Campus & Community

Praise and preservation

4 min read

Faust underscores the religious foundation of concept of stewardship

Harvard University President Drew Faust used the bully pulpit of Appleton Chapel this week (Sept. 16), urging the University’s citizens to act responsibly on environmental matters.

Harvard launched an initiative in July to reduce by almost a third the University’s emission of greenhouse gases by 2016, using 2006 as a baseline year. Doing that will not be easy, Faust told about 70 listeners assembled in the little chapel.

Steep reductions in the gases associated with global warming, she said, “will require all of us to change assumptions and behavior — to live with enhanced consciousness and responsibility about our stewardship.”

Faust also used her few minutes in Appleton to pledge Harvard’s intellectual resources in the search for policies and technologies to help in the intelligent deployment of the Earth’s resources.

The occasion for the president’s remarks was Morning Prayers, an 8:45 a.m. weekday tradition at Harvard since 1636. These days, the nondenominational sessions take place in Appleton Chapel, a high-ceilinged arched space tucked behind the main expanse of the Memorial Church.

The program always includes choir and organ music and a guest speaker — a minister, a professor, a visiting scholar, a student, or an administrator.

Faust called the chapel a likely and appropriate place to consider the fate of the material world, of creation. Chapels and churches, she said, are places “where we stop to consider the larger meaning of what we do [and] where we think beyond our own obligations and achievements to reflect upon our obligations to one another and to a wider world.”

Responsible action can do its part, said Faust, in “the preservation of the world — its pleasures, its forests, its waterways, its species — in the face of the crisis of global warming and environmental change.”

“It is an obligation to our children and to their children,” she said of responsible action, “and it is in one sense a quite simple matter of self-interest and survival.

“But it’s also a question with deeply spiritual implications,” said Faust, “concerning what we owe not just [to] one another and our descendants but to whatever god or transcendent being or divine force we might believe in.”

She remembered fondly the Christian hymns she grew up with in church and Sunday school — many of them “songs of praise and thanksgiving for creation,” said Faust, who is also Harvard’s Lincoln Professor of History.

As a historian, she could hardly let even a five-minute talk go by without mentioning a date — in this case 1848, the year that one of the most popular creation-praising hymns was penned: “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” with words by Cecil Frances Alexander.

The song — with its oft-mentioned little flowers and little birds with tiny wings — is “steeped in Victorian romanticism,” said Faust, and reveals a “treacly” sentimentality.

But its message of praise and preservation is still valid, she said — and so is the message of the Monty Python spoof the old hymn engendered. “All things dull and ugly/All creatures short and squat,” Faust recited, getting a big laugh. “All things rude and nasty/The Lord God made the lot.”

After all, the comedy troupe’s “beastly little squid” and “spiky urchin” are part of a more inclusive modernist view of nature — “biodiversity,” said Faust.

Earlier in the Morning Prayers, eight women of the Harvard University Choir’s choral fellows with grace and perfect pitch sang the heartbreaking anthem “Now I Walk in Beauty.”

But to end the 15-minute gathering, all of the Appleton visitors followed the swelling organ music to render an earnest (if somewhat muddy) version of the final hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”