Baylor University Delegation Visits HDS

In a spirit of overcoming traditions of institutional suspicion and stereotype, Harvard Divinity School administrators, professors, and students met recently at HDS with an eight-person delegation of administrators, professors, and students from Baylor University, the large, prominent Baptist institution in Waco, Texas. The two-day visit, on March 21-22, 2001, included meetings, shared meals, the opportunity for the Baylor visitors to attend HDS classes, and an open public discussion, "The Future of Public Theology," in which faculty from both schools explored the dangers and opportunities of public theology. A similar visit, of an HDS delegation to Baylor, is being planned. 

Harvey Cox, Thomas Professor of Divinity at HDS, noted that the visit was important for both institutions, not only for individual relationships that were created but also for the broader symbolism. "It is a bold move on Baylor's part to be coming here, and is another signal of the distance they have forged from the Southern Baptist Convention and its seminaries," he said.

The visit was just as significant for HDS, given its commitment to religious pluralism, Cox said. "It was another way to enlarge the conversation with evangelicals, and is the kind of exchange I believe we should be encouraging," he said, adding that the public-theology panel was especially lively because the Baylor participants "asked different sorts of questions," thereby "opening up the discussion in interesting ways."

It could be said these two institutions have unknowingly been moving toward each other in recent years. HDS has expanded its evangelical studies offerings, especially with the creation of the fully endowed McDonald chair in the field. During this same period, Baylor started the George W. Truett Theological Seminary, in 1994, as an alternative to other Southern Baptist school of theology. Baylor faculty and administrators have indicated that they are interested in equipping students to hold positions of influence within and outside the church, and that Harvard provides a training model for "public ministries."

Though there were occasional gibes about the images of both schools—Baylor as a conservative place, a home for those interested primarily in personal salvation, and Harvard Divinity School as a post-Unitarian, ultraliberal bastion interested in social justice at the expense of spirituality—participants noted some interesting, and at times surprising, points of agreement. "We have shared with your traditions a common cause in dissent and nonconformity," Bill Brackney, chair of the religion department at Baylor, said. Other Baylor participants noted to a history of Baptists, Methodists, Unitarian-Universalists, and others sharing meeting houses and common cause, especially on the issues of abolitionism and civil rights.

Cox commented that the religious traditions that share a free-church tradition "in some ways invented the democratic pattern" and can continue to nurture much-needed "strong advocates for radical political and economic democracy" in a society where "too many decisions are pre-packaged and sold as choice."

HDS professor Allen Callahan noted that the particularity of religious voices from all religious traditions are not only needed but, at their best, also have the power to bring a new nation into being if the public vision they articulate "has enough room to include all of us." He held up examples, including Abraham Lincoln in his second Inaugural Address, and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who spoke clearly from his black Baptist tradition, "but embraced the entire nation, even the children of the people bombing his houses of worship."

Marc Ellis, a university professor at Baylor, closed the public-theology discussion by saying he expected Baylor would soon offer a formal invitation for a delegation from HDS to travel to Baylor, joking that it would be "a longer journey for you than coming here was for us."

Though he was unable to make the trip to Cambridge as planned, because of a family emergency, Baylor University President Robert B. Sloan was quoted by Religion News Service as saying that the two schools may have taken different paths, but "now we have a lot to learn from each other."