Stepping Forward Into the Third Century

August 31, 2016

After reflecting on the formation of Harvard Divinity School in 1816, Harvard President Drew Faust looked out to the crowd of HDS faculty, students, staff, and friends gathered on the Campus Green and told them that their community not only embodies the aspirations of the School’s founders, but also expands on them.

“Here we see dozens of religious affiliations represented, and no affiliations represented. Here we see a community more diverse and more dynamic than its founders could have possibly imagined. Here we see a pinnacle of pluralism rising in a complex global landscape,” she said.

Faust offered welcoming remarks during HDS’s Convocation ceremony on August 30. More than 200 people gathered under a tent on the Campus Green for the event, which also marked the start of the School’s year-long bicentennial celebration.

Faust praised several new initiatives recently put forth by the School, including the Religious Literacy Project, which launched a free online course earlier this year that attracted more than 100,000 users from more than 180 countries, and the Religions and the Practice of Peace Initiative. RPP “is a model for what Harvard can achieve by convening the world’s thinkers and doers,” Faust said.

Dean David N. Hempton called Faust’s participation in HDS’s Convocation “a recognition both to the critical role that Harvard’s leaders have played in the School’s founding and advancement, and, as she recently wrote in Harvard Magazine, to HDS’s place as a ‘pinnacle of pluralism’ and ‘a powerful convener of experts from across the University.’”

Former Dean George Rupp, past president of the International Rescue Committee, delivered the keynote speech, “Challenges for a Third Century.” He proposed that as HDS enters its third century, it should focus on three core sets of strength.

“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,” he said.

Convocation capped a day of insightful and celebratory events that launched HDS’s bicentennial year.

The day started off with a panel discussion that posed the question “What is a multireligious divinity school?” Associate Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs Janet Gyatso moderated the panel, which was made up of faculty members Dean David N. Hempton; Diana Eck, director of the Pluralism Project; Professor David Lamberth; Professor Jacob Olupona; Professor Stephanie Paulsell; and Ahmed Ragab, director of the Science, Religion, and Culture program.

Following the panel, Hempton, Gyatso, Eck, and Rupp were joined by scores of people in the lobby of Andover Hall to officially unveil the special exhibit Faces of Divinity: Envisioning Inclusion for 200 Years. Curated by Ann Braude, director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program and Senior Lecturer on American Religious History, the campus-wide exhibit explores how HDS became a multireligious divinity school in the twenty-first century. The exhibit, which will be on display through May 2017, is located in Andover Hall, Divinity Hall, and Rockefeller Hall, where an interactive display allows for members of the HDS community and others to contribute to the archive.

In concluding her Convocation remarks, Faust wished HDS a happy birthday and urging community members to enjoy the events to come.

“May the whole year of celebration be one of learning together and of moving this remarkable institution forward,” she said.

—by Michael Naughton