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Student Voices on Pluralism at Harvard
This discussion took place during the 2003 Dean's Weekend.
BILL GRAHAM: Our second panel takes up our question and moves it a little bit further in discussing the encounter with religion in the modern university. We have a group that's going to bring a variety of different perspectives. Diana Eck and I go back to graduate student days together here at Harvard, when we actually sat in some of these classrooms. There are so many things one could mention about Diana, but the most crucial thing here is her work with the Pluralism Project, the project that she has spearheaded now for a number of years which is looking at the new religious diversity in America and is the key national project trying to take cognizance of that and beginning to lay a groundwork of data for what we hope will be a variety of different kinds of studies of American religious pluralism in coming months and years.
I would also like to introduce four diverse and talented students from the HDS student body here: Jen Hollis (MDiv 3) first on my left, and then Mark Jennings (MDiv 2), Palwasha Kakar (MTS 1), and then Gregory McGonigle (MDiv 2). Having heard from all of these students at one time or another before, I can assure you you're going to enjoy the discussion that ensues. I'm going to turn it over now to Diana to make a few remarks to begin the discussion here together.
DIANA ECK: The topic that we're addressing today is one that has been with me in my own research for about the last 10 years. You may know that I started out and still consider myself primarily a South Asianist, interested in Hinduism and Islam and the Sikhs and the Jains and the skein of religious traditions in South Asia. But it was about a decade ago that the demography of our own universities began to change, including Harvard University. Suddenly, in my classes on world religions and South Asia there were students who were not foreign students from some other part of the world, but were second-generation immigrant Americans whose parents had come in the period of the new immigration, which began roughly in the 1960s. By the 1990s, their children were in college. They were Sikhs from outside of Chicago, and they were Muslims from the Islamic communities in Los Angeles, and they were Hindus from the big Hindu communities in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. They had come to Harvard with their religious traditions, wrestling with some of the same kinds of questions that students of that age do no matter what their religious background.
And so I launched the Pluralism Project really to learn more about the traditions in the U.S. context. At first its scope was really six religious traditions—Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian and Sikh. But the wider question is not simply how are these traditions developing and changing as they take root in American soil, but how is America changing. How are our religious traditions changing in the encounter with one another? Those questions have become by far the most interesting to me.
I think all of us are aware now in this month that we're in the midst of the month of Ramadan. And when I think through the research that we've done in the 1990s, the level of awareness of this fact in America today is so much more acute than it would have been just a decade ago. Even if we take just the public signals of that awareness, by the mid-1990s there were governors in the State of Kansas and mayors in cities like Columbus, Ohio who were recognizing Ramadan for the religious communities of Muslims in their area. It wasn't until 1996 that there was any official government White House Presidential recognition of Iftar. That occurred when President and Mrs. Clinton invited members of the Muslim community to the White House to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, that year.
In subsequent years we are seeing an increasing presence of this religious phenomenon in the American religious landscape, including fast-breaking meals for staffers on Capital Hill, or the observance of Iftar in the Pentagon for government employees and their Muslim and non-Muslim friends. Madeline Albright hosted an Iftar at the State Department for the first time in 1998. And of course, by 2001 (a year ago), the acute awareness of the Muslim communities that are now so much a part of the United States had become much more vivid, and local newspapers across the country had interest stories about the Muslim communities in their area and individuals who were observing the Ramadan fast.
A week ago, we had President Bush holding an Iftar dinner at the White House, only the second time in history that that has happened. And if you go to the White House Home Page, there's a whole list of Ramadan events that have been scheduled.You'll also find a page of quotations of all of the one and two liners that President Bush has had to say about the religion of Islam for the elucidation, we might say, of people who think that the American government hasn't been so kind to Muslims in America in the last year and two months.
I bring this up because it seems to me that the '90s have so visibly increased our public awareness, not just of Islam, but of the Hindu and the Sikh communities, as well, in this country. It's not only Islamic communities that are reaching out and holding open houses during the month of Ramadan, but the Sikhs have started an organization called SCOPE that actually is for informing their neighbors about the Sikh community, and Hindus were gratified to have their fall celebration of Diwali recognized for the first time at a national level by President Clinton in 2000.
These levels of what you might call the public rituals, the sense that the "we" of the United States has changed, is really very important. Just last night, in fact, the Harvard Islamic Society held an interfaith Iftar as part of their month long celebration of the ending of each day of fasting. To me, as a faculty member going, it was extremely interesting to see the number of students from both the Hindu society and from the Hillel who were present for that period of dialogue. So things really have changed a lot, and they've changed here at Harvard Divinity School. They've changed mostly because our students have changed and not so much because faculty are out there doing forward-looking work.
It is wonderful to have this group of students who are going to talk for a few minutes each about their own experience here in the context of theological education. We'll start with you, Jen.
JEN HOLLIS: My name is Jen Hollis. I'm a third year MDiv student here. When I was thinking about what I wanted to say in these opening remarks, I realized that over the course of my time here, people have always wanted to know what I'm going to do afterwards. They ask, "What are you here for?" And while I am hoping to eventually have a career of some description, I realized that a lot of my time here is about just being on a spiritual and religious journey, and that it's intellectual and it's also very personal for me.
Before I came I did a few things. I worked in a group home with emotionally disturbed teen-agers and I worked in a music program with people who were dying, and was confronted on a really regular basis with this question about suffering, and what are we to do in the face of suffering. I took that question in very deeply, and have reflected on it for quite awhile. I realized that my time here at Harvard Divinity School has been about responding to that question and responding to that need in the world.
I'll just remark briefly on two ways that I've been able to reflect on that while I've been here. The first is through the Religion, Health and Healing Initiative, which is out of the Center for the Study of World Religions. I've been research assistant for the director of that initiative, Susan Sered. The Religion, Health and Healing Initiative was inspired very much by the Pluralism Project and looks at religious pluralism through the specific lens of healing. Like the Pluralism Project, it is also a mapping project, looking at what religious communities are doing for healing in the Boston and Cambridge area.
As a research assistant there, I've been working on the Episcopal community, my own tradition, and I've studied what Episcopalian churches do for healing. I have been able to speak with both ministers and lay people about how my own faith community responds to suffering.
The second way that I've been able to answer these questions of suffering is through field education. Over the summer I did an internship at Dana Farber Cancer Institute, which is an outpatient cancer treatment center. I was a chaplain intern here and I continue to work as a per diem chaplain there, confronted every day with enormous questions about what it means to be human, why some people get sick and some people get better, and who am I to sort of enter into relationship with people and discuss these important questions with them? So I think I'll just end there and turn the mic to Mark.
MARK JENNINGS: My name is Mark Jennings, and I was born and raised in Washington, D.C. I'm a member of Church of the Olive Branch in D.C., which is a Full Gospel Baptist Church, in line with the Pentecostal churches or whatever you want to call it—charismatic. I want to take you back to my beginning of even deciding to come to Harvard, so you understand that coming to Harvard was a thing that I had to do on my own. I didn't get support from the Elders, from the pastors, within the churches that I was in. And in as such, I really had to really figure out, is this a place that I'm called to come to? And I figured that it was.
I only applied to two divinity schools, one being Claremont and one being Harvard, and actually turned Harvard down the first time. I went on to study journalism and then to write for The Virginian Pilot. I took a couple classes at Regent University, and finally said, "I'm not called to be here." So I had to reapply and got accepted again, thankfully, and finally ended up here. It's really been a blessing for me.
Initially, I really believed I wanted to be teaching high school. What Harvard has really done for me is to bring together a lot of the things in life that I enjoy. I enjoy journalism, and I've had a chance here to work on The Nave, the student newsletter/newspaper. We've made some improvements on it during my time here.
I've also had a chance to be in the Program in Religion in Secondary Education, which has given me a chance to really explore my love for the field of education. And then I have been working in churches down in Dorchester. I'm working now with a pastor, Eugene Rivers, who's affiliated with the Church of God of Christ and the Baker House, and that's really been very beneficial.
I think the courses, the way that the curriculum is really designed, has really given me an opportunity to learn non-profit management: to take classes at the Education School under Bob Schwartz, the President of Achieve. These are things I couldn't have done at Claremont. Claremont touted its diversity, and I was actually on campus about a couple days before I flew to Harvard, and I sat down on the steps and said, "Am I called to be in this place?" I was in California and would have loved to have stayed there, but I felt called to be here at Harvard with the snow and everything. I think I've learned as much from my student colleagues as I have from my professors, by sitting around and talking about denominational policy with my UCC friends and UU friends, and talking about issues of the church—homosexuality in the church and other things—in a manner that really can shape my theology and my focus when I leave here and go into ministry.
I will end here and pass the mic to Palwasha.
PALWASHA KAKAR: My name is Palwasha Kakar. Peace be with all of you in this holy month of Ramadan. We've been asked to talk about practicing faith and studying at Harvard. And one of the things that comes up, being this holy month of Ramadan, is a reminder that during the month of Ramadan we're asked to listen to the Koran, recite the Koran, reflect on the Koran, and that study of the Koran is an extension of practicing our faith. I see study very much as being an extension of practicing the faith, and this is something that I want to talk about today.
One thing that first came to mind about practicing faith is the inner spiritual dimensions or the reflective process. But really, the daily struggle is to find logistic places for practice. In Islam we have the five daily prayers, and to find spaces around campus is a really interesting process. We often go to the library stacks, or some people who are comfortable go to the classroom or to the back of the Chapel somewhere. During the month of Ramadan we break fast together, the Harvard community all over does it, and there is an amount of energy that comes out of this communal activity of Friday prayers and Iftar.
The other thing is that in studying the Koran, one thing that comes up often is the first verse that was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed, which was "Read—[Arabic language]—read." And so the whole idea that study is an extension of faith is really there (in my tradition).
One thing that is a struggle for me is to find this connection in the classroom. Where is the connection between this faith, this experience of God, and the theory that we study in the classroom? And definitely it's been a struggle here at Harvard, although Janet Gyatso said in the previous panel that she wants to make her introduction of studies enchanting. And I immediately thought, "Oh, maybe her classes were one of the places where I'll be able to find this spiritual context of study, the acknowledging of the Mystery."
In my second semester here, I took a class with Davíd Carrasco, "The Religious Dimensions of Human Experience." And just sitting in the classroom for the first time brought tears to my eyes, because here was a place where he was actually talking about the experience of God and how that related to theory and that was really important to me. I'm glad that there are spaces here at Harvard for us to do that.
The other thing that has been really a privilege of being here at Harvard and studying as an extension of faith is that instead of seeking the ends of the earth to find knowledge, people can come here. And part of that is what an alumna, Precious Mohammad, had started called the Islam America Conference. That's something that we continue to do, and it's really amazing to be able to bring speakers here to talk about diverse aspects of Islam, about the study of Islam, and about practicing Islam.
One of my personal interests that has been exacerbated by September 11 and what's been going on in Afghanistan, being myself half-Afghani, is the issue of power and authority in religion, especially in the women's context. And I've really been privileged to have class with Dr. (Leila) Ahmed about this, and a lot of my classes talk about gender and issues of power. That's been really helpful in understanding authority and how that affects my own personal beliefs, struggling to find liberation within Islam.
Also I want to say that it's been great, like Mark mentioned, to be able to learn things from our colleagues. We've had a lot of participation—interfaith worship, interfaith dialogue, interfaith prayer vigils—and that has been very meaningful, to practice faith as well as study here at Harvard. And with that, I'd like to pass the mic on to Gregory.
GREGORY MCGONIGLE: My name is Greg McGonigle. I'm a second year MDiv student here and I'm also a candidate for Unitarian Universalist Ministerial Fellowship. I had a conversion experience maybe similar to Mark's, which was that when I first applied to Harvard I really intended to be a teacher; I felt that's what I wanted to do. I had studied religions undergrad and came here to further those studies and probably go on to doctoral work. Then I ended up deferring for a year and getting very involved in a Unitarian Universalist congregation and I came back as a ministerial student. I am now a candidate for ministry and am thinking more seriously about religious life.
So in reflecting on the question of studying and practicing religion in the pluralistic environment at Harvard, as a Unitarian Universalist, I would say that we wouldn't have it any other way. We encourage religious pluralism even within our own congregation. Because we're inherently pluralistic, we may not have the same sorts of challenges that people in other faiths—conservative or fundamentalist branches, or even mainstream branches of different faiths—may have, over against the religious pluralism that we experience at a place like Harvard.
Although we do have unique challenges and opportunities despite the fact that we really do embrace this pluralism, and I'll just mention two general categories briefly. The first is an identity crisis, or a public relations crisis might be more appropriate. It's not necessarily our own identity crisis, although people may argue that we do have that. There is a sense that among Unitarian Universalists at HDS that maybe professors and faculty and staff members don't understand what Unitarian Universalism is, who we are and what we do, despite our historical connections with the School. Some people think that we're still Christians or liberal Christians, which I would argue that we're not. It's also assumed that we can believe whatever we want, which also is not true. And so that may be something that we need to bring to this pluralistic community in terms of being more explicit about what we are. It's been my experience that faculty and students alike have been very interested in learning about us, but that is a challenge for us.
And then the other challenge is really one of resources and accommodation. Because we are pluralistic in our theology it is sometimes assumed that we are sufficiently accommodated by the teaching of other religions. And the fact is that we do have a unique tradition, as well, and we really do need faculty and courses specifically focused on Unitarian Universalism. We bring a unique approach to a lot of issues such as the family, sexuality, and theology itself and that approach needs to be presented and then entered into dialogue with others.
We do make up a really significant portion of the student population here, one of the largest, with Roman Catholics. Those demographics may be changing, but we are a growing religious tradition and this is one of our three seminaries in the country, so we need to think about how our presence can be developed here.
DIANA ECK: Thank you all very much. I wonder if I could ask a question, since my office isn't in this building, so I don't often get a sense of the ways in which some of the space here is used. I was struck by Palwasha's sense, which I've certainly heard echoed by people in other parts of the University, that there's an underground network of information about where you might do prayers at certain times. And yet we do have some prayer spaces here. How do those function in the life of the School? Upstairs is a chapel, and there's also now one that has been restored for everyone's use in Divinity Hall. Can any one of you give a sense of what the worship life of the school is, and how those spaces become enlivened by various communities at different times?
GREG: I can just say that the Harvard Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Students, on which I am on the Executive Board, we have regular Friday worship services. They have usually been in the Andover Chapel upstairs, but this year we're having our first worship the first Friday of every month in Divinity Hall Chapel to try to reclaim that space. Many people know that is the space in which Ralph Waldo Emerson gave his Divinity School address, and so we're reconnecting with our heritage by using that space.
MARK: I've had the privilege or the luxury or I've just done it, to go to a lot of the services in the Chapel upstairs. I've visited a UU service, the Episcopalian, Lutherans, and I think the United Methodists may join them, but they all worship together. There's silent prayer and meditation, I believe it's every Friday at 8 am. The Harvard Divinity School Christian Fellowship has begun this year to use the Chapel in Divinity Hall to express the Evangelical Christendom side of things.
So I think that there are a number of uses of the Chapel, and it is conformed to meet the purposes. But, you know, I'm going to defer to you to talk about some of the challenges even still, of the space that we do have and how it is used, because there are a number of groups here, and there are only a certain amount of people and times that can be allotted for those spaces.
DIANA ECK: Is there any time at which the Islamic community might use the Chapel or any other space?
PALWASHA: We don't formally use it. Some of us who feel comfortable praying at the back of the Chapel do, although a lot of Muslims do not feel comfortable praying in the Chapel section. There are a lot of reasons for that. One is to not intend to convert Christian space into a Muslim space, and the tensions that arise with that, and to respect other people's prayer spaces. But it's really difficult, because, you know, we really don't have a place on the Divinity School campus that is neutral enough for anybody to just go and pray. And so some people can do it and some people can't.
We have about 11 Muslim students in the Master's program at HDS. I'm part of the Shura' Islamic Forum we formed last year. In Islam, a lot of spaces are okay to use as long as they're neutral, so stacks in the library are okay to use, or an empty classroom.
Last year, during the month of Ramadan, we talked to Claudia Highbaugh about this and she arranged for an office to be used just for that month for us to pray in, and that was very helpful. Maybe in the future we'll work on creating a neutral space for Muslims and people from other faiths.
DIANA ECK: (to audience) I think we'll open this for questions that may come from some of you. I'm sure there are a lot of them.
Q: I was wondering what the Harvard community and perhaps you four in particular could do to get the media to portray the gentle, kind, loving families that are in the Muslim community, and maybe even some of the heroes and heroines, because all we ever hear about on the media is the tough side.
DIANA ECK: Palwasha, do you have anything you'd like to say in response to that?
PALWASHA: I see Milia Islam in the audience. She's done a lot. Many of us in the Muslim community, not just myself, have been invited to speak in different places—in churches, in interfaith dialogue settings and community events—to portray a different side of Muslims in the United States and the world. People are reaching out, and that's what's so amazing, that non-Muslim people are reaching out and saying "We want to hear your voice."
Other than that, there's a certain amount of protest that happens when you hear something in the newspaper or on TV. There are people who do write-athons and things like that to counter the views that are being portrayed. At the Islam in America Conference last year we had some Muslims speak who have been working with TV stations to try and portray a different side of Muslims. It's good to hear that. Our Islam in America Conference itself tries to bring in different views and a different face to Islam.
Q: I have wondered for a long time, how you people of faith, people interested in matters spiritual, feel that you fit into not this community, which has that as its focus, but the larger Harvard community. Do you find you feel sort of outgrouped with what the other students from other areas? Do you have to defend this interest of yours, or are they curious? What's the general climate?
MARK: Whew. (Laughs.) Again, the way that the curriculum is designed in such a way that we are able to take classes in the Kennedy School and able to take classes anywhere—even the Medical School—we do have a chance to interact, maybe even more so than some of the other graduate schools, with an array and an assortment of people here. Just as one example, I have a friend who's from the Business School and is over taking classes here this semester, and so we're able to talk about the economics of religion.
And then at the Kennedy School they bring in the practical aspect, they'll say, "Well, I don't want to hear any of that theoretical stuff. Let's talk about how this will work on the streets." And so in that area I think that we're really blessed to be able to have that interaction. There could be more, but we do get that in some ways through some of the group affiliations that we have. I'm a member of Harambee, and this year we're trying to attempt to work with some of the Black Student Associations at the Business School and in the undergrad.
And I think some of the other folks here have worked within their groups here on campus to filter and get access to some of the other students and to make it an interactive and pleasant experience so there is an understanding and a cross-fertilization of ideas.
JEN: I'll tell a funny story. I was at a mixer at the Kennedy School recently and was chatting with someone about some of the things that have gone on in the Divinity School. And at the end he just said, "Oh, the Divinity School people are always the coolest people here at Harvard." [Audience laughter.] I asked him to please keep that on the down low because I didn't want everyone promoting it.
I think it's a fascinating question of how the Divinity School fits into the larger community, and how we as people of faith fit into the larger community of Harvard, and then of the world. It certainly is a personal struggle and challenge to figure out a way to articulate who I am as a religious person in a world where the words "religious person," come with it this whole world of assumptions that people make about you as soon as you identify yourself that way.
I think all of us personally face the challenge of figuring out how to do that and how to stay focused and grounded in who we are and who we are growing to be, and to find ways to express that.
DIANA ECK: I might say something about that from the standpoint of faculty, and that it is quite the opposite. The rest of the University wonders what it is that people in the Divinity School do, there's at least a sense in which the outreach toward the study of religion and the Divinity School, is just massive in the rest of the University. Even in the last two years, there have been initiatives that have come out of the Economics Department, the Provost Office, the Government Department, all trying to set up their own things on religion and basically wanting to draw on the Divinity School and the rest of the Religion faculty because they're interested in religion. They realize how important it is.
I don't know why this weekend was called reaping the whirlwind, but that's what I would imagine. (September 11) hit people like a ton of bricks, and they realized that they're not prepared to analyze the religious currents that are swirling about the world today. People are looking for ways in which people with some religious literacy are able to think through some of the issues of the world in ways that might relate to all of their statistics on development, or all of their thinking about international affairs. I think that there is a perceived sense that they kind of have to run to catch up. All of us need one another in ways that I think are becoming ever more apparent in the University as a whole.
So looked at from the standpoint of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Divinity School, this is a period in which there is a whirlwind of activity in terms of trying to raise and respond to and analyze issues that most people who deal primarily with statistics and policy have not thought about that deeply.
GREG: Just to add to what has been said, I think there is really a deep respect for who we are and for what we do here. And I also think that Harvard does a remarkable job of having the interconnections with other departments in the University and bringing religious inquiry into other forms of inquiry, and vice versa. But I think also that the Divinity School at this point really needs to think about its relationship to the University, and I would be willing to say that I think the Divinity School could think of itself as really the heart of the University in ways that it doesn't right now, really bringing deeply human and even ultimate questions to bear on disciplines where that doesn't always happen. I think that we have a real challenge to do that and we should develop a commitment to do that.
Q: To pick up on the issue of space, no one has mentioned anything about the Jewish students here at the Divinity School or in the wider University, and I would appreciate if you would comment on that. It's not unrelated to the notion of the construction of meaning within space and what's comfortable for some groups to participate in together, and some other situations where we've got boundaries and religious iconography suggests exclusion/inclusion.
DIANA ECK: I could say something about that. Here is where the School business begins to break down quite a lot when it comes to the worship life of religious communities—because Harvard Hillel, the Jewish community at Harvard, has a very spectacular space that includes areas for Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox daily and weekly prayer, and which also includes a Kosher meal service plan and a dining room, etc. If you haven't actually seen Harvard Hillel, it's worth having a look at, (especially) when you think of the history of the Jewish community at Harvard that from the 1920s was under some prejudice in the University as a whole. There is a glass building, where if you walk by on Mt. Auburn Street or the street that borders it, you can see right into everyone's work and eating and prayer. It's an extraordinary sort of porous boundary that claims a place right in the heart of the University. But it is in the University down in Harvard Square. It is not here at Harvard Divinity School. And there certainly are Jewish students here at Harvard Divinity School. I'm quite sure that they participate in that wider community.
Of course there are also Buddhist students here, and maybe a growing group. There was a period a number of years ago when zafus and zabutons became part of the equipment of the Chapel and are used by a number of Buddhist sitting groups on different occasions. So there is not only a wider Harvard Buddhist community, but there is a community right here.
Q: I'm Martin Kaplan. We're all aware of the historical, organizational, spiritual domination of most religions worldwide by men. What does the next generation, the student generation, think are opportunities for major change in that structure to make most religions more receptive to meaningful roles for women, and maybe, therefore, to meaningful changes in the attitudes of religions about many issues?
GREG: I'll start. You know, I think, every religious tradition here has something to say about that specifically. I think that we do see a Divinity School environment that has a very large population of women here, many of whom are training for ordained ministries or other positions of professional leadership in their traditions. And that is going to make, I think, a major impact that we're not even seeing right now. One of my concerns is curricular. That is, to what extent the courses and the faculty at the Divinity School are really bringing feminist questions and other related questions of gender and sexuality to bear on their courses in the Bible, for instance, their courses on all different religious traditions, their courses on ministry?
I think there are key questions that we need to be dealing with more than we do. There is the Women's Studies in Religion Program which does excellent work. It's having a major conference this year and collecting a lot of research on the history of the feminist movement within religious traditions. But I think there's a lot more learning that needs to be done. I think profound changes are happening with the ordination of gay and lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered ministers, openly gay ministers, in different religious traditions. That is going to cause major changes. There's a virtual Second Reformation going on in this country in a lot of denominations over issues of sexuality right now, and that is something that we're really not studying enough at the Div. School, and that we need to do more.
PALWASHA: I can't speak to women's ordination in Islam, but I can talk about chaplaincy, that there are more women being chaplains, and addressing those roles, as well as in education—women being educators, including in universities. One thing: the reason why I wanted to pursue my own knowledge in going to college and graduate school was specifically so that I could educate people and that there was a need for Muslim women's voices out there to educate people and to change people's ideas about women in Islam. And so I hope I can carry on what other people have started to do and to continue that work. And there are a lot of people in the field who are considering this same kind of work.
MARK: I think what Harvard does is expands our horizons. And so even for me personally being here, and being exposed to a female population that's striving for ordination, and to be able to talk to Greg and others one on one about homosexuality in the Bible and the role of women in the pulpit. Personally, even for me, it's been an experience that's like no other. You know, I actually left the church in D.C. because of the fact that I disagree with the stance on women, that they wouldn't allow women in the pulpit, women anywhere. I wouldn't sign on to that theology, and so I had to leave the church.
So for me, coming here is a way of giving myself a language and a knowledge, to be able to explain, "Well, why do I believe this, and why do I think that maybe the theology that you have is oppressive in some ways?" I've been very blessed to be here to learn that language so I can go and educate my community.
JEN: I feel very fortunate to belong to an Episcopal church with a woman minister in Arlington, and a lot of women in leadership in the church, and I'm very grateful for that in my own faith community. I think one of the ways that this question of women in power gets played out here is in both formal ways, in the classroom in challenging each other, and then in informal ways, as Mark mentioned, in personal conversations.
I belong to a women's spirituality group that isn't affiliated with Harvard—it's just some friends and I getting together. But we spend a lot of time really struggling with this question of women in churches, and a number of the women in the group are Catholic and have actively chosen not to attend church anymore for reasons involving women not being ordained.
And as a collective group, just working through how is it that they can maintain their identity as Catholics and also have this incredible tension within their own tradition—not wanting to leave, not wanting to do anything different, but to stay in relationship to their history, while also struggling for more power for women?
DIANA ECK: Let me say just a word about that, too, because I think one thing that will happen is a wholesale redefinition of what constitutes religious leadership. I go to a lot of interfaith events—world interfaith events, etc.—and on the whole they are pretty appalling things. I mean the Great Millennium Summit of world religious leaders at the UN last year, for example, you just had thousands of guys in their outfits being photographed in these wonderful displays of a photo opportunity, if you ever saw them. But that is because leadership is defined in a particular way as some sort of ordination.
And of course most traditions don't really have ordination or clergy in quite the same way that we think of it, but what they do have are really big women's networks. Yet nobody thinks of those networks as the religious leaders. In fact, you know, they are groups like Hadassah or Church Women United or United Methodist Women. They get together and they have seven-, eight-, 10,000 people, women, at their conventions every year. They're rich and they're energetic. They are among the kinds of religious organizations that deliver more than 90 percent of the services in the world, and most of that by women.
One of the things the Pluralism Project has been doing in the last three years is to bring together the executives of those networks in the U.S.: the Muslim Women's League, the North American Council of Muslim Women, the South Asian, the Jewish, Christian networks, so that we begin to see and they begin to see what a different form of leadership looks like. And that also is true internationally. But as long as people are inviting the sort of high priest of this, or the metropolitan of that, or the monk of this, as the religious leaders who increasingly gather, we're not going anywhere, really. So I think it's steering into another very powerful and also empowering set of realities.
Q: I'm Charles Coverdale. There are a lot of women going into (ministerial positions), which is really the lower pay scale when we talk about the overall world. Ministers are relegated into an economic mainstream of poverty, or at best, lower middle class type of structure. How does Harvard connect up its ministerial part of those alumni that are out there? Because even on this little brief weekend I notice that many people are not necessarily in ministerial tracks. They do other things: TV and radio, programming, government. They get jobs to pay back what it cost to go here. [Laughs.] But the Dean made a comment last night (about this), and even my assistant, who's a woman, said, "We need to think of a way of funding a scholarship for people, for women particularly, going into ministries. Because the economic burden of them coming out is really going to be tremendous no matter how fantastic the education might be.
DIANA ECK: Does anyone want to speak to that? Mark?
MARK: Those are good words to my ears. [Audience laughter.] It's really hard, as there are a core—and especially within the black community—I think there's a core of us who really want to go on that ministerial track, all of us in different places. Some people want to take over as the pastor of a church, some people want to go into an associate role. A person like myself who probably feels called to start a church. And in that, for me, and how Harvard really fits in for me in terms of really starting a church, is that understanding that without a congregation I'm going to have to have some type of income and a way of providing that income. And so for me, what Harvard really does, what another divinity school can't do, is to really give me an enhanced understanding and skills in some of those other areas.
There are some problems even in this area with the MDiv Program course-wise. We need courses in church administration—do we deal with finance and how is a church run? We do have the benefit of the BTI and being able to go to EDS or Andover-Newton or some of the other schools to pick up some of these skills. But it would be good to get it right here.
And it is really hard, I think, financially, just thinking about it. I mean this year I've had trouble with books and the cost of living, being $14,000 for rent. And I'm one of the few married students who are here. So it's not only that we have to deal with, okay, how do we buy our books and how do we pay our tuition, but how do we take care of our family? And I think that that's one of the things that Harvard may want to think about. There's no housing on campus for married students.
DIANA ECK: Let's spend the last couple of minutes just gathering up whatever questions are left.
Q: On the question of unity, it struck me when you all were speaking about the interfaith services you participated in as students, and I wondered if you could speak more about that. Because when I was here, each day in the chapel there were different services for each tradition, but as a Catholic, I didn't participate in other religious services. That always struck me as a lack of community, because there was so much difference. So I'm interested to hear more about what's happening in terms of interfaith services.
PALWASHA: We've done interfaith vigils and there's also been interfaith religious services. But those have been more like by invitation, rare, not something regular. Interfaith peace vigils are things that we've done more as collectively organizing the thing rather than being invited by someone to speak. I agree about your issue of community. When I was an undergrad, I was at Bethel College, I was invited many times to speak in the chapel. And so I felt that even though I was a Muslim and I was the only Muslim there, I had some sense of gaining ownership to that worship service and that worship space, even though I worshiped differently. I have not found that here in this context.
GREG: I think that some of Professor Eck's research bears this out. (Interfaith worship) is one of the most difficult things for religious traditions to do, despite the fact that we do share many values and many social concerns. One of the most difficult and challenging things is to pray together, still. And we do have community worship, you know, every Wednesday at the Div. School, but in my experience, any time that I've been able to worship with other students of different faith traditions here at school, people really enjoyed it. There was an interfaith retreat led by the Office of Ministerial Studies several months ago and that was an opportunity for interfaith worship.
But it's very tricky, still. You have to make sure that people feel comfortable with doing it. Being in a pluralistic setting, there are great opportunities, but it's important also to be sensitive to if people are comfortable, and whether it's reckless borrowing or appropriate cultural sharing and those sorts of things.
DIANA ECK: I might say that simply the issue of how to think about interfaith worship is something that probably should be steered into directly as some piece of the curriculum or some interest group.
Because all over the country, not just in the wake of 9/11, but at certain kinds of occasions in the U.S.—Martin Luther King Day, Thanksgiving services, etc.—there are increasingly civic interfaith events. But thinking about how to do them is yet another challenge. You know, are they sort of sequential, people standing up and praying in their own ways?
And how best to formulate something that feels like an act of worship, not just a sort of show; but that enables people to express genuinely their own faith and to allow the rest of us to be participants, participant-observers or just observers, as the case may be. I think how to shape those kinds of religious and civic occasions is something that all of us need to think a little bit more about. This is a great laboratory for doing that in some ways.
The big events that took place in Harvard Yard that involved Divinity School participation both on September 11, 2001, and on September 11, 2002, when there were at least 10,000 people there, were planned and executed as interfaith events, and more or less without a lot of benefit of serious thought about how they ought to be done. This is a contribution the Divinity School maybe could make to the liturgical life of (Harvard) and the country.
I'd like to go back to one of the questions that came up a little bit earlier, and it was the way you phrased it, Mark. And that is the whole issue of vocation as constituting what it is one is about. I think it's true across the professions and certainly outside the Divinity School, the language of vocation, of feeling that you have a calling—however you think about the source of that calling—to do something other than just launch a career. And I wonder how much you think that is really pervasive here at Harvard Divinity School, a sense of vocational commitment, rather than just career planning? Mark, we've heard from you. Jen, you have some thoughts about that?
JEN: I do. I think that in order to accept the sort of low pay that you're going to get when you go into the ministry, I mean I think you have to have something beyond aspirations in order to do that. And I feel like this community is very rich with people who feel deeply committed to what they're doing because they feel called. They feel called by their own value system, by their own ethics, by their understanding of how the world really works, and by their relationship with God and their faith community. I think that the question of vocation really pervades this school and is something that I appreciate.
GREG: There was a forum a few weeks ago which was with three faculty members talking about teaching faith and living religion. It was an excellent forum, because we got to hear—which we often don't—from faculty about what their vocations are.
Nick Constas, one of the professors here, spoke about his work on an Admissions Committee and reading students' admissions materials and how they talk about their vocations or calls to be here. He said that experience of being able to read those materials was just absolutely amazing. And I think it would be good for us to talk more about that. People are definitely here for reasons. It's usually not for the cash value of what our work will be.
Q: The media is so terribly badly informed about religious issues and also about international issues and politics and cultures in general. Maybe you should do executive education, using the Kennedy School as a model, including something special for the media. Even just using your book, Diana, which I'm using in a little course I'm teaching, and the book on pluralism in the many religions of Boston. Most people would be astonished in the media to know about this. I would think that this would be a great contribution for the Divinity School to do something about educating the media on religion and pluralism and internationalism.
DIANA ECK: Great idea. And I think, you know, workshops especially, for the media, can be fairly readily and easily done. I would like to say, in defense of some of the media though, that when I think of what I know about what is happening in religion around the United States, it is because people in my project read approximately 200 local papers every day. They search them out through all of the search mechanisms that are available. And it's not The Globe and The New York Times mainly, but it's The Columbus Dispatch and it's The Pittsburgh Post Gazette, and Seattle papers, and Tulsa, and Myrtle Beach, and Tampa.
And through those, I would say, there is a huge amount of writing and increasingly bigger religion sections, in local newspapers. In The Dallas Morning News, the religion section is just an enormous source of local information. Now most people don't gather together all the local information because, you know, who can do this? But if you happen to be interested in local information you can go to the www.pluralism.org and there's a little thing called "In the News" that basically lists what one might find in the news if you could read 200 local newspapers. And I think there is cumulatively a lot to be learned from what the on the ground religion reporters are trying to do. Religion reporters tend to be a group of people who are more committed to what they are doing than the traffic beat. So I think we can have a mutually informed perspective here that would be great.
BILL GRAHAM: What a fine ending it was for our few hours together here, to have this particular group talking. I mean I've had a dozen ideas myself just listening to the group. So thank you all so very much. I think this is the kind of round table that we need. I was thinking in the course of the morning that it's daunting the degree to which a school like this faces, on almost any front you can name—whether it's politics or technology, ecology, issues of gender or issues of sexuality—in almost any issues in the world today this is the one school that everybody expects to be charged with facing all of them. And, you know, we've got a finite number of people to try to do that with. But at the same time, I think that the exciting part about being part of this kind of community is precisely that there's nothing that's out of bounds for us to try to tackle, and we're going to have to rely on more than the resources we have in house to do that.