Faculty Panel

Four Keys to Innovation

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

By David C. Lamberth

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.

A panel of HDS faculty launched the bicentennial of HDS by discussing the outcome of the 200-year history of the School: a multireligious divinity school.

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

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