In Search of God at Columbia

By Henderson, Charles | Cross Currents, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

In Search of God at Columbia


Henderson, Charles, Cross Currents


On the title page of Robert Pollack's book The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith there is a charming drawing by the Professor's wife, Amy, reproduced here. The caption to this illustration reads: "Jerusalem and a cell are both busy places. Jerusalem's Old City and the cell's nucleus respectively codify and direct the comings and goings of people and molecules." As a molecular biologist, as well as an observant Jew, Bob Pollack is well acquainted with the comings and goings that take place within the sphere of science, as well as the sphere of religion. But is there any intrinsic connection between the activity of the cell and that of the synagogue? And what if one were to alter Amy Pollack's illustration so that, instead of her map of the Old City of Jerusalem, there was an overview of the Columbia University campus where Pollack is Professor of Biological Sciences? At the center of such a drawing there would be another structure, not the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, but instead the dome of L ow Memorial Library, which was designed in the late nineteenth century by architects McKim, Mead and White to evoke two prior temples: the Pantheon in Rome and the Parthenon in Athens. This is the central administration building of Columbia University, designed quite intentionally as a temple of understanding to dominate the campus, flanked to the east by St. Paul's Chapel, and to the west by Earl Hall, the university's center of religious life. Across the portals of Low Library, inscribed in stone, are words dedicating Columbia College to the "Good of Man and the Glory of God."

Those responsible for the construction of Low Library may well have believed that such an inscription appropriately expressed the deepest purposes that were served by their university, but on today's secular campus, it is widely assumed that such words are an anachronism, or perhaps even a signal of dangers to be avoided. Confusing a dispassionate quest for knowledge with service to the God of any faith would be considered by many to be an error. Pollack, who has done a great deal of thinking about this topic, begins his book with these words:

The seal of Columbia College -- subsequently Columbia University -- is almost a quarter of a millennium old. It personifies all of us, faculty and students alike, as naked babies. Seated before us is the ideal Teacher, the spiritual mother of us all, Alma Mater, arms out, scepter of wisdom in her hand. Below her is a reference to chapter 2 of the first Epistle of Peter: Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies and all slander / As new born babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby." Around her shoulders is a fragment of a line in Latin from the Hebrew Scriptures, psalm 36, line 9: "By Your light do we see." Together these Biblical references are a brilliant and poetic evocation of the acts of teaching and learning.

These words are inscribed not only in the official seal of the University, but also upon the statue of Alma Mater, a goddess who sits in daily vigil, overlooking the campus from her perch on the steps leading up to the university's temple of understanding. Pollack, over the course of a lifetime of scientific research as well as religious inquiry, has come to the point where he can affirm, despite some significant data to the contrary "that there is an unknowable Deity at the source of everything to be taught and everything to be learned, (and further) that everything known to be, and everything yet to be known, is surrounded by the Unknowable."

But aside from its official seal, inscriptions carved in stone in public spaces, and the symbolism of architecture designed and constructed more than a century ago, is there any remaining evidence of a relationship between what goes on in the classrooms and research laboratories of this great center of learning and the larger purposes and meanings referenced in such markings from the past?

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