“Making Its Own Forms”: Remarks at the bicentennial of the Harvard Divinity School

Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Mass.

As delivered.

Thank you, David. It is wonderful to be with all of you today to mark the bicentennial of Harvard Divinity School. Like the best birthday parties, this one has been going on for many months, celebrating the work that has engaged this remarkable school for 200 years — from its beginnings as the first nonsectarian theological school to its position today as the most religiously diverse divinity school in the United States and, I would venture, the world. And — if I may point out a worldly reward — it has just been ranked by its peers as the best theology, divinity and religious studies school in the world.

The rigorous encounter with multiple traditions, or with no tradition at all, is what makes Harvard Divinity School unlike any other place — where else can a student cross from “God’s Motel” to the Humanist Hub in a matter of minutes? Harvard philosopher George Santayana, who lectured at the Divinity School a century ago, said, and I quote him, that “every living and healthy religion has a marked idiosyncrasy,” a “special and surprising message,” and that the “vistas it opens and the mysteries it propounds are another world to live in.” The Divinity School opens a window to these worlds by training students who can bring people together, across a varied landscape of religions and cultures. We only have to consider Dean Hempton’s initiative on Religions and the Practice of Peace to know that we could not have a more insightful, more compassionate guide, as we deepen our understanding of religion in a global context.

Now, we may think of this devotion to inclusion and religious diversity as fairly recent. But at least one graduate wrote about it more than a century and a half ago. His name was Arthur Buckminster Fuller, an abolitionist and brother of the feminist writer Margaret Fuller. He graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1847, determined, as he put it, to “save souls,” until he found himself in the Civil War serving as a chaplain to a Massachusetts Army Regiment, ministering to men and even women of many faiths and backgrounds. He wrote “Roman Catholics … and members of every Protestant sect,” believers and nonbelievers; Union and Confederate soldiers; a Delaware regiment full of slaveholders and more than 2,000 emancipated slaves, some of whom he united in marriage. And like the surgeons who operated on any patient, “Unionist or Rebel,” as he put it, he preached to all of them, not about any sectarian faith or doctrine, but in his words, “on those great themes only, and in that spirit only in which all … can take an interest, and feel that their conscientious opinions are respected.” Arthur Fuller was killed at the battle of Fredericksburg, but not before he served as the only chaplain for 680 soldiers in a Virginia hospital, and reflected on his experience of war. He wrote, “Usefulness [and] goodness seem to me now the great objects of existence, and to make each other … better, our chief duty.”

That call to usefulness and goodness, to serve people of all faiths and backgrounds, is one that Harvard Divinity School has answered across the centuries. It answered that call in 1816, during a strange, cold summer when a red fog hung over Cambridge. A bitter theological war gripped the churches of New England and Harvard established this School for what it called the “impartial and unbiased investigation of Christian truth” — a place literally founded in a fog in order to help us see more clearly. And ever since, it has lifted us up and cleared our sight, because Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson challenged tradition; Paul Tillich transformed theology; and Constance Parvey and Letty Russell broke barriers for women in the ministry and feminist theology.

And as it served people of all faiths and backgrounds, the Divinity School itself became more inclusive, identified not by any one set of doctrines, but by a growing and sometimes a little unsettling commitment to pluralism.

I tell Harvard undergraduates who never knew him about how Peter Gomes inspired generations of students, as you know, often by confounding expectations as a gay, black, Baptist preacher — and a Republican — a self-described “Afro-Saxon,” someone who once said about himself, “My anomalies make it possible to advance the conversation.” What better way to describe the Divinity School itself — a place where students encounter more than 30 religious traditions, and then go fight Ebola in West Africa by understanding Liberian burial practices; or track hate crimes in Boston’s Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Hindu, and Christian communities; or appear in crowded jail cells across the world to reduce the use of torture in 40 countries. What better example than former ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe (M.T.S. ’84), the first permanent U.S. representative to the United Nation’s Human Rights Council, whose education here, from conceptions of God to studies of peace, enabled her to fight injustices in Syria and Libya and Iran by forging practical links to spiritual concerns that, as she puts it, are what “really animat[e] people around the world.”

How, indeed, do we make “conscientious opinions respected,” or negotiate when religious identities are at stake? The Harvard Divinity School and its alumni have helped to call forth and honor what novelist Marilynne Robinson calls “the separate language in each of us,” at the same time guiding us toward shared understanding. As we remember Arthur Fuller, and anticipate the usefulness and goodness of new graduates, I am struck most of all by the continuity of your courage. The Divinity School is the second smallest in size of Harvard’s schools. Yet never has its work been larger, or more vital. 

The Divinity School was just a decade old when Ralph Waldo Emerson became one of its early alumni. He tried being a pastor, but soon discovered he had to make his own path as a writer and a lecturer. And when he was invited to speak here to a graduating Divinity School class, he was worried about the students, all seven of them, whom he believed must not be dampened by their training, nor daunted by their civic task. And so from a podium in Divinity Hall in 1838 he addressed them with the daring and democratic and inclusive notion — that the divine speaks within each of us, and that, in Emerson’s words, “faith makes its own forms.”

For 200 years, the Divinity School has made its own forms. Its graduates are activists and novelists, journalists and scholars, diplomats and ministers. All at the core is a living spirit that animates this University. We celebrate that spirit. We honor every new leader, every new generation literate in religion, and grounded in ethics, who broker peace, and give relief, and build understanding. You “give us hope,” as Emerson put it, “as broad as the unbounded universe.” May that unbounded spirit continue to find its own form, now and for the next 200 years.

Thank you.