The Canopy

November 9, 2020
Petitioners are sworn in as new citizens during a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives in 2014.
Petitioners are sworn in as new citizens during a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives in 2014.

Under the auspices of RPL, programs come together to promote a just world at peace

Yaseen Hashmi, MTS ’21, didn’t expect an epiphany when he joined students from HDS and six of Harvard’s other graduate schools for a January-term course in Israel and Palestine, but that’s what he got. 

Hashmi came to HDS thinking that he might pursue a legal career afterwards. The attorneys he met in the Middle East, however, seemed to face a steep uphill battle working against the violations of human rights and international law in the region. On the other hand, the artists he spoke with, from a range of religions and cultures, “had these awesome stories about the ways they’ve opened people’s minds.” Seeing the artists successfully challenge the very narratives and assumptions that thwart legal work toward justice left him feeling enlightened and excited.

Hashmi had had a passion for screenwriting and filmmaking since he was a teenager, but he never really thought of his creative work as more than a hobby. It certainly wasn’t a way to work for justice. The J-term course changed his mind.

“Something clicked for me on that trip,” he says. “One movie can teach you so much about the history of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict. And not only that, it can give you insight into why people are entrenched in their views. Why does the conflict persist? Why is the occupation where it is today? You can see it so much better through filmmaking.” 

In the years to come, many more HDS students will expand their notion of how they can make a difference in the world—and learn how religion shapes nearly every area of human activity—thanks to Religion and Public Life (RPL), a major new initiative launched by HDS in the fall of 2020. Dean David N. Hempton says that RPL is an effort to bring the School’s vast expertise in the study of religion to bear on contemporary challenges.

“Religion and Public Life leverages Harvard Divinity School’s historic strengths in scholarship and ministry studies to address some of the most complex issues facing the world today,” he says. “It seeks to do so by integrating many of our current programs and building new bridges from the academy to a wide range of stakeholders in business, law, humanitarian work, journalism, the arts, and many other fields. It will enable the School to become greater than the sum of its parts and to focus its collective efforts more deliberately in the years ahead.”

Two Pillars, One Canopy

The new program is led by Diane L. Moore, Senior Fellow at Harvard Divinity School’s Center for the Study of World Religions and Lecturer on Religion, Conflict, and Peace. Moore, who has over 40 years of experience working with students and educators, says RPL will act as a “canopy,” bringing under its auspices two foundational “pillars” of programming: one to advance knowledge of religion in a wide range of professions, including education, journalism, government, humanitarian action, and entertainment media; and a second to support peacebuilding and conflict resolution.

Beyond this, the wider “canopy” of the RPL will advance programming and academic offerings on a wide range of topics of contemporary significance. Moore points out that RPL flows organically from trends in the work of the School’s faculty, the interests of its students, and the career paths of its alumni. 

“The intention is to lean into what we know about our strengths and to marry this with what we are seeing in terms of the expectations of our students and faculty and our mission to the wider world,” she says. “More than anything else, RPL provides coherence to the many projects and programs at HDS that already focus on the public understanding of religion.”

Moore has a history of developing innovative curriculum. As director of the Religious Literacy Project, she assembled in 2016 an all-star team of scholars for the HarvardX massive open online course, “World Religions Through Their Scriptures.” Last year, the class enrolled more than 730,000 participants from around the world. In 2018, Moore created another HX MOOC, titled “Religion, Conflict, and Peace,” that has attracted nearly 72,000 participants.

Together, these courses have drawn students from 192 countries. Religion and Public Life expands HDS’s efforts to promote religious literacy by educating a new kind of leader—one who understands the religious traditions and values that shape people’s lives, is capable of rigorous self-reflection and self-criticism, and harnesses religion’s capacity to bridge cultural divides while mitigating its capacity to destroy.

“The widespread failure to understand the power of religion in human experience has significant consequences,” Moore says. “It fuels bigotry and prejudice, leads to misinterpretations of conflicts and crises, and hinders cooperative endeavors in local, national, and international arenas. There is an urgent need to promote a more sophisticated understanding of religion in public life to mitigate these consequences—and to leverage religious resources that promote human and planetary flourishing.”

To address this need for religious knowledge, one of RPL’s two programmatic pillars is the Religious Literacy and the Professions Initiative (RLPI). The RLPI offers a fellowship program that brings professionals into the classroom to co-teach courses on religion and the professions and to mentor students. The program’s internships put students in the field at institutions like the United Nations, the European Union, and the humanitarian nonprofit Oxfam, where they gather real world experience.

Shaun Casey, MDiv ’83, ThD ’98, was U.S. special representative for religion and global affairs during the Obama Administration and a 2019–20 RLPI Fellow who co-taught the initiative’s “Religious Literacy and the Professions I: Government and Humanitarian Action” course. He says that RPL is “aiding students in their vocational call to change the world in a multitude of ways.”

“In the foreign service, which is the professional corps of workers in the United States Department of State, there’s a woeful lack of religious literacy,” Casey says. “In the office that I ran (Religion and Global Affairs), it was a real struggle to find people who had the kind of expertise I needed to help diplomats get a deeper understanding of religion in context around the world. RPL is one of the few programs in the country that trains students how to grasp religious literacy in a more sophisticated way.”

As with its predecessor, the Religious Literacy Project (RLP), RPL will promote religious literacy in order to address the deterioration of civic life and the rise in social hostility. Along those lines, another area of of focus within the Religious Literacy and Professions Initiative is with educators, particularly those working at the high school and community college levels. Through the annual Summer Institute for Educators, a fellowship program, collaborations with school districts, workshops, conferences, and the comprehensive Religious Literacy Resource Kit, RLPI provides educators with tools to help students think critically, creatively, and constructively about religion. 

Monika Johnston is the head of the history department at Packer Collegiate Institute, a private pre-K–12 school in Brooklyn, New York, and a 2018–19 Religious Literacy and Education Fellow. She says her students are initially suspicious of religion but, thanks to tools provided by the RLPI, they’re able to engage in conversation with one another and the texts they study in ways that she calls “transformative.” 

“Kids have very set ideas about their own religious tradition or other traditions,” she says. “What’s been so great about using (RLPI’s resources) is kids really are hungry to talk about religion and religious experience and related issues. And we’re not shying away from controversy. We’ve built the tools that develop the foundational trust for them to talk to one another genuinely and respectfully.”

RPL’s second pillar addresses one of the most powerful—and visible—ways that religion influences human affairs: its capacity to help ignite and resolve conflicts. The Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative (RCPI) brings together scholars from HDS, Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, and Atalia Omer from Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies to examine the role that religious communities play in violent conflict—and in promoting sustainable peace.

Last winter’s January term course in Israel and Palestine took place under the auspices of the RCPI, as did Moore’s fall-term course, “Religion, Conflict, and Peace in the Contemporary Middle East,” and the eight-week “Religion, Conflict, and Peace Internship Seminar” for students of the J-term course who wished to return to the region. (Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the RCPI internships, which were planned for Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, and other locations in the Middle East, took place remotely.)

“Learning literacy with regard to religion is one of the most urgent issues that anyone who is serious about social justice, peace-making, and political change can undertake,” says Gregory Khalil, a Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative Non-Resident Fellow and president of the Telos Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. “It’s not a question of whether religion, faith, and theology will shape our world. It’s a question of how. And if we sit back on the sidelines and if we don’t learn to be literate and how to engage honestly as peers, unfortunately, fundamentalist, supremacist, extremist religious narratives will continue to gain prominence and shape our world.”

Participants in the Religion, Conflict, and Peace 2020 J-term course, including Yaseen Hashmi, MTS ’21 (second from right), pose in front of the skyline of the Old City of Jerusalem.
Participants in the Religion, Conflict, and Peace 2020 J-term course, including Yaseen Hashmi, MTS ’21 (second from right), pose in front of the skyline of the Old City of Jerusalem.


A New Degree

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of RPL is that it will engender a new degree—the first since HDS introduced the master of theological studies over 50 years ago. Set to welcome its first cohort of students in the fall of 2021, the master of religion and public life (MRPL) is an opportunity for practitioners from fields such as business, law, the arts, nonprofit work, and many others to gain advanced knowledge about religion. Through coursework, a shared seminar with other professionals, and a final project, MRPL students will prepare to serve as leaders within their professions regarding the public understanding of religion. 

“Right now, professionals who want to enhance their understanding of religion at HDS have to enroll as Special Students or through our two-year MTS degree, probably concentrating in religion, ethics, and politics,” Moore explains. “Neither of those programs is really equipped to respond to their particular needs and interests—which is to understand the role that religion plays relevant to their work. The master of religion and public life degree is a focused program aimed at experienced professionals from a diverse range of fields.”

MRPL candidates will be required to master a common theoretical framework for analyzing the ways that religion shapes the breadth of human experience. At the same time, they will construct a course of study unique to their own profession and aspirations. When they graduate, MRPL alumni will be equipped to serve as leaders in the public understanding of religion and its specific relevance to their field. 

“Just as analysis about dynamics related to gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and class emerged decades ago with profound impacts on how professions function,” Moore explains, “analysis regarding the complex roles that religions play in human experience is equally critical yet rarely acknowledged. The MRPL meets the urgent need for a more sophisticated understanding of religion in a wide range of professions.”

Students in HDS’s existing degree programs will also have a chance to get this sort of applied knowledge. The new certificate in religion and public life (CRPL) will allow MTS and MDiv candidates to engage in coursework, mentoring, internships, and projects that bring a nuanced understanding of religion to areas like education, government, humanitarian work, and entertainment media. 

“HDS graduates have long demonstrated what can be achieved with deep knowledge of religion in journalism, public health, business, government, and many other professions,” Moore says. “The new certificate program acknowledges this tradition and provides it new support with opportunities to bring this knowledge to bear on all sectors of public life.”

Yaseen Hashmi took advantage of those opportunities last summer as an RCPI intern for 1for3, a Cambridge-based organization that supports refugee communities in the West Bank. Hashmi took what he learned in Moore’s courses and used it to create digital content for the nonprofit’s social 
media presence. 

“Most of my work supports Aida refugee camp, where we (the RCPI J-term students) got to visit in January,” he says. “1for3 supports access to water, food, health, and education by helping organize and fund community-led projects like rooftop gardens that support food security and a team of local community health workers. I’m mostly putting together short promotional videos about each project using footage sent to me from the Aida camp’s media unit.” 

Hashmi has big plans for the year ahead. He’s anxious to check out RPL’s new certificate program. He also wants to make a film about the ways that different religious organizations relate to beauty in the city of Istanbul, Turkey—a documentary and a work of art that would inspire conversations about cultural violence and activism. Even at a time of great uncertainty, Hashmi says that RPL enables him to look to the future with hope and excitement.

“It feels like I got fairy-tale picked up and dropped into a community and I’m having a blast there,” he says. “Working with RPL programs has given me a sense of security in pursuing justice through art. I’m excited to get working on film, and I feel empowered to take on whatever comes next.”

by Paul Massari