A Venerable Mission Fine-tuned

CSWR Logo Harvard Divinity School

The Center for the Study of World Religions is celebrating its 45th anniversary in 2005. The 1957 deed of gift endowed the CSWR, at Harvard Divinity School, to promote graduate and undergraduate teaching in world religions, train teachers in this field, and give ministers a sympathetic appreciation of other religions.

The intent of the donors to promote the study of world religions at HDS as living traditions in their “independence, integrity, and fruitful diversity” has achieved a truly remarkable success but is an even more urgent mission today than in 1960. Global events and the increasing prominence of religion in American politics have added a special urgency to the study and understanding of world religion.

The divisiveness, antipathy, and violence that dominate the popular media portrayal of traditions other than our own belies the donors hope of a “sympathetic understanding of other religions.” Ignorance about and apathy toward other religions that motivated the donors’ gift has been overshadowed by misunderstanding, half-truths, fear, and anger.

Since its founding, the CSWR has been at the forefront of promoting the sympathetic study and understanding of world religions. Of the more than 600 graduate students, faculty fellows, and visiting professors who have been affiliated with the center, many have risen to prominence as scholars, teachers, religious luminaries, and leaders of government and nongovernmental organizations in countries throughout the world. The CSWR has been the home of a rich educative program.

It has been the venue for conferences and symposia attended by Harvard faculty and students from across a broad spectrum of disciplines and programs; scholars and practitioners of the world’s religions from Asia, Africa, and the West; and leaders from other walks of life.

These events have produced numerous seminal publications, among them the series on world religion and ecology that helped to define the parameters of this emerging field.

The center’s success has been due to the abilities and energies of many people, but none more so than its distinguished directors: Robert H. L. Slater, the first professor of world religions at Harvard, who led the CSWR from 1960 to 1964; Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1964–1973); John B. Carman (1973–1990); Lawrence E. Sullivan (1990–2003); and Diana Eck, who served as acting director in the 2003–04 academic year.

Over the years, the work of CSWR has expanded and changed. It evolved from a quasi-department for resident graduate students and the administrative home for the study of comparative religion in the School’s ThD degree program, and its master’s programs, into a research center housing major research initiatives.

Changes occurred gradually from 1960 to 1990 as the world religions faculty increased at HDS and in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Divinity School curriculum was restructured to provide a larger place for world religions.

With President Derek Bok’s encouragement, under Lawrence Sullivan’s leadership, the CSWR was restructured. With a new emphasis on interdisciplinary research, the center embarked on an ambitious program of international and interdisciplinary fellowships, multi-year research initiatives in Religion and Globalization; Religion, Health, and Healing; Religion and Ecology; and Religion and the Arts.

New appointments in world religions at the Divinity School and a new university policy regarding the role of centers at Harvard prompted budget shifts and a re-examination of the role of CSWR with a reorientation toward projects developed by Harvard religion faculty and a reduction in center staff.

My appointment as director in 2004 marked the beginning of a new phase in the life of CSWR. What directions should the center take in the next five to ten years and beyond? I share the widely held view that CSWR should be at the heart of the processes that will shape the study of religion at the Divinity School and the University in the coming decades, and that the energy and resources of the center should be directed toward abetting the research and teaching activities of world religions faculty at the Divinity School and University.

A key component of this goal will be to provide advice, counsel, and material support for a wide range of faculty research projects and other initiatives. The CSWR is dedicated to promoting a comprehensive approach to the study of religion and encouraging the exchange of ideas from many scholarly perspectives.

In fulfilling its mission the center will seek to support Harvard faculty whose work complements the CSWR’s global focus on religion and bring together scholars from within and outside the University to work collaboratively at the center. In the 2004–05 academic year, we are funding the Harvard Study on Teaching Religion in the Schools—under the direction of Diane Moore, director of HDS’s Program in Religion and Secondary Education—and eight outstanding proposals have been received to be considered for the coming academic year.

Resident fellows and visiting professors in world religions have been a key component of the CSWR since its inception, both in terms of the composition of the residential community and the center as a locus of world religions scholarship. I propose a CSWR fellows program tied closely to the work of world religions faculty at the Divinity School and University. The program would support one or possibly two CSWR fellows annually who would be nominated by Harvard religion faculty.

The fellows would be expected to teach one course or co-teach with a religion faculty member. Preference would be given to scholars who reside outside the United States and whose research interests complement those of a religion faculty member or with whom collaborative research is being undertaken.

Reinstituting a faculty fellows program closely linked to the work of the world religions faculty will promote the goals and mission of the center, help build a stronger relationship among the center, Divinity School, and Harvard’s Committee on the Study of Religion, and continue the historic role of the CSWR to help develop the teaching of world religion in a global context. Equally important will be the CSWR’s contribution to the ongoing discussion of the study and teaching of religion at Harvard.

The center offers both the physical and the symbolic space for world religions faculty to work and think together about the future shape of religion studies at Harvard.

New faculty appointments in world religions, the reconfiguration of the MDiv and MTS programs, deepening relationships between the religion faculties at the Divinity School and the Committee on the Study of Religion, the inauguration of the popular Committee on the Study of Religion and Asian religions colloquia, the strength and vitality of the Office of Ministry Studies, the increasing diversity of the HDS student body, and other factors constitute elements that are part of the new, emerging picture of religion studies at Harvard.

The CSWR can serve as a focus and catalyst for deliberations about the study of religion that are best pursued, I believe, not in general, theoretical terms, but around specific issues. For example, this semester the center is working with the Committee on the Study of Religion on a program on the topic of the relationship between normative and historical perspectives in religion studies.

Beyond promoting the study of world religion at Harvard, the CSWR has been and should continue to be a vital focal point of an interconnecting, interactive, dynamic global network. Throughout its history the work of the CSWR has been both international and multidisciplinary, with the overarching goal of advancing the understanding of the nature and meaning of religion in its various forms and manifestations in a global perspective, and with sympathetic insight into religious communities and their various practices.

As the CSWR enters a new phase in its distinguished history, it faces the exciting challenge of heightening its contribution to the study of religion at Harvard while at the same time enhancing its distinctiveness as an interdisciplinary, international, and inter-religious center of exchange, research, and dialogue.