Fun as an Academic Strategy

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As we near the end of another semester, I find myself reflecting on my first finals week experience and I realize that it captured well an ethos that I want to live out throughout my time at HDS: having fun is integral to academic survival.

I had one crazy goal: I wanted not just to survive finals week, I wanted to enjoy it.

As finals week loomed large in early December, I had one crazy goal: I wanted not just to survive finals week, I wanted to enjoy it. That seemed impossible given that I had eight papers covering about sixty-five pages of writing all due in a two week time period. Yet, I had this hunch that I actually wouldn’t survive if I didn’t enjoy it. So, I set out to figure out how to make finals week, in a sense, fun.

I had two strategies to make this happen. First, I wanted finals week to strengthen my newly formed HDS friendships. I know myself well: I go crazy without some sort of social interaction. I get lonely without people. When I am lonely, I am unproductive. So, I made a point to recruit people to study with me. I found that in quiet libraries surrounded by friends, writing was easier. I was inspired when I saw people next to me making diligent progress. We supported one another without distracting one another. When I needed a break, I went on walks with a friend instead of taking a solo “break” via distractions on the internet.

. . . having fun is integral to academic survival.

It worked perfectly. While I usually studied with only one or two friends, at one point we organized a Div School takeover of a block of desks in Lamont Library. In that intense environment, everyone working on their respective papers, working through stress and exhaustion together, and reviewing drafts for one another, it felt like we were all in it together. It was awesome. And, I indeed felt closer to my friends at the end of finals week than I had when we began.

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My next goal was to not only dive into the content of my papers, but to explore the connections between them, to enjoy how they played off one another. As I wrote, I decided to work four of them together to explore a common theme. Pursuing one theme repeatedly — in this case, ritual — helped me deepen my enthusiasm and sense of academic adventure in a way that was, indeed, fun.

For one class, I got to analyze the idea of ritual in an academic context. I examined Professor Amy Hollywood’s thesis that ritual, through referencing an original concept that remains unchanged but repeated in changing contexts, can create a space for self-becoming. For another, I got to look at ritual through the lens of a novel about a rabbi, tracking her spiritual becoming through her relationship to Jewish ritual. I then had the opportunity to look at my own life, reflecting on how Christian ritual has become an important part of my life at HDS, deepening my fragile Christian faith as I continue to wrestle with Christian theology. Lastly, I got to tie all this together looking at how the vessel of ritual has held my own spiritual evolution in a way that mirrors how community ritual holds community change.

Going deeply into a concept, looking at it from different angles, within different frameworks, I was able to follow one long and exciting path, instead of spreading myself thin jumping from one topic to another. I felt like a detective working through different parts of a really tough case, following different leads toward a final resolution. I had fun.

Finals week highlighted how I want to spend the next two-and-a-half years: surrounded by my peers who can push, challenge, and support me as I work hard to enjoy myself on this surprisingly fun academic journey.

Discovering a New Version of Home at HDS

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Being human is being comfortable with the uncomfortable.

I remember the first time someone told me I was going to hell (apart from the times in elementary school when my teachers were just fed up with my wisecracking in class). I was an undergrad.

“No way! I can’t go to hell. I believe in Jesus.”

But my antagonists were convinced that I didn’t believe in the right Jesus. “You believe in a false god. Not the one that comes through this church.”  By “this church” they meant their particular denomination, and in many ways they were righMemorialChurch2t: I didn’t believe in the Jesus that they interpreted in their weekly Sunday gatherings. I believed in a Jesus and a Christianity that were broader and more nuanced and more inclusive. How could they reduce a whole Jesus movement to their own particular denomination? What do you call this? Some would label it extremism. I might reach that same conclusion, but I typically imagine an extremist tying me to a chair, locking me up in a room, and forcing me to watch their religious propaganda—like Wednesday, Pugsley, and Joel were indoctrinated with Disney Films in Addam’s Family Values. Thank god that didn’t happen! Fundamentally, I believe my interlocutors felt an unease with something different. They were uncomfortable.

How to be “comfortable.”

Most of my free-spirited liberal friends would say, “Life is a balance.” I agree, wholeheartedly. However, is the balancing act ever comfortable? Think about it. When the Wild Coyote is chasing the Road Runner down a tightrope, does it ever look pleasant for the Coyote? Does it look easy for a gymnast to perform on a balance beam?

I often found myself in sweaty situations where all I could do was fake a smile, and the only place I was able to decompress was in a small, one-window bedroom. In these moments of decompression, I realized something: I was making a home.

I’ve given much thought to this idea of comfort, especially as it relates to balance, and I’ve come to believe that comfortableness is not a human quality. We are always susceptible to forces beyond our control and encroached by evil even in places of peace. Our bodies are degenerative. Our families, traditions, and legacies fade or are replaced, and only a few of us are lucky enough to see three generations. Being human is uncomfortable. Being human is being comfortable with the uncomfortable.

In my time at Harvard Divinity School, I have often been uncomfortable. In the beginning, I thought I would get used to the different personalities, cultures, customs, views, and people, but that never happened. In fact, I became more uncomfortable as time progressed. I often found myself in sweaty situations where all I could do was fake a smile, and the only place I was able to decompress was in a small, one-window bedroom. In these moments of decompression, I realized something: I was making a home.

Homes take different forms. There are the physical spaces we often think of as home. Some find home in a religious tradition. But for me, home is dynamic and ever changing.

Homes take different forms. There are the physical spaces we often think of as home. Some find home in a religious tradition. But for me, home is dynamic and ever changing. It is an uncomfortable place filled with different views, people, cultures, and traditions. I don’t think of a brick-layered building, but a sculptor carving away at a block of stone. It may be incomplete, but always, in a sense, progressing. Not a progression that requires a triumphant end, but one that astonishes you with every new development.

My home is in others’ homes. It may sound bizarre. It may sound like conformity, compromise, or masquerading. But what would it be like to reimagine home? We often think of home as a refuge—a place like no other. This presumes that we are autonomous individuals, each traveling our own path, each in need of a home that consists of seclusion and apartness. In a complex, yet still divided world, I’ve found it helpful to remind myself of the value of encounter.

In a complex, yet still divided world, I’ve found it helpful to remind myself of the value of encounter.

When I first came to HDS, I was tempted to avoid encounters with the different cultures, worldviews, and religions because of unfamiliarity and unease, but after a period of time I grew aware of something happening to me. Disagreements challenged me. Cultures informed me. Traditions awakened me. This development became a consistent reminder that I am a sculpture and the world—my new community—is the sculptor.

I have found that my home is no longer an individual estate or a place of seclusion, but that my home is in others’ homes. It is not the place I retreat to in order to avoid seeing coworkers, tough situations, major events, crisis, and people. It’s the meeting place where the worlds of many become one: everyone unique and yet somehow familiar, collaborating, exchanging, and growing. Home has become a place constantly transformed by the world and life. Not a retreat, but a place of engagement.

A Year Ago Today…

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It’s hard to believe that exactly a year ago I was sitting on the couch in my parent’s living room, having refreshed my application status page for the only the first time that morning, with my cursor hovering over the “Status update” link. When I finally worked up the nerve to click on the link, the letter waiting for me was exactly the one I was hoping for. One year later, I’m halfway through my second semester at HDS and it’s been an amazing journey.

It didn’t take me long to decide that I wanted to come to HDS, but even then, there were many things that I couldn’t have anticipated in my excitement.

We gather as friends and fellow travelers and we find ourselves enriched and sustained by the journey.

I knew that HDS was a place where many people of diverse backgrounds and religious traditions gathered to study and learn together, but only after I arrived did I discover just how warm and intentional this community really is. I went to my first Wednesday Noon IMG_4524Service after I’d already started working in the Admissions Office. I thought I’d just get a taste of the Service in order to tell prospective students about it. Instead, I made it became a part of my weekly practice. From fall semester’s Unitarian Universalist, Muslim, and Buddhist services to this semester’s Jewish, Religious None’s, and Catholic services, Wednesday Noon Services hve been a fantastic opportunity for HDS students across religious traditions to gather and participate in the faith traditions of others, and others of non-religious traditions. We gather as friends and fellow travelers and we find ourselves enriched and sustained by the journey.

. . . the excitement has come not only from learning from excellent professors, but from being in the classroom with colleagues who are fired by the same curiosity and commitment that I am.

I knew HDS was a place of academic rigor, but only after I arrived did I discover just how amazing the opportunities to study with world-class faculty would be. Last semester, I had the chance to study with Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Albert Raboteau, pioneers in feminist theology and African American religion, respectively. This semester, I’m taking a course with Homi Bhabha that explores genealogies of global imagination, learning from Toni Morrison who is offering a series of Norton Lectures on the literature of belonging, and exploring Caribbean literature, religion, and culture with Mayra Rivera Rivera. In all of these experiences, the excitement has come not only from learning from excellent professors, but from being in the classroom with colleagues who are fired by the same curiosity and commitment that I am.

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Photo by Chris Alburger

I knew HDS was filled with impressive people, but only after I arrived did I discover that not only are my fellow students impressive, they’re also a true pleasure to be around. So often, over the past two semesters, I’ve had stimulating conversations with my fellow students in class, only to continue that conversation in ways unexpected and fruitful after class concludes. At gatherings like Tuesday afternoon Community Tea and in the various groups and organizations, people gather to talk and pass the time—to simply be in each others’ presence and enjoy the pleasures of community. As my friend Nestor says, “When people ask how you’re doing, it’s not just to acknowledge your presence—they really want to know how you are.”

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These are a few of the discoveries I’ve made about HDS in the year since I received my acceptance letter. It’s such a pleasure to congratulate you on your acceptance letter—I hope you’ll join us in April for a chance to experience HDS firsthand!

Sacraments and the Apocalypse: Asking the Big Questions About Scholarship, Ministry, and Relationship

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On paper, Karen King and Matt Potts’ “The Death of Jesus” might sound like a trainwreck of a course: co-taught by two professors with wildly different interests, readings veering wildly back and forth from contemporary fiction to the esoteric texts of the Nag Hammadi library, and intense meditation on disturbing materials like ancient martyrdom accounts, lynching photographs, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  It would be easy to glance at the course description and pass it over in favor of happier materials discussed in a more harmonious classroom environment.  Had I done so, however, I would have missed out on what may be the most interesting and engaging course I’ve ever taken.

Can hope and meaningfulness be divorced from happy endings?  If everything fades, does anything matter?  Do prayer and ritual have a place in the face of the earth-freezing, stone-cracking absence of God?

The highlight of the course, for me, was our discussion of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  For those who haven’t read it, the book is a terse post-apocalyptic story about an unnamed father and son wandering a frozen earth after some unspecified catastrophe.  All plants and animals are extinct, ash falls from the sky like snow, and what few people remain survive by scavenging for canned food or cannibalizing each other.  Needless to say, the story is bleak.  Unlike other stories of apocalypse like I Am Legend or 28 Days Later, The Road precludes any hope of a happy ending.  There is no secret farm community or enclave of scientists working on a solution.  The man and the boy will die, almost assuredly gruesomely, and the ragged remnants of life on earth will not be far behind them.

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Matthew Potts, Assistant Professor of Ministry Studies

As our class discussed, a story like this raises important theological and philosophical questions.  Can hope and meaningfulness be divorced from happy endings?  If everything fades, does anything matter?  Do prayer and ritual have a place in the face of the earth-freezing, stone-cracking absence of God?  These questions are not idle musings about a hypothetical apocalypse.  As Dr. Potts likes to say, The Road is just the human condition cranked up to 11; all things are stamped with their own expiration date, and if we as scholars, ministers, or anyone just trying to get by are going to affirm goodness and meaning and hope and love, we need to reckon with these expiration dates.

Dr. Potts’ own work draws connections between Cormac McCarthy and Christian sacramental theology, and it was through this lens that our class tackled the book.  To condense a centuries-long tradition of sacramental theology that traces back through Luther, Aquinas, and Augustine into a few lines: In the Christian ritual of the Eucharist, the priest holds up a loaf of bread and says “this is the body of Christ”; the bread is then broken and distributed to the community.  What is important to note is that, for sacramental theology, the priest is not correct in identifying the bread with Christ because she is speaking metaphorically, as if the bread were a signpost pointing to some “more real” body that exists in some heavenly beyond.  Neither is she correct because the bread has ceased to become bread and is now Christ, as if the ritual were some kind of alchemy that sweeps away mundane “breadness” so that the more meaningful “Christness” can take up shop.  Rather, the point of the ritual is that the bread is both bread and Christ, that the mundane can be meaningful and holy in and of itself, without recourse to anything beyond or outside it.  A stale crust of bread can be sacred when the gathered community behaves as if it were sacred, independent of any “more sacred” that might exist outside of the ritual.

The discussion we had during those three hours is one that can easily be taken out of the classroom and into real life.  How are we to love when we know the other will die?  Why should we care about climate change when all species will go extinct eventually?  Why pursue academic work when all books will someday crumble to dust?

Bringing things back to The Road, what makes the father and son’s journey down the road meaningful is not that they are heading towards anywhere better than where they’ve been.  When the man bathes the boy or the two share a meal, these acts of love don’t represent a meaningfulness or a holiness outside of themselves; they actively manifest that meaningfulness and that holiness.  Like the sacramental bread that is holy unto itself without recourse to an outside, the characters in The Road can find meaning and hope and love without pretending that the world through which they wander is anything other than bleak and terrifying.

The discussion we had during those three hours is one that can easily be taken out of the classroom and into real life.  How are we to love when we know the other will die?  Why should we care about climate change when all species will go extinct eventually?  Why pursue academic work when all books will someday crumble to dust?  What our discussion of The Road (informed by a particular brand of sacramental theology) emphasized is that acts of love and meaningful work can be good and sacred in and of themselves, in all their brokenness and finitude.  That Thursday afternoon, to me, represented the core of what HDS offers: intense classroom discussion that leads to insights that can be taken and applied to ministry, academic work, and especially our relationships to others.

Where the Classroom Meets the World: Discovering Vocation in Field Education

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As I prepare to begin my last semester of the Master of Divinity Program at HDS I can’t help but think back to what has made the last two and a half years so significant. My time at HDS has been truly transformative. Although it has been special because of professors, courses, and other students, the part that has been most important for my vocation have been my field education experiences. A major component of the MDiv program is completing at least two field education placements in non-profits, hospitals, churches, community organizations, government agencies—or anywhere where ministry happens. Through field education placements and other volunteer experiences I have been able to discover my passion for prison ministry and particularly for teaching in prisons. I first began to think seriously about prison ministry through a course called “Ethics, Punishment and Race,” taught by Professor Kaia Stern. This course allowed to me discover the ways society has deemed a caste of people guilty and punishable and that justice in this country does not look the same for everyone. As Lawyer Bryan Stevenson says, “in too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.” After that course, I realized that incarcerated people had been invisible to me—not only because prisons and people who are incarcerated are made invisible, but also because I had not considered their suffering and experiences worthy of empathy.

Through field education placements and other volunteer experiences I have been able to discover my passion for prison ministry and particularly for teaching in prisons.

After that semester, I decided to work with people who had been incarcerated and were transitioning out of incarceration. My first field education experience was during the summer of 2014 at Span, Inc., a Boston-based non-profit organization founded in 1976. Span works with returning citizens to provide them with assistance finding housing, employment and provides them with counseling and support. I collaborated with the Director of Operations in projects of data and planning in preparation for grants.  I also worked with their Training to Work program where I taught two cycles of an intensive computer skills class. My experiences at Span, envision myself working in the non-profit sector in the future. I gained skills in both direct-service work and the management side of non-profit work.

The following academic year I decided to work with Renewal House, a shelter for survivors of domestic violence. As part of the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry this shelter engages residents in restorative justice circles, art therapy groups and other innovative work, which was incredibly formative for my work. During my time at Renewal House I worked teaching an English as a Learning Language class and collaborated with the leadership of Renewal House to design and facilitate domestic violence training for clergy and faith leaders. We facilitated one of these trainings at HDS in March 2015 and received positive feedback from students. The connection between domestic violence and the American punishment system motivated me to do this placement. Nearly all women who end up incarcerated have been survivors of domestic violence. Interrupting this cycle of abuse in shelters may keep many people from incarceration and further traumatization.

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Photo by Caroline Matas

During the Fall of 2014, I had the opportunity to co-teach an English course in a Massachusetts prison through the Boston University Prison Education Program. It was a rewarding experience and taught me about the challenges of teaching in a carceral environment and whether my ministry should be more focused on people currently incarcerated or returning citizens as they resettle back into their lives.

I am grateful for the opportunities I have had during my time at HDS. My vocation as I see it now will be to continue this work.  How can those outside of prison work for people to recognize the dignity and humanity of those in prison?  I hope to work in collaboration with community organizations, especially those that are faith-based, in order to change perspectives and advocate for prison reform, to make liberation a reality.

On Discovering a Hermeneutic of Generosity

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440px-Friedrich_Daniel_Ernst_SchleiermacherThree months ago: It’s my first semester at HDS and I’m completing an assignment for Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion, the one required class for all incoming HDS students. Each week before lecture we have to submit an online response to that week’s reading, which for this week is Friedrich Schleiermacher’s On Religion. Schleiermacher was an 18th century theologian sometimes seen as the father of liberal Protestant Christianity. On Religion is his apology for religion, which he seeks to dissociate from doctrine, ritual, practice, traditions or mythology. For Schleiermacher, religion is defined in experiential terms, as something that a believer feels or “intuits.” I thought this was a bunch of baloney. Here’s an excerpt from my online response:

My main issue with Schleiermacher is that his first two chapters are mostly vague, repetitive and rambling descriptions of his amorphous concept of religion, but as soon as he tries to ground his perspective in a particular example–for example when he says that Judaism is defunct and Christianity’s original intuition is “more glorious, more sublime…and extending farther over the whole universe” (113)–he reveals his giant bias: that his own, liberal, protestant Christianity is conveniently the best for intuiting religion. His arguments then lose all credit as any kind of lens for understanding religion from anything but a Christian, liberal, European perspective.

I had completely written off Schleiermacher. What was there to learn from someone with such a blatant, self-serving bias? And that was the day Professor Amy Hollywood introduced the hermeneutic of suspicion and the hermeneutic of generosity.

By the time I got to lecture the next day, I had completely written off Schleiermacher. What was there to learn from someone with such a blatant, self-serving bias? And that was the day Professor Amy Hollywood introduced the hermeneutic of suspicion and the hermeneutic of generosity.

In a nutshell, the hermeneutic of suspicion calls scholars to interrogate the authors and texts they encounter. Questioning an author’s bias, historical time period, cultural background, or the validity of their arguments all fall into this category. It’s an important paradigm and one that I was fully entrenched in during my undergraduate years. In fact, my undergraduate studies were conducted almost entirely through this critical prism. I was trained to think that my job as a scholar was to deconstruct every text presented to me. My work was done only after I had determined the author’s agenda, come up with counter examples–no matter how obscure–disproving their points, and deconstructed their points to pieces. I could then dismiss the entirety of their work as merely their personal bias.

 

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But Professor Hollywood insisted that in addition to being critical, we also need to employ the hermeneutic of generosity; instead of only reading against the author, we also need to read alongside them. As the term implies, we ought to be charitable with the text we read, try as best we can to embody the author’s place, and occasionally look past certain biases, or at least temporarily sideline them, in order to fully grasp the arguments in play. Often it’s only from this generous standpoint that we’re able to fully appreciate what a text or author has to offer.

Deconstructing a text with the hermeneutic of suspicion is a critical component of a scholar’s work. But as I realized that day in Hollywood’s class, employing it without tempering it with generosity is ultimately futile. First, despite the insistence by some that true scholarship is objective, everyone has a bias. If we were to dismiss every biased work, there would be nothing to read. But more importantly, if scholarship is solely about deconstructing a text, then we never truly appreciate what a particular author has to offer, the implications of their arguments, or how their theories map onto our own experiences of the world.

Professor Hollywood insisted that in addition to being critical, we also need to employ the hermeneutic of generosity; instead of only reading against the author, we also need to read alongside them.

When it came to Schleiermacher, my eagerness to pinpoint his bias and then dismiss him meant that I didn’t give his theories any credence. I soon realized my folly during Professor Hollywood’s lecture. She pointed out that not only is Schleiermacher’s work critical in understanding the development of liberal Christianity in Europe and the US, but, even more importantly, it is readily applicable to our contemporary world. In the modern West, many people call themselves “spiritual, but not religious,” meaning they maintain some personal, typically felt, experience of the divine, but don’t subscribe to particular rituals, doctrines, hierarchies, texts, or other structures that the modern West associates with religion. Few realize that, far from a modern take on spirituality, this thread has been running through Protestant Christianity for centuries, and that way back in 1799 Schleiermacher was already making this distinction and prioritizing one’s personal, felt, divine encounters as the really real. I was ready to throw Schleiermacher away without realizing that his work offers an important critique of how religion and spirituality are understood in the contemporary world.

This has been perhaps the greatest lesson from my first semester at HDS because it has changed how I read texts in all of my classes. Now I try to keep a balance between these two hermeneutics, always challenging myself to not only read against but with an author. In this way I’m already getting more out of these amazing texts than I ever did before.

Inhabiting the Questions of Religion: Seasons of Light at Harvard Divinity School

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What does it mean to pursue the study of religion at a place that isn’t aligned with a particular religious tradition? What does it look like when you engage in this study with students from six continents and more than 35 different religious traditions—plus some who have no particular religious affiliation at all? Seasons of Light, our annual multireligious celebration, is part of the answer. The order of celebration for Seasons of Light situates the celebration in the context of our community:

As the nights lengthen and the darkness grows in the Northern Hemisphere, the Great Wheel of the calendar turns once again, catching us up in its low descent. Together we inhabit the promise of holy darkness and anticipate the light’s return. Many religious traditions honor this sacred interplay of day and night in their respective holy days and seasons; most also observe periods of fasting and feasting, often coinciding with a region’s agricultural rhythms of seedtime and harvest. Tonight, we gather to honor the mystery of the swelling darkness around us by kindling the flames of several traditions represented in the HDS community.

Here, I’ve been able to join that concern for literature with an exploration of religion and culture in an attempt to reach for the divine: that ineffable extraordinary which has sparked our imaginations and given shape to our aspirations from the very beginning.

I’d been looking forward to this celebration for weeks. One of my favorite parts of studying at HDS has been the infusion of that study with a sense of sacred purpose. I came to HDS from a small school in southern Maryland where I was awakened to some of the deeper questions that we attempt to answer with the study of literature. Here, I’ve been able to join that concern for literature with an exploration of religion and culture in an attempt to reach for the divine: that ineffable extraordinary which has sparked our imaginations and given shape to our aspirations from the very beginning.

Doing all this in a space that’s at once deeply concerned with religion and religious practice, yet not itself religious, means asking a whole series of fascinating questions—questions that echo throughout the field of religious studies. Can we study religion from within a religious practice or identity? Must we attempt to get “outside” of religion to view it objectively? Is that objectivity even possible? If we feel passionately about religion, how do we express that passion?

Walking into Andover Chapel last week provided some of those answers. Students, staff, and faculty had been gathered in Rockefeller Café before the ceremony for our last Community Tea. Mixing and mingling around tables filled with all kinds of delectable treats, we took a moment from the hustle and bustle of the end of the semester to simply be with each other. To catch up, trade stories, commiserate over the interminable stream of papers, and to share in that measure of comfort that comes from knowing that we’re in it together.

It’s one thing to read about different traditions, but it’s another to have them made tangible: here was a symbol of faith, being illuminated by my classmate whom I’d spent the semester learning and talking and eating with.

Afterward, in the Chapel, the warmth we felt in the Café was manifest in the candles flickering at the entrance. In the middle of the chapel stood a simple altar with the symbols of the many faith traditions represented here at HDS: a seated Buddha, a hanukkiya, the Ikh Omkar of the Sikh tradition, Unitarian Universalism’s flaming chalice, an Advent wreath, and many more. As we gathered, students from each of these traditions made their way to the table to light the candles of their respective faiths. As I watched my fellow students light their candles, I turned to my order of celebration to read about the signs and symbols that I didn’t recognize. It’s one thing to read about different traditions, but it’s another to have them made tangible: here was a symbol of faith, being illuminated by my classmate whom I’d spent the semester learning and talking and eating with. In this moment, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and the Johrei tradition were not abstractions or exotic “others,” but the embodied faiths of people with whom I share a common community. There was the Advent wreath of my Christian faith alongside the Yule Log of Paganism, the Villakku/Diya of Hinduism, and the Arabic Plaque of Islam.

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As the evening proceeded, we sang songs, listened to readings from different traditions, and students and faculty from different traditions performed anthems, chants, and music from their respective faiths. Singing the Hebrew of “Hineh mah tov” in the round brought tears to my eyes: “Hineh mah tov umah nayim, shevet achim gam yachad!” Behold what a good and joyful thing it is, when people live together in unity.

We approach this study of the sacred each from our own various locations and identities, sometimes shaped by a religious conviction of our own, sometimes not.

Here’s the thing about HDS, the study of religion, and our nonsectarian space: One of the things we understand here is that there’s no “outside” space from which we can observe and report on religion “objectively.” We approach this study of the sacred each from our own various locations and identities, sometimes shaped by a religious conviction of our own, sometimes not. In her address “Where We Do Stand,” Janet Gyatso, our Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies, invites us to consider “Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s insistence that we must be friends with the people whose religions we study, we must come to know, as he says, ‘those qualities of the believer’s life that can only be known in that personal two-way relationship known as friendship.’” This leads us toward the “ability to abide with other people’s religion—not just to study it but also to inculcate ourselves in a common space so as to inhabit the questions of religion together.”

This is what we do here at HDS. This is the beauty and the magic of Seasons of Light: that it allows us to inhabit the questions of religion together, as friends.

From Crisis to Confidence: A Journey of Discernment at Harvard Divinity School

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banner_directionsI have had an existential crisis every semester since coming to Harvard Divinity School.

Though it may not seem like it, this is meant to be a celebration of HDS and an encouragement to come here, rather than a complaint and deterrent. And to be fair, I have yet (knock on wood) to have one of these existential crises this semester, though I think the one I had in the spring was big enough to count for both spring and fall semesters.

…you’re probably wondering why on earth I think all this upheaval is a good thing, and especially why I think this is a reason you should come to HDS.

In my first semester here, I realized that I no longer wanted to get a PhD, my academic goal for the previous 5 years, and that I wanted to pursue the Master of Divinity degree, not the Master of Theological Studies degree. In the spring, I discovered that I was a Unitarian Universalist, rather than spiritual-but-not-religious, the label I had happily claimed for several years. In the fall of my second year, after some hesitation and resistance, I accepted the fact that I was moving towards ordination and ministry, a path I had never even remotely considered even a year before. And, that spring, I cried from the pulpit in Memorial Church as I admitted to my preaching class that I had recently come to terms with the fact that I believe in God.

At this point, you’re probably wondering why on earth I think all this upheaval is a good thing, and especially why I think this is a reason you should come to HDS. To put it starkly, I believe that if you leave HDS as the exact same person you were when you arrived, HDS has failed you.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean major crises at every turn, and it doesn’t even mean you leave on a different career path or with a different worldview than when you started. Plenty of people come in with a plan and leave still following that plan; plenty of people come in affiliated with one religion (or none) and leave with the same affiliation. But I think very few people leave without questioning something about themselves or their plan, and I think this is a good thing!

Given the interesting, intelligent people who are here at HDS, and the diversity of experiences, worldviews, and thoughts that they all have, I can’t imagine being here, exposed to all these, and not changing in some way.

The world needs ministers and professors and non-profit managers who are doing what they’re doing because they’ve questioned it and decided it’s exactly what they want to do. Better to have that questioning happen in graduate school rather than the first time things get hard on the job. Crises on the job are easier to handle if you already feel solidly that you’re doing the right thing, even if it’s hard. And existential crises are best handled in a supportive environment, full of people who want to help, and even people whose jobs it is to help you figure it all out.

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Given the interesting, intelligent people who are here at HDS, and the diversity of experiences, worldviews, and thoughts that they all have, I can’t imagine being here, exposed to all these, and not changing in some way. The big picture end-goal may be the same when you enter and when you leave, but I would hope that in between, you spend a lot of time thinking and wondering about who you are and what you want to do. I firmly believe this is what will help you become your best self.

I came to HDS happy with who I was and confident in my career path. I’ll be leaving feeling like I’m exactly who I’m meant to be, and not being able to imagine another career path that fits me so well. And that is thanks to HDS and the amazing people and experiences that exist here that I get to go into the world, ready to take it all on.

A Day in the Life of an HDS Student

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What does a day in the life of an HDS student look like? Here’s the play-by-play of one Tuesday in October.

6:00am: Grad school has confirmed that I’m an early riser who needs his morning “me” time, and today is no exception. I roll out of bed, make some coffee, sit down at my kitchen table, and do some pleasure reading over my breakfast.

Prospect_Hill_Monument_-_Somerville,_MA_-_DSC03320.JPG7:00am: I head out the door into the unusually warm fall air. I live in Somerville, about a 25-minute walk from Harvard, and my apartment sits on top of Prospect Hill, which offers one of the best views of downtown Boston. Prospect Hill also sports a stone “citadel,” which marks a number of historical events, including the spot where it’s said the original American flag was first flown. I take a second to appreciate the fall foliage and the sun glinting off the city’s skyline before heading down the hill.

7:25am: I arrive at Lamont Library in Harvard Yard. Most buildings are closed this early, but Lamont is open 24 hours during the week. At this hour, the place is deserted besides the cleaning staff and a few undergrads slouched in armchairs after an all-nighter. It’s quiet and calm, the ideal place for me to get some reading done during the day’s early hours.

8:40am: I leave Lamont and head right across the Yard to Memorial Church for Morning Prayers. Morning Prayers is one of those Harvard traditions that has been going on for centuries. The service is held Monday through Saturday for 15 minutes in a small chapel in the rear of Memorial Church that includes angelic singing from the Harvard University Choir and a short address from a member of the Harvard community. I love Morning Prayers because, though there’s a general Christian spirit in the liturgy, you never know what you’re gonna get with the sermon; they run the gamut from religious to vaguely religious to not at all religious, and the speakers include those from a range of faith traditions—or none—and from all the different schools and offices across campus. Overall, it’s a pleasant balance between consistency and surprise. Today’s speaker is Professor Michelle Sanchez from the Div School, who gives a reflection on the role of habits and her church community over the past tumultuous year.

img_1640.jpg9:00am: I cross the Yard again for my Spanish class. As an MDiv, I have to complete three semesters of language. I completed two over the summer thanks to the Summer Language Program and cross registered for an advanced Spanish language and culture class being taught through the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. It’s a tough class, and it’s a lesson in humility to be in a classroom of undergrads who all grasp the material easier than me. This week we’re finishing up our reading of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold in Spanish. ¡Qué bueno!

10:00am: Two of my fellow HDS students have Arabic in the same building at same time that I have Spanish, so we meet up outside after class and stroll together over towards the Div School campus. Today, we decide to stop at Velozo’s food truck outside Div Hall, so my pal can grab one of Dean’s famous red-velvet cookies.

10:20am: I don’t have any more class today, but I have plenty of work to do. I find an open table in the lounge in Div Hall, and take out a pile of books from my backpack.

12:30pm: After two solid hours of reading, I head outside to eat lunch and enjoy the unusually warm fall weather.

1:00pm: I head to the second floor of Div Hall to the Office of Admissions where I have a work study job as an office assistant. I really enjoy the convenience of working on campus and enjoy getting to know people I wouldn’t otherwise see. We’re gearing up for Diversity and Explorations and Theological Education Day in November, so it’s a busy day in the office.

Overall, it’s a pleasant balance between consistency and surprise.

4:00pm: I walk from Divinity Hall to Andover Hall for Community Tea, a weekly HDS tradition when the whole community comes together to share relax and socialize over food. I stuff my face with falafel, beef skewers and rice (rule #8 of grad school life: if there’s free food, I must eat as much as possible), and catch up with a group of fellow first years.

5:00pm: I backtrack to Divinity Hall and walk up to Divinity Chapel for Hear and Now. Hear and Now groups are small, interreligious support groups that meet weekly throughout the academic year. They’re less about growing in your particular faith tradition and more about sharing your story and spiritual growth and listening to your peers. I’ve grown quite close to the other two members of my group and I cherish our weekly meetings. Today, we spend half of the hour checking-in and for the other half another students leads us in the some very basic meditation.

6:00pm: I still have plenty of work tonight, so I stroll over the Harvard-Andover Library, where I end up for a few hours most days to study. I’ve come to love the odd leather and wood, reclining chairs on the second floor, and post up there. Dinner is yesterday’s pasta eaten discretely from a Tupperware. Leftovers have also become an integral part of my grad school life.

Unknown.jpeg9:00pm: The flip side of being an early riser is that my brain stops functioning at about 8:00pm. I struggle on for an hour longer, but eventually close the books for the night. I run into one of my classmates on the way out who also lives in Somerville, and we stroll home together. I end up idling on the sidewalk outside his apartment so we can finish our debate about our readings from Introduction to Ministry Studies. We both geek out over Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

9:45pm: Home sweet home. My roommate is watching The X-Files. (He’s currently working his way through all nine seasons—it’s been an interesting few weeks.) To reward myself for a productive day, I plop myself on the couch for the remainder of the episode.

10:45: After looking over my schedule tomorrow and making the next day’s lunch, I lay down in bed to do some pleasure reading before turning in. But I barely make it three pages before my head is already nodding. I toss the book aside, flip out the light, and quickly fall asleep.

Looking Back: An Unsettling Disorientation

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IMG_4384It is the first day of orientation at Harvard Divinity School. I am sitting under this little canopy at one of those generic plastic pop-up tables drinking free coffee and eating a free bagel. (Even before you hear about religious pluralism and the commitment to social change and the historic
function of the Divinity School as a site of training learned ministers, you learn that HDS is going to give you free food. Lots of it.) But then you do start learning about that other stuff, and it begins with the people whom you encounter. My new classmates – these previously unaccounted for entities with whom I will be spending the next two years – start sitting down next to me.

That’s just the way it is here. It turns out that what all the ‘prospective student’ brochures told us was actually true: no two people are interested in the same thing, and HDS is a place where we not only embrace that diversity but actively encourage everyone to go wild with their education and make it their own.

First there’s someone who’s Jewish but wants to study Hinduism. Next is an ordained Buddhist minister who grew up in an evangelical Christian context. A self-avowed atheist humanist who’s pursuing a Master of Divinity (a degree that, until quite recently, was offered only to those pursuing Christian ministry). A secularist who identifies as ‘spiritual but not religious’ and wants to pursue interfaith chaplaincy. A Muslim who’s interested in the complexities of Islamic scholarship in a western academic context. A wholly nonreligious person who’s interested in the ways that methodologies in religious studies can be brought to bear upon the study of literature. The list goes on. That’s just the way it is here. It turns out that what all the “prospective student” brochures told us was actually true: no two people are interested in the same thing, and HDS is a place where we not only embrace that diversity but actively encourage everyone to go wild with their education and make it their own.

At this particular moment, the only thing that unites us is that we’ve made it, and now that we’re finally here, we’re all totally freaking out. There’s not one among us who wasn’t, by around mid-March, compulsively refreshing their emails to see if we had gotten in. We went through the ecstasy of receiving our admissions letters, the discernment of whether to accept, the ordeal of finding an apartment in the area, and the bittersweet task of leaving behind wherever it was we were coming from. Now we’re all sitting around these little pop-up plastic tables, drinking our free coffee, meeting each other for the first time, and each and every one of us has this look on our faces that says: “Oh crap. I’m actually at Harvard.”

The promise of HDS is located in precisely this unsettling disorientation, this project of continually asking us to discover and re-discover who we are and what we want to do.

Of course, this doesn’t last too long. Orientation has to start, and we begin to channel that rush of nervous energy into actually doing stuff. There are speakers, degree panels, breakout sessions. We meet our advisers and start selecting our classes. Some of us have existential crises and possibly a minor breakdown about what it is that we’re actually studying here [cough, me, cough]. But slowly, gently, we begin to glimpse a vision of ourselves as students at HDS, and we like what we see, so we keep going. Step by step.

At the time of this writing, it’s been a month since orientation. I’m going over some of my notes I took during one of the sundry information sessions, and one line in particular stands out to me. I was sitting in a session facilitated by Dudley Rose,professor, coordinator of the M.Div. program here, and local legend. In speaking of some of the elements of HDS’s degree requirements, he cracked a wry smile and said, “Sometimes we want this to be a sort of unsettling disorientation for you.” An unsettling disorientation. Nice. I couldn’t help but think that, in fact, that’s exactly what we were all going through at just that moment. The whole irony in calling those first few days our “Orientation” is that they weren’t really orienting us in any particular direction at all. HDS, we are coming to learn, wants to give us the boat and the paddle and some sketched maps, send us out into the vast oceans of religious scholarship and ministry, and say: “find your own way.”

That’s why HDS is awesome. The promise of HDS is located in precisely this unsettling disorientation, this project of continually asking us to discover and re-discover who we are and what we want to do. Over and over, I hear my fellow students saying the same thing: “I came here expecting to do one thing, but now that I’m here, I’m realizing that actually what I want to do is….” That’s okay. That’s actually what we came here for. You don’t come to a non-religiously affiliated, multifaith, endlessly diverse divinity school because you’re looking to learn more of the same. You come here because you know, perhaps in some pre-rational intuitive kind of way, that you’ll encounter difference here, and that difference will have something to teach you. Orientation, it turns out, is the first step on a disorienting, uncertain, and (for that reason) revelatory path that’s taking us directions we’d never thought we’d go, and transforming us into people we never knew we could become.

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