Addressing Challenges for the Third Century

August 24, 2016
Former Dean George Rupp
Former Dean George Rupp. / Photo: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University

On August 30, George Rupp, former Dean of Harvard Divinity School, will deliver the keynote address during the School’s Convocation. The event, during which Harvard President Drew Faust will offer an introduction, also marks the kickoff to HDS’s bicentennial year celebration.

Rupp served as Dean of HDS for six years, from 1979 until 1985. He also served as president of Rice University and Columbia University before leading the International Rescue Committee.

His talk, which will take place at 5 pm, on the HDS Campus Green, is titled “Challenges for the Third Century.” HDS communications reached out to Rupp to answer some questions, including what changes he sees in the field of the study of religion, what HDS should focus on in its third century, and his advice for incoming students.

HDS: The title of your address is “Challenges for the Third Century.” What challenges do you see for an institution like HDS?

GR: The central challenge for HDS in its third century is to build on the core strengths that have defined its first two centuries and thereby to resist attempting to imitate some other institutions or parts of institutions that may seem attractive in the short run.

HDS: What strengths should HDS focus on to prepare itself for the future?

GR: The core strengths that need to be preserved and even enhanced are: first, the capacity to ground students of all ages in the core traditions of their own communities, including respectful comparisons to other traditions sympathetically understood; second, a commitment not only to the descriptive study of multiple traditions, but also to normative appraisals based on comparative assessments of the impact of religious convictions on the broader society; and third, a concern to prepare leaders both for particular religious communities and also for engaging the dimension of ethics and values in societies around the world and indeed in the emerging global community toward which we aspire.

George Rupp with Peter Gomes, left. / Photo: HDS archive

HDS: You were dean of HDS for six years starting in 1979. Before that, you earned your PhD at Harvard. What are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen in the study of religion over the last several decades? 

GR: I find that the study of religion globally has moved very much in the direction that Harvard exemplified 35 years ago. Harvard had a deeply grounded appreciation of other-than-Western traditions. The Divinity School was certainly focused on Christian traditions, but the Center for the Study of World Religions was an impressive institutional representation of the connections between HDS and the broader attention to other traditions across the University.

At a time when normative questions were not welcome in many university settings, the Divinity School also affirmed the importance of ethical and public policy issues and encouraged student involvement in pursuing the practical implications of sometimes quite theoretical questions. Then as now, the role of HDS in preparing religious professionals was not as prominent as it was and is at many other theological schools—but now as then it is still a crucial dimension of the mandate of the School. So, all in all, I see lots of ongoing development, but more continuity than change. 

HDS: How did studying Buddhism at the University of Sri Lanka impact you?

GR: I decided to leave Yale and come to Harvard largely because of my frustration at the lack of interest at Yale Divinity School in comparing Christianity with other traditions. I came as well because of attraction to the work of Gordon Kaufman and Dick Niebuhr. But the Center for the Study of World Religions was and is the institutional embodiment of what attracted me to HDS.

As I finished my pre-thesis work in theology in the PhD program, I decided that I would like to spend a year immersing myself in a tradition other than Christianity. I was attracted to Buddhism because I thought it was a stark contrast to conventional Christianity. Because I was a non-specialist who did not have the language competence that would have been desirable, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was attractive based on the widespread use of English there. Wilfred Cantrell Smith, then the director of CSWR, was very supportive of my interest and even provided Center funds to support travel for my year abroad.

As for impact, I learned to see the world through two quite different traditions—a capacity that has been crucial for me ever since. I also learned that each tradition has multiple quite different approaches or interpretations within it. We have all heard the aphorism that the various religions offer different paths to the same goal. A more apt statement is that each of the various religious traditions offers multiple paths to different goals.

HDS: In addition to serving as Dean of HDS, you’re also a Presbyterian minister. You’ve also served as the president or Rice and Columbia universities and as the head of the International Rescue Committee, which is a secular organization. How has your background in religion interacted with your role as the leader of those institutions and the IRC?

GR: I am indeed a Presbyterian minister, one of the very few Americans who continues to construe the modifier "Calvinist" in positive terms. More seriously, in my work at Rice and Columbia, and especially at the International Rescue Committee, I have continued to press the agenda of a global orientation and a concern with engaging ongoing social challenges. To put it succinctly, my background in religious study and practice has informed all the rest of what I have thought and done over the years. 

HDS: What advice do you have for students about to begin studying at HDS?

GR: I urge you to relish the chance to become more thoroughly grounded in your own traditions and to become more aware of how those traditions compare to and interact with the commitments of other communities. I applaud the fact that you will be embodying the impact of religious convictions on the larger society and also on our emerging global culture. I encourage you to embrace this learning opportunity without worrying too much where it will lead—and then to pursue the avenues that open for you in the years ahead.