Celebrating the Hospitable, Questioning the ‘Sympathetic’

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Jothi Raghavan performing "Godha." Photo: Tony Rinaldo

“If I could offer a metaphor for this place,” said Rachel McDermott, a former resident of the Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR) who is now chair of Barnard College’s Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures Department, “it would be stepping into a stream. . . . Or perhaps a more grandiose metaphor would be a university where the whole world comes under one tree and learns together.”

So began one of many testimonials offered by those who gathered on November 3, 2006, to bring to a close a yearlong celebration of the Center’s influence in the study and understanding of world religions since its beginnings in 1958.

It was a full day that, in addition to reminiscences, included dance, scholarly discussion, and a reception for a new book on the life and history of the CSWR, Community and Colloquy: The Center for the Study of World Religions, 1958–2003, by John B. Carman and Kathryn Dodgson.

“More than 600 people are affiliated with the Center, and not much like this has ever been done, so we’re using this occasion to bring people together,” explained Donald K. Swearer, Distinguished Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies at HDS and current director of the CSWR.

For those who had lived at the Center, it was a fond return to a place that came to embody the meaning of community.

Colloquia, lectures, potluck dinners, religious celebrations, arts events, and even games of volleyball regularly included students, fellows, faculty, spouses, and children.

“There is something humane about students and teachers talking and learning together,” McDermott said.

“I remember the first time I saw Diana Eck in jeans—it made her a real human being. I don’t know how many places like this are at other universities, but I wish there were more of them.”

When the CSWR officially opened its doors on November 21, 1960, Harvard’s president, Nathan Pusey, expressed how happy an occasion it was for the University to have gained a “program in World Religions.”

Initially the Center was built with the intention of training teachers and educating students in the religions of the world, but it very quickly evolved into a major residential research facility in non-Christian religious traditions, linking a network of global affiliations for scholars, policymakers, and religious leaders.

The Center’s mission, from its inception, was never simply to produce research for the sake of research, but was to put forth that knowledge to a wider audience, to facilitate the deepening and appreciation of other faiths, internationally. The CSWR would be a microcosm—housing different cultures, religions, and beliefs under one roof, as one “Center family.”

At first, there were some who were skeptical of this pluralistic enclave being placed within Harvard’s traditional academic setting. But the approach proved successful. Swearer, who became director in fall 2004, said that while the CSWR has “recently gone through some interesting changes,” what has always been at its core is a “robust residential community with both social and intellectual programming.”

Former resident Louise Sundararajan (MTS ’75, PhD ’80) echoed this in her tribute: “The Center means a lot to me existentially. I got married at the Center, and I had my daughter at the Center.” Intellectually,

she explained, she learned three things during her residency: embodiment, point of origin, and how to write a research paper. “I learned,” she joked, “that the best paper you write might be the one you retrieve from the wastebasket.”

While the day of celebration offered time to laugh, reflect, and simply be together, it also provided a chance, in true CSWR fashion, to convene for an interreligious panel discussion on the questions raised in the teachings of world religions in the university context—which seeded dialogue not only on the role the Center has played in the past, but on how it is to be effective in today’s tangled religious landscape.

The panel’s participants, who spoke ad seriatim off the title “The ‘Sympathetic’ Study of World Religions: Peril and Promise,” had all been residents of the CSWR.

They included Vasudha Narayanan, Distinguished Professor of Religion at the University of Florida; M. David Eckel, Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University; Lamin Sanneh, D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale University; and Jane Smith, Professor of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary and co-director of the Duncan Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.

The discussion was moderated by George Rupp, a former HDS faculty member and Dean who became president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee several years ago after retiring as president of Columbia University.

Why title this particular discussion “The ‘Sympathetic’ Study of World Religions: Peril and Promise” for an event commemorating the 45th anniversary of the Center? “‘Sympathetic’ in scare quotes,” explained Swearer in his opening remarks, “is language that comes from the original deed of gift which established the CSWR. . . . It raises a number of different kinds of questions in regard to the teaching of world religions in the university context, like Harvard: What sort of critical perspective does one bring to that?

What is the relationship between such issues as the practice of religion, and study of religion? There are all different kinds of questions that that language was meant to evoke.”

David Eckel responded: “I imagine that the word ‘sympathetic’ had a fairly simple function in the deed of gift that established the Center. When I listen for the nuances in the word, I hear it saying that we should study Buddhism or Islam or whatever tradition might catch our eye in order to appreciate it as a tradition in its own right, rather than to mock it or subject it to a missionary critique.”

“As a founding ideal,” Eckel added, “this strikes me as being unobjectionable, even if it does set the Center in opposition to certain kinds of theological agendas.”

Even during unpredictable times, the Center has always remained true to the objectives laid out in 1957. Jane Smith reflected on how the Center had allowed her and other residents to do their work as one body of scholars in a hospitable environment.

The sympathetic, to Smith, “applies to human relationships in the study of religion, living and talking together, eating together, studying together, learning together, putting theologies and methodologies and cultures and traditions into a kind of big shaker and pouring out lived religion, and personal ways of sharing.”

In parts of the world, however, where people are killed for being members of a religious tradition, “it’s not always so easy to be so sympathetic,” Smith said. How, she asked, “can they contribute to the circumstances in which they live; how can they promote this sense of sympathy and appreciation in areas in which tensions are enormously high?”

Smith concluded the discussion on a sobering note, saying that the challenge for religious scholars is this:

“How to foster an atmosphere of the sympathetic study of religion not only for those who remain in the world of academia, but for those who return to regions and cultures in which understanding the various dimensions of another religion, appreciatively, may be intimately involved with the preservation of human life.”

So, too, is the challenge for future CSWR scholars in an increasingly complex, globalized world. And while constant fine-tuning of the Center’s mission seems inevitable, Swearer visualizes this next stage of the CSWR’s life as “being part of a mandalic web,” where impermanence and change might just be the only constant, but definitely something worth celebrating.