Hope for Renewal

November 9, 2020
Dean David N. Hempton
Dean David N. Hempton. / Photo: Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer

I write at perhaps the most challenging moment of our lifetimes, as our society reels from global pandemic, economic collapse, and social unrest. We have all been affected. Many in the HDS community are on the front lines as activists, caregivers, and even policy makers. I want you to know that we at HDS are thinking of you. We are inspired by your efforts. We thank you for making a world of difference. 

In recent months, I have often reflected on my time as an undergraduate at Queen’s University, Belfast, in the early 1970s, the first—and some of the worst—years of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. One day I struck up a conversation with a mentor of mine, a scholar of Irish history, about how terrible things were—the bombings, the assassinations, the constant outrage, grief, and fear. He looked at me a bit quizzically and ticked off a list of some of the great disasters of the twentieth century: the Battle of the Somme (in which Northern Irish forces suffered great losses); the flu pandemic of 1918; more or less the entirety of World War II. 

My mentor’s point was not to minimize the violence in Northern Ireland or even to say, “Things could be worse.” (Anyone who studies Irish history understands that things could always be worse.) Rather, he meant to point out that we had become somewhat inured to catastrophe. We think we are the masters of our fates, that we are in control. But history shows that much of the time we are not in control at all. We are buffeted about by events and forces much larger than we are. 

Far from encouraging a kind of fatalism, this perspective underscores the importance of doing all we can, wherever we can, to make a world of difference—to act out of hope, to build for renewal, and to do so with great humility and compassion as we walk through these difficult 
and uncertain times. 

In that context, I am proud of the way that the HDS campus community responded to the formidable challenges of the past year. 

Teaching and Learning in a Global Pandemic

With the coronavirus spreading rapidly throughout the country, HDS, like our sister Schools at Harvard, made the decision to shift to remote learning last March in order to safeguard the health of everyone in its community. The rationality of the decision did not make it any easier, however, for students who had to leave campus in the middle of a semester. Worst of all, they could not be together to mark one of the most important passages of their lives: graduation. 

Faculty too were faced with great challenges. In the space of a week or two, most had to learn an entirely new way of teaching—one suitable to an online environment and that involved technologies that many had never used before. They had to alter, midstream, their curriculum and their criteria for evaluating student performance. And they and their students missed the joy of being together in person.

The School’s staff worked with faculty and students to make the rapid transition possible. They provided training for teachers grappling with new tools. They provided support for students to help them stay focused as the world went into pandemic lockdown and help them stay connected while living and working thousands of miles from campus. They recreated, online, vital aspects of the HDS experience, such as Noon Service and even graduation ceremonies. Many juggled these demands while minding children for whom there was no day care or while caring for—and, sadly, sometimes grieving—a loved one lost to COVID-19. 

Despite the hardships, we learned a great deal during the spring of 2020. We used technology to enrich our classes as never before, bringing scholars and practitioners into the virtual classroom in ways that would have been impossible to do on campus. We hosted events—such as my conversation with Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria—that reached new and far-flung audiences. These innovations in teaching and the creation and distribution of knowledge will be with us long after COVID-19 has receded. 

Construction at Swartz Hall on the new multiuse space and proposed café in early 2020.
Construction at Swartz Hall on the new multiuse space and proposed café in early 2020.

We Will Return

And we will return to campus. While the move to remote teaching and learning has, overall, been a positive experience, it has also underscored the importance of our physical environment to all that we do. 

That is why I am so delighted that, after a hiatus of several months during the lockdown, the renewal of Swartz Hall has resumed and continues apace. One of the ways that HDS makes a world of difference is by being a model of a multireligious community that brings together people from many different traditions in an atmosphere of authenticity and mutual respect. Swartz Hall will allow us to augment those efforts by integrating into our teaching and learning spaces the kinds of technologies that have become the fabric of our pedagogy during the lockdown. At the same time, it will provide new spaces where students can acquire the irreplaceable experience of living and working side by side. 

As HDS scholars like Mayra Rivera and Mark Jordan emphasize, our existence is embodied. That reality lies at the center not only of the educational experience at HDS but of the experience of being human. 

Confronting the Evil of Racism

And yet, as last summer’s social unrest demonstrates, our society still does not acknowledge the full humanity of all its members. As I write this, the country is grappling once more with the 400-year-old problem of racism—both overt and systemic. Although the current conversation may have been inspired by the killing of George Floyd, an African American man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis last spring, the pervasiveness of systemic racism is evident in the way that Black and Brown communities are disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also evident in longstanding disparities in access to health care, housing, education, and a dozen other critical concerns. As I wrote to the HDS community last spring: 

At moments like this, when the scar tissues of our past sins and present ugliness burst open into full view, what we need most are not more ritual words of condemnation, but a steely, unquenchable resolve to work together for deep structural change that is long, long overdue. 

Progress in Uncertain Times

As part of engaging with the significance of the global pandemic and a nation-wide reckoning on racial justice, Harvard Divinity School must continue to advance its mission of educating scholars and leaders who make a world of difference. We must continue to build connections with our partners at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Law School, Business School, Kennedy School, and other faculties as part of the University’s ‘One Harvard’ efforts. We must continue to extend our connections to sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, South America, and the other regions expected to become the centers of religious life in the decades to come. Above all, HDS must ensure that the Faculty of Divinity still is preeminent in the study of global religion. 

Despite the challenges of the year just past, I am pleased to say that the School made progress in each of these areas. HDS added some extraordinary scholars and practitioners to its faculty, including visiting professor Judith Lieu, one of the world’s great experts on the New Testament and early Christianity; visiting faculty member Rev. Cornell William Brooks, the former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and an authority on the role of religion in the U.S. civil rights movement; and practitioner in residence John Brown, a longtime business executive, the former deputy director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and a thought leader on business ethics and religion. Rev. Brooks, who also sits on the faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School, and many other faculty are continuing and deepening HDS collaboration with partners across the University. 

The School also announced the appointment of Teren Sevea (effective July 1, 2020) and Mohsen Goudarzi (effective July 1, 2021), two dynamic scholars of Islam. Professor Sevea, profiled in this report, will advance HDS’s knowledge of South Asian Islam. Professor Goudarzi, an outstanding teacher, will greatly increase the depth and breadth of its expertise in Qur’anic studies.

Harvard gates

A New Center of Excellence

Perhaps the most exciting area of progress, however, is the launch of Religion and Public Life (RPL), a new School-wide initiative that addresses the need among leaders and citizens for deep understanding of the role that religion plays both in escalating intolerance, inequality, and extremism and in contributing to human flourishing. 

In recent years, HDS has seen a significant rise in the number of programs, seminars, conferences, and activities initiated by faculty that can be broadly characterized under the umbrella of promoting the public understanding of religion. These include the Religious Literacy Project; the Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative, in cooperation with the Kennedy School; Religion and the Practice of Peace; Science, Religion, and Culture; and the School’s Executive Education program, Making Change, to name just a handful. Additionally, HDS regularly hosts seminars and conferences that focus on a wide range of issues such as Christianity, race, and mass incarceration that are matters of urgent concern to the wider public. My own efforts to assemble the HDS Global Task Force similarly reflect our growing need to engage our mission even more broadly in the wider world. 

Religion and Public Life integrates many of these current programs and builds new bridges from the academy to a wide range of stakeholders, drawing on the vast resources of Harvard University—including the curricula of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Law School, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the rest of Harvard’s graduate schools—to promote understanding of all the world’s major religious traditions. Through critical scholarship, the program explores the beliefs, stories, ethics, and practices associated with the world’s religious traditions; provides the conceptual tools that enable leaders to place them in social, political, and historical context; and illuminates religion’s immense potential to promote—and, too often, to thwart—the thriving of humanity and of creation. 

Religion and Public Life creates a new center of excellence at HDS, leveraging the School’s traditional leadership in both ministry education and the academic study of religion, to prepare religiously literate, ethical leaders in all fields who work for a just world at peace. With this aspiration in mind, HDS will this year invite an initial cohort of prospective students to apply to its first new degree program in 50 years: the master of religion and public life (MRPL). Along with the School’s expanding programs in executive and continuing education, the MRPL will enable HDS to engage leaders in a wide range of professions—law, journalism, business, entertainment, and humanitarian aid work, to name only a few—providing them with religious knowledge that makes more effective their efforts to address the world’s most urgent challenges. Moreover, the new certificate in religion and public life will enable MDiv and MTS students 
to make the same kind of real-world connections with their own course of study at HDS. 

Scholarship and Service

Even as we look to the creation of new centers of excellence at HDS, we also acknowledge the ongoing excellence of longstanding programs. The Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR), under the leadership of Charles Stang, Professor of Early Christian Thought, continues to be a model of interreligious residential community and dialogue. Last year, the CSWR welcomed its first-ever cohort of Hindu monastics, which included Swami Sarvapriyananda, a monk of over 25 years in the Ramakrishna Order and the current minister and spiritual leader of the Vedanta Society of New York. The program, which featured several public events with the monks, immeasurably strengthened the Hindu presence on campus. HDS looks forward to the arrival of the next cohort in academic year 2021–22. 

Last year, the Women’s Studies in Religion Program brought another group of outstanding scholars to teach and conduct research at HDS. These included new scholars like Kerry Sonia, who explored the role of domestic life in the evolution of Judaism, and established experts like Jyoti Puri, who examined the way that death rituals helped early South Asian immigrants to North America find community with one another. 

Finally, the School’s ministry studies program—including the pioneering Buddhist Ministry Initiative—continues to produce graduates whose commitment to service has never been more inspiring. I have often been moved, over the past year, to hear the stories of HDS alumni whose work as health-care chaplains put them on the front lines of the effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Formed in the School’s multireligious environment, these leaders provide care and comfort to the sick and suffering—and their families—regardless of religious tradition or belief. Driven by a deep experience of something greater than themselves, they often put their own health and wellness at risk to be a companion to others, particularly in the final hours of life. As Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Interfaith Chaplain Jo Murphy, MDiv ’15, told The New York Times last summer, “I try to fight the aloneness with everything I’ve got.” 

Candles burning during Seasons of Light

Together, We Create Something New

That the School has been able to make progress on its priorities in a time of such tumult is a tribute to the support HDS receives from its alumni, donors, and friends. Last year, donors provided over $900,000 in current-use funds for student financial aid. They provided funding for new initiatives like the Hindu monastics in residence. And they provided lifeblood support for the visionary program Religion and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School.

This support will be even more important in the years ahead. Swartz Hall, the importance of which has been underscored by our renewed appreciation of the value of physical spaces and face-to-face connections, requires added resources for its transformation into a campus center worthy of a twenty-first-century multireligious academic community. As the pandemic lingers and the prospect of a rapid economic recovery decreases, the need for student support will only increase. And, as the most endowment-dependent School at Harvard, HDS badly needs new unrestricted funds both to launch new initiatives like RPL and to cope with the profound economic uncertainties that will likely linger for some time after the COVID-19 outbreak recedes. 

With you as our partners, we will successfully meet these challenges. We will continue to reshape the HDS curriculum and the student body, making it ever more diverse and inclusive. We will transform our campus with twenty-first-century teaching, research, and meeting spaces worthy of these students. We will advance religious knowledge and bring it to whole new audiences, both on and off campus, through the use of new technologies. And with your support, we will bring to HDS even more talented and devoted students from countries other than the United States, regardless of their financial circumstances, with an increasingly robust aid program. 

These are fearsome times. But as I learned, coming of age in Northern Ireland, times of great change always are. As the poet Seamus Heaney wrote in The Cure at Troy:

If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.

Let us walk together through the fire and the storm, to create something new.
Thank you for all you do for Harvard Divinity School.

David N. Hempton
Dean of the Faculty of Divinity
Alonzo L. McDonald Family Professor of Evangelical Theological Studies 
John Lord O’Brian Professor of Divinity