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Convocation of the Divinity School of Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Thank you, Dean Graham, for that generous introduction. And thank you, members of the faculty and students of the Divinity School, for inviting me to participate in this, one of Harvard’s oldest community gatherings. This is an important moment for the School as Dean Graham assumes his leadership role. I am pleased to be part of this celebratory occasion.

I asked Bill Graham to become Dean because I felt that Bill’s intellectual background and personal qualities make him particularly well-suited to lead the Harvard Divinity School in this era. Bill is a person of intelligence, compassion, and steady leadership. As a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, he has worked closely with faculty and students from the Divinity School, and he has played a central role in the intellectual commerce between the School and the broader University. Bill Graham is an exceptional scholar and a person of profound integrity, who has gained the trust and respect of his colleagues through 30 years of extraordinary service to Harvard.

Bill, you have done an outstanding job as Acting Dean, and we are grateful for your willingness to take on the leadership of the Divinity School at this critical moment in its history.

* * * * *

I also want to recognize our host for today’s service, the Reverend Peter Gomes. Upon hearing that I had accepted the invitation to speak with you today, Mr. Gomes dispatched a letter offering words of advice on how I should think about this convocation. Not content to educate me on the subject at hand — about which I would have appreciated any help he might have given — he chose instead to catalogue the record of past interactions, often unsatisfactory, between Harvard Presidents and the Divinity School.

According to Mr. Gomes, this century’s first President, Charles Eliot, “reinvented” the school. He raised its academic and professional standards and urged it beyond a narrow denominationalism to “the scientific study of the theological disciplines.”

Next in line, President Lowell, merely “tolerated” the school, having lost interest in its development after the failure, in 1928, of the attempted merger with Andover Theological Seminary.

Lowell’s successor, chemist James Bryant Conant, was fundamentally hostile to the School, according to Mr. Gomes, but he managed to sustain a posture of “indifference” most of the time. During his long absences from Cambridge throughout World War II, it is said that he scheduled his infrequent on-campus meetings with deans on Sunday mornings at 11 a.m. — when the Divinity School’s Dean Sperry was required to preside at Sunday service in this church.

Conant’s successor, Nathan Pusey, became President in 1953. An active Episcopalian and leader in the World Council of Churches, President Pusey, in Mr. Gomes’s words, “refounded,” even “cherished,” the School, raising a new endowment and building an outstanding faculty.

Pusey was succeeded in 1971 by Derek Bok, who, according to Mr. Gomes, was “mystified” by the school, having commented at one point that theology, for him, was something like chemistry. He had no idea how it worked, but he knew that it was important and could observe its beneficial effects.

President Rudenstine, though quite supportive, remained, in Mr. Gomes’s view, mostly “bemused” by the Divinity School.

I shudder to imagine the single word into which my reflections today and hereafter will be compressed in Professor Gomes’s distinctive historiography.

* * * *

Of all of Harvard’s Schools, I approach Divinity with the greatest trepidation. Not only because of your “special connections,” but also because of my own ignorance. I am part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. As a policy-oriented economist, I have in due course gained experience with legal, managerial, educational, urban, and healthcare issues. But things divine have been central neither to my professional nor to my personal life.

Though I came to the dean search as a relative tabla rasa, I have tried over the past year to listen carefully and sympathetically to a wide range of voices in the School, in the University, and in the wider scholarly community. They have informed my views in three areas on which I would like to reflect this afternoon:

First, I want to share my sense of the importance of the Divinity School’s mission and role in the University;

Second, I want to offer some thoughts on what I understand to be the most important challenges facing the Divinity School;

Third, I’d like to reflect on how the Divinity School could evolve to maximize its contribution.

* * * * *

Contrary to widespread predictions in the last century that the progressive advance of modernity would render religion irrelevant — that we would, if you will, “outgrow” religion — religious belief and practice are flourishing in this country and around the world. Individuals are increasingly occupied with spiritual concerns in their own lives. And, as made painfully apparent by the events of September 11th, religion is a powerful force in the public sphere.

The recent Supreme Court decision supporting vouchers for religious schools; the ongoing wrangling over cloning and stem cell research; debates about the ethics of war; and faith-based initiatives as a new model for the delivery of social services — all of these issues demonstrate the pervasive impact of religion in our public life.

Though religious concerns assert themselves increasingly, their shape is constantly changing. Commenting on the “vast mix of opposing trends — fundamentalism, secularization, and new forms of religion” — Harvey Cox suggests that we are witnessing “neither a secularization nor its opposite (re-sacralization).”

Even within organized religion, the picture is considerably more complex than it was a few decades ago. Diana Eck’s New Religious America describes how the United States has become “the most religiously diverse nation in the world,” with American Muslims outnumbering American Episcopalians, Jews, or Presbyterians.

As Lawrence Sullivan has observed, “religion rages beneath the most uncomfortable issues as well as the most promising tasks we confront ….” It is essential, therefore, that the University address religious issues — in scholarship, in teaching, and in the public domain — with rigor and imagination.

Our understanding of religion needs to inform our broader social understanding. And our broader social understanding needs to inform our approach to religion. All of this is to make the case for the particular importance of a University-based Divinity School.

This case is reinforced by another consideration. The study of religion will not make its full contribution without giving scope to its normative component. Just as in health we would not be content merely to describe diseases, in theology and religion we need to develop doctrine and train professionals for religious leadership.

Indeed, taking my cue from Voltaire, I am almost prepared to say that if the Divinity School did not exist, it would have to be invented.

* * * * *

Let me turn now to the challenges facing the Divinity School. I was struck in my conversations over the past year by the degree of concern expressed for the School. I mean “concern” in both senses of the word: concern that reflects a commitment to the importance of what you do, and concern about the capacity of the School to meet important challenges that lie ahead.

In my mind, I have come to divide the challenges facing the Divinity School into two categories: those that the School has in common with the other professional schools at Harvard; and those that may be common to divinity schools or to the enterprise of theological and religious studies, but not to other professional schools.

As you look to the future, these are some of the challenges that you face in common with other professional schools:

  • How can the imperative of providing vocational education and training be balanced with the objective of supporting frontier research by faculty?
  • In an increasingly diverse and complex world, what are the distinctive core of knowledge and modes of thought that should be shared by professionals in a field?
  • How do we know what constitutes success when we look at the set of activities pursued by a school’s graduates?

Every professional school needs to address these issues. But there are other dilemmas, equally important, that are even more acute for the Divinity School. The enterprise with which you are engaged makes particularly challenging the following questions:

  • What is the appropriate balance between positive inquiry regarding different religious traditions and normative reflection based on particular truth claims?
  • In what ways should Christianity be privileged, and not be privileged, recognizing the School’s traditions, strengths, and need for focus, and also taking into account growing religious pluralism?
  • How, within the study of Christianity, and within the preparation of Christian ministers, should we adapt to the dramatic changes taking place in denominational affiliations within the United States and to the rising number of Christians in the developing world?

I was gratified to read the minutes of the Faculty’s May retreat, in which it was clear that these issues were all very much under consideration. They are not issues that will ever be resolved definitively, for constant reflection is required. But I believe it is essential that the Divinity School community find a unified perspective on these questions and structure its activities to reflect that perspective.

* * * * *

Let me conclude by suggesting how the framework outlined above might usefully be brought to bear on the practical challenges of faculty renewal, curricular revision, and connectivity to the disciplines and to the practice that you and others have identified as the School’s most pressing concerns.

Faculty Renewal

President Bok once said that, as a university president, he felt that if he left the faculty stronger than he found it, he would have succeeded no matter what else he accomplished. If he left it weaker, he would have failed.

The Divinity School has the resources and the imperative to renew its faculty over the next few years. It will be essential to cast the net broadly so as to identify excellent scholars wherever we can find them. It will be crucial as well to resist narrowness and parochialism in defining fields, so that we can take advantage of new intellectual currents and attract those who will do their most creative work at Harvard.

Renewing the faculty, though, is not just a matter of individual appointments. We also need to foster a culture of true scholarly collaboration and collegiality. One indicator of the health of a faculty is the fraction of time professors spend talking to each other about intellectual matters, books they are writing, or articles they have read, as compared to the fraction of time they spend debating budgets, or appointments, or leave policies.

Another critical aspect of fostering a vital faculty culture is close collaboration with students and an intense effort to attract the very best young faculty and to nurture them in the early stages of their academic careers.

It is also essential, as we bring in new faculty, that we maintain a productive balance between individuals who are advancing knowledge and educating future scholars and individuals who are imparting practical vocational arts. Other schools at Harvard have used the position of professor of practice to draw remarkable individuals who do not fit the standard academic profile, but whose active engagement in the profession adds an important and vital dimension to professional training.

Curricular Review and Revision

One mark of a confident professional school is a curriculum for its various degree programs that has wide faculty support and instills in students an identifiable core of knowledge and shared habits of mind. This notion is what it means to “think like a lawyer,” “think like a doctor,” or “think like a manager.”

There is near-universal agreement that the Divinity School’s curriculum, last revised in the early ’80s under Dean Rupp, is ill-equipped to meet the intellectual and vocational needs of the current student body. It is in need of comprehensive review and revision, a process that is underway.

I hope that your curriculum review, when it is completed, will have accomplished two principal objectives.

First, I hope that the structure of the curriculum will reflect the fact that the needs of students preparing for the ministry are very different from those of students intending to pursue religious leadership outside the ministry, or scholarship in the study of religion. This means, presumably, that you will need different tracks for students working toward different degrees. But if it is to be professional education, as distinct from a collection of individuals pursuing further study, within a given degree program students should face real requirements and graduate with some core of shared knowledge and identifiable competencies.

Second, Christianity will presumably continue to occupy a special role in the curriculum to support education for the Christian ministry. But our Divinity School draws its strength as well from its embrace of the critical study of many religious traditions. The structure of the curriculum should reflect this full range of inquiry straightforwardly and effectively.

Connections to the Broader University

For Harvard to take adequate account of the intellectual complexity of professional and scholarly study in religion, the Divinity School cannot be isolated from the larger University. We are fortunate in this regard that Bill Graham brings to the deanship experience in another Faculty and a commitment to support collaboration between scholars in the Divinity School and those in other parts of the University.

Relative to other universities, Harvard has a strong record in maintaining active links between the Divinity School and related intellectual disciplines. But we can and should do more. Religion is an important focus of inquiry in the humanities, in history, in sociology, in anthropology, in international relations, and even in economics. Scholars in the Divinity School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences need each other to do justice to teaching and scholarship in these areas.

Likewise, if some of the most vexing questions in our public life have religious dimensions, we should foster active and vital collaborations between ethicists from the Divinity School and faculty from the Business School on newly pressing questions of professional ethics. Or between the Divinity School and the Medical School on the range of questions implicated by genetics, stem cell research, or medical interventions affecting the length or quality of life.

I look forward to working with you to increase opportunities for collaboration across the University.

Connections to Practice

As I already noted, robust connections to practice are crucial for any professional school. Given the role of denominational seminaries, and growing religious pluralism, we are not likely to find ourselves in the near future training students in large numbers for the ordained ministry. But we could doubtless be more expansive in making the resources and the Divinity School and this University available to religious professionals at various points in their careers. Maintaining a learned ministry now more than ever requires a commitment to lifelong education.

We should also focus on expanding opportunities for outstanding practitioners to contribute to our educational mission, on terms ranging from semi-permanent appointments as professors of practice to one-day visits. One of Harvard’s great assets is its convening power. In the area of religion, we can and should use this power more fully for the benefit of those on and off this campus.


I look forward to working with you to shape the future of the Divinity School and to strengthen Harvard’s engagement in the field of religion.

Thank you again for this opportunity to share some thoughts. I will count myself a success if Peter Gomes can one day say of me that I challenged and supported the Divinity School.