It is the first day of orientation at Harvard Divinity School. I am sitting under this little canopy at one of those generic plastic pop-up tables drinking free coffee and eating a free bagel. (Even before you hear about religious pluralism and the commitment to social change and the historic
function of the Divinity School as a site of training learned ministers, you learn that HDS is going to give you free food. Lots of it.) But then you do start learning about that other stuff, and it begins with the people whom you encounter. My new classmates – these previously unaccounted for entities with whom I will be spending the next two years – start sitting down next to me.
That’s just the way it is here. It turns out that what all the ‘prospective student’ brochures told us was actually true: no two people are interested in the same thing, and HDS is a place where we not only embrace that diversity but actively encourage everyone to go wild with their education and make it their own.
First there’s someone who’s Jewish but wants to study Hinduism. Next is an ordained Buddhist minister who grew up in an evangelical Christian context. A self-avowed atheist humanist who’s pursuing a Master of Divinity (a degree that, until quite recently, was offered only to those pursuing Christian ministry). A secularist who identifies as ‘spiritual but not religious’ and wants to pursue interfaith chaplaincy. A Muslim who’s interested in the complexities of Islamic scholarship in a western academic context. A wholly nonreligious person who’s interested in the ways that methodologies in religious studies can be brought to bear upon the study of literature. The list goes on. That’s just the way it is here. It turns out that what all the “prospective student” brochures told us was actually true: no two people are interested in the same thing, and HDS is a place where we not only embrace that diversity but actively encourage everyone to go wild with their education and make it their own.
At this particular moment, the only thing that unites us is that we’ve made it, and now that we’re finally here, we’re all totally freaking out. There’s not one among us who wasn’t, by around mid-March, compulsively refreshing their emails to see if we had gotten in. We went through the ecstasy of receiving our admissions letters, the discernment of whether to accept, the ordeal of finding an apartment in the area, and the bittersweet task of leaving behind wherever it was we were coming from. Now we’re all sitting around these little pop-up plastic tables, drinking our free coffee, meeting each other for the first time, and each and every one of us has this look on our faces that says: “Oh crap. I’m actually at Harvard.”
The promise of HDS is located in precisely this unsettling disorientation, this project of continually asking us to discover and re-discover who we are and what we want to do.
Of course, this doesn’t last too long. Orientation has to start, and we begin to channel that rush of nervous energy into actually doing stuff. There are speakers, degree panels, breakout sessions. We meet our advisers and start selecting our classes. Some of us have existential crises and possibly a minor breakdown about what it is that we’re actually studying here [cough, me, cough]. But slowly, gently, we begin to glimpse a vision of ourselves as students at HDS, and we like what we see, so we keep going. Step by step.
At the time of this writing, it’s been a month since orientation. I’m going over some of my notes I took during one of the sundry information sessions, and one line in particular stands out to me. I was sitting in a session facilitated by Dudley Rose,professor, coordinator of the M.Div. program here, and local legend. In speaking of some of the elements of HDS’s degree requirements, he cracked a wry smile and said, “Sometimes we want this to be a sort of unsettling disorientation for you.” An unsettling disorientation. Nice. I couldn’t help but think that, in fact, that’s exactly what we were all going through at just that moment. The whole irony in calling those first few days our “Orientation” is that they weren’t really orienting us in any particular direction at all. HDS, we are coming to learn, wants to give us the boat and the paddle and some sketched maps, send us out into the vast oceans of religious scholarship and ministry, and say: “find your own way.”
That’s why HDS is awesome. The promise of HDS is located in precisely this unsettling disorientation, this project of continually asking us to discover and re-discover who we are and what we want to do. Over and over, I hear my fellow students saying the same thing: “I came here expecting to do one thing, but now that I’m here, I’m realizing that actually what I want to do is….” That’s okay. That’s actually what we came here for. You don’t come to a non-religiously affiliated, multifaith, endlessly diverse divinity school because you’re looking to learn more of the same. You come here because you know, perhaps in some pre-rational intuitive kind of way, that you’ll encounter difference here, and that difference will have something to teach you. Orientation, it turns out, is the first step on a disorienting, uncertain, and (for that reason) revelatory path that’s taking us directions we’d never thought we’d go, and transforming us into people we never knew we could become.