Every weekday morning at 8:40 a.m., the bells of Memorial Church call the Harvard community to morning prayers. Over a century ago, when attendance was mandatory for students, the chapel would have been packed with restless Harvard men. Today, on a wintery Monday morning in February, just a couple dozen people, mostly with silver hair, sit meditatively in the pews.
The 15-minute ceremony appears to follow a Protestant framework. A Memorial Church seminarian leads a call-and-response reading of the Bible as sunlight streams in through the expansive windowpane behind her. Minutes later, the choir, dressed in flowing formal robes, chants a haunting interlude from the 16th century.
Then a third-year Masters of Divinity student at Harvard Divinity School rises from his seat and walks to the pulpit. Abhishek Raman offers a sermon that stands out in a Christian church: Instead of a Bible lesson, he reads from the Bhagavad Gita, using it as a springboard to teach about corporations, social justice, and Super Bowl ads through the lens of Hindu ethics. The service ends in a group singing of a Protestant hymn before the seminarian comes back for a final blessing.
Morning prayers, frequently led by Divinity School students, have come to reflect a complicated tapestry of religious traditions and beliefs within the School. Much like that Monday’s service, the Divinity School is full of contradictions. Its mission is in part to train religious ministers, but it is not a seminary—it is a nonsectarian graduate school in a secular university.
Though the Divinity School was originally founded to educate Christian ministers, today a majority of its roughly 400 graduate students opt not to pursue careers in religious leadership after graduation. Only 40 percent of 2015’s incoming class chose to pursue a Masters of Divinity, a theoretically pre-professional three-year degree that prepares students for ministry. The rest study for a Masters of Theological Studies, a two-year academic track that serves as a stepping stone to a PhD.
Paths after the Divinity School are diverse. “They do some further training; they go into law school; they go to medical school; they become writers, journalists; they get involved in NGOs; they go down to the State Department,” says David N. Hempton, dean of the Divinity School, “So in other words, any career in which religious literacy is a real advantage.”
In recent years, that literacy has become more complex. Over the past several decades, the Divinity School’s offerings and curriculum have shifted to accommodate a diversity of religions. Bolstered by the University’s extensive foreign language and cultural programs, the increasing representation of world religions at the Divinity School has fostered new communities and directions for alumni.
Dudley C. Rose, associate dean of ministry studies at the Divinity School, oversees the Masters of Divinity program. Rose, who spent 30 years as a Christian minister, is responsible for the education of all ministerial students at the school, whether they are Buddhist lamas, Christian pastors, or Muslim imams. He has a booming pastoral voice, which is somewhat undercut by his frequent laughter.
Hempton’s upbringing in Northern Ireland—where Catholics and Protestants have clashed for years—has made him deeply aware of the dangers of religious intolerance. He founded the Religions and the Practice of Peace program at the Divinity School in 2014, with the goal of “fostering sustainable peace in our world.” Photos on a table in his wood-panelled office show him with Jimmy Carter and the Dalai Lama. “The vital thing at HDS is not where one comes from, necessarily,” he says, “but the willingness to engage with the other.”
This open-mindedness has also fed the long tradition of social justice activism at the School. “Groups of our students come to work on NGOs and become social activists,” says Ahmed Ragab, a professor of science and religion at the Divinity School. “This is one of the things that makes me proud of the school and the work that we do.”
Yet the Divinity School’s evolving identity has not been without conflict—some fear the school has lost its ideological core. Just past its 200th year, the Divinity School must now grapple with questions of identity as its faculty and student body move ever further from its original Christian purpose.
Until 2005, the Masters of Divinity program at the Divinity School was nominally Christian, although students of any faith were eligible for admission. Course requirements fell into three categories, the first two of which focused on Christianity: Scripture and Interpretation, Christianity and Culture, and Religions of the World. Even that system, says Rose, was quite radical. Christian ministers were required to take three courses in world religions, “which was highly unusual for a theological education,” he says.
But non-Christian faiths, says Stephanie A. Paulsell, professor of Christian Studies at the Divinity School and an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ, were “sort of ghettoized in one little section of the curriculum.” In 2005, those requirements were broadened so that students could focus on any tradition. While the changes were broadly applauded, some thought the new direction represented a loss of the values that had made the Divinity School what it once was.
Jon D. Levenson, a professor of Jewish Studies at the Divinity School, is one skeptic of the new curriculum.
“For a long time, the Divinity School was primarily a Protestant seminary,” he says. “Those liberal Protestant denominations are underwater demographically—they have a negative birthrate, below replacement level. Their cultural influence has declined markedly. I think it was inevitable that a curriculum that spoke to the older identity of the school would have to change.”
The loss of a Christian framework, says Levenson, coupled with increasing numbers of students focused on academia and other non-ministerial careers, has left the school reeling without a sense of identity.
“It’s extremely diverse, but with diverseness comes diffuseness, or a lack of a center of gravity,” says Levenson. “In many ways, it’s a religious studies department that for historical reasons is constituted as an independent faculty rather than part of [the Faculty of Arts and Sciences].”
Others, including Rev. Peter J. Gomes, the former minister of Memorial Church who passed away in 2011, were skeptical of the change, according to Ann D. Braude, director of the Women’s Studies program at the Divinity School.
But many see the changes as unambiguously positive—a reflection of the evolving demands of a diverse student body committed to service.
“Religions don’t shoot through history in pneumatic tubes—they move through history, they accrue things to themselves, they interact with other religions, and bits and pieces of them get stuck together,” says Paulsell, still dressed in robes after preaching a Harvard Sunday service. “A lot of religions—Christianity, Buddhism—they’re all about waking up and being more alive to what’s going on around you.”
Paulsell believes in religious plurality for its own sake, but also believes it advances the training of Christian pastors at the Divinity School. “Education and Christian ministry have gotten stronger, because everyone has to take some classes together and think together about being in this very diverse context,” she says.
The Divinity School Racial Justice and Healing Initiative, one of many activist groups on campus, embodies that center of gravity. Trading pulpits for picket signs, they organized a “Week of Resistance” at the start of February, complete with workshops and protests. That social justice focus was part of what drew Rod L. Owens to the Divinity School. A black man raised in Rome, Georgia, Owens, who identifies as queer, felt out of place in the South because of his sexuality. After he began practicing mindfulness to combat depression, Owens converted to Buddhism, and entered the Divinity School to become a lama in that tradition.
“At Harvard, it’s a privilege to be in an environment where identity is so celebrated and embraced,” says Owens, who has found a home among a group of BGLTQ Buddhists at the Divinity School. “I felt that HDS had a space for my interest in religion, as well as my interest in social justice.”
Yet some students say the Divinity School could do more to work with students of diverse faiths. For example, Muslim leaders, according to Celene N. Ibrahim, a Divinity School graduate, have unique needs that are not fully addressed. “[You] really have to combine whatever you’re getting at Harvard Divinity with some kind of outside training in things like incantation or recitation of the Koran, things like learning how to give a Khutbah,” she says.
“I think in the future if we want to be a truly multireligious school that values pluralism, changes need to be made to reflect that diversity and that pluralism,” says Kristofer S. Rhude, a Divinity School student. “I think that the student body is becoming ever more diverse, and in some ways the school will need to catch up with that.”
Braude acknowledges that it is difficult to serve the diverse needs of ministers in a variety of faiths. “It’s true that we assume that a certain amount of students religious formation comes from their faith community,” she says. “But there is an intellectual component to a vocation, and that’s what we can support.”
The Divinity School is no longer united around Protestantism. Its alumni are no longer connected by their work in religious ministry. But it is centered around service and community organizing, often for progressive causes, and has been since its founding in 1816.
Stirred by 2005’s reorganization, questions about the Divinity School’s direction abound—but debates about religious pluralism and identity are nothing new.
Harvard itself was established in 1636 to “season” the men of New England with “the principles of divinity and Christianity,” according to its founding statement. Early leaders of the University believed that “the well-being of the New England experiment depended on a learned ministry,” according to Divinity School Professor Dan P. McKanan ’89, who teaches the history and theology of liberal religion in America.
“What that meant in practice was that young men who wanted to be ministers in the Puritan churches of New England would pursue a liberal arts education at Harvard College,” he says. In the beginning, there was no need for a separate Divinity School—the entire University effectively functioned as one.
Over the next 180 years or so, Harvard grew much more liberal in its Christianity. Tensions exploded in 1805, when Henry Ware, Sr. was selected to fill the prestigious Hollis Professorship of Divinity.
“[Ware] was well known to have absorbed Enlightenment ideas so fully that he rejected the doctrine of the trinity,” says McKanan. Furious conservative Christians founded a rival school, Andover Seminary, in Newton, Mass. About ten years later, in 1816, Harvard followed suit, founding the Divinity School with a “big tent understanding of church in which a variety of theological positions were possible,” according to McKanan.
“The founding of the Divinity School is at this moment of liberalism, and it is very much a Unitarian institution,” says Braude, who is also an expert on Divinity School history. As the Unitarian denomination became more encompassing, Braude says, so too did the Divinity School.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, the Divinity School continued to liberalize. Ralph Waldo Emerson introduced Transcendentalism, a philosophy almost entirely beyond Christianity, at the Divinity School, to much controversy. “[The Divinity School] became more open to humanistic forms of religion, forms of religious practice that don’t posit any form of divine being,” says McKanan, who keeps a bust of Emerson on his desk. “It was certainly not at the forefront of any of that, but it gradually moved along.”
The Divinity School also has a long tradition of social justice activism. “Many of our early alums were abolitionists,” says Hempton. Divinity School alumni have also been active in movements from women’s suffrage and the Civil Rights movement to Black Lives Matter today.
This pattern of liberalism continued until the 1950s, when the Divinity School grew more conservative under then-University President Nathan M. Pusey ’28, who appointed a number of mainline Protestant theologians to the faculty. The Center for the Study of World Religions (affectionately dubbed “Gods’ motel” by virtue of its low-slung mid-century architecture), was founded in the late 1950s across the street from Andover Hall.
“Our school was founded as a nonsectarian, nondenominational institution,” says Hempton, who is not surprised by its pluralistic turn. “It’s literally in our DNA.”
Rosalyn R. LaPier, a visiting scholar from the University of Montana, knows a thing or two about plants. Her office is in a small house at the northeastern edge of campus, the desk placed so the garden outside is easily visible.
LaPier spent 20 years in an apprenticeship with her aunt and grandmother, both members of the Blackfeet Native American tribe, in order to understand the ritual use of plants in her tribe’s religion. She considers this “traditional ecological knowledge” as important to her work as her education at traditional universities. (She holds degrees in physics, religious studies, public policy, and history.) Today, she unites the two modes of knowledge in her work as an ethnobotanist, exploring “religious connection that people have to both plants and places.”
Western scholars have studied Christianity for thousands of years. Applying that same tradition of theological study to indigenous religion is much newer, but LaPier, conducting her research at a school that was founded in part to convert Native Americans to Christianity, believes that it is critical to include native beliefs at the Divinity School.
For example, LaPier sees a lack of understanding in coverage of the ongoing protests at Standing Rock, where many Native Americans from a Sioux tribe are opposing the construction of a pipeline near their land, some of which is considered sacred. Journalists “don’t have the religious literacy to be able to discuss why this particular tribe in this particular place thinks that [the Dakota Access Pipeline] is a religious issue, that it’s not just an environmental issue,” she says.
Faculty like LaPier believe that deep understanding of a variety of religions can lead to social change. Their scholarship at the Divinity School has given them an opportunity to explore intersections of faith and social issues.
Taylor G. Petrey, who received his Doctor of Theology at the Divinity School in 2010, is a theologian on a mission—to reinterpret Mormon texts and histories to allow for the full expression of BGLTQ and gender identity within the church. Petrey is a visiting scholar from Kalamazoo College, and his austere, book-filled office, directly above LaPier’s, feels like the home of a monk.
Feminist and queer theology, like indigenous belief, is relatively new in the field of religious studies. Harvard has been at the forefront of this movement, and Petrey hopes to capitalize on that momentum.
“One of the reasons that Mormonism has politically and theologically found itself in opposition to homosexuality is that it understands the heavens to be built around heterosexual families,” he says. Mormons believe that God is married to a Heavenly Mother, and that Jesus is their son. This divine example, among other things, makes it hard to accept nontraditional families in the church. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not condone same-sex marriage, for example. Petrey doesn’t buy that argument. “I’m studying resources in Mormon history and Mormon theology that destabilize the idea that heterosexuality is the only way Mormons can think about God or the universe,” he says. For Petrey, this argument is critical not only to the inclusion of all Mormons, but for the survival of his church.
“I’m persuaded that one of the reasons why younger people are turning away from religion does have to do with the way that religion got branded as conservative over these last couple of years,” he says. He hopes that this work, based on radical new ways of reading and study, will change the attitudes of millions of Mormons.
The study of a diversity of religions, according to LaPier, is essential to making this kind of shift in belief. “It’s important to think of religion as a key part of human society and human culture,” she says. “If you can at least begin to understand the different types of religion around the world, it helps us understand the people.” For both Petrey and LaPier, that understanding can lead to societal change.
Other Divinity School affiliates have used their studies to build communities outside of traditional religion. Greg M. Epstein is the humanist chaplain at Harvard, and serves atheists, agnostics, and humanists in the student body and the greater Boston area.
Sunday’s talk, which addresses ways in which the humanist community can combat the stigma associated with mental illnesses, is given by Omar S. Haque, who has degrees from both the Divinity School and Harvard Medical School. Haque frequently uses his Divinity School education in his work as a psychiatrist. “In psychology and psychiatry, there is a huge disconnect between the kinds of things that patients are interested in, such as existential, moral and religious questions, and the kinds of treatments we’re trained to give people,” Haque says. He thinks that communities like Epstein’s Hub—grounded in ethical teaching but divorced from traditional faith— have something to offer those who suffer from mental illnesses.
The social philosophy of the Divinity School lends itself to new kinds of community organizing, like what Epstein has done. Others at the school are reaching out to groups that aren’t normally seen as religious. The Ministry Innovation Fellows study groups like SoulCycle and CrossFit for their emphasis on community, and consider if they function like a religious group. Casper R. ter Kuile and Vanessa M. Zoltan, both alumni of the Divinity School, host the popular podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” which considers whether devotion to Rowling’s books could be a form of online religious community.
Ragab—director of the Science, Religion, and Culture program at the Divinity School—has a slightly different focus, using religious community as a starting point for building new, non-religious connections. He wants to take existing religious organizations and put them into action through an initiative called “Aware Communities,” which is designed to work with underserved and minority groups in Boston and around the country.
“It’s going to work with religious institutions in these places to provide training and education on a variety of issues related to science,” like creating green spaces, STEM education for girls and minorities, and better understanding of medical ethics.
In an increasingly secular world, Divinity School students have responded by expanding the definition of what a religious community comprises.
For many students, the Divinity School’s lack of a single religious identity is a major benefit. In her day job, Divinity School graduate Kerry A. Egan cares for terminally ill patients in a hospice in South Carolina. She is the chaplain there, but her job is not to preach any one set of beliefs or teach any one doctrine—Egan is simply there as what she calls a “spiritual midwife,” whose role is “to help [the patient], sit with them, and say to them, ‘What do you already believe?’”
Egan is a Christian, but that does not change the way she cares for patients: “One of the things you learn as a chaplain is you walk out and say ‘I want to be all of the religions!’ You love them all. They all have so much beauty in them.”
Last fall, Egan published the book “On Living,” telling the stories of her patients and the lessons she’s drawn from them. To Egan, writing is a form of ministry, one that speaks to a much larger audience. This fits with the Divinity School’s mission to rethink how religious leadership works: “We’re broadening, in a way, the meaning of ministry to include other vocations besides congregational leadership,” says Rose.
In a way, then, perhaps this is the difficult-to-define center of gravity of the Divinity School: Egan, like Epstein and Petrey, has taken the teachings of the school and broadened them into a new kind of service.
Gomes, the former minister of Memorial Church, said in a 2004 convocation address to the Divinity School, “Silence is death, and we with our skills and talents have never been more needed than now.” At the Divinity School, his words still ring true.