Bringing Faces of Divinity to Life

August 8, 2016
Ann Braude
Ann Braude, WSRP director and Senior Lecturer on American Religious History / Photo: Steve Gilbert

The history of Harvard Divinity School may not be what you think.

To celebrate HDS’s bicentennial, Ann Braude, director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program and Senior Lecturer on American Religious History, has worked for more than eight months on an exhibit highlighting the meaning of the School’s history.

Faces of Divinity: Envisioning Inclusion for 200 Years draws on the School’s history to explore how it became a multireligious divinity school in the twenty-first century. Twenty-one thematic exhibits will be on display throughout the HDS campus during the 2016-17 academic year. The exhibit opens on August 30 with a special panel discussion and reception.

Braude was aided by three Harvard doctoral students who served as assistant curators: Eva Payne, MDiv ’10, Christopher Allison, and Tom Whittaker. She recently took time to answer some questions about the project.

HDS: Where did the idea for this project come from?

AB: The exhibit was inspired by the experience we had during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the admission of women to the School. That was in 2005. Before that, white Christian men were the only people whose portraits hung on the walls of our School. Those portraits, and the Christian imagery in our architecture, dominated the visual experience of our School. They appeared to constitute the School’s history.

I knew that was historically inaccurate, that women leaders and women’s concerns had been critical to shaping the school that HDS had become. I also knew that women students often looked at the white men on the walls and wondered whether they belonged here, or whether they were interlopers who had no permanent place in the School’s intellectual mission.

The bicentennial offers an opportunity to change the visual culture of the School. I want to show on the walls of the School how the people who are here now came to be here. I want the students who are here to be able to see that they have a legitimate place in the ongoing history of the School, that their voices are needed to continue the ever-widening conversation about religion that has been going on for 200 years.

Black History Month Worship Service in 1991. / Photo: Bradford Herzog

HDS: Who contributed to the exhibit?

AB: Dozens and dozens of alumni either contacted me or were contacted by me and found amazing things in their closets and shoeboxes. They contributed stories, they contributed photos, and they contributed documents. Some alums still had syllabi, course papers, and programs from events. Some incredible things came out of people’s closets.

People have very vivid memories of HDS. They remember their classes. All the alumni I spoke with talked about professors they remembered, classes that they took, and issues that they were confronted with. They talked a lot about their peer group and how the conversations went on outside of the classroom experience. They talked a lot about the conversations in Divinity Hall and Rockefeller Hall, over meals and at Community Tea.

People really remember vividly the way the School changed their lives, the way the School opened their minds. Many people spoke about eye-opening experiences. So many alums have stories that we don’t know as part of the School’s history.

HDS: How have the students impacted HDS over the course of the last 200 years?

AB: Students are always the forward edge of where the School is going. If we look back at what students were doing, we can often chart the course of the School’s development by their interests and activities.

They have been pushing us and pushing us since they invited Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1838. The faculty didn’t invite him. It was the students who asked him to come and speak to them. That’s why we have what is probably the mostly widely read address ever given at HDS: the Divinity School Address.

In the exhibit you’ll see how students saw the possibility of what the School could became before the faculty did. Jewish students came here in the 1970s when this really was an exclusively Christian environment. Muslim students came in the 1990s when there were very few Muslim scholars available for them to study with, but they understood that a multireligious environment provided the resources they needed for the issues they wanted to explore. They came here and they did remarkable things.

HDS: Can you tell us a bit about the exhibit and what you found?

AB: Probably the most interesting finding is that our history is not a one-way trajectory from Christian origins to pluralism. In fact, our closest approach to Protestant orthodoxy came in the 1950s. That was when the School was reborn and expanded under President Nathan Pusey. The School we know today really dates from that time.

Interestingly, it was the persistence of comparative approaches from an earlier period, combined with the robust presence of Protestant neo-orthodoxy, which gave rise to the School that eventually became multireligious. The renewed engagement with Christian communities of faith in the 1950s and 1960s paved the way for engagement with non-Christian communities of faith. This could not have happened in the same way if we had been an exclusively academic institution.

We have 21 narratives that we developed to tell 21 different aspects of the School’s history.

By taking 21 angles of vision, one of my hopes is to show everyone on the faculty, to show students, alums, and friends of this School, what has been going on in all of the corners where they haven’t necessarily been participating.

One of the most important things they will see is a persistent conviction that to understand religion you have to study more than one. This idea has been approached in many different ways, but it has been a concern going way, way back. And this has much to do with our Unitarian origins, which make us different from Yale Divinity School, or the University of Chicago Divinity School, or Union Theological Seminary. Our Unitarian origins set us on this multireligious path but also had their own aspect of sectarianism, because Unitarians themselves were a distinctive group with a distinctive set of concerns.

The greatest constant I see in the School’s history is that people came here because they wanted to study a religious perspective or topic that was important to them, that they wanted to be able to engage in depth in a scholarly way, and they wanted to do it in a multireligious context.

Bernadette Brooten, PhD '82

HDS: What were your most surprising discoveries?

AB: I was surprised and delighted to find that HDS has stirred the creativity of some remarkable artists. The exhibit includes not only photographs, but also paintings, poetry, dance, and even music at the audiovisual station. Religion and art have been intertwined throughout human history, and it was exciting to find examples of that connection that have been valued well beyond the School emanating from our intellectual conversations. Perhaps the most remarkable of these is Anne Carson’s poem “Pronoun Envy.” But I also think every student, faculty member, and alum should read Professor Michael Jackson’s poem “Fieldwork.”

Another stunning finding was the address given by Mordecai Wyatt Johnson at the University’s 1922 Commencement. Johnson, who would become the first African American president of Howard University, was selected to represent all graduate students at the University’s Commencement. He gave a startling address, “The Faith of the American Negro,” in which he challenged Christian America to take action against racist violence. He described the consequences if African American citizens were to have reason to give up on the federal government as a source of civil rights. I was struck by the similarity between Johnson’s concerns and the issues being raised in the Black Lives Matter movement. I tried to imagine a student graduation speaker in Tercentenary Theater today saying, as Johnson did, “The Negro people in America have come to the place where their faith can no longer feed on the bread of repression and violence.”

The idea that this happened at Harvard in 1922, and that it came from the Divinity School, really caught my attention, because this is a moment of real crisis in race relations in the United States. It’s the height of Jim Crow, and it’s a crisis in xenophobia in the country, with immigration restrictions being imposed. The University is dealing with this, and President A. Lawrence Lowell is trying to impose quotas to restrict diversity in the College. This is so much like what we are facing today. At that moment Johnson gave this address, after being nominated by the dean of the Divinity School, I found this to be a really dramatic event.

HDS: What does this exhibit say or reveal about the future of the School?

AB: The history definitely allows us to see what goes on here that goes on nowhere else in the University: bringing together the academic study of religion with practitioners and leaders in religious communities. That is a very potent mix. Every graduate I spoke with said their courses at HDS had a different quality than courses elsewhere in the University; students were more engaged, more passionate. Conversations were more genuine and consequential.

What I see for the future of the School has a lot to do with what I see for the future of the world. The world is moving in a direction where understanding multiple religions is a qualification for leadership, and, for Americans in particular, it’s something that we cannot afford to ignore if we want to be global citizens. I see us as the training ground for leaders who will have the essential capacity to function in multireligious settings.

—by Michael Naughton