Catholic historian of religion Robert A. Orsi delivered the 2007 commencement address at Harvard Divinity School. His speech, “Love in a Time of Distraction”, is reprinted on page 8 of the Harvard Divinity Today summer newsletter, online as a PDF file here. This excerpt stood out for me:
Scholarship is the practice of disciplined attention to the world as we find the world, in its undeniable otherness and difference, but most of all in its obdurate and resistant presence. It is our privilege in the humanities and social sciences to go as inquirers into the company of other humans in the present and the past. We meet these men and women and children in the archives, in texts and in fragments of texts, and in the field. We find them always in the immediate circumstances of their lives, at work on their worlds; we find them in webs of relationship with each other that come to include us, once we have entered their worlds, in the present and in the past. And we meet them in the circumstances of our own lives, from within our own stories, gripped by our own fears and desires and hopes. “Research is a living relationship between people,” Sartre wrote. “The sociologist and his ‘object’ [which Sartre puts in quotation marks] form a couple, each of which is to be interpreted by the other; the relationship between them must be itself interpreted as a moment of history.”
Understood this way, scholarship is the practice of a particular kind of love. Veritas is Harvard’s motto, but the ground of veritas is amor. The love of your family and friends has sustained you these years; your love for what you were studying kept you going. Love is there, too, at the heart of our epistemology. The canons of modern reason insist that love is the nemesis of rationality; scholars must be objective, love is subjective. But the paradox of scholarship in the humanities is that the more we are present as particular persons and scholars to the world—the more “subjective” we are—the more the world stands forth in its realness and otherness—the more “objective” it is. The deepest challenge of epistemology is not an abstract “objectivity” but the fearlessness to be radically present to the other as we permit the other to be radically present to us. This is the sacramental dimension of scholarship; sacramental meaning the practice whereby the self comes face-to-face with the real.