Reflections on What HDS Has Taught Me

Editor’s Note: We know hearing from current students is one of the best ways to learn about what HDS has to offer. For this post, we asked one of our graduating students to reflect on her time at HDS and what lessons she’ll take with her as she moves on to the next step in life.  

Post by Madeline Levy, MTS ’21 (Area of Focus: Religion, Ethics, and Politics)

Madeline reading on set // Photo Courtesy of Madeline Levy

My name is Madeline, and I am a second-year MTS student with a focus in Religion, Ethics, and Politics. And, wow, these two years have really flown by! It is so hard to believe that I’m already in a position to be “reflecting” on my time at HDS.  

I am originally from Port Townsend, WA and received my BA from Whitman College, where I majored in Religious Studies. After graduating, I worked in opera stage management at a variety of companies around the country. While that career brought me much joy, I came to deeply miss the academic study of religion: the discussions, the material, and the depth. In my application process, I was drawn to HDS in particular for its pluralistic approach to the study of religion as well as for the institutional emphasis on ethical action, compassionate community, and rigorous academics.  

As I prepared to begin my time at HDS, friends and family kept telling me what a journey graduate study was and how much they had changed during their degree programs. It isn’t that I didn’t believe them, but I just didn’t spend too much time reflecting on how I might change. I expected that I would learn a lot about religion and find a warm, thoughtful community. In that way, HDS has been exactly what I expected, though I didn’t–or couldn’t–imagine the growth that I would experience in these two years.  

Photo Courtesy of Madeline Levy

In many ways, I feel like I receive the world differently–more thoughtfully, more critically, and with both more and less certainty. If I were to boil down what HDS has taught me into one lesson, it would be: the situation is more complicated than the narrative. Most courses I have taken have complicated a dominant narrative: about an historical period, a religious expression, or a person, for example. Sometimes, in courses like “Theories and Methods,” that involved setting up the dominant narrative in addition to critiquing it – introducing theorists of religion accompanied with readings and lectures that problematized those theories. The course “Protestant Reformations” pushed me to question the way in which history has been told, who has written it, why they got to write it, what is left out, and how we, in the present, see ourselves in relation to the past. Intimately tied to illuminating not just power dynamics but also the perspectival nature of human experience, this approach to academic material has since permeated the whole of my life and helped me question the narratives I find in news media and in my social circles. It has also helped me think more closely about the narratives that I put out into the world and the way in which I tell them. 

Engagement with critical thinking at HDS extends beyond the classroom into community spaces; at events like Noon Services, Gatherings to Breathe and Heal, and Harvard Divinity School Student Association Town Halls, I have learned from fellow students, faculty, and staff how to listen, receive, and share more productively and more deeply. Just as my friends and family predicted, I have changed and grown immensely through my experience here, and, reflecting on my HDS journey, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for this community of people who are committed to the pursuit of learning in all its forms. 

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