Weaving interfaith community at Harvard Divinity School

The Residents at the Center for the Study of World Religions

Cambridge, MA. Today was an auspicious day at Harvard Divinity School. It was not only our Convocation, the formal opening of the new academic year, but also, at the start of 2015-16, a step closer to the actual bicentennial of the School. It was also an occasion to celebrate the 50 years that Harvey G. Cox, the most well known of our professors, has taught at the School, enacting a remarkable career in writing and teaching and public presence. His address, “The Babylonian Captivity of Theology” was a masterful recollection of theology at the Divinity School and as part of American culture over the past two hundred years, as it moved from center stage to either a merely peripheral or properly countercultural and prophetic position, shifting by a one-time pattern or in a recurrent movement. (Take your pick!) Grounding the event was a reading from the prophet Isaiah, which reads in part, “Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.” (Isaiah 58.7-8) Tough words for any of us, perhaps especially in this place of privilege, Harvard University. If anything, Professor Cox’s reflection compels us also to look to the future, asking ourselves what theology — faith seeking understanding — shall become in the next decades. When was theology truly prophetic and provocative at Harvard? What is the truth of theology - in one tradition or in many - that is strong enough to insist on being heard in today's educational marketplace?

Looking around during the Convocation reminded me again, now in my 11th year at Harvard, how very diverse the School is, religiously and interreligiously. There’ll be no simple, straighforward theology here. A look at our course listings will show you just how diverse the interests of our faculty are — and how diverse our students must be that support such courses by their attendance. By a pattern that seems to increase every year, students of many traditions and cultures and languages and ages have gathered together for another year of study and conversation and service in the School and in the wider community.

But this post is mainly to draw your attention to a smaller scale venture, namely the residential community of the Center for the Study of World Religions. The community members are, and some of us on the staff, are pictured in the photograph accompanying this post. This is the group of seventeen students and one professor (plus some spouses and partners, and one child) living this year at the Center, for their studies and research and writing. While this is indeed a relatively small group, with just over 20 members, it is also richly diverse. We have students from around the United States, from Jordan and Palestine, India and Japan and South Korea, the Republics of Georgia and Iran. Some are doctoral students in a range of fields from Religion in Africa to a comparative study in Catholic and Islamic Theology, to Religion and the Environment and Yoga Studies. Others are students in the two-year general MTS degree, and some are studying in the three-year MDiv, a ministerial degree. We have Hindus and Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians of a number of communities, and some of still more complex identities. This year’s sole professor is a scholar (in ethnomusicology) from the Philippines.

Thus the Center becomes the site of an intentional community of a most interesting kind. The members learn from one another, of course, in our weekly Wednesday evening conversations, and in all the casual encounters of daily life, both among those sharing two bedroom and three bedroom apartments, on the verandas and in study areas. There is a prominent meditation room in the front of the building, and residents likewise take advantage of this holy space for private and shared meditations. The Center residents, though diverse in background and interests, form a regular, neighborly and consistent community. It is first of all beneficial to its own members, but for that reason also a precious resource for the Divinity School.

Indeed, as I stress each year at our orientation, this is a community with a mission: to show hospitality to the wider Divinity School community; to draw that wider and more disparate group together in creative intellectual and spiritual exchanges; and by resident-inspired programming (this year in three fields: comparative theology, religion and business, and religion and gender in Korea and Japan), to contribute a certain depth to the mission of the School in educating religious leaders for the future.

I can add that from year to year this is a most enjoyable community to know and to an extent share (I am around a lot, but live at the Jesuit house two blocks away) at many a meal and party. It is, in the end, a great experiment in crosscultural and interreligious living and learning in the midst of the still broader, more eclectic flow of the School itself. The great themes and currents of 200 years, 50 years, 1 year, merge again and again in our living communities, particularly the Center. And - to connect to where I started - for Professor Cox's insights to remain true, and theology to preserve its provocative edge even at Harvard, there needs to be intellectual/spiritual community on campus. The Center's community, at the Divinity School, at the University, is a most apt and hopeful source for this intellectual/spiritual (and theological) energy, prophecy and provocation.

As always, if you live in the Boston/Cambridge area, please feel invited to our events, advertised at our website. You will have a chance then too to meet some of the residents in our most interesting community.