Each year incoming students to Drew University’s Graduate Division of Religion (GDR) conclude orientation week with a walking tour of New York City. Now in its third year, this tour is an annual reminder that scholars attend not only to scholarly methodology—but to simple, human truth. A poignant moment toward the end of the tour expressed this well. As students and faculty gathered outside a nondescript apartment building, they read the words of its former occupant, Simone Weil: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. It is given to very few minds to notice that things and beings exist. Since my childhood I have not wanted anything else but to receive the complete revelation of this before dying.” These words, inscribed on a bronze plaque just north of Riverside, captured the intent of the tour—to recognize the many philosophical and theological icons all around us. Under the capable guidance of Dr. Ernie Rubinstein, Drew’s theological librarian, our group did just that.
We began at The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. Its entrance, called the “Portal of Paradise,” includes 32 sculptures of biblical matriarchs and patriarchs positioned amongst carved references to New York City landmarks, Kabbalah spirituality, and philosophy. These sculptures were crafted using local residents or homeless individuals from the area as models.
We then visited the campus of Columbia University, where we paused at Philosophy Hall. We noted that the building is named for the field of study it houses rather than after a wealthy donor to the university, perhaps implying recognition of the discipline’s autonomy. There we saw another icon, a large cast of Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker.” Rodin’s sculpture depicts the figure of the poet Dante Alighieri, hand under chin and naked, contemplating a view through the gates of hell. Our second stop on campus was St. Paul’s Chapel, where we saw John La Farge’s stained glass depiction of the apostle Paul preaching to the Athenians on Mars Hill. The three paneled window shows Paul at the Parthenon proclaiming a faith in need of virtue, just as the chapel itself, so its designers hoped, would provide a moral voice in their neighborhood of Morningside Heights.
Our next stop, Riverside Church, boasts an impressive arch lined with numerous icons just below its nearly 400 ft. bell tower. Not to be outdone by St. John’s “portal,” Riverside’s entryway is bordered on each side by five rows of ascending stone sculptures. Biblical prophets and heavenly angels reside next to scientists such as Hippocrates, Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein; philosophers like Socrates, Plotinus, Spinoza, Hegel and Emerson; and religious leaders as various as Confucius, Buddha, Luther, and John Bunyan. This eclecticism, Dr. Rubinstein said, has both inspired and dismayed those who have taken the time to notice. This commitment to notice, our group remarked, is one of the hallmarks of scholarship.
As scholars, we make a commitment to notice the icons around us. Sometimes these icons are inscribed on marble and stone. Often we find them on the printed pages of the books assigned to us for class. And if we are truly attentive, as Simone Weil suggested, we will discover them on the faces of the human beings in our midst, the same human beings who inspired the icons in the first place.—Wade Mitchell, PhD student in Theological and Philosophical Studies