary field; it can be a place where human learning and human knowledge are brought to bear on the quest for meaning. Religion doesn’t mean checking your brain at the door.  It is intellectually challenging and exciting.  It deals with the biggest questions of our lives.  Most importantly, the study of religion is the study of people  — religion is something that people do.  The existence of God may be fabricated, but religion exists! And it is worth studying.

Of course, the same is true for literature, art, philosophy, the sciences.  This is what makes being in a university such an endlessly powerful experience.  

To students who particularly want to study Christianity, I would say:  you can’t only study the beautiful parts.  You can’t pretend the bad stuff isn’t there.  You have to know how religion can work and be used negatively as well as positively.  Pick up a newspaper on any given day: religion is so much a part of the violence. Yet there is more.

5. What are your principal academic interests? What are you currently working on now?

My research involves a number of different areas of Byzantine Christianity. I work most often in Syriac Christianity.  Syriac is a Christian language of the Middle East, a dialect of Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke); but I also work a lot in the Greek traditions.  Right now I am working on women’s choirs, especially between the fourth and eighth centuries. I also continue to work on religion and the senses, a long-standing interest of mine.

Working on the Syrian materials is both devastatingly painful and also urgent at this present historical moment of Middle East.  These Christians have an incredible history.

6. Is there something you would like to say to students who identify as religious?

It is really worth your time to study your religion academically:  it brings richness, depth of knowledge, depth of appreciation. Don’t be afraid that faith and intellect are opposed.  They aren’t.  As the ancient Christians liked to say: faith seeks understanding.
Justin Sohn is a senior concentrating in English.

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