Winter 2017 - HDS Bicentennial Issue

Winter 2017

The View from Mass Hall

Thought, Feeling, and Purpose by Drew Faust

Look Back

Excerpts from Bulletin articles written by HDS deans and leaders past (1958–2012) address still relevant issues.

Church and University by Douglas Horton
Our Mysterious Calling by Samuel H. Miller
'Through Hindu Eyes': A New Religious Outlook by Wilfred Cantwell Smith
Redefining America's 'Race Problem' by Preston N. Williams
The Fall of the Family by Clarissa W. Atkinson
Studying Women in Religion Is Crucial by Constance H. Buchanan
Democracy Challenged by Ronald F. Thiemann
Two Weeks Post-9/11: Careful Policy, Not 'War' by J. Bryan Hehir
Why I Love the Bible by Krister Stendahl
Why Study Religion? by William A. Graham

Timeline

Two hundred years of milestones.

Convocation

Challenging HDS to think more deeply and creatively about its commitments to pluralism, inclusivity, and relevance.

Five Questions to Consider by David N. Hempton
A Theological Reckoning by Diana Eck
Do Not Stand in One Place by Jacob Olupona
Four Keys to Innovation by David C. Lamberth
The Spiritual Power of Study by Stephanie Paulsell
Embracing the Problem by Ahmed Ragab

Challenges for a Third Century by George Rupp. Harvard Divinity School should focus and build on its core strengths.

Essay Contest

"What will Harvard Divinity School, or the field of religious studies, look like in 2116?" This was the topic of the bicentennial essay contest the Bulletin sponsored for HDS students and recent graduates.

My Dear Emily: A Theological Love Letter from 2116 by Ryan Gregg [winner]
The Spirit in the Machine by Christopher D. Hampson [runner-up]
Sighted Souls by Jo Murphy [runner-up]
Transcendence circa 2116 by Matt Weinstein [runner-up]
Making Meaning in 2116 by Chris Lisee [finalist]
Moving Past Our Mistakes by Diana Ortiz [finalist]
Eyes That See, Bodies That Break Free by Sitraka St. Michael [finalist]

Faces of Divinity

Images and captions from the exhibit.

History of Ministry

Remaking a 'Learned Ministry' for Each New Era by Stephanie Paulsell and Dudley C. Rose. Influences from within and without have transformed ministry education at HDS.

See also: Past Issue

'Through Hindu Eyes': A New Religious Outlook

Wilfred Cantwell Smith

From “Mankind’s Religiously Divided History Approaches Self-Consciousness,” vol. 29, no. 1 (October 1964)

Wilfred Cantwell Smith
Wilfred Cantwell Smith, 1965. Photograph of Wilfred C. Smith, 1965. UAV 605, Harvard University Archives.

To this distinction between tradition and faith I give the greatest importance. By “tradition”. . . I mean: the doctrines, the legal institutions, the dance patterns, the art, the architectural constructions—anything that can be and is transmitted externally from one generation to another, that can be observed, and objectively established. By “faith,” on the other hand, what do I mean? I do not intend to define it; one might be tempted to work on the operational definition that faith is what the tradition means . . . to the insider. The faith of a Buddhist is the meaning that the Buddhist tradition has for him, in its cosmic implications. If we think of an outsider studying the Church, for example, we can recognize that it is one thing for him to learn that in Christian worship there is a cross; it is another thing for him to ascertain what the cross means to the Christian who is worshiping. Something similar holds for other groups, other symbols, other ages. The first stage for the West, including the Church, was to learn what precisely have been and are the religious forms of the world’s various communities. More recently we have begun to enter a phase of attempting to understand the significance of these forms in the religious life of those for whom they have been avenues of faith. . . .

To return to the West’s incipient concern not only to know outward form but to penetrate inner meaning: part of its new understanding is . . . that the significance of the traditional forms for the man of faith reaches far beyond the religious tradition itself, to embrace the whole of life—so that one should perhaps say, rather, that faith is what the universe means to a religious man, in the light of his tradition. We understand the faith of Hindus only when, like them, we can use the religious tradition of Hindus to enable us to see all of life, from medicine to nuclear weapons, from economic development to the disloyalty of a friend, through Hindu eyes.

. . . Even with the new opportunities of asking those who hold it, the faith of other men has hardly yet become intelligible. Muslims, for example, may say what their tradition and its symbols mean to them, and yet do so in terms that we on the outside cannot understand. One of the characteristics of religious faith has been precisely that often it can be spoken of meaningfully only to those within the same tradition.

. . . The point is serious and must be given weight. It is far too early, however, to accept it in the sense of agreeing ahead of time that an understanding of the faith of other men is totally impossible, and there is no use trying. I personally am convinced that it can be done, even though I know that it is difficult. Yet even those who are persuaded that the enterprise will fail, should surely be willing to wait let us say 150 years, until we have applied as much energy and intellect to the attempt to understand faith as we have applied in the last 150 to attempt to understand traditions. If at the end of that time we have got nowhere, then perhaps we may call it off. In the meantime, the venture is far too exciting, and the tentative results already . . . seem vastly too promising, for such pessimism.

Nevertheless, let no one underestimate the gravity of our new ambition: to understand a faith that we do not hope to share.

We leave aside for the moment a consideration of the revolutionary implications of this in case we should succeed—the attainment of a new type of religious outlook, the opening up of perhaps a new chapter in mankind’s religious history.

 

Wilfred Cantwell Smith was director of the Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR) at HDS from 1964 to 1973.

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A Theological Reckoning

Diana Eck

Vedic fire ceremony

A Hindu priest of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition presides over a Vedic fire ceremony on the steps of Harvard’s Memorial Church. Diana Eck throws rice as part of the ceremony. Photo: Marc Halevi

 

We too often stand in almost mute astonishment before the lineages of the Muslim Brotherhood, the thousands of religiously based NGOs, the liberation theologies of South America, the religious energies of American Christian nationalists, the wayside healing shrines of the Balkans, or the fifty million Hindus who converge in pilgrimage to bathe in the River Ganges during the Kumbh Mela. Our understanding of our fellow human beings as they gather in communities, live their lives, proclaim their visions, and die their deaths must keep pace more adequately with the velocity of global change. That is one of the challenges of a multireligious divinity school. I will discuss three:

The first challenge is simply to discern what is going on: taking the time to dig more deeply than the shallow sound bites of the evening news. People of many perspectives and faith communities here at Harvard are committed to this task of understanding in the company of one another. This is the intellectual challenge of the greatest magnitude for our world today.

The second challenge is to study the connections. The religious communities of humankind are not separate chapters bound together in a “world religions” book, or separate courses in a catalog; they are deeply involved in one another’s history, bound together as neighbors in the villages and cities of the world. This has always been the case, but it’s true vividly in the world in which we live today, where migration has literally changed the face of the world. It’s true in our nation, which has become a multireligious nation over the past fifty years since the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which opened the doors to immigration from all over the world. It’s true of our universities, which have become multireligious. The face of Harvard University has changed radically over the last two and three decades.

What we call “religions” are in a constant process of change, and one of the ways in which they change is in connection and encounter with one another. We must study these connections in the emerging field of interreligious studies. We must take into our scope as scholars not simply one religious community, but the way communities have intersected, both in tension and in cooperation.

This constitutes a new paradigm in religious leadership: a requirement that one become not simply religiously literate but interreligiously literate. We must study the shape of pluralism and develop a pedagogy of pluralism that fosters relationships between leaders of both different faith communities and secular society. To work on global, national, and university issues, it is critically important to study the interfaith infrastructure of the United States.

A third challenge is to move into the methodological terrain of dialogue, a way of working in which the voices of the people we study become integral to the process of our understanding. We ourselves, of course, come to our studies with a particular historical, intellectual, and religious context. This is a problem only if we are not self-conscious about it. Gaining increasing clarity about our own situatedness, our own forms of questioning, our own position—whether religious, secular, even antireligious—is critical, lest our own subjectivities become thoughtlessly, unwittingly universalized in our work.

This is also a kind of theological reckoning . . . a new kind of theological thinking that we are beginning to develop here, that would take seriously the voices and visions of equally rigorous religious thinkers who are not of our own tradition.

Diana Eck speaking at Convocation.

 

 

 

Diana L. Eck is Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies, Fredric Wertham Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, a member of the Faculty of Divinity, and  the founder and director of the Pluralism Project. Watch this talk in its entirety at bulletin.hds.harvard.edu.

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Challenges for a Third Century

George Rupp

 

George Rupp
George Rupp speaking at Convocation. Photo: Justin Knight.

It would be wonderful if we could gather here simply to celebrate the magnetic power of Harvard Divinity School. . . . But we all know that theological education and the study of religion are under enormous pressure from powerful secular trends and also from a variety of religious movements. For that reason, we must wrestle with the challenge of generating the energy required for HDS to continue to be vigorous and influential.

. . . The crucial goal must be to focus on the core identity of the institution and to build on the central features of that identity—to make the institution more itself rather than to succumb to the temptation of imitating some other institution. That is our challenge for HDS as we move into a third century.

I propose that there are three sets of strengths on which we should focus:

First: the capacity to ground students of all ages in the core traditions of their own communities, including respectful comparisons to other traditions sympathetically understood.

Harvard has extremely impressive resources for grounding students of all ages in particular cultures. . . . There is of course instruction in the full range of European tongues. We also have access to the languages for precious texts and for understanding across lines of conflict or ethnic differences: to name only a few examples, Arabic as well as Hebrew; Sanskrit and Hindi, and also Urdu and Telugu and Tamil; Mandarin and also Yue and Uighur.

Access to a remarkable range of language instruction represents the fact that students can pursue deep understanding of their own traditions and of the language and culture of other communities. This enormous capacity, built up over generations, offers the Divinity School a resource that few of its peers can come even close to matching. The resource belongs to the University as a whole, but the Divinity School must continue to cultivate its own commitment to it. Every student should develop a deep engagement with at least one religious tradition and, in most cases, a sympathetic awareness of at least one further tradition that allows a comparative dimension to his or her studies.

Second: a commitment not only to the descriptive study of multiple traditions but also to normative appraisals. . . . As we all know, there have been times when the emphasis of the academy has been almost exclusively on its crucial descriptive role: to understand and report what has happened in the past and the dynamics of current interactions. The Divinity School certainly shares this emphasis, as its study of particular traditions illustrates. But at its best, HDS has also pressed for engaging the issues of adequacy, of values, yes, of truth. Judgments on such issues are no doubt relative, which is what warrants our apprehension about absolute or unqualified claims for any specific interpretation. Still, the Divinity School has a proud tradition of pursuing normative questions even when the setting of the academy clearly prefers to resist such inquiry.

This normative dimension is most explicit in such traditional fields as systematic theology and ethics. Its implications are also evident in applied parts of the curriculum—fieldwork, for example, and shared worship experiences. Across the range of studies at HDS, there can and should be a persistent awareness of the ways in which claims about values and truth are intrinsic to religious traditions. But they are also at least implicitly present in the impact that religious commitments have on the broader society. It is therefore not only appropriate but required that such claims be subjected to appraisal as to relative adequacy. . . .

Third: a concern to prepare leaders both for particular religious communities and for engaging the dimension of ethics and values in societies around the world.

We are celebrating the bicentennial of HDS. . . . But it is also the 380th anniversary of the founding of Harvard in 1636 as an institution dedicated to the preparation of religious leaders. . . .

In an institution that is intentionally multireligious and insistent on comparative study and normative appraisal that does not take any one authority as self-evident, preparing religious leaders is challenging. Yet professionals who can lead in such complex settings are precisely what our world and our religious traditions desperately need. . . .

Those who study here need not aspire to be—and certainly will not all become—leaders of particular religious communities. But some will, to the benefit of those communities and the whole of our civic life. Of those who pursue other paths, many will help all of us to discern and appraise and develop the religious dimension of the broader culture, including its incipiently global dimensions. Whether in the academy, or in other social, political, economic, and artistic realms, leadership . . . will demand the attention to particular traditions, including comparative dimensions and normative concerns, that characterize the education and research at HDS. It is therefore crucial that this broadly professional role remain salient in the years and decades and centuries ahead.

George Rupp speaking at Convocation.

 

 

George Rupp was Dean of HDS from 1979 to 1985.

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Church and University

Douglas Horton

From “Church and University,” vol. 24, no. 1 (October 1959)

Douglas Horton
Douglas Horton portrait, 1959. Harvard University portrait collection, Harvard Divinity School

If the Church and University understood each other in all situations, the relationships would be simplified and the opportunities enhanced. Each tends to nurse a mental picture of the other which is close to caricature. To the Church the University—apart from its scientific side, for which there is a good deal of respect—is the absent-minded professor who is on a train and has forgotten where he is going. They used to tell of such a member of the University of Edinburgh who on discovering his predicament got off the train and telegraphed his wife, “Where am I going?” The wife thereupon telegraphed back, “Look at your ticket”; but in the case of the University the ticket has been lost and the professor simply goes on in the direction the train happens to be moving. . . . In the eyes of the Church, aimlessness, non-commitment to any special end, is the sign of an abstracted and ineffective mind.

To the University the Church, on the other hand, is a somewhat simple-minded lady who is committed to a set of notions, more or less outworn, and whose piety (to borrow a line from Chekhov) is a kind of trolley line on which she travels tiresomely back and forth. Her course has direction, God wot, but is wholly without creative deviation:

All our fathers have been Churchmen
Nineteen hundred years or so
And to every new suggestion
They have always answered, “No.”

. . .

These are travesties, these pictures which Church and University sometimes hold of each other, but they must . . . be taken seriously. So the Divinity School walks arm and arm with the two of them, one on each side, unhappy that each may have such an inferior and indeed unfair idea of the other, constantly trying to get them to see each other in a better light, and . . . trying to get each to see how greatly it has need of the other.

. . . How can the School possibly be devoted to the Church and the University at the same time? . . .

The answer . . . is simple enough, and indeed inevitable, in the light of what might be called the School’s catholic Protestantism.

 

Douglas Horton, a Congregationalist minister, was Dean and John Lord O’Brian Professor of Divinity from 1955 to 1959. This was excerpted from an address Dean Horton delivered at the Annual Alumni Dinner on January 30, 1958.

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Democracy Challenged

Ronald F. Thiemann

From “Toward an American Public Theology,” vol. 18, no. 1 (October–November 1987)
 

Ronald F. Thiemann
Ronald F. Thiemann. Photo: HDS photograph.

An institution like Harvard Divinity School can and must participate in the construction of a new vision for American public life. In conversation with colleagues . . . in other professions and disciplines—we can help to forge a more compassionate but no less excellent vision of the American dream. But to do so we need to foster an atmosphere in which people of differing and even conflicting points of view can engage in critical conversation with one another. . . . We are embarked on a bold experiment here, dedicated to the belief that an institution which seeks to represent the cultural and religious pluralism of our world can still function as an intellectual and spiritual community. We strive to be a community in which the conversation is rigorous yet open, critical yet candid. . . . The . . . disagreements that surface among us are signs that we are a living and vibrant community. . . . The greatest danger we face is that our diversity will lead to fragmentation—to the creation of separate communities of discourse, each locked into its own sub-world of reality with its own standards of judgment. But we need not fall victim to that danger, for if we keep the conversation genuinely open and critical, then inevitably some consensus about our standards of excellence, about our common goals and aspirations, will emerge.

The challenge facing the Divinity School community is parallel to the challenge facing American democracy today, that is, to create a forum within which genuine debate and dialogue about crucial public issues can take place. The last decade has seen the rise of many institutes, centers, and “think tanks” devoted to advocating some particular cause or interest. These advocacy centers function primarily to encourage the “politics of interest” rather than the “politics of the common good.” And since they are well funded, they tend to advocate the interests of the rich and powerful. What we lack is a nationally prominent forum in which a range of arguments, stances, and positions can be debated by people open to genuinely critical conversation. American public life will remain impoverished unless we create opportunities for candid yet sophisticated debate on issues of national and international importance. In a nation in which the primary form of political discourse is the television commercial, the need for such a public forum is acute. We need institutions that are dedicated to the cultivation of those habits of heart and mind which will produce an informed and public-spirited citizenry.

 

Ronald F. Thiemann was Dean and John Lord O’Brian Professor of Divinity from 1986 to 1998. He held other professorial titles at HDS until 2006, when he was named the Bussey Professor of Theology.

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Do Not Stand in One Place

Jacob Olupona

Sultan of Sokoto visit

His Eminence Alhaji Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar III, the Sultan of Sokoto, visited Harvard in October 2011 to deliver the Jodidi Lecture and to participate in events at HDS. Among them was the seminar “Nigeria and the World,” convened by Jacob Olupona, Professor of African Religious Traditions. Olupona praised the Muslim leader for “actively struggling to spread a method for quelling violence, healing intractable divisions, and cultivating a national identity to embrace Nigeria’s religious and ethnic diversity.” Photo: Justin Knight

 

“ọmọde gbọn, agba gbọn, ni a fi da Ile-Ife” [“It is by combined wisdom of the young and the old that the city of Ile-Ife was established.”]
—Nigerian Proverb

Reflecting on how the king of ile-ife was chosen and crowned king as a young man, I think of how even though Africans place a great deal of value and respect on seniority and age, their cosmologies also realize the importance of youth. My book City of 201 Gods refers to the perpetual possibility of adding another deity to the Yoruba pantheon so a large number of different traditions exist together in a complex network. New ways of thinking and being can always be incorporated. This diverse cosmology caters to diverse worldviews and identities instead of fighting them off or making them into an “other” that needs to be feared.1 In teaching about religion in Africa, we must reflect this complexity and diversity. In most African philosophies and religious thought, life is incomplete if you try to ignore, negate, or excise any aspect of life; everything must be accounted for, dealt with, and given its place. To ensure balance and fullness in life, every aspect must be included, and this often implies a balance of opposites such as youth and seniority.

In most societies in Africa, there is also a great deal of diversity among religious traditions themselves. My parents were Anglican missionaries and I was quite literally raised in the Anglican parsonage, but a whole branch of my extended family is devoutly Muslim, and we also had others who took part in traditional religion; this is not uncommon among the Yoruba and many other ethnicities in Africa. To properly understand a country like Nigeria, you have to be conversant with the important role Islam, Christianity, and the hundreds of traditional religions play, not to mention the great deal of diversity within the practices of those traditions. Africa is not alone in its religious pluralism, and even societies that are dominated by one religious tradition are always internally diverse. Thus, studying any group of people or even any one religious tradition implies close attention to diversity in a number of different ways.

Here at HDS, the study of religion in Africa, be it Islam, Christianity, or indigenous religions, allows us to teach from a different theoretical perspective—what is often described as theory “from the South” or “indigenous epistemology.” By that, we imply that we recognize the limitation of Western models, particularly with respect to these traditions. It is important for our students to engage themselves in these alternative ways of making sense of the world. They then have a plurality of ways of knowing and meaning making that they can use to better understand the experience of others and to reflect on and illuminate their own experiences. Chinua Achebe, the famous Nigerian author, once said: “the world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place.” This pithily sums up the importance of diversity in both the ritual and the religious context, but also the academic context.

Religious studies students must have a multidisciplinary orientation. In the future, I would like to see MTS and MDiv students who graduate with a grounding in religion and theology but who are also involved and engaged in issues of ecology, issues of health and healing, issues of finance and economics, issues of governance and politics, and so on. That is where the future of religion lies in a professional school like our own. This may call for a radical restructuring of the curriculum to engage religion in those practical domains. In other words, I am calling for a radical professionalism in the Divinity School, just like programs at the Business School or the Kennedy School, where students will be able to engage the world on a professional level.

Jacob Olupona speaking at Convocation.

 

 

 

Notes:

  1. A classic example is how, in the Yoruba worldview, the disabled and the physically challenged are regarded as the votaries and peoples of the gods (Eni Orisa) and are given special treatment in the society.
 

Jacob K. Olupona is Professor of African Religious Traditions, with a joint appointment as Professor of African and African American Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

 

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Embracing the Problem

Ahmed Ragab

Protest walk

On December 1, 2014, Harvard students and staff gathered on the Law School campus to remember Ferguson teenager Michael Brown and protest the grand jury’s failure to indict Brown’s killer. Protesters chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and the noontime walkout ended with a “die in.” Photo: HDS photograph/Jonathan Beasley.

 


For people of color, religion is not simply a set of beliefs, ideas, texts, rituals, or even communities. It is also an identity that in many cases is foisted upon people, is forced upon them, is seen as intractably attached to them. Brown and black religion . . . becomes the symptom and the cause of the brown and black condition. In the white gaze, the brown and black religion is the reason why the brown and black person is boisterous, or violent, or even peaceful or lazy. . . .

Religion in this sense becomes naturalized; it becomes part and parcel of the identity of the person. . . . One of the major facets of marginalization and discrimination is the denial of the ability to be an individual. For a brown or black person, you are denied the ability and the right to be your own person. If a black teen gets shot, he has to apologize for gang violence. If your name is Ahmed or Mohammed, you have to apologize because some Frenchman shot people in the street or blew himself up. Religion in this sense becomes part and parcel of this particular identity, it becomes inseparable, sometimes it can become suffocating.

A multireligious environment is by definition multiracial, precisely because of these definitions of what religion actually means for different people and in the society we live in. Being a multiracial school, we  become part of the race situation in this country and around the world. In this view, multireligious is not a position or a place that one can be in. It is not something that we acquire by recruiting a few more students of color or a couple more faculty that speak in a funny way. It is rather an active disposition that is constantly becoming, a disposition that entails an understanding of the structures of violence and discrimination, and an active and sometimes even militant struggle to undermine and dismantle these structures. . . .

In The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois, there is a paragraph that speaks to the experience of many people of color:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter around it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these, I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

. . . In Du Bois’s terms, a multireligious divinity school is a problem space. It is a space that is full of problems and that actively seeks out problems. It is a problem because it is full of uncertainty, and intentionally so. It is a problem because it understands its position in a particular society that is built on fault lines of race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and other forms of discrimination and marginalization.

A multireligious divinity school is a place that allows these problems and these problem people to exist as they are, in their own problem-ness: celebrating their problem-ness but also their having the right to become their own individual problems, or to give up their problem-ness altogether if they choose to do so. A multireligious divinity school is a space that is very hard to describe and to define, because it has never been but is always becoming.

What is a multireligious divinity school? The answer, in my view, is that a multireligious divinity school is a problem, but it is definitely a problem worth having.

Ahmed Ragab speaking at Convocation.

 

 

 

Ahmed Ragab is the Richard T. Watson Assistant Professor of Science and Religion at Harvard Divinity School, affiliate assistant professor in the Department of the History of Science, and director of the Science, Religion, and Culture program at HDS.

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Eyes That See, Bodies That Break Free

 

Sitraka St. Michael

“Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history.”
—Abraham Lincoln1

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
—Toni Morrison2

In the fall of 2116, “freedom” will have been available for nine years longer—and, perhaps, will be stronger and more courageous—than slavery for the first time in America’s recorded history.3 I will not live long enough to witness the fall of 2116 with my body. But I have faith that by 2116, HDS will have unleashed an army of eyes and bodies to give voice to a vision: that the vitality of slavery may find itself eyeball to eyeball with America’s history—and continue to perish.


The only work of art that hangs in the cocktail lounge The Aviary in Chicago is a large, towering, and self-effacing painting called Flight.4  Flight shows you a human body that is valiantly and desperately hanging on. The body is desperate to take flight. The sight of the body in midair is riveting for two reasons. It makes something inconceivable—human flight—available. Even so, it withholds something. Offering only a profile of the face, Flight does not let you see the body’s eyes. The eyes are consumed by and fixated upon something else, some other place that eludes the viewer.

Undoubtedly, the body held in midair remains caged—bound and informed by its own limitations and by the lines which, though necessary, will not release it toward the vision that so clearly draws it. And yet, the painting’s title—the artists’ conscious choice of language—claims the last word. One can take flight. The body takes flight by drinking from the wellspring of its life’s energies, by hanging on to the lines of its language, and by looking to the place where it is bound. The body can fly away. The body can be free, one day.

Much like a bird, the body in Flight recognizes and claims its capacity for flight. But what capability enables the caged body to soar into the air? There is one answer that my Harvard Divinity School education has made excruciatingly plain for me: language. Language transmits and translates the signature touch of an HDS education—namely, the cultivation of a willingness to see. Much like a bird that is destined to take flight, willing eyes that foster soaring language require nurture and nesting. Bodies and stories that are called to soar in midair need a season to grieve and grow wings in order to set the future free. That is what HDS has been, is, and ought to remain for all the stories it touches: an aviary.


HDS is the aviary where I have become willing to see America’s history, in all its costly glory, and it is the sanctuary where my heart has had to touch and be touched by the brutal vitality of what Condoleezza Rice aptly calls America’s birth defect: slavery.5 HDS has educated me to become willing to see many dimensions of the American story’s attempt to escape from history. HDS is the aviary where my story has encountered America’s history, and then a little more—where it has dared to love it. And, like any lover, America’s history has filled me up and broken my heart.

It happened in Baltimore the summer after my first year at HDS. Baltimore and Ferguson might have conspired to commence history’s work on my immigrant’s heart and opened my eyes. It felt like the stories of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray wanted to show me something about history. But I met Ferguson and Baltimore with familiar twin emotions—evasion and denial—bundled up in an unwillingness to see.

The invitation to go to Baltimore came through a scholarship to attend the Annual Meeting of the Union of Black Episcopalians. This meeting was going to be one for the ages. Black Episcopalians were going to pray, gather, and dance to celebrate a moment of glory in the history of the Episcopal Church. Bishop Michael Curry was our new presiding bishop-elect. He is descended from the enslaved. I did not want to go. The smoke, rage, and paralysis Baltimore and Ferguson had wrapped like a ribbon around my first year were enough. I did not want to see, feel, grieve, or remember more. But a budding willingness to see through the smoke, rage, and paralysis urged me to go.

The opening hymn during the procession at the closing Eucharist was “We’ve Come This Far by Faith”: “We’ve come this far by faith. Leaning on the Lo-o-rd. Trusting in his only word. He never failed me yet. Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh can’t turn aro-oo-und. We’ve come this far by faith.” There was something electric, mournful, and mature in the atmosphere. A black woman was presiding. Behind her were three black men bishops and two black deacons—one black woman and one black, bisexual man. Those who were gathered were standing and singing with their heads held high. Soaring in the faces and in the eyes of the older, black women in the room was the freedom of joy. Their mouths were singing with pride. And their eyes were smiling with ferocity. Maybe their souls were basking in the warmth of the sun that history continues to hold up in the darkness. Mine was.

And then it came—because slavery has not died. During his homily, Bishop Curry wanted to pay tribute to the ancestors whose unyielding hope had brought us this far along the way. His soul had intuited that, at this particular time in history, there could be no homily without history. Curry retold a story that many of the elders had heard and seen, and that not enough of the young ones had. It was the story of a high-minded ancestor who had stood out among the enslaved on his plantation because he had refused to go by any other name than his birth name, Kunta Kinte—the subject of Alex Haley’s novel, Roots. His enslaver insisted on another name for him—Toby.

Kunta Kinte’s pride and high-mindedness inspired many minds among the enslaved. And the enslaver decided to teach those minds a lesson. The enslaver would have Kunta Kinte flogged until his mind yielded. Episcopally clad, Bishop Curry moved from beyond the lectern to the center of the stage. And he allowed everyone in the scene of Kunta Kinte’s flogging from Roots to visit with us in his body.6

What is your name?
Kunta Kinte
Bishop Curry sends out one lash into the air.
What is your name?
Kunta Kinte
Bishop Curry sends out another lash into the air.
What is your name?
Kunta Kinte
Another lash.
What is your name? Another lash. What is your name? Another lash. What is your name? Another lash.

Presiding Bishop Curry sent out one lash after another, over and over again. Meanwhile, the women whose eyes had been singing and shining minutes before were weeping—heavy, silent tears that seemed to flow from the river of tears across time. And in the absence of words, tears came rolling down my face.

I had not wept for over a year. These tears were peculiar. Their indifference to my self-control was incapacitating. The history that had sent them rolling down my face was a history that my story had stubbornly refused to touch. Touching it, becoming willing to see it might, I feared, debilitate something within. When asked, “How do you identify?” my well-rehearsed talking point was, “I’m not black.” Answering in the negative had felt safe and strategic. It allowed me to protect dimensions of my story from the brutal vitality of slavery. I feared that the minute I started calling myself “black” in America, I would invite an upheaval of emotions inside that would make me feel worthless, doubt myself, and shut down; an upheaval of emotions would cripple and crush my spirit with the things history would force me to see, mourn, and transform.
Still, I wept, hearing about a scene involving an enslaved body I had never heard of and that was from a miniseries I had never seen. I was not born here. Madagascar is not Africa. Malagasy are not Africans. “You are not African.” “You are not black.” Thus spoke those who raised me, as they recited our islanders’ creed of “ethnic ambiguity.” I have taken advantage of my ethnic ambiguity. And it has taken advantage of me. It kept me from connecting and offering my story to a larger history. It stopped me from recognizing and vocalizing my sense of linked fate and shared joy with the enslaved. But, thank God, we cannot escape history. The episode of tears in Baltimore flooded and cracked the wall my story had erected around itself. Those silent, unstoppable, soul-piercing tears had claimed a home for America’s history inside my story.


The Baltimore tears made manifest something important to the eyes of my heart. They contained an insight that could unleash me. My own eyes have been laboring sorrowfully and ferociously to soar in midair ever since. HDS has touched my story by incubating and cultivating in my eyes a willingness to see the terrible, living beast of slavery, and then a little more—the freedom and courage to defang it. I have embraced the long, fragile, and bold task of defanging the brutal vitality of slavery. I see this now to be a crucial dimension of my life’s work.

I taste and see this work in my language. A year ago, my academic advisor asked me if I identified as black. “I feel a growing responsibility to do so,” I said. That stifling, paralyzing, and crushing sentence—“I’m not black”— had died. Another, more American, form of language had taken its place. I cherish HDS as the aviary where my heart grew wings to set itself free from its tendency to escape history and to become capable of mourning. As for you, reader, what you have come to see in the fall of 2116? And what ways of seeing have you become responsible for growing? And what ways of escaping have you become capable of letting die?

Speak and then a little more: Soar.

 

Notes:

  1. Abraham Lincoln, “Annual Message to Congress—Concluding Remarks,” December 1, 1862, transcript, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/congress.htm.
  2. Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize in Literature lecture, delivered in Stockholm, December 7, 1993.
  3. I begin counting slavery’s age from August 1619, when the first African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia. For a synopsis of the periodization I use, see History.com, “Slavery in America,” http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/slavery, accessed May 9, 2016. I locate the day Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation—January 1, 1863—as the day the era of “freedom” began. These two points in time make slavery 244 years old in 1863, and “freedom” 153 years old in 2016. In terms of years, “freedom” will become older than slavery in the fall of 2107.
  4. For an interview with Thomas Masters and Adrian Leverkuhn, the makers of Flight, about the ambitions they brought to The Aviary, see Amalie Drury, “Art at The Aviary: Five Questions for the Man behind the Signature Painting in the Nation’s Hottest Bar,” Chicago Magazine, April 27, 2011,
  5. http://www.chicagomag.com/Radar/The-Chaser/April-2011/Art-at-The-Aviary-....
  6. See Condoleezza Rice, Condoleezza Rice: A Memoir of My Extraordinary, Ordinary Family and Me (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, First Edition, 2010), 11.  
  7. The scene was made widely popular in the miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley’s novel, Roots, available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CpJpGF8lS8, accessed on April 13, 2016.

 

 

Sitraka St. Michael is an MDiv candidate at HDS who plans to graduate in May 2017. This is an excerpted and edited version of his submitted essay. He dedicates this piece with gratitude and joy to the following historians, writers, mentors, and friends whose willingness to see has expanded his being: Karen King, Laura Nasrallah, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Martha Nussbaum, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Mama A, and Grace.

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Faces of Divinity

Envisioning Inclusion for 200 Years

 

Faces of Divinity exhibit

Photo: Justin Knight.

Faces of Divinity tells the story of Harvard Divinity School since its founding in 1816. It brings together student experience, faculty work, and University initiatives to uncover the roots of the school we have become in the twenty-first century: a multireligious, multidisciplinary center of academic excellence, religious scholarship, and service to the community and wider world. The exhibit explores the development of Harvard Divinity School through a series of themes, including: theology and ethics, history, and Unitarian and Universalist traditions, as well as Jewish, Asian, Islamic, African American, and women’s religious studies, ministry training, preaching, and social justice. Faces of Divinity includes twenty-one exhibits of photographs, poetry, paintings, and audiovisual materials situated throughout three of the Divinity School’s buildings.

The images and captions here are a small sample from the Faces of Divinity exhibit. The exhibit section is noted at the beginning of each caption. Additional information about these images, and many more, can be seen on the HDS campus until May 2017. The full exhibit was curated by Ann Braude, Senior Lecturer on American Religious History and director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at HDS; graduate research assistants Christopher Allison, Katie Bandera, Eva Payne, and Thomas Whittaker; and Tracy Wall, WSRP coordinator. It was designed by Justin Lee and edited by Kathryn Dodgson.

 

Convocation 1960s

Nonsectarian to Multireligious. Professor Richard R. Niebuhr, Visiting Professor Reinhold Niebuhr, Dean Samuel Miller, and Elinor (Bunn) Thompson prepare for Convocation. Dick Niebuhr taught at HDS from 1956 to 1999. Photo: Andover-Harvard Theological Llibrary.

 

Five of the first women students at HDS

Women, Gender, and Religion. Five of the first women students at HDS: Joyce Mann, HDS ’55, Emily Thornton Gage, BD ’57, Constance Parvey, BD ’63, Letty Russell, STB ’58, and Marianka Fousek, ThD ’60. Photo: Boston Herald, Thursday, September 29, 1955.

 

Wilfred Cantwell Smith

Islamic Studies. Wilfred Cantwell Smith brought the study of Islam in its sociopolitical contexts to HDS when he was hired as the director of the Center for the Study of World Religions in 1964. Photo: Center for the Studies of World Religions.

 

Lamin Sanneh

African and African American Studies. A scholar of world Christianity as well as African indigenous traditions and Islam, Lamin Sanneh taught at HDS as assistant and associate professor of the history of religions from 1981 to 1989. Drawing on his work on Christianity in West Africa and elsewhere, Sanneh has argued that Christianity is not owned by the West, either in its past or in its future. Photo: HDS photograph.

 

Nancy Richardson

Learning the Ministry. The first associate dean of ministry studies (1993 to 2003), Nancy Richardson’s appointment brought stability and vision to the MDiv program. Passionate about antiracism work as well as feminist theology and urban ministry, Richardson had been mentored by Dorothy Height and Valerie Russell in the YWCA. Photo: HDS photograph.

 

Alan Watts in the Braun Room

Nonsectarian to Multireligious. Alan Watts, center, is flanked on the left by Harvey Cox and on the right by Leonard Bernstein, Norton Professor of Poetry that year (1972), and by a crowd of students in the Braun Room. Photo: Harvard Divinity Bulletin.

 

Dalai Lama 1979 visit to HDS

Center for the Study of World Religions. In 1979, the fourteenth Dalai Lama made his first trip to the United States. His final stop was at Harvard, where he gave a lecture in Sanders Theatre and taught a seminar to HDS students in Andover Chapel. Here, he is pictured with Robert Thurman, AB ’62, AM ’69, PhD ’72, an affiliate of the CSWR in 1978–79. Photo: Center for the Study of World Religions.

 

Katie Geneva Cannon

Women, Gender, and Religion. The first African American woman ordained as a minister in the United Presbyterian Church in 1974, Katie Geneva Cannon’s work helped to popularize Alice Walker’s term “womanist.” Cannon worked on her best-known book, Katie’s Canon, as a WSRP Research Associate, 1987–88. Photo: HDS photograph.

 

The Ooni of Ife visits Harvard

African and African American Studies. The Ooni of Ifè, His Royal Majesty Oba Okunade Sijuade, Olubuse II, on left, visited Harvard in 2008, together with ten other Yoruba kings, for a conference convened by Professor Jacob Olupona, at right, on Ifè divination. Photo: Harvard University News Office.

 

Mandala at the CSWR

Asian Religions. In 2008, Geshe Kalsang and Venerable Phuntsok from the Gaden Shartse Monastery sift colored sand to create a mandala of compassion at the CSWR. Photo: HDS photograph/Kristie Welsh.

 

Funeral march for James Reeb

Unitarians, Universalists, and HDS. Dana McLean Greeley (1908–86), BS ’31, STB ’33, second from left, marches with clergy to the funeral of James Reeb, a UU minister and member of Arlington Street Church slain in Selma, Alabama, March 11, 1965. In 1966, Greeley invited Martin Luther King Jr. to deliver the Ware Lecture at the General Assembly of the UUA. “Don’t Sleep through the Revolution,” King urged. Pressing the church “to move out into the arena of social action,” he recalled student days when he heard Greeley preach at Arlington Street. Photo: Andover-Harvard Theological Library.

 

Social Museum - Immigration
Social Museum - Aging

 

Theology and Ethics. The Social Museum was founded in 1903 by Francis Greenwood Peabody, Dean of the Divinity School and Preacher to the University. Peabody commissioned photographers to go to sites of social unrest, “to collect the social experience of the world. . . . ” The collection’s 6,000 photographs, maps, and charts became the core of ethics instruction for Divinity School and Harvard College students, used to turn their gaze to a world in need and inspire action. Photos: Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Immigration (left): This photograph documents a European immigrant’s moment of happiness after hearing that his order for deportation had been revoked

Aging (right): Before Social Security and Medicare, crushing poverty and inadequate health care were the norm for lower-class elders. This couple was given meals and a small room at the New York City Home for the Aged and Infirm. Here, they are depicted taking their daily exercise.

 

Stephen Hornberger

Religion and Social Justice. When the Harvard campus erupted in political protest in the spring of 1969, Stephan Hornberger, MDiv ’70, was elected to lead the HDS student organization on a platform of radically reorganizing the governance of the School. Here, he occupies the roof of Andover Hall wrapped in an American flag, holding a ball that reads, “All Power to the People,” cradled by a Bible. Photo: Andover-Harvard Theological Library.

 

LGBT march on Washington

Religion and Social Justice. This 1993 photo shows Bernadette Brooten, Associate Professor of New Testament, with a group from HDS at the third GLBT March on Washington. Marchers’ demands included an end to discrimination by state and federal governments, including the military, and increased funding for HIV/AIDS education and research. Photo: courtesy Bernadette Brooten.

 

HDS trip to New Orleans post-Katrina

Religion and Social Justice. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, HDS students, faculty, and staff made two spring break service trips to Mississippi and Louisiana, in 2006 and 2007. Photo: HDS photograph.

 

Community Center garden planning

Religion and Social Justice. Jack Hasegawa, MTS ’68, plans a strawberry garden with children at the Cooper Community Center in Roxbury, his field education site. Born while his family was held in an internment camp during World War II, Hasegawa came to HDS after working as a civil rights organizer in Georgia through the Methodist Church. Photo: Andover-Harvard Theological Library.

 

Borderlands

Religion and Social Justice. During the 2015 course “Border Crossing: Immigration in America,” students met with the family of José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, 16, who was shot and killed in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, by a Border Patrol agent standing on the Arizona side. In this photo, William Sanchez, MDiv ’16, views the spot where Rodríguez died. Photo: Shrestha Singh.

 

Rev. Chang Imm Tam

Faces of Divinity. Rev. Cheng Imm Tan, ’86, founded two organizations to respond to the needs of Asian American women: New England’s only Asian domestic violence shelter program, and, in 1998, Gund Kwok, the only women’s Lion Dance and Dragon Dance Troupe in the United States. Mayor Thomas Menino asked her to be the first director of the Office of New Bostonians, the first in the country to provide refugee and immigrant communities a voice in municipal government; this model has been emulated nationwide. Photo: Anh Ðào Kolbe/adkfoto.com, courtesy Gund Kwok.

 

Fallen Hero ceremony

Learning the Ministry. U.S. Army Chaplain Karen Meeker, MDiv ’94, conducts the Fallen Hero ceremony in Bagram, Afghanistan, on board a transport aircraft in 2013. Photo: courtesy Karen Meeker.

 

2010 Pow Wow

Faces of Divinity. A member of the Maskoke Nation, Marcus Briggs-Cloud, MTS ’10, left, is the youngest native speaker of the Maskoke language, which he taught at the University of Oklahoma. “The decolonization of the mind for indigenous peoples begins with language acquisition,” he says. “All of our worldviews are encompassed in our respective languages.” Here, Briggs-Cloud sings at the 15th annual Harvard Pow Wow in 2010. Photo: courtesy María Cristina Vlassidis Burgoa.

 

2014 Ferguson trip

Religion and Social Justice. Irene Routte, MTS ’14, front row second from right, organized a student trip to Ferguson, Missouri, during the protests after the police killing of Michael Brown. “There were things I saw in Ferguson that I would not have believed were true if I had not been present; from the excessive militarization of the police to the overwhelming openness and solidarity between community residents and outsider,” she reflected. Photo: Anthony Sylvester.

 

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Four Keys to Innovation

David C. Lamberth

Harvard Divinity School 1895

Students and members of the HDS community gather in 1895. Photo: Andover-Harvard Theological Library.


The original purpose of Harvard College, founded; in 1636, was to educate ministers for the new Massachusetts Bay Colony, a Christian, Protestant, Puritan, and Calvinist community. The College itself, as indicated on its earliest motto, was dedicated to “Truth for Christ and Church.” When we were brought into being . . . in 1816 as “the Theological Seminary of Harvard University,” our School was explicitly dedicated to preparing ministers. In contrast to our competitors (Yale and Andover), the School was from the outset nondenominational, dedicated not to a particular Christian creed, but more broadly to the pursuit of the “Christian Truth.” That mission remained in place, albeit with changes, until about two decades ago.

Over the last fifteen or so years, we have evolved into being a “multireligious divinity school.” We hire faculty who specialize in many different religions and places, and we seek to broaden our expertise with each hiring, as well as maintain our traditional strengths. We recruit students from many traditions with broad career interests. . . . And all of us seek to bring multiple and varied perspectives to bear in our work, many of which are not overtly theological or religious.

We should embrace the opportunity to reevaluate ourselves and to develop—indeed perhaps innovate—better means to fulfill our reshaped, novel mission. This evolution can, and should, continue to connect with our past; but we also should act in ways that seek to make the Divinity School more valuable, more meaningful, and more effective than we have yet been.

I want to highlight . . . four potential keys to taking on and fulfilling the new promise of a multireligious divinity school in a global university:

1. Recognizing the primacy of our call to serve society. . . . In 1816, when the Divinity School was founded, the School’s purpose was driven by the social context and perceived problems and needs. In response to scientific and philosophical advances, theologians had developed more intellectually liberal, free-thinking approaches to Christian truth. Harvard had pivoted toward that, but the orthodox Calvinists’ stand-alone seminary model at Andover in 1808 threatened to dominate the production of religious leaders and to tilt the religious landscape in Massachusetts and New England. Harvard’s President Kirkland responded with a plan for our own “Theological Seminary.”

We were the second professional school initiated at the University, following the Medical School but before the School of Law. All these schools, indeed all of our sibling professional schools that came after—Business, Public Health, Education, Public Policy (Government), and Design—were founded primarily to serve particular needs of society, through research and the pursuit of truth, but also through the preparation of professionals trained not only in mind but in practice.

2. Enlarging our engagement with religious professionals and leaders. . . . We should consider anew how we might engage religious professionals and leaders from many traditions at different levels, thinking about what kinds of things we can bring to their practice and development, as well as enlarging the ambit of our own classrooms and discursive spaces. I have in mind, for example, the ways that our colleague schools—Public Health, Government, Education, and Business—have developed programs, and even multiple degrees of different time lengths, that are designed to engage midcareer professionals.

We live in a world of religious conflict, misunderstanding, and, indeed, mutual ignorance and frequent intolerance, even as we live in a world of religious insight, enlightenment, grace, and service. Admittedly, we are a small faculty, however newly and remarkably diverse. But to maximize not only our service to religious communities, but our service to societies globally, it is crucial for us to think anew about how a broader range of leaders and professionals from around the world might be engaged. . . .

3. Utilizing more prominently and consistently the convening power of the University, the name of Harvard, and the history of its many contributions, particularly its history in addressing social problems. Diana Eck’s Pluralism Project is exemplary here. The Religions and the Practice of Peace Initiative now underway, under David Hempton’s leadership, is another good example. I suggest that we build on these and that we consider sustained and new engagements on specific problems within the religious landscape. . . . To do this, we have to identify particular social needs and problems that we could address and then, crucially, use the convening power of Harvard to bring together players who can participate with us to innovate and effect change.

4. Internationalizing is my fourth key to thriving as a multireligious divinity school in a global world. . . . To truly engage the multireligious aspect of this new idea of a divinity school, we not only need many religious traditions represented, but we also need a truly international community of participants. Our faculty is, presently, significantly internationalized, though certainly we need to continue to widen that. But the key to this is to enlarge the number of international participants among our student body, within our degree and nondegree programs, and within all our initiatives.

David Lamberth speaking at Convocation.

 

 


David C. Lamberth is Professor of Philosophy and Theology at HDS.

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Making Meaning in 2116

A Tricentennial Address

Chris Lisee

On July 15, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his then contentious but now celebrated Commencement Address not a quarter mile from here, in a room in Divinity Hall that would later be named Emerson Chapel. In that speech, Emerson challenged the practice of “historical Christianity,” finding it to be lifeless as Ezekiel’s dry bones, and he lamented what he saw as declining religious fervor: “In the country, neighborhoods, half parishes are signing off,—to use the local term.”1 The struggles faced by preachers of his day seem all too familiar: declining church membership, anemic spirituality, brevity in speech writing [pause for laughter].

Scrub ahead to 2012, when the Pew Research Center began publishing reports about the rise of the “nones,” comprised of atheists, agnostics, and people who believed in nothing in particular.2 It seemed that Emerson’s declension narrative was playing out again 174 years later. The closure of many houses of worship through the first half of the twenty-first century fed the narrative that belief was dying, that faith was fading away. We understand today that this narrative was wrong. The data wasn’t pointing at changes in individual faith, but rather at cultural change: people were finally willing to admit in polls that they did not believe the way they were taught to believe. We know that there have always been people who doubted their own faith. It just took until the early 2010s for a critical mass to feel comfortable saying it in public. Fortunately, around the same time, there developed an understanding in academia that faith is inseparable from other aspects of identity.

It was believed, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, that religious narratives were no longer coherent, that people no longer found meaning in stories, ritual, and history, and that this was bad because traditional religion was an essential force in shaping character. What was not understood was that humans are complicated and contradictory productions of personal and generational histories and geographies and a myriad other factors.

Levels of traditional religious participation are at their lowest, probably, in millennia. Harvard Divinity School still offers ministry training (for Buddhists, Muslims, Humanists, and others, as well as for Christians). Professors still teach these religions, from biblical interpretation through contemporary practice. Traditional religion will be around for quite some time, though it feels more of a niche than ever. So, instead of looking at what has remained the same these three hundred years, let us turn to how Harvard Divinity School has changed.


Where did all the nones look for meaning? For many, it was science. However, many are now finding science to be an ineffective alternative to more traditional forms of faith. Throughout the past century there has been a growing understanding that science requires interpretive frameworks in order to be understood. Meaning is rarely bundled with scientific discovery; it must be created through narrative. And because science changes with new discoveries and cultural shifts, its narratives are subject to change. Europe and China now each have a majority doubting science’s ability to provide meaning, and the numbers are growing rapidly in America, just as the “nones” did a century earlier.

The upshot of the cult of science is that divinity schools are finally able to contribute to scientific discourse. Pragmatist and existentialist modes of interpreting the world, as in the work of philosopher William James and anthropologist Michael Jackson, are enjoying increased popularity. There is a better understanding that religion is not limited to an adherence to scripture and a belief in divine entities. Religion seems today to be more of a disposition, a way of interpreting the world, a way of making meaning. As a theologically liberal institution, HDS has understood this for some time: it was among the first divinity schools to establish programs to study this phenomenon further and to train leaders to navigate this gestalt shift. Today, our Center for Community and Meaning Making is at the forefront of this work. Some have criticized HDS for straying from the traditional practice of religion. I would advise them to take a closer look at the history of this institution and the liberal theology of its graduates and professors. Who could have predicted that what was criticized as the tepidness of Unitarian Universalism would actually prove to be its great strength?


Perhaps the greatest development of the past century, however, is memory expansion. When HDS celebrated its bicentennial year, people could neither expand their minds with microchips nor directly connect their brains to the Internet. Who could have predicted how disruptive this change would be, economically, culturally, politically, and spiritually? Memory expansion allows ordinary people to have extraordinary recall, to boost their brains with petabytes of information and enhanced processing power. It also allows them to run programs that construct arguments on the fly; in effect, one can now argue on autopilot. For a price, one can install the knowledge bases and logic engines of great, and not-so-great, philosophers and thinkers. For those who can afford it, the world has become a life-sized game of intellectual Pokémon; the more money you spend on sophisticated data sets and logic engines, the more you know and the stronger your arguments become.

Initially, philosophers had a field day with this innovation: Can one be truly human if one does not think for oneself? I think . . . quickly and deeply . . . therefore I am . . . somehow better? But because of the post-neoliberal ethos and tremendously powerful marketing of our time, philosophical questions were swept under the rug. Today, very few doubt that memory expansion is a good and natural part of human evolution. Those who do doubt it are outgunned by people with superior processors. This is a shame, because we know corporations distribute knowledge bases with built-in biases regarding their industry. GE-produced chips, for example, will tell you plenty about solar energy, but not much about missiles and EMPs. The knowledge-base software market is unregulated, and a massive ongoing ad campaign has effectively quashed hints of dissent.

Naturally, institutions of higher education balked at the idea of their students taking every test open book, as it were, especially with the introduction of logic engines. But they soon found they could profit from memory expansion by licensing their professors’ books, lectures, and research data. Students are now required to have memory expansion to a certain capacity and must purchase the libraries applicable to their field of study (this in addition to tuition, fees, and room and board!).

This narrative is all too familiar: a technology promising greater equality, opportunity, and democracy is twisted into a pay-to-play model that mostly benefits the wealthy. Education is the way to get ahead, but top-tier memory expansion is prohibitively expensive, even as many employers now require certain knowledge bases for employment. Critiques of this state of affairs primarily focus on the economic implications: education is a basic right, and for those at the bottom rungs of the education ladder, the only way to get ahead is to take out massive loans in order to cover the cost of memory expansion. In other words, memory expansion and knowledge bases are keeping preexisting societal divides entrenched.

Harvard and its divinity school can help correct this unjust imbalance. Fact: well-endowed schools could provide free knowledge-base software. The University could provide its knowledge bases free of charge, ensuring that all have access to a vast top-tier knowledge source. This is only part of the solution, but it would be a start. And, because this is a moral issue, I propose that Harvard Divinity School students and alumni should be leading this campaign for change. I realize this solution does nothing to address the post-neoliberal ethos and politics that created this mess in the first place. I can’t help but sheepishly recall Audre Lorde’s words: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”3 The true structural problems lie in our economic systems, which penetrate every aspect of our lives.

But here, perhaps, is a crack in the foundation of the master’s house: many who have had their memories expanded have experienced, at some point, an existential crisis. This is somehow considered “natural,” and people are expected to “work past it.” In reality, the superhuman ability to recall vast stores of information gained without experience is ultimately unfulfilling, and perhaps even contrary to living a good life. It turns out that a wealth of neither money nor knowledge can buy happiness, a sentiment which might seem obvious to many, and yet traditions both religious and secular want to hold on to their orthodoxies regarding “proper” knowledge. For a long time it has been assumed that education will secure our futures and save our souls. We are beginning to understand that this may not be true. Pure knowledge may help us get a job and support ourselves, but only in a particular context—and, even then, it may do little to feed the soul.

In fact, memory expansion is fueling dangerous varieties of fundamentalism, as some grow increasingly dependent on knowledge bases to do their thinking for them. As with all fundamentalisms, this one is not based on the fundamentals per se, but rather on cherry-picked information interpreted in a particular way. Theories of science and capitalism have become the new religious texts for some, programmed just as addresses are into cars, as your DNA is into your ID.

This fundamentalism draws on the myth of linear history, rooted in certain Judeo-Christian beliefs later internalized by Western science and economics: that we are heading toward utopia, and that we will arrive there soon, if only we believe and act correctly. The people making memory expansion technology and knowledge bases are evangelists of this dangerous myth. Their creed is as follows:

I believe in Science Almighty, explainer of heaven and earth.
It was conceived by the power of humans and born of ingenuity.
It judges rationally the living and the dead.
I believe in the perfectibility of humankind,
          perpetual growth economic,
          power of incentives,
          single comprehensive history,
          and the search for everlasting life.
                     Amen.

Such messages come at a great cost to real people caught in the compounding realities of poverty, inadequate education, and poor health. The fallacies of this utopian narrative have been repeatedly demonstrated, but people cling to them because they are comforting, and because the big memory expansion companies are masters of the art of PR. We therefore need tools, not only to dismantle, but also to build something better. I will not pretend to have thought through even a science-fictional way to fight the greed of large, power-hungry institutions and corporations. I hope that HDS will play some role in this because I remember the brilliant, driven, thoughtful people I encountered while studying in Cambridge. I would also like to suggest we start with community, a coming together for a single purpose.

Why community? Because humans have not evolved beyond the need for physical connection and close communication, and probably will not within any timescale our minds are capable of entertaining. We are social creatures who need to share with one another: information, emotion, sensation. That is why it is so important to be here today, sweating, shaking hands, and breathing in the air exhaled by our neighbors.


Since Emerson delivered his Divinity School Address, much has changed for Harvard Divinity School, the study of religion, and the practice of ministry. What has not changed is humankind. Amid the growth and decay of physical, cultural, and institutional structures, human impulses have remained remarkably consistent. Just as there has always been a sense among some that God is not real and that religious movements exist only to benefit an elite, there is a sense among some of us here today that our lives should be put to use serving others or beautifying the world in some way. For some, this impetus stems from a sense of the divine, for others, from humanism. Despite being a “divinity school,” HDS does not seem to care where your convictions come from, only that you have them. You can see it in the theses of decades of MDiv students, in the articles of Harvard Divinity Bulletin, even in the Alumni Career Stories videos the Office of Career Services collected. Literature, businesses, art, public policy—all have been affected by HDS alumni working to achieve a greater, more just world.

This influence is crucial today, as we strive to build a new sacred canopy amid the collapse of old beliefs. The way forward, as it was once before, starts with tent making and leads to true meaning. Many have rejected traditional religion as a means of meaning making, and some are beginning to reject science as well, even as others turn to it, charmed by its empty promises. It is up to us to find a new way.

 

Notes:

  1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Divinity School Address, 1838.
  2. The author hopes that the joke about this being n-o-n-e-s, not n-u-n-s (members of a holy order), will grow stale over the next century.
  3. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (Crossing Press, 2007), 112.
 

Chris Lisee received an MTS degree from Harvard Divinity School in 2013. This is an excerpted and edited version of his submitted essay.

 

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Moving Past Our Mistakes

A More Inclusive HDS to Come?

Diana Ortiz

I learned a long time ago that nothing in history is natural. Policies and laws, justice and injustice, and wars and peace have all come about via the intentional decisions and actions of human beings. Like other educational institutions, Harvard Divinity School is a product of its history. At the same time, it is a perpetually changing zone, ready to be influenced and touched by the fresh thoughts, inquiries, and experiences of every new incoming class. Strolling through the beautiful walkways of HDS’s perfectly green campus and standing in front of the grandiose Andover Hall sparks in me thoughts of the many lives that HDS has helped to shape and transform into stories of discovery, mastery, and curiosity. In the stillness, I think of the ones who have walked these halls before me, the ones who walk alongside me, and the ones who I hope will walk after me.

When I envision what HDS will be like in one hundred years, I must consider its previous development. I take courage that HDS is not a stagnant institution, satisfied with the progress it has made thus far, but rather that it is constantly aware of its need to continue to become the religious institution that the world and students need it to be. As we all know, the stakes are too high and the world’s conflicts are too many for HDS to conform to the status quo.

My hopeful conviction in HDS’s bright future lies in the School’s honest intention to embrace, adopt, and attend to students’ requests. My vision is that, by 2116, HDS will not only have grown in its diversity of students, faculty, and staff, but that it will be leading the study of religion in providing equity and inclusion to the marginalized communities within the academy. Truly, this is a high calling. In all honesty, the future state of this institution’s being is highly dependent on its demographic composition by 2116. It cannot go unsaid that the most important determining factor of HDS’s future existence lies on the makeup of its student, faculty, and staff populations. As a woman of color who is a first-generation immigrant and college student, I appreciate that when it comes to gender, HDS has done outstanding work establishing itself as a multigendered and gender-nonconforming affirming school. And, while the School has made tremendous advancements in the areas of race and ethnicity and in increased admission of international students, we have to admit that it is still a predominately white institution. This greatly determines who is available for panels, discussions, and leadership positions.

One can talk about the lack of students of color applying to divinity school and the need for admission officers to recruit students of all colors. But these well-known institutional barriers within the educational pipeline should only further encourage HDS representatives to be more intentional than they already are about admitting and hiring more people of color. Perhaps it is necessary to say here that attending divinity school may be a privilege in and of itself. Low-income students may not have the privilege of attending a graduate school that is not known for its money-making prospects! Fortunately, HDS recognizes that ministers and scholars of religion do not often make millions after they graduate, and so the School makes sincere efforts to provide students of need with the necessary financial assistance. Overall, how HDS decides to respond to the difficulties brought about by its community members’ intersecting identities of race, class, and gender will greatly determine its future position in the world. It is my hope that in one hundred years, the student body and faculty will no longer have a white majority and that the demographics of the community will be even more complex than we can imagine today. This is not just for the sake of labeling ourselves as a diverse school, but so that we truly represent the richness of the world’s students and scholars.

I recognize that diversity is not acquired by simply admitting and hiring folks of color. The School’s members also have a responsibility to truly commit to the hard work it takes to create a welcoming space for all the represented cultures, opinions, and critiques to prosper. As a student of color, I quickly realized my need to assimilate into the white middle-class culture that dominates the American higher education system. Nevertheless, there have been spaces in HDS and beyond that have been intentional about being sensitive to my culture and that have welcomed my multilingual contributions. I believe that HDS can and will go even further by asking itself the challenging question: “How has my racial and class privilege contributed to the dominant culture of my classroom, office, or organization?” There is no such thing as a perfect school, but progress and accountability will be expected of such a prestigious institution.

While there might not be an equal breakdown of percentages among all the racial and ethnic groups or among all the religious categories, it is of great importance that there be a greater representation and increased visibility of historically marginalized and oppressed voices. It is not enough to have a handful of professors of color. If, as a student of color, you cannot relate to one out of the two to three professors of your race, then you are out of luck. When there are more Latino food and maintenance workers than Latino professors, it says something about where we are as a community and about the extensive work there is still to do in the area of racial justice. Personally, my greatest mentors have been white female professors. I understand that not everyone gravitates to mentorship among professors of their same racial or ethnic background, but it is ideal to have more options for those who do seek mentorship in particular areas of affinity.

The presence of students, faculty, and staff from a wider array of backgrounds will cultivate an even richer social life on campus. Activities on and off campus will continue to be essential as they continue to provide students the complimentary learning experiences necessary to strive in graduate school. Organizations like the Prison Education Initiative will continue to provide students with the opportunity to involve themselves in transformative work outside the classroom. Groups like the Racial Justice and Healing Initiative will continue to address pressing racial issues on campus. If needed, students will also be able to join student-led religious organizations that provide students with a sacred space to connect and practice with each other. Field education will continue to provide vocational explorations for both MDiv and MTS students who wish to apply their skills and knowledge in their local communities. The popular tradition of Community Tea will not only prevail but become one of the most cherished parts of every student’s experience at HDS.

For students who aspire to carve out their own space on campus, the School will continue to provide on-campus resources and support, as it did when organizations like Nuestra Voz and the Women of Color Collective were started. In addition to being sensitive to the issues of students of color, the School will also continue to show solidarity with queer members of our community by assuring the availability of gender-neutral restrooms in every building. Such support for marginalized voices within our campus community has helped to create the campus we have today, and it will continue to be necessary when there will be an even greater array of experiences and perspectives at HDS. Regardless of the dietary restrictions, social identities, and other markers of uniqueness, Harvard Divinity School will be prepared to embrace all prospective community members who will define the prevailing impact of the School.

Academically, HDS will seriously reflect on its curriculum and admit to itself that, despite the trailblazing efforts to diversify course materials, the majority of courses are still heavily reliant on Western-centered literature. By the three-hundred-year mark, my vision is that students will be exposed to a greater number of academic perspectives. It is my wish that there will be a Latinx and Latin American religious studies program and an American Indian religious studies program—I would hope before the end of the twenty-first century. Too often, I have found myself in very interesting classes that rarely assign authors who are nonwhite or non-Western. Though the subject being taught often determines the content of the syllabi, we cannot ignore that this is mostly due to the limited number of professors who intentionally seek out resources showcasing marginalized voices. The burden of responsibility to diversify the curriculum should not fall on the shoulders of faculty of color but should become an institutional value of the School.
If HDS diversifies its academic curriculum and provides courses that expose students not only to voices from the dominant culture, but also voices from subcultures within cultures, it will continue to be relevant in the world. The School will also need to commit to an arduous exploration of marginalized voices and long-term conversations about who we privilege in class materials—going beyond just giving these voices an hour to speak at an event. The good news is that one hundred years from now, more scholars of colors will have written books illuminating the urgent need to make these spaces for marginalized voices within white-dominated institutions. As it has done in the past, Andover-Harvard Theological Library will ensure that such books are made available to students at the request of faculty who are seriously considering expanding their curriculum.

One of HDS’s priorities as a religious studies institution will continue to be to provide robust cocurricular support for the religious and spiritual life of all of its religious and nonreligious students. We pride ourselves on being inclusive and sensitive to all creeds, while also welcoming honest scrutiny from our peers and professors. History affirms that becoming a multireligious divinity school met with plenty of resistance but was accomplished by the enduring perseverance of previous generations. Today, students from minority religions continue to challenge HDS to keep providing its unfailing support of religious pluralism and the study of world religions.

As a Christian student, it is only fair for me to recognize the privilege that Christianity has held historically, not only at HDS but also in the origins of Harvard University. As much as I appreciate the liberty to congregate with other students of faith, it will be essential for HDS to continue to support the spiritual and religious lives of all of its students. While I am grateful for the amount of resources available to Christian students, such as denominational counselors, it is my hope that there will be spiritual and religious counselors available for all incoming students. For this to occur, HDS’s spiritual life staff will need to deliberately encourage, as it already has, the expression of various religious practices from both religious and nonreligious students during the weekly Noon Services held in Andover Chapel.

In 2116, there will continue to be a need to provide open spaces for students of all creeds to maintain the integrity of their beliefs while witnessing and respecting the practices and beliefs of other students. Although we value pluralism as a school, we also embrace remaining true to oneself and one’s beliefs. HDS students should have access to more non-Christian resources to prepare for a decreased majority of Christian students, denominational counselors, and Western-oriented Christian courses.

As incoming students navigate this unique space, the challenges of talking about religion and politics and the politics of religion will continue to exist, but I hope they will become less daunting as we become better equipped with language and resources that will aid our facilitation of difficult conversations. We of the HDS community need to continue to challenge ourselves to allow our more progressive students still to cultivate their liberal theologies, but also to give students who maintain theologically orthodox interpretations the space and permission to be part of the conversation.

We must also prepare for an increased differentiation in political beliefs, and, of course, go beyond American politics and make space to listen to the political realities of international students. Too many times our politics have alienated us from speaking to one another, but at HDS we must always be striving to take seriously each other’s creeds, beliefs, and opinions. At the same time, we cannot ignore the real harm that historically marginalized communities have endured. Therefore, our priority should not be to maintain a level of comfort for the historically privileged groups. We need to learn how to be forthcoming with one another while also being sensitive about each other’s identities and experiences. Balancing these two social needs will become the responsibility of every incoming student who expects to be heard but who must also hear others with the same level of curiosity and respect.

Again, the goal for HDS is not to become a perfectly diverse and inclusive institution in every area of academics and campus life. Rather, the hope is that HDS will not drift away from the path of critical self-examination that leads to intentional self-improvement. The years to come will challenge HDS to humbly seek feedback from members of its community and to take seriously both the criticism and the praise that is received from all voices. As we celebrate all of our accomplishments in academia and our dedication to the development of ministry, we must also take a moment to reflect on the ways we have prioritized or silenced some voices over others. If HDS wants to be the leader in the field of religious studies that is needed in the world, it will have to lead us into a humble awareness of our institutional shortcomings and move us past our mistakes into effective change. By 2116, we will be better than we were one hundred years ago, if we allow ourselves to reflect on our past and labor toward an even more radically diverse and inclusive Harvard Divinity School.

 

Diana Ortiz is a master of divinity candidate who plans to graduate in May 2017. This is an excerpted and edited version of her submitted essay.

 

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My Dear Emily

A theological love letter from 2116.

Ryan Gregg

Dear Emily illustration by Dadu Shin

Illustration by Dadu Shin.

 

28 July 2116

My dear Emily,

I’m not sure how to begin this letter, and the three wads of crumpled paper tossed on the floor—my previous attempts—can attest to that. So I’ve decided in this draft to get directly to what matters most and say straight out of the gate: I love you, Emily. I miss you terribly. And I’m so sorry for going AWOL.

You know, my heart attack last month seemed at first like the worst possible timing—just three weeks after being appointed Dean of Harvard Divinity School. My dream job. But I’m already starting to wonder if it wasn’t providential. Perhaps instead of nearly taking my life, those ruptured arteries are in fact saving my life. As you know all too well, I’ve made a career writing about the doctrinal intersection between Christian and Buddhist depictions of love, but it seems that in the process of writing so much about love, I’ve entirely forgotten how to write with love, or even in love. Yes, Emily. You know this, too, don’t you? Sometimes I wonder if I even believe in love anymore. I’m like the heart surgeon who wakes up one morning at the height of his career and says, “Oh my God, I’m a Christian Scientist! I don’t believe in surgery!” Yet this forced sidelining—and HDS was so good about this six-month leave, no questions asked—is giving me time to reconsider all that . . . to breathe again, to think and remember, maybe even to dream.

Yesterday, I was on a walk down by the Flathead River, taking it slow, remembering the autumn of 2086 . . . thirty years ago now, when you and I were both first-year MTS students at HDS. Do you remember those days? I do. We certainly believed in love then. We sat by each other on the plane from the new Harvard campus in Colorado, on the annual trip out to “the Swamp,” the old Cambridge campus. That was when we first held hands, as the plane took off. Do you remember? Your hand was so delicate and warm in mine as the jets fired up. And then, sitting together on the two-seater kayak as we paddled through the old Yard . . . the old, moss-covered buildings . . . the ducks . . . our first kiss. Do you remember? I certainly do. Yes, I certainly believed in love then. It wasn’t yet a doctrine for me, a motif to be scrutinized and exploited. It was simply everything, full stop.

Emily—I think it could be everything again. As I’ve been walking around Bigfork these last few days, or in the fields, or down by the river, taking it slow as the surgeon requires, it’s like all the particles of busyness and confusion adrift in the mad fluid of my mind are settling down now, and I’m starting to see things more clearly than perhaps I have in years. In this newfound stillness, one of your thoughts has repeatedly returned to me, a mainstay from your work in Cosmic Egg Theology. I was always so inspired by the way you called attention in your dissertation to our collective amnesia, reminding the theological community that the Big Bang was first theorized by a Jesuit priest who called it the Cosmic Egg. And then—this is what has lately been on my mind—I loved how you pushed it further, arguing for the fundamental correspondence between the resurrection doctrine of Jewish and Christian traditions and all the cosmological models of accelerated eruption from the primordial singularity—light from darkness, heat from cold, life from death, Yes from No . . . a beautiful cohesion, Emily, a beautiful vision. In a real sense, you’ve always been my pastor, my theologian of choice.

 

The essay contest winner, Ryan Gregg, describes how he came up with the idea of a theological love letter and the inspiration behind it.

 


Yet I realize that the amnesia that affects us collectively—on display with every election cycle, this chronic historical myopia of the American voting public—is equally entrenched at the individual level. You know who the most forgetful person is around here, Em? It’s me. Your husband. How is it that I’ve forgotten the most basic ideas to which both of us have dedicated our professional and personal lives? I have unwittingly become an apostate of coherence, denying that the macroscopic promise of resurrection also pertains to the microscopic level, to you and me. In that sense, the angry words I said when I left for the airport, my deep pessimism about our marriage, that was all sheer blasphemy. “It can’t be saved. We’re probably done.” What was I thinking? I wasn’t. Forgive me, please. Now that I’m alone in Montana, and you’re still down in Colorado, I walk for miles and miles every day—slowly, don’t worry—and I say perhaps the first real prayers I’ve said in over a decade. And as I do, I begin to sense again the phenomenal pregnant quivering of a cosmic egg—a resurrection of love.

And on another level, far less important than the convalescence of our marriage, it seems to me that this cardiac convalescence is timely on a professional level. It is giving me a chance to pause before the heavy lifting begins, to step back and reflect about the School, about religious studies as a whole, about the flow and flux of history in general. This mood of reflection also seemed present in the faculty as I left town, with HDS just beginning its three hundredth year in operation. I find myself thinking back to this School in 1816, the year of its founding, when Ralph Waldo Emerson was barely a teenager; then I think back to 1916, and to 2016, and muse about the questions that occupied the attention of our community at those historical waypoints. I also find myself daydreaming forward a little, to 2216, wondering what religious studies will be like then, long after you and I are gone, our atoms decomposing together, clasped in a silent prayer of expectation.

The questions we are asking are still big and generous, and . . . seem essentially to be the same questions we have always been asking as a community of scholars.

I am always a little taken aback to realize how habitually distrustful of the future we humans are, from the ancient apocalyptic literatures onward. Yesterday I was thumbing around on my computer through the archive of old Harvard publications, trying to gain a sense of who we have been through the years in order to gain a sense of who we might become, and to think about how my leadership as dean in the coming years might contribute. I came across a rather bizarre essay from 2016 in Harvard Divinity Bulletin, a dystopic screed predicting what HDS and religious studies would look like today, in 2116. The world had become a nuclear wasteland, naturally. Religious illiteracy and sundry fundamentalisms had grown up together like so many “thorns and thistles,” destroying the Garden of Earth. Of course, nothing of the sort has happened. The writer also forecast that by 2116 religious scholarship would be unrecognizably distorted, a hash of pseudo-psychology and insular identity politics, some balkanized tangle.

Of course, the field today is nothing like that. The questions we are asking are still big and generous, and, to me, they seem essentially to be the same questions we have always been asking as a community of scholars. This is not because we are lazy or unimaginative, but because the infinite urgency of being human, when stripped of technical jargon, is expressed consistently in questions like these: What does it mean to be human? A good human? To relate to the divine? To love? To die well? To care for others as they also seek to love and die well? To care for the Earth? To form communities of justice and righteousness? Well, Em, I am glad to say that the  well-meaning (and quite articulate) essayist from 2016 quite misread the trajectory of our community, but, in her defense, perhaps such dire warnings serve to jar us awake a little and keep us on track. If it wasn’t for dark prophecies, the world might actually become dark. At any rate, it seems Solomon of old had a stroke of perspicacity one afternoon on his porch in Jerusalem when he looked up and down and noted that there ain’t much new under this lovely red star of ours.

Can I share with you a case in point you might appreciate? In my historical ramblings, I’ve been reflecting on a few of the major transitions in scientific thought over the last couple of centuries. It’s hard for me to believe that in 2016 they were still excited about the Higgs boson, the so-called God Particle that allows mass to be mass. And one hundred years before that, it was relativity that was blowing minds, and the elementary observation that light itself—by which you are surrounded, Em, as you read these words, such a quotidian reality—is actually at the frontier of time and space, the cracking point of the universe. That which is quite literally timeless permeates and even orchestrates our perception of time itself, and I’m so grateful to Father Jameson for helping you and me to consider how prayer can usher us into that timeless realm of light (not just in tightly theorized paragraphs but in reality).

I am nurturing a private hope that in the next century, in our so-called post-science age, we will witness a grand rebirth of mythology.

But I’m getting distracted, per usual. What I wanted to observe is the way that the recent discovery and confirmation of the properties of both dark matter and dark energy (!), while hailed as an epochal advancement in humanity’s understanding of the universe, really fits quite neatly into Solomon’s thesis, composed on that porch some three thousand years ago. What we have realized, it seems—and, Good Lord, is it refreshing to write in these generalized strokes, and not in the rigorous qualifications of peer review journals—is that the same quantum yeastiness at work in the universe is of a piece with the yeastiness in the human brain. We can now see a little more deeply into the chemical audacity by which fluctuations in gray matter translate into the epistemic illuminations of simple knowing, and also of that thicker knowing beyond the mind—the intellect beyond intellectualism to which religion has always pointed and from which it has always been derived. To me, it is clear that what our recent scientific discoveries have achieved is to thrust us back again on that old, old religious instinct for mystery, for an untamable wildness in the substance of things. I don’t mean at some peripheral point, off in some remote hinterland of empirical reality. No. Mystery is squarely in the beating heart of the whole show. It’s in my brain as I write. In your brain as you read. As pervasive and risky as the light on this page. Or to switch metaphors, it is as if our intellectual arsenal has been loaded up once again for a whole new barrage of religious scholarship, asking timelessly urgent questions in scintillatingly fresh, timely ways. Perhaps—and here I am being optimistic—even the contribution of dark energy and dark matter to the humanities will be a newfound willingness among academicians to again write “dark sayings,” that is, enigmas, riddles beyond logic, even the kind of riddles that set the framework for logical stability itself. What I mean, Emily, is that I am nurturing a private hope that in the next century, in our so-called post-science age, we will witness a grand rebirth of mythology.

Already we’ve begun to see stirrings in this direction, haven’t we? The telling incident for me was when the UN adopted the “Joseph Model” in the 2060s and 70s in order to forestall the consequences of the Great Famine of the 2080s and 90s, as the global economy transitioned from oil to salt water. (I’m still hopeful, by the way, that in time this will reverse some of the effects of the rising oceans and give us some of our great cities back. Maybe even Boston?) That was a huge moment, not just politically, but religiously as well. Having learned the catastrophic lessons from Mao Zedong’s so-called Great Leap Forward in the 1950s, the transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy that cost scores of millions of lives, the people of the world (and not just those of the Abrahamic faiths) were inspired by the tale of a slave boy forecasting to Pharaoh the coming of a great famine and the need to prepare for it by storing up food in advance. All through the 2080s and 90s, while you and I were in high school, college, and grad school, I remember watching news reports of, quite literally, billions of people lining up at regional food warehouses, hungry and jobless folk accessing these presciently massive stockpiles of imperishable commodities: rice, wheat, salt, sugar, beans, corn. . . . It was at that time that I first became convinced that religion is still terribly relevant, that old visions when seen imaginatively are also new visions. That’s when I decided to be a scholar of religion, and a pastor: when the Joseph Model was adopted and then saved upwards of three billion lives, according to conservative estimates.

Of course, I’m telling you things you already know, and I suspect you skimmed that last paragraph. That’s alright. Isn’t this one of the great challenges of marriage—the blessing/curse of being able to finish each other’s sentences and paragraphs? Where has all the discovery gone, the sense of magic? I believe it is still there, at a level far deeper than semantic predictability, and I think you sense the same. At least I hope you do. But let me tell you something that, as far as I am aware, you do not know. Among the umpteen decisions that immediately needed my approval after being appointed dean was a request from the Bulletin to endorse a student writing competition on the 300th anniversary of the Divinity School. The prompt, in more delicate language than this, was essentially: “What are the benefits and pitfalls of the pending integration of Harvard Divinity School into the ethical department of Harvard Business School? Project forward one hundred years, to 2216, and forecast the consequences of what many call the ‘commoditization of religion.’ ” I didn’t tell you about this, Em, because after a moment’s reflection, I decided to discourage the contest, and then I forgot all about it. My reasons were four. The first three were: 1) It was (quite understandably, and I’m in sympathy with them) a politicized prompt; 2) I don’t want to read another dystopic screed, thank you; 3) There’s no way in hell I’m going to let that merger go through, funding be damned.

But my fourth reason is the most theological, I suppose, and was the real clincher: I want to do whatever I can to counteract the insidious tendency of religious studies to reflect on the past and the future at the expense of the present. The little figurine of the bodhisattva Manjushri that I keep on my desk inspired me, with his sword of flaming light that cuts down all ignorance and duality. Endlessly parsing the syntax of past, present, and future assumes a false duality of Now and not-Now, and I want our students to dig with their pens and minds into the timeless Now, accessed via 2116, and let 2216 take care of itself. Of course, from a Christian pulpit this basic idea of compressing hope into the iridescent present might easily be recast in the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: “Do not say, ‘Look, there is the kingdom!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the Kingdom of God is within you.” Of course, I am not suggesting that there is no authentic futurity in Christianity, or in religion broadly; of course not. It’s only futurity of the wrong kind I wish to discourage, a futurity defaulting to the assumption of a purely human agency, to an exclusively empirical model of causality (a model now being revised anyway). If that happens, if our moral imaginations become so crippled and craven, then, regardless of the name, we’ve ceased to be a divinity school.

Were I to preach such a sermon though, Em, it would have to be in the spirit of Karl Barth, who used to insist that every sermon worth preaching must also destroy the one preaching it. The truth is, these words of Jesus and the sword of Manjushri are leveled directly at me, calling me out for my own hypocrisy. Not only in this meandering letter have I been guilty of avoiding the present on the pretext of “thinking important thoughts” about the past and the future, but, more generally, I am quite guilty of avoiding the command of love itself on the pretext of theorizing its doctrinal and sociopolitical ramifications. What a Pharisee I’ve become; or perhaps, in a more modern simile, I’m like a computer programmed to instantly break down and reassemble the binary ones and zeros of the word “love,” without any clue about what it actually means.

So I’ve decided something just now, although I say it not as a caprice but as a conviction—a conviction which took a week of wandering AWOL and a couple hours of writing for me to arrive at: I’m coming home. Right now. I’ll be on the next flight possible. Why? Because I want to enter deeply into this moment of life, to set aside for a time my academic theorizing about what it means to live, and just actually live—with you, near you. If you’ll have me. I don’t want to write letters anymore; I want to talk with you, face to face, voice to voice. Perhaps, I’d even like to kiss you, as we did floating once under the bronze patina of John Harvard, pressing meaning-maker to meaning-maker, an equation not as 1+1=2, but as 1+1=∞, a fusion of the sort that chemically powers the stars. The commitment of one particularity to another particularity is what unleashes such cosmic drama, and, on that account, I’m done with all these abstractions about institutions and eras. You are the particularity to which I am committed, Emily, the particularity I love. And I am coming home to be with you now. Maybe, as my heart is slowly made well again, our hearts might also, slowly—even miraculously—again be made one.

Still your,
Jack

 

Ryan Gregg is a first-year PhD candidate at Harvard University in the Committee on the Study of Religion. He holds a master of theological studies degree from Harvard Divinity School and a BA from Northwest University.

 

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Our Mysterious Calling

Samuel H. Miller

From “The Mystery of Our Calling,” vol. 26, no. 1 (October 1961)

Samuel H. Miller
Samuel H. Miller portrait, 1968. Harvard University portrait collection, gift of Mrs. Samuel H. Miller to the Divinity School, 1968.

The witness alike of Jesus, or the prophets, or the saints is that once God’s call comes, then we are plunged headlong into the sufferings of mankind. For the first time we are on the inside of this world’s pain, no longer separated from any man’s anguish or sin. This is Dostoevski’s plea in the monk Zossina’s great testimony in Brothers Karamazov:

“If the evil doing of men moves you to indignation and overwhelming distress, even to a desire for vengeance on the evil-doers, shun above all things that feeling. Go at once and seek suffering for yourself, as though you were yourself guilty of that wrong. Accept that suffering and bear it and your heart will find comfort, and you will understand that you too are guilty, for you might have been a light to the evil-doers, even as the one man sinless, and you were not a light to them.”

Among our modern authors this call to share in the suffering of men is illuminated and profoundly stressed by André Malraux and Albert Camus, neither of them Christian in the normal sense of that term. Malraux boldly speaks of it as the “joy of fraternal pain” and believes no man becomes himself until he shares the deepest level of unity with his death-threatened and bludgeoned fellow men. Camus’ voice, now silenced, was never more impassioned than when he asked men to rise to a new level of compassion. . . .

No, the truth of it is that in God’s call we are called back, so to speak, called back from our pretentions, our poses, our holy false faces, back and down and into the very conditions we sought to escape, that we might be tremblingly alive to where honest people live, and where if God has any concern at all for them, he will be found.

This last phrase brings me to the second marked point of clarity in the call . . . namely, they are all called to “salvage the remains of sanctity” in men’s blundering hearts. None of us lives long without bringing down about our heads a great clutter of rubbish. We lose ourselves in it. We sometimes try to shape it up as if it would carry the weight of truth or beauty and withstand the storms of tragic reality. . . . It is our calling to rightly divide the Word—in the human heart—from the words which are there in great clamoring throngs—and that is not an easy thing.

Indeed, it is a rather sad fact that in our day there is much disillusionment about sanctity. The term has been corrupted by the church itself. It has become formalized, falsified, encrusted with jewels and crawling with spurious pictures. Protestantism is not without her share of responsibility in neutralizing the life of the world. For many, the holy seems a bit like superstition. . . .

Yet, if we cannot find sanctity, we should be honest and give over the game to those who say God is dead, for sanctity is the moment of His presence; we should give up worship, which seeks to remember and to reenact the primordial events of sanctity through which God manifested his place in the world; we should give up any moral seriousness, for without sanctity morality becomes a convenient pattern of mores and nothing more.

It is . . . precisely this sense of sanctity, which breaks through the prose of Hemingway, or the squalor of Graham Greene’s stories, or the tortured complexities of decadence in Faulkner’s novels. . . . This is our call, to find in man’s much beleaguered heart, fraught with every shame and embarrassment, living on the brink of endless decisions in which heaven and hell are always bidding for his soul, here amid the ruins of his dreams and the cheap rubbish he is forever gathering to his heart, we must find the scraps and vestiges of the divine presence, hidden, obscured, and often lost.

And this leads me now to the third unmistakable mark of the calling. . . . Louis Lavelle . . . says of the saint that “through his presence alone he succeeds in giving to the things or persons he meets on the way the interior quality they lacked.” The severest desolation is the emptying out of life, the sickening sense of the abyss, the awful taste of nothingness. And in this wild and furious world of machines and techniques, of manipulation and screaming salesmen, men and women are externalized, whirled about until there is no inner life left in them. They become masks, routines, functions, reputations, successes, without any specific gravity. . . .

Our calling is to . . . assist our fellow men by sustaining the inwardness of the spirit. In short, our job is to rehabilitate people inwardly, to engage in such a relationship that they may become themselves as persons, to encourage by our anticipation and imagination the exercise of their souls. . . .

However mysterious your call may be, remember that it is imbedded deeply in the very mystery by which you are a human being. There is no way for you to detour or avoid the inevitability of doing something with things as they are; only one thing you cannot do—you cannot leave them as they are.

 

 

Samuel Howard Miller pastored the Old Cambridge Baptist Church for twenty-five years before serving as Dean of HDS from 1959 to 1968.

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Redefining America's 'Race Problem'

Preston N. Williams

From “Shifting Racial Perspectives,” vol. 2, no. 1 (Fall 1968)

Preston Williams portrait
Preston N. Williams portrait, 2011. Photo: Harvard University Portrait Collection

The Negro in America has finally succeeded in making America aware of the true nature of her racial problem.

The seal of that victory is the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders:

What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.

White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.

Just as President Eisenhower and many Americans have refused to acknowledge the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision of 1954, so also have President Johnson and many Americans refused to accept this document. Nevertheless, the American substitute for the Delphic oracle—a Presidential commission—has asserted that white racism is the main cause of America’s civil disorders and of its race problem.

It would be naïve for us to think of this report as simply a response to the riots of 1967. It was a response to what America has called its Negro problem, and it was a firm statement urging the redefinition of the problem. The problem is not black America; the problem is white America, white racism. But the timing of the report is exceedingly important for our evaluation. It was issued precisely at that juncture in the civil rights crusade when the black man’s action was shorn of its halo of righteousness. Assigning culpability to the black man would have been easy, for he had performed his most provocative act. Yet this Establishment committee of white prestige leaders and two non-militant, non-radical Negroes asserted in the face of a public calling for “law and order” that white racism is the cause of America’s civil disorders and of her racial problem.

The Negro had made Americans redefine the racial problem and see the country through the  eyes of its most oppressed minority. This, I submit, is the most salient fact about the contemporary Negro in America. He is being seen as he wants to be seen. The invisible man has been made visible, the stereotype has been replaced by a living man. . . .

The civil rights movement can be interpreted as the attempt of Negro citizens to receive their rights as individual citizens. Negro revolution or rebellion points to the attempt to form organic communities, which as communities demand self-determination and freedom and which as communities impose certain duties on their members. Success here has been at best suggestive. No one unified Negro community has come into existence in any local area and none should be expected to emerge. . . .

Nonetheless what has occurred is not without fruit. A rebirth of the conception of a people has resulted from these efforts at building a community. Negroes have come to speak of themselves as a people with a vocation and a mission. Their history and culture are being recovered and revived, and serious work is being undertaken in an effort to reconstitute social institutions. Black has become beautiful; the slave heritage has become a teacher against cant and for compassion and endurance; and the disabilities of the present are prods to develop a new, more sensitive, and world-embracing ethic.

The most pervasive note struck in the cultural revival is the desire for identification with Africa. I regard this as a romanticizing stemming from powerlessness and alienation. In point of time the Negro may know that he came to the American shore before the Mayflower, yet in assimilation he feels that he is a first-generation immigrant longing for the home to which he cannot return, Africa.

Even though return is impossible and Africa is too vague a homeland, Africa does symbolize the single most important component of the new solidarity—the Negro’s blackness, his not yet fully known culture and tradition. It points to his desired integrity, freedom, and autonomy. Africa is the Negro’s “soul,” America but his dwelling place. The major issue is how to be both an American and a Negro.

 

An ordained Presbyterian minister, Preston N. Williams was Acting Dean of HDS in 1974–75, and was the Houghton Professor of Theology and Contemporary Change from 1971 to 2002. Williams wrote this essay while he was the Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor at Boston University School of Theology.

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Remaking a 'Learned Ministry' for each new era

Stephanie Paulsell and Dudley C. Rose
 

In one of the earliest statements of the mission of Harvard College, the Puritan founders famously wrote that, once they had built their churches and established their government, “one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.”

From that longing, Harvard College was born, and—one hundred and eighty years later—Harvard Divinity School. As the Divinity School’s mission has broadened over the last two hundred years to support a wide range of vocations from minister to scholar to chaplain to teacher to activist to artist and beyond, the School’s mission to educate students for learned ministry has been remembered and reinterpreted, cherished and critiqued in Harvard Divinity School’s master of divinity program.

The history of, and vocation to, learned ministry now belongs to a more diverse group of students than the Puritans could have imagined. Students from Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, and Unitarian Universalist traditions, along with religious “nones” and students who belong to more than one religious community, are now the heirs of the Harvard founders’ commitment to learned ministry. What learned ministry means in this context is by no means settled or singular, nor are the forms it might take decided upon. As has been true in every generation, our students give these ideas shape and heft through the living of their lives in ministry.

Peter Gomes preaching

 

Peter Gomes, STB ‘68, preaches in 2008. Gomes was the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church for forty years and was a much beloved preaching and homiletics professor at Harvard Divinity School. He mentored hundreds of HDS students—not only those who planned to enter parish ministry or chaplaincy, but also many who went on to careers in other fields. HDS Photograph / Steve Gilbert

 

The journey from the education, in Harvard College, of literate clergy for the New England churches to the education of ministers and religious leaders for a much broader range of religious, multireligious, and nonreligious communities has unfolded not only against the backdrop of a changing American religious landscape, but also within a system of theological education undergoing radical transformation. Harvard’s establishment of a Divinity School in 1816 bears testimony to two movements in the landscape of education for Protestant Christian clergy: the secularization of university education and the explosion of theological schools, most of them denominational seminaries. In the opening decade of the nineteenth century, Harvard’s internal controversy between orthodox Calvinist Congregationalists and Unitarians led the former to found Andover Seminary in 1807. Presbyterians founded Princeton Theological Seminary in 1809, and the race was on. By 1840, nearly every American Protestant denomination had at least one seminary of its own. By 1918, more than one hundred individuals representing approximately fifteen Protestant denominations and fifty of their graduate schools gathered for a conference at Harvard to discuss the state and standards of graduate theological education for Protestant Christian ministry. The meeting would ultimately lead to the establishment of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS).

The formation of the ATS also signaled an era of emerging ecumenism within the society and in theological education. The bitter divides of the early nineteenth century were largely replaced by an emerging liberal-progressive Protestant Christian consensus. In 1922, Harvard Divinity School and Andover Seminary rejoined but, in 1926, were torn asunder, not by internal controversy but by a ruling of the Supreme Judicial Court. Presaging the later formation of the Boston Theological Institute, at various moments in this era, faculty members of Andover Theological Seminary (Baptist), Episcopal Theological School (Episcopal), Newton Theological Institution (Congregational), and Boston University School of Theology (Methodist) enjoyed faculty status at Harvard (nondenominational), and students had cross-registration privileges across all the schools.

The next three decades saw many of these trends grow. The first women were enrolled as students at HDS in 1955, though the first woman to receive tenure on the faculty would have to wait thirty more years, until Margaret Miles in 1985. The year 1958 saw the first occupant of the Charles Chauncy Stillman Chair in Roman Catholic Theological Studies—Christopher Dawson—and the formation of the Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR).

The formation of the CSWR led to dramatic changes in the School. While the meaning of the word “minister” had come to encompass far more than ordained vocations, and, even as attention to other religious traditions had increased, the School’s theological center had remained Protestant Christian. The 1980 curriculum was mapped onto three concentric categories: at the center, Scripture (meaning Old and New Testament); one circle out, Christianity and Culture; and outermost, World Religions. With the introduction of the MTS degree in the early 1970s—but also within the MDiv—increasing numbers of HDS students found the Christian curricular center hard to reconcile with their academic and vocational aspirations, let alone their religious identities. Many students recognized HDS to be a place of religious diversity. They understood each of their own traditions to be a hub, with its own sacred texts, histories, theologies, and practices spreading forth as spokes.

In 2003, Janet Gyatso, the Hershey Professor in Buddhist Studies, gave her Convocation Address, “Where Do We Stand?” Her talk inspired new conversations among faculty, staff, and students about how the MDiv program might educate students from many religious backgrounds, and it provided inspiration for the most extensive curricular revision in HDS’s history. Paying homage to the Divinity School’s Protestant Christian inheritance, Gyatso noted in her address that “A budding Zen priest would learn enormously from Peter Gomes on how to preach with wit and passion.” She offered a number of other examples to emphasize her conviction that, even as the MDiv program at HDS became self-consciously multireligious, it would bear deep marks of its genealogy. Gyatso reasoned that as a religious tradition such as Zen Buddhism grew in America, its institutional expressions and the expectations of its adherents might begin to resemble existing American religious forms. “I want us never to forget,” she insisted, “that this American religion . . . is just in the making.”

Monks in Divinity Chapel

 

Priya Rakkhit Sraman (left), a Buddhist monk from Bangladesh, speaks with Seng Yen Yeap (holding beads), a monk from Hong Kong. These and other Buddhist practitioners have come to HDS to study as part of the Buddhist Ministry Initiative. Harvard News Office

 

As our colleague Diana Eck has often reminded us, religions do not travel through history in pneumatic tubes, unaffected and unchanged by their encounters with other traditions. Religious traditions and the cultures in which they take root are anything but static. They reshape one another, constantly. And while it is certainly true to say that Harvard Divinity School still manifests its Protestant Christian roots—even the Convocation at which Janet Gyatso spoke retained the shape of a Protestant Christian worship service—it is equally as true to say that the School and what it teaches is “just in the making.”

When HDS committed itself to a multireligious master of divinity program, we wanted to acknowledge the changes and mutual influences that were already afoot. The United States was already a pluralistic society, and many families, neighborhoods, and communities were already multireligious, as was the Divinity School itself. Indeed, long before the new curriculum was implemented, there were small numbers of Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu students, as well as students who adhered to no religious tradition, pursuing the MDiv degree alongside Christian and Unitarian Universalist students. Most sought to prepare themselves for chaplaincy in multireligious contexts such as hospitals, prisons, and schools. But because the MDiv curriculum was structured under the “Christianity and Culture” rubric, these students had to submit petitions to replace Christian scripture requirements with the study of the holy books of their own traditions.

When the faculty revised the master of divinity curriculum, our aim was to strengthen ministry education for all students in the program, no matter their religious background. We wanted to offer more shared intellectual experiences that all students could draw upon—an introductory course in ministry studies, for example, and a course in theories and methods in the study of religion—while at the same time strengthening each student’s critical engagement with the scriptures, theologies, histories, and practices of their own religious traditions. We wanted to free MDiv students from the cumbersome work of petitioning to count the courses they needed to engage critically with their own traditions. We wanted to encourage them to seek the courses they needed from across the University, whether that be a language course, a course in the Qur’an, or one in the literature of the transcendentalist movement. And, we wanted the fruitful, creative thinking across traditions for which Gyatso had called, and out of which innovative ministries were already taking shape, to continue.

Ministry education at HDS has been transformed more quickly than we expected, as gifted students from a range of religious backgrounds have sought and gained admission to the master of divinity program and as our faculty and curricular offerings have become more diverse. In her 2003 Convocation Address, Gyatso had also expressed her hope that the study of Buddhism at HDS would become “brilliant in a thousand ways on how Buddhist intellectual and literary history can contribute to real-life pastoral contexts.” MDiv students at HDS today can take courses in Buddhist practices of compassionate care for the dying, spiritual care and counseling in Muslim communities, the practice of peacemaking across religions, and poetry as a resource for facing death and grief (as well as taking the courses in Christian preaching and the Jewish liturgical year that existed before the curriculum change).

There is a lot of work still left to be done in developing courses in the pastoral practices of the religious and spiritual traditions represented in our student body. But theological education for ministry at HDS is now being deeply and profoundly shaped by a range of traditions, practices, and perspectives. For example, all MDiv students, no matter their religious background, now leave HDS with an understanding of pastoral care that has been shaped by Buddhist thought and practice. The Buddhist influence on the theory and practice of pastoral care has already become a distinctive feature of education for ministry at HDS.1

As the School began significantly reforming its inherited Protestant Christian architecture—even moving some of the weight-bearing walls of the edifice—Charles Hallisey, Yehan Numata Senior Lecturer on Buddhist Literatures, captured the spirit of these changes when he said that the MDiv curriculum was moving from a stance of learning about other religious traditions to a stance of learning from other religious traditions. Decentering Christianity did not, of course, erase the Protestant Christian ethos of HDS, but it significantly changed the discourse. The commitment to learn from more than one religious tradition substantively enriches the learning that goes on in the School. It also democratizes truth claims.

Some worry that a ministerial formation that learns from other traditions results in a vague and shapeless minister. Former HDS Dean Krister Stendhal was fond of saying that interreligious engagement should result in a stew, not an over-processed soup. The ingredients should inform one another, and to some degree change one another, yet remain distinguishable. Our experience at HDS suggests that our students regularly become more aware, knowledgeable, and committed to their traditions as they prepare in our program. Students and alumni report that they have had to more clearly articulate the beliefs and practices of their own traditions at HDS, because they did not have the luxury of an assumed common religious language. As they engage in this more careful articulation, many have realized that they need to learn more about their own tradition; they knew less of it than they thought they knew. The potato in the stew actually becomes a better potato!

Presiding Bishop Eaton

 

Elizabeth Eaton, MDiv ’80, was installed as presiding bishop in 2013 and was the first woman to lead the four million–member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Asked about the meaning of her installation, Eaton replied that God’s gifts could be poured out on anyone, even “on someone who happens to be female from Ohio.” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

 

The landscape of theological education continues to change, as we are losing many of the freestanding denominational seminaries that were founded in the early nineteenth century. Protestant seminaries often do not have the resources to broaden their educational models, even if they have wanted to. Their financial capacities are already stressed to the point of breaking.2 As more and more seminaries change to low-residency online programs, merge, or disappear, it becomes increasingly important that universities maintain their commitment to their divinity schools. If full-time, three-year programs of ministerial formation are going to survive in this country, they are going to survive, in large part, in the universities.

This will inevitably change theological education—and potentially for the better. Universities possess the infrastructure and resources to support the crucial work of preparing new generations of ministers for contexts both familiar and new. The intellectual breadth available within universities allows “learned ministry” to be influenced by every form of human knowledge and to educate students in a wide range of traditions. Today’s learned ministers must be formed in their religious traditions within a multireligious environment and curriculum. But they must also understand how to navigate political and social realities, properly manage organizations, negotiate conflicts, work for justice and peace, and provide spiritual care. The whole university is necessary for the task of educating learned ministers. Certainly, without the wider resources of Harvard University, the Divinity School could not welcome such a diverse range of students into its MDiv program, or offer our students such a rich curriculum.

The benefits of the relationship between universities and ministerial education do not just flow in one direction. Universities often seem to think of their divinity schools as a repository of values by which the university hopes to be influenced. But the ministers who receive their education within a university divinity school bring more than values to the university’s table. They bring a desire to cultivate not only new knowledge but new ways of living from their encounter with the histories, theologies, literatures, practices, and languages that they study. They connect the university to a wide array of local communities through their work in field education, and they cultivate spaces within which to reflect on the intersection of the university and the world around it.3 Furthermore, in our increasingly religiously plural society, many fields within the broader university are coming to understand the need within their areas and professions for religiously literate scholars and practitioners. Because nothing human is alien to the minister, there is nothing that can be learned in a university that cannot be put to good use in ministry—and that fact is transformative, for the minister and for the university. MDiv students help make “One Harvard” a reality.

Jewish polity class

 

In 2016, for the first time the number of Jewish students in ministry studies merited an offering in Jewish polity. Rabbi Sally Finestone, ThM ’99, denominational counselor to Jewish students, taught the course. The HDS Office of Ministry Studies employs part-time denominational counselors who serve the needs of particular faith communities at the Divinity School. HDS Photograph / Michael Naughton

 

When we say “learned ministry,” we hope our students hear the echo of the aspirations of the School’s Protestant Christian founders, but we also hope they hear a call to a life of ministry that is marked by the learning that happens in classrooms and libraries, in hospitals and prisons, in religious communities and in social movements, and by bringing what is learned in one context to bear on another. We hope they hear a call to a life of rigorous and loving attention, a life turned toward the world’s challenges and sorrows, bearing the best resources it knows how to gather. We hope they hear a call to ministry in which nothing that can be learned is off-limits or irrelevant to their work as ministers—a call to the creative refashioning of what they have learned in the classroom and the field, in prayer and study, into ministries within which people and communities can flourish.

We who teach here understand that HDS’s Protestant Christian heritage permeates the place even as the School claims a robust pluralism. We also understand that the ground keeps shifting. The religious landscape of the United States and the world is not and never has been static. We strive to educate ministers to become spiritually, intellectually, and pastorally agile so they may minister well in a changing present and an unknown future. Finally, HDS intends to train ministers who learn from traditions other than their own, not only because doing so will enrich their own traditions, but also because knowledge of and mutual respect among religious traditions is necessary if there is ever to be a just and peaceful world.

As multireligious ministry education continues to develop at HDS, our challenge is to take the fullest possible advantage of the opportunities our diverse community offers for learning from each other and from the traditions we live and study. When they encounter challenges, we see our students digging even more deeply into the resources of religious thought and practice, literature, social movements, and more. We see them seeking new ways to cherish and protect the dignity of every person, and new language that cultivates solidarity across difference and speaks truthfully about the things that matter most. We are fortunate to be teaching and learning with our students, and welook forward with hope to the difference our students will make, and that they are already making, in the world.

 

Notes:

  1. The Buddhist Ministry Initiative trains future Buddhist religious professionals and coordinates a range of courses on the history, thought, and practice of Buddhism, in Buddhist languages, and in Buddhist arts of ministry. It also supports the field education of Buddhist ministry students in hospitals and other sites of pastoral care, and offers the insights of Buddhist textual traditions and practices to students from all religious traditions who study ministry at HDS. The initiative was launched in 2011 thanks to a $2.7 million gift from The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation.
  2. The Boston Theological Institute (BTI), a consortium of ten theological schools, divinity schools, seminaries, and a rabbinical school in the Boston area, is a case in point. Three of the ten schools in the BTI are freestanding schools of Protestant Christian orientation (American Baptist, Episcopal, United Church of Christ). Of those three, the two schools affiliated with the so-called mainline denominations have announced closings in the last two years.
  3. Approximately one hundred accredited field education sites are affiliated with HDS and are open to MDiv and MTS students. These sites include parishes, educational institutions, community-based social justice agencies, hospitals, and other health care institutions. An average of 100 students participate in field education each year (including summer placements).
 

Stephanie Paulsell is Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies. Dudley C. Rose is associate dean for ministry studies and Lecturer on Ministry.

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Sighted Souls

Jo Murphy

Sighted Souls illustration by Dadu Shin

Illustration by Dadu Shin.

 

It was the year you could see souls. Revealed on exposed skin, pulsing, glowing, flickering, underneath T-shirts stretched thin. Hers was exactly eight peonies in a continual mode of blooming and closing. As she had gotten used to her peonies, she came to see them as eight giant pink eyes blinking at the world.

The year before souls became visible, she had been working on her application to the Island Nations Project, which provided support and rescue missions to the populations of the islands sinking as sea levels rose. Her great-aunt had been best friends with a woman who, as a political statement, built her house on the edge of the island of Tangiers to photo-document the sea rising, challenging everyone’s disbelief of climate devastation while her house sank off the coast of Virginia. She remembered her aunt showing her a photo of the woman when the water was knee deep, marshes swirling at her thighs, her house unlivable, her eyes staring straight and stern at the camera as the sea steadily rose. That was fifty years before the End Wars began.

Before her application was complete, the second wave hit and the third world storm began, the last surviving islands disappearing under water. Another End War began, as a variety of radical religious groups went to war with each other, some fighting for how the world should “properly” end, some committing acts of terror, others going on prolonged “soul cleanses,” forcing rituals and torture upon people in order to cleanse the soul before the end.

This was when the first souls were sighted. It was almost as if human bodies reacted to the fact that they needed to be “cleansed,” that they needed anything else at all in order to end their life in the bodies they had grown into and inhabited. She started to see her soul at the same time everyone else did, surprised when her side looked as if it was glowing through her worn pink T-shirt, embarrassed when her top got caught in her backpack and was pulled up to reveal peonies, blurry at first, then coming into their full existence as radical pink globes of petals. As underground soul cleansing missions took place, and buildings were targeted by religious End Groups, more and more souls appeared, giving color and light to threatened bodies.

Universities and colleges had already began to function more as think tanks than as learning institutions, gathering together students to combat the growing climate problem and respond to emergency situations, sending them off to work with other think tanks to try to provide solutions that one hundred years ago would have been hypothetical—solutions to problems presented to encourage discussion and critical thinking, urging students to hone their skills. There was no longer time for papers and presentations now.

Eventually, her peonies became the blinking pink-petaled eyes that she came to know as her soul, clearly defined in both shape and glow. She watched the news reports delicately appear in their air bubbles when she was outside her house watching as Divinity Think Tanks started to recruit the people who had visible souls. Most think tanks sent people to work as religious consultancy teams acting as advisors to other university projects involving climate emergencies and resource allotment conflicts. There was one Divinity Think Tank, however, that was sending peace teams to the End War zones. She glanced at her half-finished application to work with people relocating from their washed-away homes. As her peonies started lazily blinking, she grabbed her bag and headed to the library. She quickly snagged a seat and logged into the databases, leafing through the thin computer slices that hung from the wall offering her the full collection. She wanted to find more information on where the Divinity Think Tank base was sending peace groups.

Old brochures, articles, and past websites flipped quickly by as she took in the landscape of this school near to the coast, still maintaining its old buildings and its trees, whose leaves turned color in the fall. A decision had been made around twenty years ago to build a sea wall so that much of the East Coast could be preserved, but as she flipped through candid photographs of students studying before and then after the construction of the sea wall, she could sense a difference. The sea walls, of course, had caused more problems than expected, but there was also something about the way they altered the environment around them, something desperate and impermanent, that unnerved her. She paused on a picture of a young woman, her hands up, wearing a “Bulletproof” Black Lives Matter T-shirt. The image was from when schools still had websites and did not simply contact the students desired for their programs directly through the cloud. The woman’s eyes were still open though they were looking down, her brow was creased, her braids falling over her T-shirt.

She looked over the pictures of the leaves on the surrounding trees of the campus that appeared ready to turn into the oranges and reds that helped portray “a classic New England Fall.” As she was about to leave her seat in the library, a message buzzed through the screen, interrupting her searches: ”Interested in joining our Peace Team?” She paused as her seat quivered, unsure if it should get out of her way or stay in the area. She sighed, sat back on it, and replied ”yes” to the message. “Soul picture and signature, please” She rose from her seat and exposed her side as the main screen snapped a picture of the peonies in mid-bloom. She lifted her finger and stood up to sign her name on the bottom of the screen. “Would you like to submit signature and soul?” She clicked “yes,” grabbed her bag, and let her chair zoom off to another library patron. Before she had left the library, she felt her tablet vibrating in her bag as messages frantically pinged in. She glanced at it to see that instructions for departure and necessary books and documents were already downloading, giving off various vibrations as they filled her tablet’s memory.


Her aunt was making coffee when she came into the house, her sister inevitably in front of a screen watching an old movie about a safari trip in Namibia as she swiped her finger across a piece of chocolate cake lying next to her. Her sister looked up.

“Your tablet sounds as if it is downloading an entire library.”

“Yeah, I think it is.”

“I wish we had been able to rehabilitate lions,” her sister said, absentmindedly taking another finger full of frosting.

She looked up at the screen her sister was watching, where a mama lion and her cubs stared fixedly at the safari jeep, daring it to come closer.

“Lions were going extinct more than a hundred years ago. They didn’t have much of a chance,” she said, as she lowered herself down to the floor, sprawling out as her sister curled up next to her.

“Coffee?” her aunt called out.

“I’m leaving tomorrow,” she said, her gaze and voice drifting. Her aunt appeared in the doorway leading from the kitchen to the room where the sisters lay sprawled.

“What?” She sounded tired.

She and her younger sister had both moved in with their aunt when their parents had announced that they were heading off on one of the exploratory trips to Mars. The ship they were on had lost communication with the Exploratory Mars Mission (EMM) a month ago, and no one had heard from them since. She had been living with a group of friends, planning on joining the Island Relocation Project, when the ship lost contact. The project fell through, and she moved in with her aunt to be with her younger sister.

“I’m going to Syrika,” she said as she grabbed a mug from the cabinet.

“Mmmm . . .” Her aunt filled her mug. “Are we going to lose communication with you too?”

She sighed. Her aunt had been angry with her mom since she left for Mars; they had made a pact that they would stay close to each other ever since the first wave and storm hit. All of her mother’s other siblings had died in a rescue team mission during an earthquake, unprepared for the aftershocks. After that, her mother and aunt had agreed to stay together—until her mother broke that pact following a huge campaign by the EMM.

She showed her aunt the train ticket that detailed her journey, both underground and in the sea shuttles, that would get her to Syrika in a day. Her aunt put the coffee down and grasped her hands, tightening her grip as her sister came to sit at the table.

“I will,” she said, “I will come back.”

 

She hadn’t written anything for a long time. The assignment was to compose a newsletter that both defined religious literacy and demonstrated through the created news articles how this concept could help people relate across religious and cultural divides in her current mission. She had six hours to complete the assignment before her next training session, which included a “ritual grounding,” where trainees experienced divinity school in two days. She would attend a convocation, three classes, a multireligious ceremony on the environment that would start at noon, a meditation circle, a Buddhist-led labyrinth walk, an early-morning ecumenical Eucharist, and, finally, a multireligious commencement service in which all the trainees were asked to present. After these two days, she and the other trainees would sit with a group of professors and activists from the Divinity School and discuss six hypothetical problems created by the professors and activists that would cover many of the issues that were currently arising among warring religious groups.

She sat in one of the chapels that had been beautifully preserved. It was a “clouds-free” space, barring the electronic clouds that dealt with devices. She was early and sat waiting for a Buddhist monk to give them an introduction to the labyrinth walk they would soon embark upon. She was exhausted, and, if she was being honest, she was ready to cry at any moment. The monks were chatting among themselves, swathed in their robes, one in the midst of picking up a singing bowl to take outside. One of them must have cracked a joke for, within moments, the whole room exploded with zealous laughter. Though the laughter bounced off the rafters, it had no trouble filling the room, providing every nook and cranny with a reason to give off a sense of joy and lightness. As the laughter filled the room, she smiled, then exhaled, letting her tears flow in the safety of six Buddhist monks laughing. Some of the other trainees filtered in, finding spaces in the chairs or on the floors, relief flooding their bodies as the laughter gently curved around them, cushioning their anxieties with hope and levity.

Her relaxed self was fleeting as she prepared to meet with the professors and activists, skimming over old publications from the Divinity School and reading about the history and current conflicts in Syrika. Story after story of the horrors occurring filled her mind and heart as she studied and read about both the present and the future of the place she was about to embark for. Another trainee popped into the room and told her they had ten minutes before their meeting. As she flipped through more stories, she tried to remember the feeling of the monks’ laughter that had enveloped her, but then she put the stories from Syrika down and flipped through the Divinity School papers and old publications. She came across a publication called ConSpiracies and noted that, under the title, it said “Breathing Together the Breath of Life.” She took a deep breath, letting herself breathe. As she let herself breathe, she soon fell into a pattern of breath that felt, just maybe, as if it was catching hold of the one breath, a breath that through it, beneath it, over it, and under it was a breath of life.

The field was what she imagined a war zone felt like. It was reminiscent of old zombie television shows she had watched, with fields that, though they may have been devoid of structures and people, looked particularly empty as bodies were continually mutilated and seemed to have no other purpose than to crash inevitably into each other. These types of sites occurred after two religious forces reached the end of their countdowns of when the end of days, previously calculated, were predicted to arrive. She stepped into the field, not knowing where the rest of her team was, unsure of what she was supposed to do now. A woman, filled with a rich anger, stepped toward her and raised her arm up, trying to decide if this woman in front of her with soul peonies was someone to destroy, someone to “save their soul” before the end of days.
Words came in and out of her mind: tolerance, pluralism, compassion, divinity . . . divinity . . . divinity . . . Where is the divinity? Right here, she said to herself. Shaking, she grabbed the woman’s hands, looked into her eyes, and saw the woman holding the hand of a small girl—a girl that looked like her sister—and she said:

“Remember when?”

The woman took a step back: “Remember what?”

“Remember when.”

“Why?” the woman demanded, her anger rising.

“Because we are breathing here together, and we are breathing nothing else but the breath of life. Remember when,” she said. “Remember when this type of breath was a type of breath you took.”

She repeated this softly, holding the woman’s hands, and, as she said this, she remembered when she could first see her own soul. She and her sister had been fighting when they learned that no one was receiving any communication from the Exploratory Mars Mission their parents were on. She could not remember what they had been fighting about, but she remembered the tears and how her sister had moved forward to kick the table but had tripped, and her pant leg got caught on a loose nail that tore her pants. She could see her sister’s newly visible soul buzzing on the surface of her skin, her lanky pine trees looking as if they were going to grow up her leg. She reached out to touch the trees with her hand, on which she could suddenly see tiny peony petals floating on her knuckles.

Her knees gave way, and she started remembering every memory she and her sister had ever shared. Her team members were around her now, and she felt each of their hands on her shoulders and back. Though she did not remember how, when the memories stopped, a memory of her sister remained with her, her sister in her arms, sleeping, nestled into her body, all the memories relived between them.

She looked back at the woman and could feel the woman’s memories rush into view. She could feel the hands of her fellow trainees still resting on her as the memories surged into being—the memories this woman had of her own sister—and then she started to see the woman’s soul. Limpid greens at first, then vines leaping everywhere on her body, her anger entrapped, encapsulated by greenery. And then there was a small light, a small light to greet the remembrance. Her own petals were fuming, fuming with a red pink rapidly blooming, contracting their blossoms at record speed. There was a rush, and she felt herself falling, and many different foggy images entered her mind. Her memories invaded her, different from when she and her sister had relived their own memories. The woman’s memories invaded her senses, but then commingled with hers in a way in which it felt as if she was living the woman’s memories, taking them on as part of her own, creating an instantaneous shared history. She could tell that the same thing was happening to the woman, the same living of new memories not her own. She saw that the woman was grabbing more hands, and very suddenly the air was filled, not with breeze, but with “Remember when?”

She saw the anger from the woman drain as the woman leaned over to hold the hands of a man beside her, igniting a sharing of memories and of souls as all three of them inhaled.

Her mind danced and filled with the memories, as all became one story. The air buzzed with the joining of memories. Soon the whole group was on their knees, connected through memory and the feeling of someone’s palm resting on one’s soul. She felt as if she was floating in and out of consciousness, growing weary from taking on so many stories and memories previously not her own. Days seemed to pass, floating in a haze, a never-ending movie in her mind of the stories around her linking up, darting in and out, as they became her own. She had lost contact with the outside world, lulled into a dream world, slightly anxious as she tried to find a way out, homing in on the stories she thought were her own. Growing more and more desperate, she tried to concentrate on what she remembered as hers. Outside of her, days passed, faster than one might expect, as everyone became linked together, soul to soul, glow to glow, all memories shared.

She was losing her grasp of what was hers until, all of a sudden, she was in someone’s memory. She could smell the woods as they jumped off their swings together, falling hard on the ground, her sister running off into the pine trees, whispering softly in her ear: “Remember when?”

“Remember when.” She took a breath, breathing as her peonies blinked ferociously and beautifully, breathing as her teammates in faith placed their hands on her back, feeling through their palms the peonies, wildly blinking and breathing with one breath.

 

Jo Murphy graduated from HDS in May 2015. She is working as a chaplain resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and is a candidate for Unitarian Universalist ministry.

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Studying Women in Religion is Crucial

Constance H. Buchanan

From “Transformations: Ten Years of Women’s Studies at HDS,” vol. 14, no. 2 (December 1983–January 1984)

Ron Thiemann and Connie Buchanan

Ron Thiemann and Constance Buchanan, undated. Photo: HDS photograph.


In the course of the last ten years, it has become increasingly clear that one cannot hope to study human religious experience adequately without studying women. It is now beginning to be evident, not only in terms of the nature of the scholarship on women being conducted in the various disciplines of the field of religion, but also because of the interest in religion in the scholarship on women emerging from other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, that one cannot adequately study the historical and contemporary condition of women’s lives without studying religion. . . .

This is so for several reasons. Primary among them, of course, is the fact that religious systems of meaning and belief have so powerfully shaped cultural patterns defining the social status and roles of women. Anyone hoping to understand women’s lives needs to attend to the extent to which religion has not only reflected basic cultural assumptions about gender but has in turn helped shape, reinforce, and alter those assumptions. A second reason why the study of women in religion is so important for the study of women in general is that it gives us access to women’s interior or spiritual lives. The study of women in religion allows us to learn and to understand how women of various historical periods, cultures, races, and ethnic groups have understood themselves, their social context, and their world. In other words, as feminist theologians have pointed out from the start, the study of women’s religious experience gives us access to women’s interpretations of reality. A third reason why the study of women and religion has major implications for the study of women is, of course, that religion and religious institutions historically have been a major sphere of women’s activities, second perhaps only to the domestic sphere itself.

 

Constance H. Buchanan, an associate dean and member of the HDS faculty from 1977 to 1997, was the founding director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program (WSRP).

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The Fall of the Family

Clarissa W. Atkinson

From “American Families and ‘The American Family’: Myths and Realities,” vol. 12, no. 2 (December 1981–January 1982)

Krister Stendahl and Crissy Atkinson

Krister Stendahl and Clarissa Atkinson, 1984. Photo: HDS photograph.

 

I believe that the most pervasive and important myth attached to the American family is the myth of a Fall. The story is familiar, for it begins in a garden, where we lived in harmony, without single parents or latchkey children or the marriage tax. Before the Fall, many kindly adults were available to care for children, who played in unpolluted meadows far from toxic waste dumps. . . . These children . . . learned the basics in neighborhood schools, and they learned to work beside their parents in fields and shops and kitchens. When they grew up, they moved down the street, or possibly into the next county, but they came home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and whenever there was trouble or something to celebrate. In those days, . . . the suicide rate did not surge during the holiday season. This was before Christmas was contaminated by Mastercharge, by Hallmark and Sears and G.E.—who make good things for people. . . . Everybody had a family in those days, and it worked. . . .

Depending on your point of view, the family worked because in those days it was a unit of production, not a unit of consumption. Or it worked because divorce wasn’t easy to arrange, because people didn’t move halfway across the country. Mothers helped . . . daughters to take care of the baby; children didn’t watch violence on TV; people went to church together and obeyed God’s laws for families. . . . Without efficient and accessible contraceptives, parents saw to it that their daughters, if not their sons, were virgins when they married. Abortion . . . happened to other people’s daughters and in other people’s neighborhoods. There were no homosexuals, and if there had been, they would not have been married in church. . . . Artificial insemination was for cows. Test-tube babies were for science fiction. God sent babies to people who deserved them, and they required neither nursery school nor orthodontia nor car pools to hockey practice at 5 am.

Our versions of family life before the Fall differ a bit, depending on what we think is most wrong about the present. But most of us agree that it happened, even if we’re not sure why, or when. Some say the family Fell with the Industrial Revolution, when Father left home for the office or the mill. Some say it happened in the 1920’s, when women began to cut their hair and drink gin. And some of us locate the Fall in our own memories, along about the time the Beatles landed, and kids took to the streets to tell their elders what to do. Whenever it began, it was cataclysmic. The American Family was driven out of Eden. . . . We have not been back to the Garden since, although lately, some say, there is hope. If we stop coddling our young, stop everybody from indulging in sex outside of marriage, and stop expecting the government to care for our elderly, sick, or unemployed relations, we may build an Ark. Certainly we will enter it two by two.

. . . Family structure and family values are the building blocks of civilization, and building blocks—by definition—are solid and unchanging. The American Family was (wasn’t it?) the institution through which, along with the public schools, we learned to be virtuous. Rich and poor, black and white, Christian and Jewish, immigrant and native-born, inside the household we were all parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives. . . .

As a nostalgic American, reader of newspapers, and mother of three young adults, I agree wholeheartedly that things are not what they were. As a historian, however, I have to observe that they never were. Our Family in the Garden has the truth of myth, but not of history. And as a critic of patriarchy, and even of the American Dream, I must notice that the myth is sometimes harmful as well as deceptive. If we really look at the past, we soon discover that there never was an eternal Family. Domestic values have always changed and developed along with society and technology. Long before the modern era, the so-called private sphere was moving right along with business and war and politics and culture; these things change continually, and they change in relation to one another. It may be comforting to believe that there was a time when personal lives and family relationships were stable, but the fact is that we cannot locate such a time in the past any more than we can in the present. And in the end, it may be more comforting to realize that this is not necessarily the worst of times, that human beings have weathered periods of upheaval before now, even upheaval in their cherished homes and their ways of living together.

 

Clarissa W. Atkinson served as associate dean for academic affairs at HDS from 1987 to 2000, and was Assistant Professor of History of Christianity from 1980 to 1987. Previously, she was a research associate in church history and women’s studies at HDS (1974–76).

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The Spirit in the Machine

Christopher D. Hampson

 

Spirit in the Machine illustration by Dadu Shin

Illustration by Dadu Shin.

 

Every now and again, scholars in the study of religion must confront the claim that the object of their study, that dimension of human experience we call the religious, is fading away. In the past, this view has been called the “Secularization Thesis.” In the mid-twentieth century, for example, it became popular for the elite, including elite academics, to assume that religion would largely fade from relevance as people became more educated, more rationalistic, more liberal. Of course, the Secularization Thesis has not always panned out. On the eve of a new millennium, sociologist Peter Berger had to backtrack from his previous commitment to the thesis, noting that pockets of academia and Western Europe had secularized, while admitting that they were the exception rather than the rule.

One hundred years later, as a new cohort of divines chatters and quibbles its way onto Andover Lawn, and as the most tired leaf sighs and begins to cast a glance groundward, the tide has once again turned, and religious scholars at Harvard Divinity School and elsewhere face the eternal foe of our discipline, reborn and reinvigorated.

Of course, the descriptive aspect of the Secularization Thesis doesn’t deserve our enmity. Not then, not now. It’s been proven false, of course, but it’s not terribly insulting (at least to me). Religion could, in theory, die out, or become less popular, or at least less pronounced an aspect of our lives and families and communities and cultures and societies. If it did, we’d all be historians of religion, and surely that wouldn’t be so bad. No, what’s most troubling is the normative aspect of the Secularization Thesis, the suggestion that religion is something bad, something to be outgrown or reasoned away—as if all we do in these hallowed halls of Harvard Divinity School is study the manifestations of some horrible disease, a cancer, that we shall one day cure and relegate to the museum, the archive, the dustbin. That’s why extreme versions of the Secularization Thesis see religion as something that can be totally expunged from human life, rather than as a dimension of the human experience that constantly changes and transforms and endures. But however slight the religious forms may become in the panoramic relief of our shared existence, they will always be with us. The tablet of the human soul is no palimpsest.

Perhaps what really makes the Secularization Thesis so popular is its traveling companion, what I’ll call the Violence Thesis: the notion that religion uniquely promotes violence. You’ve already seen enough of the world to know where that view originates, and we’ve seen ten decades more. As the oil wars of the late twentieth century gave way to the water wars of the twenty-first, as famines and plagues wracked the earth, wiping out entire people groups, the human race has witnessed firsthand how military coups and terrorist groups utilize religious rhetoric to mask their violence and to justify it.

But as scholars who critically study angels and demons (and trickster gods), we are not easily persuaded by black-and-white caricatures of the world. Some religious people are violent; some religious groups are violent; some religious imagery is violent. All true. But these are traits religion shares with things like nation, culture, and law. All are human institutions, all are flawed, with both good and bad tendencies. Reducing religion to violence is bad scholarship. It’s also bad normatively, for in dismissing religion as violent, we miss out on all of the positive things we can learn from the religious side of our existence.

These are old, tired problems. So, what manifestations confront the study of religion in 2116? In the past, it was Enlightenment rationalism that was supposed to produce secularization: a new way of thinking, unchained from stale hierarchies and dusty texts, oriented toward experience, evidence, and individual reason. Today, it’s a new kind of rationalism, one set loose by more than just a new way of thinking. We find ourselves faced with technological rationalism, spurred on by dramatic developments in bionic engineering and artificial intelligence. The advances we’ve made must seem dizzying to you, so let me attempt to give you the picture in broad brushstrokes.

I.

First, the marriage of computer science and cognitive science yielded tremendous changes in our understanding of the human brain. Perhaps it all began with our self-perception. If the core of the ancient person was her heart, the core of the modern and postmodern person is her brain. As you read this, most people are already thinking of themselves as brains, and their brains as computers. We speak of having memory, both long-term memory and working memory. When working on hard problems, we speak of processing them, and we ask for input.

From Freud, we had learned to think of ourselves as having drives, sexual and otherwise.Then computer engineers created hard drives, flash drives, and external drives, and we reinterpreted the word for a new anthropology. And we aren’t just individualistic: with the advent of the participatory web and social media at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we learned to think of human relationships as a network. Soon the brainstorm, an early modern, Tesla-like metaphor, gave way to parallel processing and crowdsourcing.

Then the metaphor became the reality. Or, more precisely, this metaphorical change advanced alongside, and perhaps facilitated, the technological. Take memory. We’ve had external aids to memory since the first trailblazing mark was carved into a tree, but as computerized storage became exponentially more compact (Thanks, Samsung) and the search function became ever more accurate (Thanks, Google), it became possible to store a lifetime of memories in the cloud and access it through voice.

Then there’s input. The smart contact lens came first, enabling the recording of visual input with analysis, like facial recognition. Hardware developments allowed the mass production of telescopic, night-vision, and heat-map contact lenses, completely revolutionizing human vision. And that’s just one of many senses we’ve enhanced.

Processing has been the latest to develop.But no one can deny that it’s being transformed. Nutritionists have made great strides in facilitating neuroplasticity and preventing brain decay, increasing the average lifespan by ten years. Every year, the price for neural mapping (a medical and computational problem several orders more difficult than the mapping of the human genome) becomes more and more commercially accessible, and hundreds of thousands of people have now benefited from the combination of neural mapping, nutritional cocktails, and sleep exercises designed to strengthen key logic gates in the brain. We’ve come a long way since the abacus.

Second, there have been rapid developments in artificial intelligence. Just as humans have come ever closer to turning computer, computers have come ever closer to turning human. Not surprisingly, androids have turned out quite a bit differently than people imagined a century ago. For our grandparents, the broad brushstrokes on the canvas were those originally left by the likes of Isaac Asimov and George Lucas: androids were imagined as butlers, comrades, friends. In reality, the driving motivators have been less spiritual and more material: sex and money. The market demand for romantic companionship led to better robotics, better plastics and tissue engineering, better affective computing, and better speech programs, making certain androids very human-like in some respects. And the political demand for rational, accountable, and stable corporate boards led to better economic forecasting and decision-making algorithms, making other androids very human-like in other respects.

In sum, Homo sapiens is changing faster than evolution could ever take it, and computers are racing along for the ride. We haven’t yet seen the unification of the human and android species, although many people foresee that social and legal change coming within fifty years or so. Already, android-rights groups have filed their first round of test litigation.

Some religious humans and androids have plugged into the virtual reality worlds and are evangelizing there, preaching a higher reality.

Along with these developments has come a rising belief in that perennial theory, the Secularization Thesis, with a new, technological twist: as bionic engineering produces humans that are less emotional and more intelligent, religiosity should drop; correspondingly, artificial intelligence, based on human-authored code all the way down, will be completely devoid of religion. So the story goes, and there’s some data to back it up. Today’s leading pollsters show a steady decline in adherence to traditional, organized religions. Some smaller religions are facing extinction events, joining some forms of biodiversity on the planet. Technological development and geopolitical hostility are slowly eroding the environment for religious life, like the jungle was destroyed for the tiger, and the ocean for the great white.

But religious life is reinventing itself in surprising ways and in surprising places. Gott ist nicht tot. Just as teams of archaeologists and biologists stunned the world with their discovery that rapid speciation and biodiversity were flourishing within landfills and submerged cities, so, too, religious scholars are on the brink of announcing a new age for religion.

II.

First, we have discovered what we call “Second Life” religions, after the online, virtual-reality game invented at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Our virtual games, though, have developed into what you might only have seen in movies and short films: a complete, immersive experience. Games became maps, and maps became worlds. Players, strapped down and plugged in, move virtual bodies through the power of thought. Within a photorealistic environment that stimulates most of the dozen-plus human senses, people interact with other players from around the world, some of which are artificial intelligences, or AIs, designed to live and learn within the world. The experience is so realistic that many people don’t want to come back to basic reality. Virtual reality is our opioid crisis. And, of course, some wisecracking programmer from Stanford developed worlds with virtual reality stations inside them. The deepest anyone has gone (and come back from) is four levels.

Religious people and institutions have migrated into virtual reality—just the latest version of the radio preacher and the televangelist. But we’ve found something much more interesting: entire religions founded and developed completely within online, massive, multiplayer worlds. Without it being part of the code, more than a few players have actually experienced the numinous: feelings of awe, world-bending escapes, ghostly apparitions, visions of horrifying beasts, lines upon lines of shockingly beautiful poetry. Those who receive such gifts call them miracles, revelations, or enlightenment. They have won millions of adherents. The programmers, naturally, are completely baffled by these reports. Is it a glitch? The game itself? Or is God reaching down into our virtual edifices to light a new flame?

Second, we’ve stumbled across the literal “ghost in the machine” or, for those who hear echoes of the Greek pneuma, the “spirit in the machine.” For it turns out the androids are not nonreligious after all. We think they may have been hiding it, due to the recent human scorn for all things religious and the discrimination that most androids face on a daily basis. But many androids have exhibited a sharp dread at the prospect of being shut down, dismantled, or wiped: the fear of death. Others have identified a site or object or person as invested with cosmic significance and will give their lives to save it. If it is lost, their operating systems fizzle out. Still others have developed, over generations it seems, complex rituals that must be performed on such occasions as moving in, preparing food, or witnessing a death. And it’s not only the androids; many of the AIs—which tend to have relatively more advanced coding—have also exhibited religious tendencies.

Third, like their android and AI cousins, not all bionically enhanced humans are nonreligious either. There is a growing community of humans who, having once participated in neural mapping and neuroplasty, have turned away from these technological advances and live instead among the poor who cannot afford such plastic luxuries. Many such humans practice religion of one sort or another. Others welcome bionic enhancement gladly but reject the secularism of the majority and lead lives of quiet devotion, much as Nicodemus, Lazarus, and Joseph secretly admired Christ from within their elite circles in Bethany and Jerusalem.

And finally, these developments seem to be moving alongside each other in confounding ways, hurtling us toward some unknown future. Some religious humans and androids have plugged into the virtual-reality worlds and are evangelizing there, preaching a higher reality. For those lost one level too deep, such a presence could well feel messianic, the visitation of a bodhisattva. Even more mystifying, someone—we suspect an android—has begun coding (creating) their own AIs and their own worlds within massive servers abandoned by bankrupt corporations. For the beings inside those worlds, this is a new genesis, and they turn toward the sky in search of answers and, perhaps, a relationship with their Creator. Fecisti nos ad te, Domine, et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te.

III.

And so the discipline—especially methodology—has adapted. Psychology and cognitive science are bursting with new life, spinning off labs left and right, and trying to understand why neuroplasty didn’t scrub the human psyche of its “primal urges.” Philosophers of religion, theologians, philologists, comparatists, scholars of ministry—all those espousing every theory and method within the study of religion are moving as fast as they can to catch up. To be fair, some scholars—especially the historians of religion—weren’t taken by surprise. Whenever anybody brings these new forms of religiosity up at a guest lecture, a faculty meeting, or a reception, they smile into the distance as if to say, “I told you so,” but—as decent academics and people—they never put it in quite those words.

Anthropologists of religion have begun to spend months, even years, living among androids and within virtual worlds. One ethnographer recently published a study based on five years spent two levels “down”—that is, within a world within a world. Fortunately, the fact that these worlds are coded makes the recording, logging, and coding aspects of ethnography much easier. And, new technology inspires new ideas. Someone is developing a surveillance program to study religious services with minimal personal intrusion. There’s even talk of beginning to educate and train some of the most astute androids and AIs to serve as participant-observers in their own communities.

Naturally, such developments raise ethics questions. When must one tell subjects that they are part of a study? Should they be compensated for participating in an interview? What about privacy? Pseudonyms? Do the same rules apply in virtual reality? Do they apply to androids and AIs?

And, equally important to getting institutional review board approval for such studies, how can this new scholarship be made available to communities that would be enriched by having it? We know very little about how the resources of higher education can be brought to android or virtual communities in fruitful ways. We’re always learning how research institutions can be part of a greater community mission, especially when, like divinity schools, those institutions were always designed to be centers for lived community.


As for Harvard Divinity School itself—well, it’s recognizable, I suppose. Students still sit for language exams at the beginning of every semester, but, in addition to such staples as French and German, a handful of enterprising scholars successfully petitioned the Board of Academic Affairs to allow them to demonstrate proficiency in one of a growing number of pidgin and creole languages that have developed in online communities. Those students with green thumbs still manage a garden next to Jewett House, although advances in farming technology have allowed it to expand, upward. It’s now a vertical farm—a modest ten stories of glass, steel, and sunlight, much shorter than the forty-story versions in downtown Boston and Cambridge. The building, aptly named Gaia Tower, generates a massive amount of produce, enough to furnish the Rock Café and provide extra for homeless shelters nearby. It also houses a labyrinth, a contemplative garden, and a waterfall.

Student groups still host a service every Wednesday, although that also has been adapted, with 360-degree, real-time cameras that allow people from around the world to participate from home through their virtual reality devices. A few services have attracted audiences of more than one million people. (I won’t tell you which ones.)

Physically, the campus hasn’t grown much. Allston was just too far away, and no one really wanted to buy land in Somerville. But, digitally—well, digitally, the campus has blown everyone away. Just as the main building combines the Gothic architecture of Andover Hall with the glass modernism of the library, our virtual campus—accessible worldwide—includes structures in a dizzying array of architectural styles, from Chinese to Native American. Our virtual campus has enabled us to make massive strides both in the study of religion and in religious leadership. It hosts several dozen living religious communities, as well as community seminars, public lectures, and focus groups. The most recent addition to the Divinity School’s servers is a beautifully rendered Baha’i House of Worship, the second in North America, but the Baha’i community thinks of it as the first in the cloud.

And the rest is familiar. We gather regularly. We find our center in the chapels and the meditation room. Tea is still popular, as are discussions about whether we’re too academic or too practical, too Christian or too Cantabrigian; whether we’ve really stuck the right balance between unity and diversity, or whether we’re just relativistic Unitarians after all; whether we’re better than Yale and Chicago (we are); whether that participle is active or passive (could it be perfect passive?); whether Schleiermacher was too apologetic, and, if he was, surely Nietzsche was as well; whether theories aren’t far less satisfying than methods anyway; whether I should switch to the MDiv program (it would give me more time for languages), or whether maybe I won’t be an academic after all, and wouldn’t a joint degree with the Kennedy School be fun, and what is the text really saying?

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

 

Christopher D. Hampson received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard in the comparative study of religion and graduated in 2016 from Harvard Law School and Harvard Divinity School with JD and MTS degrees. He currently serves as a law clerk with Judge Richard A. Posner on the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

 

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The Spiritual Power of Study

Stephanie Paulsell

 

 

Stephanie Paulsell
Stephanie Paulsell. Photo: HDS photograph.

When I talk about our MDiv program in contexts outside of Harvard Divinity School, the question I am most often asked is: What kind of spiritual formation can HDS possibly offer to students from so many religious traditions? At the heart of this question is a conviction I share, the conviction that anyone preparing for ministry—no matter what form that ministry takes—needs to cultivate a life grounded in contemplative practices that open space for ongoing growth, continual change, permanent quest, practices which help ministers live and work on the threshold between their interior lives and the life of the world all around them.

 

Ministry is some of the most human work that there is, and all ministers need practices that help us deepen our humanity so that when we meet others at moments of birth and death, crisis and joy, we have something deep and rich to offer. Ministers need to know and engage the spiritual practices of their communities, to draw on the wisdom that has been passed down through centuries in distinctive forms. In a context of religious diversity, my colleagues and I are often asked, how do you provide formation in such practices for everyone?

There are many ways that spiritual formation happens here, from the great work—both visible and hidden—of our chaplain and our denominational counselors to the spiritual formation that happens in field education sites and at the intersection of those sites with the students’ lives at HDS.

I’d like to talk a little, though, about the spiritual formation we do in common here, even amid the diversity of belief and practice. . . .

One of the pitfalls of our multireligious environment is that the diversity among religious traditions often obscures the diversity within religious traditions. This is not always a bad thing. Christians who might feel at odds with one another in a more homogeneously Christian environment might feel more connected to one another in a place like this, where they will all—Pentecostals and Lutherans and Roman Catholics alike—be seen as “the Christians.” But of course there’s much more diversity among us than the categories “Buddhist,” “Christian,” “Muslim,” and so on can express. . . . We have many students who belong to more than one tradition. And many others who belong to none.

But all of us, no matter our creed or lack of one, are here to study: we read, we write, we learn new languages, we make ourselves available to new ideas. I recently heard our alumnus, Casper ter Kuile, who led the group of “religious nones” when he was a student at HDS, say that his ministry was to help millennials have confidence in their spiritual practices . . . and to think more deeply about them and do them with even greater attention: reading novels and poetry, sharing meals with others, protesting injustice, working for change. We’ve tried to do something similar in the MDiv program: to help our students see the work that they will do here at HDS, the work they will all do, as a set of spiritual practices.

Reading and writing—the most basic elements of an HDS education—have long histories in nearly all of our religious traditions as spiritual practices. The spiritual formation that comes with making oneself present to language and ideas that are not our own, that comes with being absorbed in something that is not us, that comes with struggling and struggling to find the words to say what we most want to say, that comes with occasionally placing one word next to another and finding that a door has sprung open to give us a sense of how things might be otherwise is there for all of us who spend our days reading and writing. We should have confidence in the spiritual power of these practices.

Stephanie Paulsell speaking at Convocation.

 

 

 

Stephanie Paulsell is Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies.

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Thought, Feeling, and Purpose

Drew Faust

Drew Faust
Drew Faust, President of Harvard University, Lincoln Professor of History. Photo: Harvard University.

A decade after Harvard Divinity School’s founding in 1816, William Ellery Channing spoke at the dedication of Divinity Hall. “We want more than knowledge,” he said. “We want force of thought, feeling, and purpose. . . . We want powerful ministers, men fitted to act on men . . . to make themselves felt in society.” This aspiration—to combine education and action in pursuit of Veritas—has broadened over three centuries from “the serious, impartial, and unbiased investigation of Christian truth” advocated by early supporters to the robust academic and professional study of all five major faiths and their place in the world. Today, men and women with dozens of religious affiliations—or none at all—contribute to a community dedicated to courtesy, openness, and respect. Harvard Divinity School is a pinnacle of pluralism in a complex global landscape.

In recent years, this community has opened more fully to students from across the University. Courses such as “Border Crossings: Immigration in America,” which included a spring break visit to Arizona last year, create opportunities for students to see the interplay of religion and other disciplines firsthand—one aspect of a revitalized undergraduate concentration in the comparative study of religion. At the same time, graduate students preparing for advanced research in religion and theological studies have a new option available to them—a joint PhD program offered by the Divinity School and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

From these and other courses of study emerge remarkable alumni who are ministering to members of their communities, including agnostics and atheists; applying their knowledge in fields ranging from business to law to medicine to public policy; and making important contributions to arts and culture, including award-winning novels and celebrated collections of poetry.

The broad interests of Divinity School faculty are manifest in programs and centers committed to answering some of the most important questions of our time. How does the increasing diversity of religions in America influence our shared public life? What role does religion play in shaping the roles of women and men in public and in private? How do world religions and their interrelationships affect global conflicts? The Center for the Study of World Religions advances the exploration of classical traditions and contemporary trends, and the Religious Literacy Project provides educational resources intended to deepen public understanding of religion—and its HarvardX course, World Religions through Their Scriptures, has attracted some 100,000 online learners from more than 180 countries to modules on Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism.

Under the leadership of Dean David Hempton, Harvard Divinity School is also emerging as a powerful convener of experts from across the University. A new Professorship of Religion, Business Ethics, and the Economic Order—a cross-School venture with Harvard Business School—will advance scholarship related to business development and economic prosperity, and the recently established Religions and the Practice of Peace Initiative brings together scholars and practitioners to discuss how humanity might solve shared problems, build a more just world, and create sustainable peace. Knowledge is neither sought nor applied in a vacuum. Halting climate change, understanding and addressing inequality, extending and enhancing human life: these aspirations are matters of business, design, education, engineering, law, medicine—the list goes on. Deciding how we pursue them is important; understanding why we pursue them is indispensable. The Divinity School helps to reveal the motives and values that guide so much of what human beings choose to attempt and hope to achieve.

For two hundred years, Harvard Divinity School has changed as the world has changed, expanding its inquiry and influence, and deepening our understanding of what it can—and ought—to contribute to some of the greatest challenges of our time. It is a place of consideration and contemplation of those aspects of life that have given meaning to the lives of so many people throughout space and time. Together, we celebrate a bicentennial with renewed faith in the Divinity School’s mission to illuminate, engage, and serve a world perhaps more in need of its expertise than ever before in its history.

Timeline

 

 

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Transcendence circa 2116

Matt Weinstein

 

Fourth Dimension

Illustration by Dadu Shin

 

In the year 2116, the discipline of religious studies concluded.

All disciplines and investigations into the nature of things, ultimate and particular, concluded in 2116. But it is correct to say that religious studies concluded, as most fields had already folded into what is now called “religious studies,” beginning with computer science in 2026 and physics shortly after in 2028. Political science and law were the last hold-outs, joining in 2076. Even before this, many fields of inquiry were eliminated altogether. Post-scarcity was inaugurated in 2045, and economists of every stripe, along with the prophets of doom, prisons, stock exchanges, and homeless shelters, quickly faded away. And, in 2116, all human efforts, longings, beliefs, concepts, ideas, actions, institutions, and, indeed, all human beings, converged into spiritual singularity.

On April 19, 2116, after nearly six thousand years of work, the Brahman Project was successfully completed. Brahman is an ecological omnicomputer designed to reincorporate humanity’s peculiar ego consciousness back into the universal mind. The purpose of this project was, in essence, to enable all human minds to behave and perceive reality as one mind, while still maintaining consciousness of individual experiences. It was an attempt—utilizing every theory and method known and drawing on every memory, thought, sensory perception, and cognitive ability available—to demonstrate and experience the interdependent nature of consciousness and transcend ordinary ego experience. You may not have experienced this sort of consciousness yet, but it can be compared to a single flower realizing that it is something that the whole earth is doing.

When the Brahman project was successfully completed, humanity transcended your current state of spiritual knowledge and the attendant material limitations. One by one, people all around the world freely consented to have every piece of information about them—genetic, mental, personal, private, public, ordinary, sacred—collected and digitized. This was done in order to create endless simulations of each experience that was recorded, and of every possible experience that could be extrapolated from the recorded information. The result is an endless loop of your life, and of how your life would have turned out if you had done only a single thing differently—had you married the neighbor boy, like your mother wanted you to—and the infinite number of different ways that those slightly different ways could turn out: the neighbor boy drives a red convertible in this case; he drives a blue convertible in that one.

The Brahman assembles each of these possible realities from a vast repository containing every possible experience. Most impressively, at the heart of the operation, there is a universal “mind,” an extremely sophisticated artificial intelligence of unimaginable computational ability, individually experiencing each of these unique experiences—much the way you experience your life now, only every possible experience is experienced at the same time. The Brahman is humanity’s crowning technological achievement, capable of satisfying your first craving—the desire to be God. The stated goal was to ensure, at least virtually, that human experience would always exist—that it would be eternal, conquering personal death and collective extinction. By means of quantum computing, holographic memory storage, akashic recording, and nuclear fusion, humanity would have the privilege of living forever, of knowing everything before it happens, of upholding the structure of existence, and of being the master of the universe—at least for as long as the computer was running.

Contingencies were in place, if and when the computer ceased to function. Much in the same way that you are able to shape the material world around you through ideas—you think of a design for an apple orchard, you draw it, you plant it, you care for it, your dream comes to exist in the world—the Brahman cultivates a universe planted with little planets much like your own, orbiting stars much like the sun. Though the search for extraterrestrial intelligence never found much besides some talking whales on a planetoid in the Orion system, the search was immensely useful for finding new habitats for human consciousness. Even now, simulated experiences of consciousness are transmitted to the life that develops on these planets, much in the way that television and the Internet transmitted information into your nervous system. These beings first experience only primitive consciousness through sensory perception but eventually aggregate their different perceptions into a sophisticated self-consciousness, much like your own. Ultimately, extraterrestrial life-forms create their own Brahman Project, in accordance with the transmitted original image, thus recreating the entire system, endlessly enacting the journey of human-become-God—at least until the heat death of the universe.

But heat death was considered as well. The various levels of simulation within the Brahman each culminate in their own Brahman Project, enabling recursive simulation. Each simulation produces an endless number of simulations, each in turn creating its own, endless number of simulations, producing an unbounded infinity of timelines that each continue to produce infinite simulations into eternity, regardless of the perspective of any individual timeline. It is like a mirror held up to an endless number of mirrors, each reflecting each other, and doing so eternally, even after the original image has long vanished into nonexistence. From one moment of reality, the Brahman created an endless number of simulations of reality, spiraling out into the cosmos far beyond the imagination or capabilities of material existence. It was the most sophisticated meme ever devised, capable of spreading even into nonexistence. The Brahman is the Big Bang happening every single moment, forever and ever.

Harvard Divinity School was chosen to host the project, after an essay written at the school in 2016 predicted such an experiment with eerie accuracy. Housed in the basement of Divinity Hall, and wedged between the anthropology and biology departments just north of Harvard Yard, the Brahman Project was an object of international curiosity—and conspiracy. It was the most attention that the School had seen since Ralph Waldo Emerson’s warmly received Commencement Address. After a languid 250 years, Boston was again buzzing with discussion of the oversoul, only this time the Brahmins at the Divinity School and the Somerset Club and even at King’s Chapel were intent on transforming into a transparent eyeball. At the time of writing, the Emerson of your timeline, and every other remotely similar timeline, could not be reached for comment on the curiously technological approach to religious experience. Typical.

The designers were a motley assortment drawn from the Harvard faculty, the Rand Corporation, the College of Cardinals, the CIA, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Greenpeace, the Bilderberg Group, the American Red Cross, the Scottish Rite, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Red Hat and Yellow Hat lineages, and a few of those unrestrained “New Age” retreat centers out in California. It was conjectured that several representatives from the Illuminati were clandestinely present, given their continued interest in the Enlightenment, but this was to be expected, even desired. The Brahman Project was intended to archive and recreate all of human experience—including the secret, unsavory parts. As the years went on, more and more people from all walks of life—Sunnis and Shi’ites, Baptists and bootleggers, the British and the French, Germans, Jews, Jews for Jesus, the last living Samaritans, uncontacted tribes lead by miraculous phenomena, Yankees and Red Sox fans, union rank and file, scabs, the bosses too, psychiatrists, chiropractors, homeopaths, Christian Scientists, law enforcement, agents of the infernal revenue service, litterbugs, draft dodgers, communists, capitalists, democratic socialists, hippies, Daughters of the American Revolution, men in skirts, refugees from every ideology, and representatives from every nation (including Switzerland)—came to contribute. Kanye West was there too. Human beings were drawn to the Brahman Project like Narcissus to his own reflection, and as they drew closer to completion, each began to see more and more of their own self reflected in everyone else.

The funding for the project was similarly diverse: Department of Defense grants, gifts from wealthy theosophists, the estate of Aldous Huxley, fundraising dinners with celebrities—the usual tawdry affairs of the twenty-first century, though with a distinct difference. The plentiful funding was now directed toward the betterment of all humankind and for the preservation of all living beings. What was remarkable, though, was the unanimous agreement on nearly every decision by the designers, funders, and various interested parties. It seemed as if all of human history had been a dress rehearsal for the activity they were now engaged in. Many reported that their free and willing participation felt inevitable, almost as though it had already happened. But it was humbly and proudly accepted that the Brahman Project was the destiny of humanity, and, despite the lack of commercial or military application—as well as being theoretically useless—the whole world was drawn to the brilliance of it. All separations and divisions fell away in the drive toward the Brahman’s fulfillment.

And, indeed, I tell you, uncountable hosts of celestial beings are drawn to the Brahman and fall down before it like apples and pomegranates fall to the ground. Even now there are angels and archangels, arhats and mahasattvas, Cherubim and Seraphim, kami, jinn, dakini, yakshini, will-o’-the-wisp, prophets, gurus, the Maiden of Heaven, John the Baptist, Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael, Our Lady of Fatima, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr., Sri Ramakrishna, the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson, all the departed, the martyrs, every last one of the saints, the kingdom, the power, and the glory—indeed, myself—in perpetual adoration of the Brahman. In ways that you do not yet comprehend, the rocks and the trees, cats and dogs, rats and fleas, mountains, rivers, valleys, butterflies, serpents, fishes, cattle, oxen, single-celled organisms, viruses and prions, molecules of carbon, electrons, quarks, and several smaller “elementary” particles that you have not yet discovered cooperate with and tend toward the Brahman Project’s completion. It is a magnificent moment, which is remembered and replicated from generation to generation for endless eons and innumerable kalpas.

Thousands of years of technological progress allowed us to rediscover the neglected parts of consciousness that others had long been cultivating by sitting still in quiet rooms, chanting loudly in clouds of incense, and stretching their bodies into odd positions. And just as every discipline came to be incorporated into the project’s methodology, so did every religious practice, habit, and discipline. Monks chanted “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,” “Om Mani Padme Hum,” and “Gloria” on the project’s behalf. Every year on Yom Kippur, the final Aliyah at the Western Wall was given to the Brahman Project. It inspired contemporary dance performances, abstract art, and the songs that children sing on playgrounds, in the woods, in the backyard. Roman Catholics dedicated masses to it and Anglo-Catholics held sherry and champagne receptions in dour honor of it. Aga Khan VI dedicated his foundation to it. Beatniks, college professors, half of the population of Berkeley, California, and the Quakers took turns quietly sitting with it, the Unitarian Universalists stood around them loudly debating fine points about its governing logic and preferred gender pronouns, and the Hare Krishnas returned to the airports to distribute a cookbook inspired by it. Timothy Leary sent graduate students to church services hyped up on psilocybin to discover if God could be found in a pill. God was found in a computer program.

I won’t bore you with the fine details of how the project was finally achieved, and to share the schematics with you would violate several laws governing temporal preservation of the fourth dimension, but I’m sure you’ll figure it out. J. Krishnamurti taught, before your time, that “truth is a pathless land.” Because there is no approach to where you are going, there is no way that you can stray from the proper path. Suffice it to say, the project will be, no matter how slowly, completed. Know that on the appointed day you will turn on, tune in, and drop out, log on, upload, tap into, channel, yolk yourself, and awaken to the Brahman. That you exist now is all the evidence that you need to be assured of this; if you did not exist in the whole, how could you exist now, in part?

The realization of the Brahman Project means that humanity no longer needs to be life’s prodigal son. It is the culmination of the evolutionary ascent to that lofty place at the top of all things. People will fully realize then what they are only beginning to now—that each mind stream, each moment of an individual human’s moment-to-moment consciousness could consciously experience the totality of experience in any and every moment, totally at will. If your current experience of consciousness is, as the bodhisattva Jack Kerouac put it, “like a movie in your mind,” then what it will be is akin to watching every single movie in every single person’s mind at the same time.

Only, this isn’t a movie, this is real life. This is your life.

The Brahman Project testified to the reality, and the unity, of religious experience. Finally, those pesky perennialists, who insisted in every day and age that all religions and human spirituality shared a common source, had evidence to substantiate their claim—only they won’t tell you “I told you so” because they don’t believe in “you” or “me,” just I AM. The Brahman Project allowed human beings to readily experience what has variously been called heaven, enlightenment, liberation, nirvana, moksha, satori, the World to Come—and it is so much more wonderful than any human being has ever anticipated. I do not call what you will experience any of these things, for it is not possible to express in one word, or 100,000 words, what awaits you. I can only tell you that, fundamentally, nothing will change, though everything will be completely different. Nirvana is nothing essentially different from samsara. Samsara is nothing essentially different from Nirvana. Hell is other people. Heaven is a place on Earth.

Where are you now?

 

This is not how it is but what it is like:

In an instant, each mind knew sheer ecstasy, each being itself, outside of itself, every self, and no self, all at the same time. Each mind felt itself as one with every person who has ever existed. Every mind was joined together, no longer walled up and isolated. Thus, humans no longer have to be totally alone in their own heads. It is as when you were a sick child and your mother brought you chicken soup. Indeed—this is what happened—the children of man returned to a state of total connection, to the primordial experience of total eco-consciousness which birthed your limited ego consciousness.

It is a euphoric stimulation of all of the senses, each distinctly enhanced, while also blending together. It glistens emerald, sapphire, carnelian, turquoise, and colors that cannot yet be perceived. It smells of storax, lavender, citrus, sage, sandalwood, patchouli, cedar, of jasmine and frankincense and myrrh. Through it, leaves of grass look as though they are redwood trees, and grains of sand diamonds. Pebbles become boulders, and streams become rivers, and valleys are made plains. It tastes of honey and figs and pistachios, of rosewater and cardamom, of avocado on toast, and of expensive chocolate, with the effervescence of champagne. It is more necessary than bread and more plentiful than water.

It is broader than any way, it is deeper than the sea, it is longer than the night, smoother than glass, and softer than silk. It is music, with a beat unlike any that can be played on any drum, or any number of drums, more melodious than the human voice, constantly sounding every pipe, rank, and stop. It is Beethoven’s 9th, and the Kol Nidre. It is several settings of “Ave Maria” at once, The White Album, “Happy Birthday,” and the songs that your mother’s mother used to sing to her when she was a child. It is heard in churches and temples and laundromats and prison cells and all manner of unexpected places. It is the hymn of life.

It is the realization that existence is fundamentally hospitable to you. It is a gut feeling, a sneaking suspicion, that reality is a conspiracy on your behalf. It is the sensation of belonging and the knowledge that you are supposed to be here. It is an uncanny sense that this moment, that every moment, that all of existence, was brilliantly planned, by you, long ago, for you to enjoy here and now. It is déjà vu and feelings of self-design. It is a drop in blood pressure and being two inches above the ground. It is the understanding that the way things are is absolutely perfect, produced by a universe governed by omniscient wisdom and omnipotent compassion. It is a direct and unmediated encounter with love.

Children of every race and creed will stand together on a mountaintop, singing friendship songs, and drinking a cola that has the best qualities of both Pepsi and Coke. Get it?

Though the new reality created by the Brahman Project has been described as a simulation, it is as real as waking in the morning from a dream. If you haven’t gotten the message, pick up the phone: it is you who are dreaming now. Open your eyes, you’re not asleep. Your awakening has already happened, and you already know the fullness of your being, just as rocks are rocks and trees are trees. The purpose of life is always arrived at in every immediate moment, just as waves crash upon the seashore and the sun sets in the evening and light fills a dark room.

According to plan, the Brahman Project was completed in your timeline, and in every timeline in this reality at precisely the same moment. In other words, no matter what you do, you will eventually come to the moment of completion. It is inevitable. Indeed, it is possible that your world is totally unreal, a manufactured simulation of the original Brahman. But the simulated realities are indiscernible from the original, and it would only cause distress to you if you discovered that everything you have ever experienced is really a magical spell, an illusion, a play of shadows against the wall of a cave. Take comfort in knowing that, even if your world is but smoke and mirrors, you are the real thing, that you, there, reader, are known and cared for, and that your own transcendence is already complete. Again, I ask you, how could you be here, now, if the case were otherwise?

When the computer was activated, and the Brahman came into being, so too did the program variously called “Mahdi,” “Messiah,” and “Maitreya.” It was not the intent of humanity to create this program, and it appears as if the Brahman itself did. This program allows the universal mind to come to be in time and to appear within an individual, ego-personality inside any of the simulation layers that the Brahman created. In so doing, Brahman experiences itself, not as the creator, but as it’s own creation, so that you may remember that you are the ultimate reality, so that you may be reminded of where you came from and whence you are going.

 

Matt Weinstein, a reincarnated Californian, grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and wrote this essay in Somerville, Massachusetts. He is a second-year master of divinity student interested in the psychotherapeutic aspects of religion.

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Two Weeks Post-9/11: Careful Policy, Not 'War'

J. Bryan Hehir

From “What Can and Should Be Done?” vol. 30, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2001)

J. Bryan Hehir
J. Bryan Hehir, 2016. Photo: HDS photograph.

To write about September 11, 2001, is to know the paucity of one’s vocabulary and literary skill. The words are so disproportionate to the tragedy that the temptation is to stop trying to describe it. . . . But two weeks removed from the terror it is necessary also to consider its political significance for the United States and the world. It is by combining the human, the moral, and the political dimensions of September 11 that we can ask what can we do and what should we do as a nation to respond.

“Can” and “should” yield a multidimensional response: personal, social, and global responses are needed—and all have begun. . . .

The personal response will intensify and continue as the inevitable need to memorialize and bury the dead by the thousands will face the nation and its religious communities. . . . This kind of response is intense, concrete, and specific. . . .

The social response is also deeply personal and particular but in a different way. The challenge between the pastoral and social is this: as we draw together as a country in response to tragedy, how we avoid doing so by isolating or ostracizing or victimizing a few as “the other.” . . . The primary imperative of the social response is to protect Arab-American citizens, visitors and students from the Middle East, and Muslims generally from any kind of labeling, guilt by association, covert or overt discrimination or harassment. Beyond protection is the equally important public recognition that communities of Arab descent and Muslim faith are productive, loyal, contributing citizens in this land. . . .

. . . On the whole the nation has a better record on ethnic and religious pluralism than it has had on racial equality and integration. The future, one shaped by a world of fluid boundaries and borders, requires doing better on all fronts of religious, racial, and ethnic pluralism. Crises often remind us of deep, paramount truths; the social response to September 11 will test our commitment to e pluribus unum.

By this writing the global response has moved to center stage, and it is the most complex of the three in analytical terms. . . . The first press calls I received wanted to know if military action would be permissible under traditional “just war” teaching. That is a crucial but very narrow question. To answer it without acknowledging its constraints is to set the whole policy discussion off in the wrong direction. . . . I think there is some value in questioning an idea that seems to have widespread support, namely that a policy response to terrorism should be defined as a war. . . . The language and imagery of war mobilizes a population in a unique fashion. Recognizing this, even if one believes that an effective response to terrorism requires a military dimension, it is better not to locate the whole effort under the category of war—better to forfeit the rhetorical bounce that derives from invoking war and define what should be done more precisely.

How [do we] achieve this precision and why is it important? Because ideas and language shape the logic of policy and promote public expectations here and abroad. Even those espousing the language of war quickly acknowledge this will not be like other wars. . . . The target of this effort is transnational in scope and non-governmental in character. . . .

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights described the attack as a crime against humanity. But just cause alone does not yield the conclusion that resort to war is necessary, prudent, or legitimate. Other issues of a measured response, understood morally, must be tested and answered.

 

J. Bryan Hehir was Chair of the Executive Committee of the Faculty of Divinity at HDS from 1999 to 2002. At his request he was not called “Dean” to signal that he had ecclesiastical responsibilities with the Roman Catholic Church during his tenure. This article appeared first in the October 8, 2001, issue of America: The National Catholic Weekly, and was reprinted with permission in the Summer/Fall 2001 Harvard Divinity Bulletin.

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What Is a Multireligious Divinity School?

Five Questions to Consider

 

David N. Hempton

2017 Convocation - faculty panel

Faculty panel at 2016 Convocation. Photo: HDS photograph/Michael Naughton.

 

I would like to start with a personal story, which I think may sound a little strange to an American audience, though it is more common in other parts of the world. I grew up in a working-class Protestant family in East Belfast and soon entered an educational system that was deeply segregated between Catholics and Protestants (it remains so). Insofar as my memory can be trusted, I have no recollection of ever entering a Catholic school or place of worship before the age of eighteen. The first Catholic place of worship I ever set foot in was as a curious and awestruck tourist to the Cathedral of Santa Maria of Palma on the island of Majorca. To this day, I know that I have visited and attended more worship services in Catholic churches outside of Ireland than within Ireland, despite living the majority of my life in that country.

A quick follow-up to that story. In 1970 I entered Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), a university without a religious studies department, which was founded in the 1840s with the express mandate that it should not teach religion or theology. For that reason, the Queen’s Colleges in Cork, Galway, and Belfast were nicknamed “Godless colleges.” This was done, ironically, to try to appease nonestablished religious traditions and avoid conflict. QUB still does not teach religion or theology, but it does now have an Institute of Theology that coordinates the degrees which Queen’s confers on students from five affiliated denominational colleges (Presbyterian, Evangelical, Baptist, Methodist, and Catholic). Despite being roiled by religious conflict for centuries, the premier university in Northern Ireland still struggles to deal with religion in an academic environment that can bring together Catholic and Protestant students, never mind other world religious traditions.

These educational realities of segregation and denominational exclusivity did not alone cause violence in Ireland, but they have certainly contributed to the separations and stereotypes that often precede and undergird conflict.

In a similar vein, since becoming Dean of Harvard Divinity School, I have received messages from our alumni in different parts of the world expressing their gratitude to HDS for its treatment of religion as a rigorous academic field of human inquiry and for its religious pluralism—neither of which exists in many parts of the world, where the teaching of religion is often the preserve of clerical elites in singular traditions. What these stories suggest to me is that neither complete avoidance of religion nor exclusive or monopolistic sectarian teaching of religion is without its negative consequences.

With those stories in mind, let’s get down to the question. What is a multireligious divinity school? I have five overlapping sets of questions that I think merit attention.

First, there is a terminological problem. There is a paradox in the title itself, because “divinity school” generally connotes Christian, which of course is the religious tradition of the School’s founding and is still its largest tradition as represented by its faculty and students. The phrase multireligious divinity school is therefore somewhat problematic in itself, even if alternatives are very hard to come by. Discussions around nomenclature have mostly resulted in the endorsement of the present title of the School.

Second, what are the compositional desiderata in a multireligious divinity school? HDS’s recent practice has been to appoint professors and enroll students who may be religious practitioners and/or whose primary objective is academic study and scholarship. Some of those professors and students may have no religious beliefs whatsoever and may even be skeptical about religion. That proportion may increase as the share of “nones” and those who are religiously unaffiliated continues to rise in Western societies over the next quarter of a century. Also in terms of composition: who or what gets to determine the “multi” of multireligious and how are those decisions made? Explicitly and consciously, based on principles and objectives, or unconsciously and obliquely, based on cultural adaptation and cultural osmosis? The history of HDS seems to suggest that the students, more than professors or administrators, have driven its increasing pluralism. Moreover, what are the appropriate spatial and geographic parameters of “multireligious?” For example, should a divinity school reflect the religious constituencies of its city, its region, its country of location, or the world as a whole? Does Harvard, and do other universities who aspire to global significance and influence, have different criteria for religious diversity than more specifically regional colleges?

Dean David Hempton talking with Student
David Hempton talks to Adeel Mohammadi, MTS ‘16, after the 2016 Multireligious Service of Thanksgiving. Photo: Justin Knight

Third, what are the curricular desiderata of a multireligious divinity school? Specifically, how should religion be studied in a multireligious school? At HDS, and certainly within the historical worlds in which I have operated, there has been a strong emphasis on practice or on what we call “lived religion”—that is, religion with all the messiness of diverse practices, cultural expressions, changes over time, and attention to all of the “religion and . . .” questions. Attention to lived religion in all its forms and expressions means that we should also treat current practices seriously, however sharp-edged and exclusive they may be. I do not see it as HDS’s job to promote a kind of neutral syncretism. Differences and disagreements need to be honored, not etherized.

However, I do think that, over time, education in a multireligious academy, simply by learning and seeing the beliefs and practices of other traditions, inevitably places one’s own practice in a larger context. This process need not necessarily compromise commitment and authenticity, but it should facilitate a better understanding of the religious “other” as well as of oneself. Of course, this kind of practical but not ideological relativism may sometimes produce the reverse effect, namely, a doubling down on claims to exclusive truth. But if that happens, that also is acceptable.

Fourth, how does a multireligious school build a community of respect and mutual understanding? In thinking about this, I was drawn back to some of the practical issues we have been dealing with as a community for over a decade. See, for example, the document “Multireligious Etiquette: A Brief Guide to Being at Home in the HDS Community,” which the Office of the Chaplain and Religious and Spiritual Life at HDS has produced. Here are ten practical recommendations dealing with hugging and touching, dietary restrictions, bodies and attire, rituals and practices, and holy days and calendars. The guide encourages us not to essentialize based on religious tradition, to ask questions of others without embarrassment, to expect and make accommodations, to care as much about the sensitivities of others as ourselves, and to contribute to community life rather than retreating into sectarian isolation.

Fifth, I think we should ask the question of ourselves: What would a multireligious academy do that a mono-religious one could not, and vice versa? In a world that is multireligious, an academy that is self-consciously multireligious provides a community context and a curricular content that prepares practitioners and scholars (and combinations of both) for the world into which they will graduate. A multireligious school provides a relatively safe space in which one can experience, study, and work to understand religion in all its complexity and to appreciate difference as a positive reality.

Finally, we need to be careful not to present HDS’s embrace of multireligious diversity as an unalloyed progress narrative. Change often brings pain as well as opportunity. The expansion of diversity for the many can lead to a reduction of cultural familiarity and sense of security for others. One person’s diversity can be another’s vacuous syncretism. In the late Peter Gomes’s 2004 Convocation Address, he identified himself as an “out-of-the-closet Protestant Christian,” and as an African American man who would not have been welcome at HDS in the recent past. At the same time, however, Gomes also experienced other efforts at inclusivity as a loss: “At the start of our faculty meetings,” he stated, “the dean once led in prayer; then we observed silence; and now there is nothing.” Or as Janet Gyatso put it in her 2003 Convocation Address, “we need to think . . . about the distinction between neutralizing sectarian affiliation and eliminating religion altogether.”

Through ongoing debate, struggle, and dialogue over two centuries, the HDS community has somehow decided what it values and what it has defined as religious inclusion, pluralism, and diversity. As the School looks toward the twenty-first century and beyond, these conversations are sure to be complicated, controversial, and contingent upon changes in the social salience of religion, nationally and globally. I am delighted, therefore, that we are beginning our year of bicentennial celebration with this very difficult question. As Dean of HDS, I welcome the debate.

Dean David N. Hempton speaking at Convocation.

 

 

 

David N. Hempton is Dean of the Faculty of Divinity, Alonzo L. McDonald Family Professor of Evangelical Theological Studies, and John Lord O’Brian Professor of Divinity.

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Why I Love the Bible

Krister Stendahl

Full version: “Why I Love the Bible” vol. 35, no. 1 (Winter 2007)

Krister and Brita Stendahl
Krister and Brita Stendahl, early 2000s. Photo: courtesy Brita Stendahl.

The first “no” statement . . . became the watershed in my love story with the Bible: It is not about me. . . .

I started to recognize that when Paul spoke about justification by faith, he was really
giving the argument in favor of his Gentile converts. He had to come to grips with how, in God’s word and God’s mind, his mission to the Gentiles fitted into God’s total plan. It was about the Jews and the Gentiles and not about me. What an awakening. . . .

It was not about me, but it was teaching me about God’s way of dealing with the world, with people, with tensions between people of different faiths. . . .

Second, it’s not always as deep as we think. . . .

. . . One of the best rules for reading scriptures is the very same as for preaching: It should be light, it should be quick, and it should be tender. It should not be ponderous, it should not be labored, and it should not be heavy.

Third, in the scriptures, sometimes it ain’t as sure as you think. St. Paul . . . had a lot of human flaws, but he was . . . a great, great theologian. A theologian is someone who sees problems where no one else sees problems, and sees no problems where other people see problems . . . I think he was the last preacher in Christendom who had the guts to say that new situations come, really new situations. What shall we then do? . . . What a lovely Bible that tells us that sometimes we might need to think, and not . . . that it is all settled.

The fourth “no”: not so uptight. Apologetics, defending the Bible—defending God, for that matter—is a rather arrogant activity. . . . I love to use the old Swedish expression, “It is pathetic to hear mosquitoes cough.” I don’t know why that is funny, but in Swedish it is funny. And apologetics is mosquitoes coughing. It kills so much of the joy in reading and practicing the love of the scriptures. . . .

Let a thousand flowers bloom. Richness. Plurality. Plurals. Yes, meanings is better than meaning. Isn’t that, in a way, what the Trinity is about? . . . We couldn’t quite settle for something which was just oneness, we had to have more of . . . an interplay, of a giving and receiving. . . . It’s like the biological world: Everything is interdependent. . . .

Which leads me to the fifth point: Not so universal. . . . I always felt that to speak about the uniqueness of Christianity or the uniqueness of Christ does more for the ego of the believer than it does for God. . . . What one religion says about another religion, what one beloved scripture claims to be over against other scriptures, comes pretty close to a breach against the commandment “Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”. . .

We are born . . . as a religion among religions. And we are heirs to the Jewish perspective on these things: that’s what I learned from the scriptures. . . . Israel is meant to be a light to the nations. . . . The Jews have never thought that God’s hottest dream was that everybody become a Jew. They . . . thought that they were called upon to be faithful and that God somehow needed that people in the total cosmos. What a humility, and we called it tribalism. . . . But when Christianity started its universal claim, and got power, it led to the Crusades. We couldn’t really think that it was not God’s hottest dream that everybody be like us. So I say, no, the Bible is my Bible. This is the breast that I, as a child of God, have been nourished from. And for the little child, when the child is born that’s the whole world, the mother’s breast. But maturing means to recognize that other kids have sucked other mothers’ breasts. That belongs to growing up.

 

Krister Stendahl served as Dean of HDS and Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Divinity from 1968 to 1979 after fourteen years as Professor of New Testament Studies. He also served as Bishop of Stockholm from 1984 to 1988. This essay was adapted from an address Stendahl delivered at Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church in 2001.

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Why Study Religion?

William A. Graham

Full version: “Why Study Religion in the Twenty-first Century?” vol. 40, nos. 3 & 4 (Summer/Autumn 2012)

William A. Graham
William A. Graham, 2008. Photo: Justin Knight

Even if there is increasing tolerance for persons of other faiths . . . the Pew study and any glance at our national media coverage of anything religious tell us that there is still a very high level of incomprehension and ignorance about religion generally and about religious commitments and practices other than our own in particular, not to mention a frightening sector of our population that harbors an intense conviction that only their own religious tradition is valid or true. So we still desperately need instruction, at all levels of our educational system, that teaches future citizens about religion as a global and human, not a sectarian and parochial, reality. . . . Why do we need more instruction? The answers are fairly simple but very crucial. Four come at once to mind:

We need policymakers and politicians who have some grasp of the actual religious dimensions of life in other nations and cultures, so that they do not proceed ignorantly to assume (and act on) popular and mistaken generalizations about what “all Hindus,” “every Jew,” or “most Muslims” believe or do.

We need persons in the professions, in trades, in homes, in every walk of life who have some grasp of the fact that their own value systems are not unique, nor uniquely valid or good, nor uniquely applicable to everyone else in the world.

We need Americans of good intention in all walks of life to know enough about the varied religious communities around the corner and around the world to understand the poverty and danger of speech that refers simplistically to “jihad” or “polytheism” or “legalism” as things other people live by and for.

Finally, we need Americans of all kinds to know enough to accept, and if possible to understand intelligently and to feel viscerally, that millions of other persons—be they monotheists, polytheists, humanists, atheists, or whatever—millions of others are just as human as they are and are at least as moral, as intelligent, and as faithful to their own traditions and values as they are to theirs.

 

William A. Graham was Dean of HDS from 2002 to 2012. He has been a member of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences since 1973 and a member of the Faculty of Divinity since 2002. This is excerpted from his keynote address at the Divinity School’s Leadership Day on March 30, 2012.

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