What does it mean to pursue the study of religion at a place that isn’t aligned with a particular religious tradition? What does it look like when you engage in this study with students from six continents and more than 35 different religious traditions—plus some who have no particular religious affiliation at all? Seasons of Light, our annual multireligious celebration, is part of the answer. The order of celebration for Seasons of Light situates the celebration in the context of our community:
As the nights lengthen and the darkness grows in the Northern Hemisphere, the Great Wheel of the calendar turns once again, catching us up in its low descent. Together we inhabit the promise of holy darkness and anticipate the light’s return. Many religious traditions honor this sacred interplay of day and night in their respective holy days and seasons; most also observe periods of fasting and feasting, often coinciding with a region’s agricultural rhythms of seedtime and harvest. Tonight, we gather to honor the mystery of the swelling darkness around us by kindling the flames of several traditions represented in the HDS community.
Here, I’ve been able to join that concern for literature with an exploration of religion and culture in an attempt to reach for the divine: that ineffable extraordinary which has sparked our imaginations and given shape to our aspirations from the very beginning.
I’d been looking forward to this celebration for weeks. One of my favorite parts of studying at HDS has been the infusion of that study with a sense of sacred purpose. I came to HDS from a small school in southern Maryland where I was awakened to some of the deeper questions that we attempt to answer with the study of literature. Here, I’ve been able to join that concern for literature with an exploration of religion and culture in an attempt to reach for the divine: that ineffable extraordinary which has sparked our imaginations and given shape to our aspirations from the very beginning.
Doing all this in a space that’s at once deeply concerned with religion and religious practice, yet not itself religious, means asking a whole series of fascinating questions—questions that echo throughout the field of religious studies. Can we study religion from within a religious practice or identity? Must we attempt to get “outside” of religion to view it objectively? Is that objectivity even possible? If we feel passionately about religion, how do we express that passion?
Walking into Andover Chapel last week provided some of those answers. Students, staff, and faculty had been gathered in Rockefeller Café before the ceremony for our last Community Tea. Mixing and mingling around tables filled with all kinds of delectable treats, we took a moment from the hustle and bustle of the end of the semester to simply be with each other. To catch up, trade stories, commiserate over the interminable stream of papers, and to share in that measure of comfort that comes from knowing that we’re in it together.
It’s one thing to read about different traditions, but it’s another to have them made tangible: here was a symbol of faith, being illuminated by my classmate whom I’d spent the semester learning and talking and eating with.
Afterward, in the Chapel, the warmth we felt in the Café was manifest in the candles flickering at the entrance. In the middle of the chapel stood a simple altar with the symbols of the many faith traditions represented here at HDS: a seated Buddha, a hanukkiya, the Ikh Omkar of the Sikh tradition, Unitarian Universalism’s flaming chalice, an Advent wreath, and many more. As we gathered, students from each of these traditions made their way to the table to light the candles of their respective faiths. As I watched my fellow students light their candles, I turned to my order of celebration to read about the signs and symbols that I didn’t recognize. It’s one thing to read about different traditions, but it’s another to have them made tangible: here was a symbol of faith, being illuminated by my classmate whom I’d spent the semester learning and talking and eating with. In this moment, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and the Johrei tradition were not abstractions or exotic “others,” but the embodied faiths of people with whom I share a common community. There was the Advent wreath of my Christian faith alongside the Yule Log of Paganism, the Villakku/Diya of Hinduism, and the Arabic Plaque of Islam.
As the evening proceeded, we sang songs, listened to readings from different traditions, and students and faculty from different traditions performed anthems, chants, and music from their respective faiths. Singing the Hebrew of “Hineh mah tov” in the round brought tears to my eyes: “Hineh mah tov umah nayim, shevet achim gam yachad!” Behold what a good and joyful thing it is, when people live together in unity.
We approach this study of the sacred each from our own various locations and identities, sometimes shaped by a religious conviction of our own, sometimes not.
Here’s the thing about HDS, the study of religion, and our nonsectarian space: One of the things we understand here is that there’s no “outside” space from which we can observe and report on religion “objectively.” We approach this study of the sacred each from our own various locations and identities, sometimes shaped by a religious conviction of our own, sometimes not. In her address “Where We Do Stand,” Janet Gyatso, our Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies, invites us to consider “Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s insistence that we must be friends with the people whose religions we study, we must come to know, as he says, ‘those qualities of the believer’s life that can only be known in that personal two-way relationship known as friendship.’” This leads us toward the “ability to abide with other people’s religion—not just to study it but also to inculcate ourselves in a common space so as to inhabit the questions of religion together.”
This is what we do here at HDS. This is the beauty and the magic of Seasons of Light: that it allows us to inhabit the questions of religion together, as friends.