Devotion in the Study of Religion

Illustration by Gracia Lam

By Stephanie Paulsell

This year marks the tenth anniversary of a convocation address that had a tremendous impact on me and on Harvard Divinity School. It was an address that I listened to with mounting excitement, an address that stimulated long conversations with colleagues and students and that, ultimately, helped to shape the direction of our school. Janet Gyatso, Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies, titled her 2003 convocation address, “Where Do We Stand?” It was a good question.1 In 2003, we were, as a school, groping our way through a sea change. We knew our curricular structure no longer took account of everything we and our students were trying to do intellectually, but we didn’t know what structure would give us more room to move. We knew that our degree programs needed to be reshaped, but we didn’t know what those new shapes would be. We were dreaming of new faculty appointments in new fields of study, but nearly half of our current faculty had not yet joined us. And, after many years of holding our Divinity School Convocation in the Memorial Church in Harvard Yard, we were under a tent for the first time.

I still remember, so vividly, what it felt like sitting under that tent, on a beautiful, breezy day, listening to Janet Gyatso unspool her vision of the possibilities our changing school held within it. She imagined a master of divinity program in which a budding Zen priest would hone the wit and passion of her dharma talks in classes on Christian preaching, just as the ministries of budding Christian pastors had been shaped by their encounters with Buddhist ethics in their coursework. She imagined a curriculum that, instead of lumping the “religions of the world” into one area, would invite us to think with and learn from the scriptures, hermeneutics, ethics, theologies, histories, and practices of all the religious traditions studied here. She imagined a school in which passionate students and teachers not only studied religion together but inhabited the questions of religion together. In the ten years since she gave her address, many of her ideas have become realities, although certainly not in any complete or finished way. And that was Janet’s point—that the place where we stand is in constant motion, always changing, always new.

Janet Gyatso sang a hymn that day to the multiplicity that marks our community: the multiplicity of religious traditions for which our school might train leaders, the undecidability of our questions as scholars of religion, and the hybrid nature of the mission of our school. But she also made a case that day for what we have in common. We have a common calling, she said, in the study of religion. But she went further than that. She called for our shared work to be animated by what she called a love of religion, a passionate religiosity. What would it mean, she asked us, to study religion religiously—not by claiming a generic, universal religion underlying all traditions, and not necessarily because we are devoted to a particular religion (although we might be), but because we are devoted to the study of this deeply human way of receiving and responding to the world, devoted to turning it in the light of our methodologies and commitments, our historical and philosophical questions, and our hopes for human freedom and flourishing? Of the many ideas that thrilled me that day, this one thrilled me the most. Because Janet was saying out loud something I’d always felt in studying religion and observing others study religion: that this is some of the most deeply devotional work one can do.

Now, some of you may be thinking, “Yes, that is my experience too!” But others of you may be thinking, “Uh-uh. Devotion is not what I signed up for when I decided to come to Harvard.” If you’re a visitor from another part of the University, you may be thinking, “I always suspected that what they were doing at HDS was devotional.” Or else you’re thinking, “Devotion? I thought those people at HDS didn’t believe in God.”

When I say devotion, I am thinking of the novelist Charles Johnson, who, in his book about Buddhism and writing, remembers how, as a teenager, the writings of W. E. B. DuBois and Martin Luther King Jr. kept him up late at night. Johnson’s devotion to those writers, and their devotion to freedom, led him both to his embrace of Buddhism and to an understanding of the narrative problems he would encounter as a writer as moral, ethical problems.2 When I say devotion, I am thinking of the student in Clinical Pastoral Education at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute who devotes herself to listening not only to what patients say to her, but also to what they do not say; I am thinking of her deliberate cultivation of reverence for both the spoken and the unspoken. When I say devotion, I am thinking of the great African theologian Augustine of Hippo, who, in the midst of an anxious critique of his own education prays that everything he reads or writes or calculates or speaks may now be offered in the service of God. When I say devotion, I am thinking about the student of first-year Hebrew, or Arabic, or Sanskrit, who struggles through the same set of exercises over and over until those unfamiliar marks on the page begin to mean something.

In other words, there are as many manifestations of devotion in the study of religion as there are those of us who study it. Or, as Virginia Woolf’s character, the artist Lily Briscoe, puts it in To the Lighthouse: Love has a thousand shapes.

Following Janet Gyasto’s call to experiment with the love of religion as an animating force in our work, I’d like to try to describe two crucial dimensions in what I’m calling devotion in the study of religion, drawing from sources which may not seem, at first, to belong together: the Song of Songs, the beautiful poem of erotic love tucked away in the Hebrew Bible between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah, and the work of the great modernist Virginia Woolf. Woolf may seem an especially unlikely candidate for a teacher of devotion since she was not religious in any sort of conventional way—although God is invoked far more often in her work than in the Song of Songs—but I have learned a great deal about devotion from her, and from reading her in the light of the Song of Songs, a poem she also knew well.

The Song of Songs is a dialogue between two lovers, a woman and a man. The opening line is spoken by the woman—”Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!”—and the lovers spend the rest of the poem trading words back and forth, praising each other’s beauty in ever more inventive ways, exploring the erotic possibilities of their relationship and of language itself. Modern readers—particularly Protestant Christian ones—sometimes regard the Song as an oddity. Elizabeth Cady Stanton is representative of such readers: she called the Song “a mere love poem,” the religious interpretations of which were only an “excuse” for including it in the Bible in the first place. But for devoted readers over the centuries, the Song was a key hidden at the heart of the Bible, capable of unlocking its secrets. It was a fathomless pool of meaning one could swim in one’s whole life long and never sound the bottom. It was a garden in which one might encounter God walking in the cool of the day. For these readers, the Song of Songs was a text of devotion par excellence: a text to be excavated through midrash and allegory, lingered over in lectio divina, prayed with individually and communally.

The best scholarship is marked by both the profound knowledge that comes with devoted study and the humility that acknowledges the limits of our knowing.

The Song of Songs is a small poem that has generated its weight in commentary many, many times over. Its capacity to mean many things at once accounts for its tremendous generative power; so does its beauty. It was so beautiful, the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila once wrote, that even when she heard it in Latin and could not understand the words, it moved her more than devotional texts whose language she could understand. Commentators like Teresa and many others, from the authors and compilers of the Midrash Rabbah to the Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux, were drawn again and again to the Song, not, I think, to explain away the presence of an erotic poem in the Bible—there’s just too much brilliant commentary to have been generated by that thin purpose—but because they recognized in the desire of the lovers for each other something akin to their own desire for God.

When the woman speaks in the Song, she often addresses herself to her lover’s absence. “Where are you?” she asks, again and again, seeking him in the pastures of the countryside and the streets of their city, under the blazing noon sun and at night. The man, on the other hand, addresses himself to his lover’s presence, which he finds overwhelming. In order to cope with it, he praises her one part at a time: her eyes, her hair, her teeth, her cheeks. If “where are you?” is the woman’s question, “who are you?” is the man’s.3 “Who is this that looks forth like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army with banners?” (Song of Songs 6:10, NRSV).

The unknowableness born of devotion seems to me to be at the heart of what this poem is trying to say. No matter how intimate we are with one another, the Song teaches, we always remain mysteries to one another. As Bernard of Clairvaux put it in one of his many homilies on the Song,4 there is always something farther out or farther in. The lovers in the Song are so beautiful, and the poet makes us see that beauty in all its shining glory. But the lovers are also more than their beauty, more than the sum of their glorious body parts. That more is difficult to comprehend and to describe, but it is as worthy of our devotion as what we can see and know.

The unknowable more that is at the heart of intimate love is also at the heart of the study of religion. Whether we are scholars of the New Testament or of twelfth-century India; whether we have excavated our sources from the past or interviewed them in the present; whether our questions are pastoral or scholarly or a combination of both—there is always something farther out or farther in. This is why devotion is such a necessary part of our work. Because the more we devote ourselves to what we study, the more our familiarity with it both deepens and recedes. The greater the care we bring to our work, the more we can sense dimensions of the texts and ideas and objects and people we study that remain beyond the reach of our analysis.

The lure of the unknowable, of course, is a great generator of scholarship—our incomplete attempts to understand each other, our methodologies that both reveal and conceal. The best scholarship is marked by both the profound knowledge that comes with devoted study and the humility that acknowledges the limits of our knowing. The most elegant, convincing arguments are never completely watertight but always leave open a door or a window onto possibilities we had not yet imagined.

This is also true of ministry at its most humane. The sixth-century Christian theologian and reluctant pope Gregory the Great, in his book on pastoral care, defined ministry as the art of arts. Why? Because of what is hidden from even the most wise and compassionate minister. Because, as Gregory writes, the wounds of the mind are even more hidden than the wounds of the body. That is why Gregory teaches that one pastoral approach will not meet all the human needs that ministers are asked to address; because there is always more happening than the minister can see on the surface.5

And not only the best scholarship and the best ministry, but also the best art is marked by the unknowable more revealed through devotion. When Lily Briscoe, the artist of To the Lighthouse,6 tries to capture the object of her devotion, Mrs. Ramsay, in a painting, she thinks: “Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with. . . . One wanted most some secret sense, fine as air, with which to steal through keyholes and surround her where she sat knitting, talking, sitting silent in the window alone; which took to itself and treasured up like the air which held the smoke of the steamer, her thoughts, her imaginations, her desires” (198). Some secret sense, fine as air, able to slip into the space between ourselves and others—perhaps that is what can be cultivated at HDS.

The unknowable more is Woolf’s great subject and her central artistic preoccupation. She sought new literary forms that reflected the “populous undifferentiated chaos of life,” as she put it in The Waves (249)—more realistic, to her, than so-called realistic fiction. “Life,” she wrote, “is always and inevitably much richer than we who try to express it.”7 In her novels, Woolf reached toward the unspoken, undescribed dimensions of human experience: the interior “treasure” and “the unseen part” of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith; Mrs. Ramsay’s “wedge-shaped core of darkness” in To the Lighthouse; “the unacted part” of the characters in Between the Acts.

Woolf’s devotion to the unknowable more in human life represented for her not only an artistic challenge, but a moral one as well. Ninety-five years ago, in the last months of a war that would take tens of millions of lives, she wrote in her diary that “the reason why it is easy to kill another person must be that one’s imagination is too sluggish to conceive what his life means to him—the infinite possibilities . . . furled in him.”8 Just as she imagined in Three Guineas a new university that would teach its students not to love war, her literary project cultivates nonviolence by asking us to consider what is hidden in every person.

If you think that this also sounds a little like religious work, I agree. Woolf was the child of famous Victorian agnostics, and Woolf herself had no interest in joining any religious institutions, feeling, in religious settings, “dulled and bothered” by “the obstacle of not believing.”9 Unlike her friend T. S. Eliot, whose conversion to Anglican Christianity scandalized her, Woolf never felt that Christian faith was adequate to the spiritual needs of her age. As her character Bernard,says in her novel The Waves: “the certainty, so sonorously repeated, of resurrection, of eternal life” (282) was too neat, too confident, too tidy. Like Bernard, Woolf trusted “nothing neat. Nothing that comes down with all its feet on the floor” (295). When it came to religion, she much preferred the “sadness at the back of life” that she found in ancient Greek thought and literature to what she called “Christianity and its consolations.”10

Woolf was the daughter of agnostics, but she was also the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of activist evangelical Christians, known for their passionate commitment to the eradication of slavery and for the practices of devotion that gave shape to their lives. Although Woolf did not inherit the Christian convictions that undergirded her ancestors’ life of devotion to God, she did inherit the sense that one’s life and energies ought to bend in one direction, that one must discover one’s work and dedicate oneself to it wholeheartedly. From childhood, Woolf committed herself, first to a long apprenticeship as a writer, and then to a long career as the pathbreaking author of eight novels, five works of nonfiction, and volumes and volumes of literary criticism, letters, short stories, and diaries. The practice of devotion that undergirds that incredible productivity derived, in part, from a book her Christian ancestors lived by and which she also read: William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. Devotion, Law wrote, is not prayer. “Devotion,” he insisted, “signifies a life . . . devoted to God.” The devout person “considers God in everything, . . . serves God in everything.” “If we are to follow Christ,” Law wrote, “it must be in our common way of spending every day.”11 Substitute the word “art” for “God” and “Christ,” and you have a pretty clear picture of the way Woolf lived her life: her friendships, her travels, her reading, her thinking, her marriage, her activism, the way she organized her days all supported her devotion to writing, and through writing, to the unknowable more, to the “infinite possibilities . . . furled” in human beings and in human experience.

Out of her devotion to her art, Woolf developed a literary response to those infinite possibilities that is also a fundamental religious practice. Students will learn very quickly at Harvard Divinity School never to generalize about religion. Here’s some concrete advice: never begin a paper, or even a sentence, with words like “In every religion” or “For every religious person.” I am going to go out on a limb, however, and say that there is no religious person—no matter how literally they read their holy book, no matter how convinced of a particular set of propositions—who does not create his faith or her religious account of the world through some kind of assemblage, some kind of mosaic-making with fragments of words and images, music and dreams, stories and histories, theological ideas and bodily experience. Religions are mosaics themselves, their emphases falling in different places as they move through history, encounter new cultures, intersect with particular lives.

‘I am after a different kind of beauty,’ Woolf wrote in her diary, to ‘achieve a symmetry by means of infinite discords . . . some kind of whole made of shivering fragments.’

The making of a whole—a “globed compacted thing”—through placing fragments in new combinations was at the heart of Woolf’s literary experimentation throughout her life. As a young woman of twenty-six, before she had ever published a single novel, she stood before the frescoes of Perugino on a trip to Italy and pondered the difference between the serene, sealed-up beauty of his figures and what she was trying to do in prose. “I am after a different kind of beauty,” she wrote in her diary, trying to “achieve a symmetry by means of infinite discords . . . some kind of whole made of shivering fragments.”12 Twenty years later, in To the Lighthouse, her most autobiographical novel, Lily Briscoe describes the work of creation from disparate elements as her vocation, as the work of a lover. It was the work Woolf had done in the novel itself, creating a work of art from the fragments of her parents’ lives. She was the lover “whose gift it was to choose out the elements of things and place them together and so, giving them a wholeness not theirs in life, make of some scene, or meeting of people (all now gone and separate), one of those globed compacted things over which thought lingers and love plays” (192).

As always in Woolf’s writing, her literary preoccupations have ethical implications. When she spins out a vision for a new college in Three Guineas, she writes that its aim should be “not to segregate and specialize, but to combine. It should explore the ways in which mind and body can be made to co-operate; discover what new combinations make good wholes in human life” (34).

In the late summer of 1940, as Great Britain grimly anticipated an invasion by Germany, Ben Nicolson, the son of Woolf’s former lover, Vita Sackville-West, wrote to her and asked: Why didn’t you and your brilliant circle of friends stop fascism? It was not an entirely fair question—Woolf’s husband, Leonard, had helped found the League of Nations; her friend Maynard Keynes sought social reform through economics; she herself had, as she put it in a letter to a niece, tried “to catch Hitler in his home haunts and prod him if even with only the end of an old inky pen.”13 She meant by this, I think, that she tried to fight the ways in which fascism manifested itself in her own society—especially through the oppression of women and inaccessibility of education to any but the very privileged—by organizing for women’s suffrage, teaching night classes for working women, and writing her great feminist works A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas.

But it’s a question that you can tell got under her skin. The only drafts that exist of any of her letters are those for her responses to Ben Nicolson. Indeed, that question seems to have been under her skin even before he asked it. In her extended meditation on the origins of her vocation as a writer, “A Sketch of the Past,” written over the course of 1939 and 1940, she described the conception that drove her to write as her sense that there is a pattern hidden behind the cotton wool of nonbeing, and we are all a part of it. She expressed those convictions in the cadences of a creed:

 . . . it is a constant idea of mine; . . . that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.14

This conception of reality, she wrote, “affects me every day. I prove this, now, by spending the morning writing, when I might be walking, running a shop, or learning to do something that will be useful if war comes. I feel that by writing I am doing what is far more necessary than anything else” (73).

As American warships gather off the coast of Syria, you may be asking yourself if the study of religion is the thing that is far more necessary than anything else. Are the practices of devotion that we cultivate here—attention to the unknowable more in human experience, and the creation of new wholes from the fragments we find in our studies—too delicate, too specialized to make the kind of difference our world needs?

We were provided with an example of the power of precisely those devotional practices, when the country observed the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech—a speech that reflects King’s devotion to both the study and the practice of religion. Without King’s ability to see farther out and farther in, to see the infinite possibilities furled inside this nation, without his gift for putting disparate sources, ideas, and images together to create something “over which thought lingers and love plays,” think how impoverished our common life would be.

But if that example feels too monumental to think about for your own life and work, think of something more recent. Think of Antoinette Tuff, bookkeeper at the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia, who on August 23, 2013, talked a man, who had entered the elementary school armed with an AK-47 and five hundred rounds of ammunition, into laying down his weapons and surrendering before anyone got hurt.15 After a summer in which the killer of an unarmed African American teenager who argued that fear justified his actions was found not guilty by a jury of his peers, Antoinette Tuff’s ability to reach across the boundaries of race and fear with the whole of her humanity feels like a miracle. What made her so skillful and so compassionate when confronted with a heavily armed young white man who told her he wasn’t afraid to die? What allowed her to see the infinite possibilities furled in him, rather than seeing him as an all-too-familiar type? What made it possible for her to speak to him as if he were a member of her own family, to call him “baby,” to tell him she loved him, to promise to stay with him until the police arrived and make sure they didn’t shoot him? “I’ve never been so scared in all the days of my life,” she told the 911 operator when it was all over. But why didn’t fear drive her actions? Who is this that looks forth like the dawn?

Antoinette Tuff is obviously a remarkable person with deeply nonviolent instincts and a lightening-quick ability to bring the whole range of her experience to bear on a dangerous situation, and I certainly can’t solve the mystery of her skillful, compassionate response. But we do know some things. She had been trained in crisis response by her school. She drew on her experiences of hopelessness, sharing stories of her own struggles with the gunman, reminding him how human it is to feel that you have come to the end of your rope. And she was able to make use of a religious practice that she had learned from her pastor. The previous Sunday, she told several interviewers, her pastor had begun a sermon series on how to anchor yourself in God. It so inspired her that she got up early on Monday morning to study. By the time the gunman walked into her school on Tuesday morning, she had been practicing anchoring herself in God, praying on the inside no matter what was going on around her. She could pray for him and talk to him at the same time, and that is what she did, anchoring herself in God in the midst of chaos, keeping the gunman in view as a struggling human being as clearly as she could see the danger he posed.

The practice of praying on the inside, of anchoring oneself in God, has a long history. It’s been passed down through classrooms and communities, teachers and ministers, scholars and pilgrims and mystics. Antoinette Tuff learned the practice from her pastor. And we have learned from her something more about the infinite possibilities furled within human beings and their religious ways of responding to the world. Holding onto her humanity in the face of genuine danger, she offered the gunman—and all of us—a fresh glimpse of our own.

Nonviolent, compassionate possibilities are not the only possibilities religion holds, of course, and keeping particular practices alive through study is not the only thing scholars of religion—or even lovers of religion—do. But there’s a common feeling, as fine as air, held by the poetry of the Song of Songs, the novels of Virginia Woolf, the genius of Antoinette Tuff, and, we hope, in our work: a devotion that cherishes the unknowable more in human beings and human experience itself. A devotion that responds to that unknowable more through creativity, through assembling the shivering fragments of what we study into new wholes that open new perspectives, cast new light, allow us to draw a little closer to what is just out of our reach, in others and in ourselves. This is slow, even painstaking work. It keeps us up late and wakes us up early. It sets us on a permanent quest.

Ten years ago, Janet Gyatso invited us to cultivate a shared love of religion as a way of fostering the possibilities our ever-evolving school holds within it. I have been inspired by her, by my colleagues on the faculty and staff, and by our students, who all do their work with such devotion. Love has a thousand shapes. We are the lovers—like the scholars and artists, the pastors and parishioners, the activists and pilgrims who have gone before us—whose work it is to explore the mysteries of our shared humanity, to reach out for the unsayable from the fragile bridge of language, and to create something from our studies that invites both thought and love. It is a joy and a privilege to begin a new year of this work of devotion with all of you.


  1. Janet Gyatso, “Where Do We Stand?” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 32, no. 1 (Fall/Winter 2003): 10–13.
  2. Charles Johnson, Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (Scribner, 2003).
  3. See Cheryl Exum’s illuminating discussion of the gendered love-talk in the Song in Song of Songs: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 13–28.
  4. Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, vol. 2, trans. Kilian Walsh, O.C.S.O. (Cistercian Publications, 1979).
  5. Gregory the Great, Pastoral Care, trans. Henry Davis (Newman Press, 1950).
  6. Parenthetical pages references to Virginia Woolf’s works of fiction cited are to these editions: To the Lighthouse (Harcourt, 1927); The Waves (Harcourt, 1931); and Three Guineas (Harcourt, 1938).
  7. Virginia Woolf, “Poetry, Fiction and the Future,” in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4, 1925–1928, ed. Andrew McNeillie (Harcourt, 1994), 439.
  8. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. 1, 1915–1919, ed. Anne Olivier Bell (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), 186.
  9. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. 3, 1925–1930, ed. Anne Olivier Bell, with Andrew McNeillie (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), 181.
  10. Virginia Woolf, “On Not Knowing Greek,” in The Common Reader, First Series (Harcourt, 1925), 38.
  11. William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (reprint ed. 2010), 7, 11.
  12. Virginia Woolf, A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909, ed. Mitchell A. Leaska (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990), 393.
  13. The Letters of Virginia Woolf, vol. 6, 1936–1941, ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), 372.
  14. Virginia Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past,” in Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings, ed. Jeanne Schulkind (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985), 72.
  15. Gary Younge, “The Heroism of Antoinette Tuff Reveals What’s Missing from Politics,” The Guardian, August 25, 2013.

Stephanie Paulsell is Houghton Professor of the Practice of Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School. She presented this address on August 29, 2013, at the Divinity School’s Convocation opening its 198th academic year.

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