I sat across from him in the pub during orientation week. It was one of the pub-nights organized for us to make friends or something. Of the infinite threads of social conversation, of course I, being an overzealous new Divinity School student, wanted to talk about religion. “I think,” I explained, “that I see the Bible like a series of expanding concentric circles centered on Jesus.” He didn’t know what I meant. I didn’t know what I meant. What I was trying to say was that I seek to believe the Bible with the most ‘plain sense’ reading I could and follow it accordingly. I just wanted to say it in a way that didn’t make me sound stupid.
He looked at me sideways. We talked some more, and despite my bumbling clarifications he eventually realized that I was essentially evangelical; that I was theologically conservative; that I felt the urge to defend traditional Christian theology.
“Oh, me too!” he said, “There’s not many of us here. You really didn’t sound like an evangelical from all the concentric circles stuff.”
I had started the conversation about our faiths and I was trying to figure him out. And once I started talking he was trying to figure me out too. But I was so terrified. I was terrified of the word evangelical, and what box people would put me in. I was terrified of the word conservative, and how people would judge me. So I hid. I hid behind strange explanations which left everyone confused, whilst ironically trying desperately to be understood and simultaneously looking for ‘allies’.
Harvard Divinity School’s reputation precedes it. For me, this meant many concerned people worried that I would lose my faith in such a ‘progressive’ setting. I certainly came to this school automatically defensive. The truth is, HDS is a very complex place, and can’t be simply summed up by being ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ or anything. People’s views resist stereotyping, and many people are still figuring out who they are and what they think. The monolithic machine of combat-ready liberal theology I was arming myself against was a myth. HDS is a school of minorities. Everyone feels misunderstood. The Buddhists are minorities for not being Christian. The agnostics and humanists are minorities for not being particularly religious. The Christians with liberal theology are minorities for wanting to be tied to organized religion at all. And finally, I am a minority for being an evangelical. HDS is an experiment trying to figure out how we can all learn together.
It’s important to have the opportunities to explain yourself on your own terms. But don’t worry; you’ll get plenty of opportunities. It’s important to find people who share your worldview. But don’t worry; you’ll find them. When I got to HDS, there was no group for people with my worldview. So I made one, and now a whole bunch of us pray, discuss, and host events together.
If I could go back and give past-Pete any advice about how to approach HDS, it would be this, “Say what you think, and don’t feel you have to hide. People are pretty open here. Everyone gets the benefit of the doubt. That’s how we function!” I feel completely at peace at HDS now, but it took a bit of time. My faith has grown in unexpected ways, and this has been partly from interacting with people I disagree with, and partly from my Christian community outside of HDS, whom I generally do agree with. I wouldn’t say I’ve conceded anything significant in my faith since coming here. I haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid (whatever that Kool-Aid would be). Past-Pete had nothing to worry about! So my advice to you is this: Come, enjoy yourself. Feel free to express yourself genuinely. Say what you mean. Find communities inside and outside HDS which match your worldview. And if your particular minority happens to be ‘evangelical’ or ‘theologically conservative’, then find me when you get here!