Hello everyone! My name is Robin El Kady and I am an international student from Berlin, Germany. I am currently doing a dual Master’s degree at both the Divinity School at Harvard University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. The dual-degree program has offered me a unique and incredible opportunity to juxtapose the different fields I am interested in, namely: international relations (with a focus on public international law and conflict resolution) and the interrelationships among religion, ethics and politics. Continue reading
Hello dear, prospective students!
Whether you are applying for this application season, or just beginning to consider your options for graduate study, we would like to introduce you to a few of the many compelling classes offered here at HDS through a series of blog posts that will stretch through this semester and into the next. We hope to bring you beyond the class descriptions given on the website to give you genuine accounts from students enrolled in these courses (though you should still check out the class descriptions for these courses as they are rather informative and thoughtfully constructed). Continue reading
Every week, members of the HDS community gather together at noon on Wednesdays in Andover Chapel to participate in a communal moment of reflection, spiritual worship, and religious practice. Wednesday Noon Service is hosted by a different religious community on the HDS campus every week, allowing all in the HDS community to pray in a multireligious environment not bounded by our many respective traditions.
This year’s Noon Service began with an event hosted by the HDS Hindu Studies Colloquium. The HSC is composed of students who are interested in advancing the study of religious and cultural disciplines from the South Asian subcontinent, especially as they relate to Hinduism. Current Office of Admissions GA, Sujay Pandit, MTS’18, had the opportunity to participate in this Noon Service event as an attendee and as a speaker. Then, he sat down for a conversation with Morgan Curtis and Michelle Bentsman, who run the Hindu Studied Colloquium here at HDS. Here is a part of their conversation about the behind-the-scenes process of Noon Service.
Morgan J. Curtis is a M.Div. studying Tamil literature and South Indian Hindu traditions and Michelle Bentsman is a M.Div. ’18 pursuing studies in Comparative Religion, Hinduism, Judaism, Death & Dying.
Sujay: Last semester, I took a fantastic class called “Hindu Ethics,” taught by Professor Anne Monius at HDS. The class introduced me to the rich, complex and varied world of Hinduism, specifically through ancient Vedic texts from thousands of years ago. One of the great aspects of studying topics that you are passionate about is that you meet fellow scholars/students who are passionate about the same ideas. Thanks to my Hindu Ethics class, I met the two of you. Towards the end of the semester, Michelle, you requested that I speak at the Noon Service event that the HSC would host in January. I enthusiastically accepted. Michelle, could you describe the Hindu Studies Colloquium and your particular role in the organization?
Michelle: The Hindu Studies Colloquium has been an organization devoted to providing a space for students and community members to openly discuss Hindu texts and concepts. I’m currently co-chairing with Morgan Curtis.
Sujay: I think it is really interesting that the HSC has two co-chairs who plan and collaborate on the events like Noon Service. Morgan, would you tell us what events or circumstances prompted you to want to conduct a Noon Service event?
Morgan: We were approached at the end of fall semester by Kerry Maloney, Chaplain and Director of Religious and Spiritual Life, because there was an opening for the first noon service of spring semester. We wanted to be able to help them out by hosting and also wanted to be able to offer something to the HDS community as they came back from winter break and also as we were all dealing with the inauguration of a new president.
Sujay: Since this was the first noon service of the semester, and students were on winter break for a month, it certainly must have been challenging to plan your Noon Service event for early January when everyone returns! How did you plan the Noon Service event? What were your intentions while preparing the different types of activities, inviting speakers and preparing the ritual moments?
Morgan: Knowing that this would be the first noon service of the semester and also the first noon service post-inauguration, we wanted to be able to hold a space where people could reflect on how they wanted to move forward in light of both of those circumstances. We wanted to invite people to speak who had moved us with their ideas and who we felt would share words that people needed to hear in these troubling times.
Michelle: Morgan and I had been discussing the fires of Rudra (a name for Shiva, commonly associated with destruction in Hinduism) in regard to the political climate. Transformation was on our minds. We wanted to create a space where people could shed some of the heaviness that was rolling in and get inspired through words, ritual, and song. Including a fire ritual felt necessary — not only on the symbolic level, but also in considering Hindu practice and history. Singing Shiva mantras fit strongly with these themes.
Sujay: Transformation was certainly a key theme in your Noon Service events! I am so grateful to have been a part of the service and to have the chance to speak. Especially because on the day of the HSC Noon Service, I was thrilled to see so many professors, students and HDS community members gather. I was really struck by the start of your Noon Service, which began with a Hindu chant by the HDS choir. A fellow HSC member and classmate of ours, Sunitha Das, spoke about the power of the female goddess figure in Hindu religion.
Thanks to your invitation, I had the chance to give a brief talk entitled, “Hinduism and the Making of the Incomplete Lover.” It’s interesting that this talk actually grew out of our class together. When you asked me to be a part of Noon Service, I knew that I wanted to share with the participants some of the research I did for our Hindu Ethics class on the 17th century, Indian mystic poet Mirabai. Mirabai was a radical writer and voice. In literary history, she is known as a Rajasthani princess who left her wealth and status to worship the Indian god Krishna, the flute-playing, blue-skinned god who often reappears in Indian mythology. I thought Mirabai would be a perfect representative of the devotion that many Hindus have towards poetry, song and God.
Sujay: By participating in Noon Service, I was able to reflect on how the content I was learning in class affected me as a scholar and a member of the HDS community. How has Noon Service contributed to your educational or social lives at HDS? What do you find most valuable about the experience?
Morgan: Honestly, hosting noon service was the first time I’ve attended a noon service. I’ve had classes that conflicted with the service every other semester of my time at HDS.
Michelle: The second Noon Service I ever attended was the day after the presidential election. The room was packed. Many of us were crying, a few were dressed in black. There was hugging, a tenderness in the air. It was the most powerful expression of solidarity and love I had ever witnessed within the HDS community. And though this was a very particular circumstance, it conveyed the centrality of this space within HDS. Even when earth-shattering historical events are at bay, Noon Service is an illuminating space to learn about the faiths and practices of fellow students, tap into a spiritual mode of being, and find meaning and uplift within the week.
Sujay: Michelle, I really felt the centrality of space that you talk about. I think Noon Service really does a fantastic job at bringing our entire community together. I was honored to have the chance to participate in Noon Service alongside the HSC. It was an enriching experience to be able to speak about my research; to gather with fellow HDS students, faculty and staff; and to understand Hinduism more deeply.
As we end our conversation, are there any suggestions you would have for other students (especially entering students) who are interested in hosting or participating in Noon Service?
Morgan: I was daunted by the idea of hosting a Noon Service but am glad we did it. The ability to share this kind of space with members of our community is part of what makes HDS special. It was such a welcoming and warm environment, and I felt like people were very open to the space we tried to create for them. So, I think the trick is to approach the hosting as an offering to the community and to trust that the community will meet you.
Michelle: Do it! If you’re hosting, arrange early. The challenge is well worth it. You get to choreograph/curate a spiritual experience for your peers, which means you can let your faith-based freak flag fly, or ply your skills in important religious activities like giving sermons and songs.
Sujay: Thanks, Michelle and Morgan. I know I am looking forward to attending more Noon Service events in the future, and I hope to see you there!
As we near the end of another semester, I find myself reflecting on my first finals week experience and I realize that it captured well an ethos that I want to live out throughout my time at HDS: having fun is integral to academic survival.
I had one crazy goal: I wanted not just to survive finals week, I wanted to enjoy it.
As finals week loomed large in early December, I had one crazy goal: I wanted not just to survive finals week, I wanted to enjoy it. That seemed impossible given that I had eight papers covering about sixty-five pages of writing all due in a two week time period. Yet, I had this hunch that I actually wouldn’t survive if I didn’t enjoy it. So, I set out to figure out how to make finals week, in a sense, fun.
I had two strategies to make this happen. First, I wanted finals week to strengthen my newly formed HDS friendships. I know myself well: I go crazy without some sort of social interaction. I get lonely without people. When I am lonely, I am unproductive. So, I made a point to recruit people to study with me. I found that in quiet libraries surrounded by friends, writing was easier. I was inspired when I saw people next to me making diligent progress. We supported one another without distracting one another. When I needed a break, I went on walks with a friend instead of taking a solo “break” via distractions on the internet.
. . . having fun is integral to academic survival.
It worked perfectly. While I usually studied with only one or two friends, at one point we organized a Div School takeover of a block of desks in Lamont Library. In that intense environment, everyone working on their respective papers, working through stress and exhaustion together, and reviewing drafts for one another, it felt like we were all in it together. It was awesome. And, I indeed felt closer to my friends at the end of finals week than I had when we began.
My next goal was to not only dive into the content of my papers, but to explore the connections between them, to enjoy how they played off one another. As I wrote, I decided to work four of them together to explore a common theme. Pursuing one theme repeatedly — in this case, ritual — helped me deepen my enthusiasm and sense of academic adventure in a way that was, indeed, fun.
For one class, I got to analyze the idea of ritual in an academic context. I examined Professor Amy Hollywood’s thesis that ritual, through referencing an original concept that remains unchanged but repeated in changing contexts, can create a space for self-becoming. For another, I got to look at ritual through the lens of a novel about a rabbi, tracking her spiritual becoming through her relationship to Jewish ritual. I then had the opportunity to look at my own life, reflecting on how Christian ritual has become an important part of my life at HDS, deepening my fragile Christian faith as I continue to wrestle with Christian theology. Lastly, I got to tie all this together looking at how the vessel of ritual has held my own spiritual evolution in a way that mirrors how community ritual holds community change.
Going deeply into a concept, looking at it from different angles, within different frameworks, I was able to follow one long and exciting path, instead of spreading myself thin jumping from one topic to another. I felt like a detective working through different parts of a really tough case, following different leads toward a final resolution. I had fun.
Finals week highlighted how I want to spend the next two-and-a-half years: surrounded by my peers who can push, challenge, and support me as I work hard to enjoy myself on this surprisingly fun academic journey.
On paper, Karen King and Matt Potts’ “The Death of Jesus” might sound like a trainwreck of a course: co-taught by two professors with wildly different interests, readings veering wildly back and forth from contemporary fiction to the esoteric texts of the Nag Hammadi library, and intense meditation on disturbing materials like ancient martyrdom accounts, lynching photographs, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. It would be easy to glance at the course description and pass it over in favor of happier materials discussed in a more harmonious classroom environment. Had I done so, however, I would have missed out on what may be the most interesting and engaging course I’ve ever taken.
Can hope and meaningfulness be divorced from happy endings? If everything fades, does anything matter? Do prayer and ritual have a place in the face of the earth-freezing, stone-cracking absence of God?
The highlight of the course, for me, was our discussion of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. For those who haven’t read it, the book is a terse post-apocalyptic story about an unnamed father and son wandering a frozen earth after some unspecified catastrophe. All plants and animals are extinct, ash falls from the sky like snow, and what few people remain survive by scavenging for canned food or cannibalizing each other. Needless to say, the story is bleak. Unlike other stories of apocalypse like I Am Legend or 28 Days Later, The Road precludes any hope of a happy ending. There is no secret farm community or enclave of scientists working on a solution. The man and the boy will die, almost assuredly gruesomely, and the ragged remnants of life on earth will not be far behind them.
As our class discussed, a story like this raises important theological and philosophical questions. Can hope and meaningfulness be divorced from happy endings? If everything fades, does anything matter? Do prayer and ritual have a place in the face of the earth-freezing, stone-cracking absence of God? These questions are not idle musings about a hypothetical apocalypse. As Dr. Potts likes to say, The Road is just the human condition cranked up to 11; all things are stamped with their own expiration date, and if we as scholars, ministers, or anyone just trying to get by are going to affirm goodness and meaning and hope and love, we need to reckon with these expiration dates.
Dr. Potts’ own work draws connections between Cormac McCarthy and Christian sacramental theology, and it was through this lens that our class tackled the book. To condense a centuries-long tradition of sacramental theology that traces back through Luther, Aquinas, and Augustine into a few lines: In the Christian ritual of the Eucharist, the priest holds up a loaf of bread and says “this is the body of Christ”; the bread is then broken and distributed to the community. What is important to note is that, for sacramental theology, the priest is not correct in identifying the bread with Christ because she is speaking metaphorically, as if the bread were a signpost pointing to some “more real” body that exists in some heavenly beyond. Neither is she correct because the bread has ceased to become bread and is now Christ, as if the ritual were some kind of alchemy that sweeps away mundane “breadness” so that the more meaningful “Christness” can take up shop. Rather, the point of the ritual is that the bread is both bread and Christ, that the mundane can be meaningful and holy in and of itself, without recourse to anything beyond or outside it. A stale crust of bread can be sacred when the gathered community behaves as if it were sacred, independent of any “more sacred” that might exist outside of the ritual.
The discussion we had during those three hours is one that can easily be taken out of the classroom and into real life. How are we to love when we know the other will die? Why should we care about climate change when all species will go extinct eventually? Why pursue academic work when all books will someday crumble to dust?
Bringing things back to The Road, what makes the father and son’s journey down the road meaningful is not that they are heading towards anywhere better than where they’ve been. When the man bathes the boy or the two share a meal, these acts of love don’t represent a meaningfulness or a holiness outside of themselves; they actively manifest that meaningfulness and that holiness. Like the sacramental bread that is holy unto itself without recourse to an outside, the characters in The Road can find meaning and hope and love without pretending that the world through which they wander is anything other than bleak and terrifying.
The discussion we had during those three hours is one that can easily be taken out of the classroom and into real life. How are we to love when we know the other will die? Why should we care about climate change when all species will go extinct eventually? Why pursue academic work when all books will someday crumble to dust? What our discussion of The Road (informed by a particular brand of sacramental theology) emphasized is that acts of love and meaningful work can be good and sacred in and of themselves, in all their brokenness and finitude. That Thursday afternoon, to me, represented the core of what HDS offers: intense classroom discussion that leads to insights that can be taken and applied to ministry, academic work, and especially our relationships to others.
Three months ago: It’s my first semester at HDS and I’m completing an assignment for Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion, the one required class for all incoming HDS students. Each week before lecture we have to submit an online response to that week’s reading, which for this week is Friedrich Schleiermacher’s On Religion. Schleiermacher was an 18th century theologian sometimes seen as the father of liberal Protestant Christianity. On Religion is his apology for religion, which he seeks to dissociate from doctrine, ritual, practice, traditions or mythology. For Schleiermacher, religion is defined in experiential terms, as something that a believer feels or “intuits.” I thought this was a bunch of baloney. Here’s an excerpt from my online response:
My main issue with Schleiermacher is that his first two chapters are mostly vague, repetitive and rambling descriptions of his amorphous concept of religion, but as soon as he tries to ground his perspective in a particular example–for example when he says that Judaism is defunct and Christianity’s original intuition is “more glorious, more sublime…and extending farther over the whole universe” (113)–he reveals his giant bias: that his own, liberal, protestant Christianity is conveniently the best for intuiting religion. His arguments then lose all credit as any kind of lens for understanding religion from anything but a Christian, liberal, European perspective.
I had completely written off Schleiermacher. What was there to learn from someone with such a blatant, self-serving bias? And that was the day Professor Amy Hollywood introduced the hermeneutic of suspicion and the hermeneutic of generosity.
By the time I got to lecture the next day, I had completely written off Schleiermacher. What was there to learn from someone with such a blatant, self-serving bias? And that was the day Professor Amy Hollywood introduced the hermeneutic of suspicion and the hermeneutic of generosity.
In a nutshell, the hermeneutic of suspicion calls scholars to interrogate the authors and texts they encounter. Questioning an author’s bias, historical time period, cultural background, or the validity of their arguments all fall into this category. It’s an important paradigm and one that I was fully entrenched in during my undergraduate years. In fact, my undergraduate studies were conducted almost entirely through this critical prism. I was trained to think that my job as a scholar was to deconstruct every text presented to me. My work was done only after I had determined the author’s agenda, come up with counter examples–no matter how obscure–disproving their points, and deconstructed their points to pieces. I could then dismiss the entirety of their work as merely their personal bias.
But Professor Hollywood insisted that in addition to being critical, we also need to employ the hermeneutic of generosity; instead of only reading against the author, we also need to read alongside them. As the term implies, we ought to be charitable with the text we read, try as best we can to embody the author’s place, and occasionally look past certain biases, or at least temporarily sideline them, in order to fully grasp the arguments in play. Often it’s only from this generous standpoint that we’re able to fully appreciate what a text or author has to offer.
Deconstructing a text with the hermeneutic of suspicion is a critical component of a scholar’s work. But as I realized that day in Hollywood’s class, employing it without tempering it with generosity is ultimately futile. First, despite the insistence by some that true scholarship is objective, everyone has a bias. If we were to dismiss every biased work, there would be nothing to read. But more importantly, if scholarship is solely about deconstructing a text, then we never truly appreciate what a particular author has to offer, the implications of their arguments, or how their theories map onto our own experiences of the world.
Professor Hollywood insisted that in addition to being critical, we also need to employ the hermeneutic of generosity; instead of only reading against the author, we also need to read alongside them.
When it came to Schleiermacher, my eagerness to pinpoint his bias and then dismiss him meant that I didn’t give his theories any credence. I soon realized my folly during Professor Hollywood’s lecture. She pointed out that not only is Schleiermacher’s work critical in understanding the development of liberal Christianity in Europe and the US, but, even more importantly, it is readily applicable to our contemporary world. In the modern West, many people call themselves “spiritual, but not religious,” meaning they maintain some personal, typically felt, experience of the divine, but don’t subscribe to particular rituals, doctrines, hierarchies, texts, or other structures that the modern West associates with religion. Few realize that, far from a modern take on spirituality, this thread has been running through Protestant Christianity for centuries, and that way back in 1799 Schleiermacher was already making this distinction and prioritizing one’s personal, felt, divine encounters as the really real. I was ready to throw Schleiermacher away without realizing that his work offers an important critique of how religion and spirituality are understood in the contemporary world.
This has been perhaps the greatest lesson from my first semester at HDS because it has changed how I read texts in all of my classes. Now I try to keep a balance between these two hermeneutics, always challenging myself to not only read against but with an author. In this way I’m already getting more out of these amazing texts than I ever did before.
As the spring semester draws to a close, three HDS students discuss their favorite courses of the semester.
Erika Carlsen, 3rd year MDiv:
My favorite class this semester so far has been Exercising Leadership: The Politics of Change, offered at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (HKS). In this class, we’ve learned about the difference between exercising leadership and authority, understanding the different ways in which group dynamics can affect our ability to effect change in a given system, and strategies for mobilizing groups to face difficult topics head-on. In addition to our weekly class, we also meet in a small group each week where one individual is responsible for presenting on a leadership failure she or he experienced, after which s/he petitions the wisdom of the group to help her/him address the blind spots that might have led to that failure. It’s a dynamic class filled with students from HKS, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and some cross registrants from the MIT Sloan School of Management. This diverse mix of students lends itself to one of the most interesting and engaging learning environments I’ve found at Harvard thus far.
Rod Owens, 1st year MDiv:
This semester I am taking a course called Sexualities and Gender in the African Diaspora offered by Dr. Jennifer Leath, a visiting professor. It is a course that explores our construction of sexuality and gender within communities of African descendants and how we can challenge these constructions within the context of religious expression. I am also a member of a reading group called Racial Justice in Relief where the practice of racial justice is examined in the work of several writers, including Ida B. Wells, Bayard Rustin, Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day, etc. The reading group is also taught by Dr. Leath and is an extension of dialogues connected to liberatory models of education and transcending suffering of difference.
My favorite class this semester is Administration and Leadership, with professors Emily Click and Laura Tuach. Emily Click has us journal about leadership questions every week, write a personal mission statement, and do debates and role plays. Everything is treated as an experiment and growth opportunity. We’re encouraged to bring our whole selves to the classroom, take an honest look at ourselves, be vulnerable with one another, and make our own unique contributions. Last week, Laura Tuach started section by having us get out our journals and asked: “What is your sense of overall driving purpose? What have you been put on earth to do? What brings you irrepressible joy?”
As I entered my second semester as an MDiv student at HDS, I looked forward to branching out and taking courses that were cross-listed with other Harvard schools and composed of students from different parts of Harvard University. My favorite course so far this semester has been one such course: Christian Ethics and Modern Society with Dr. Charles Lockwood. The diversity of my class represents everything I like best about being a Harvard student. In addition to coming from all different parts of the University–from Harvard College to Harvard Divinity School to alumni working as fellows at the University–my class comprises students of various faith traditions, gender identities, sexualities, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and philosophical camps.
You know those kids in high school and college who did all their homework all the time, the ones who always had something to say in class discussion and had questions for the teacher every week? I was one of THOSE kids. I guess that’s not too shocking of a confession to come from a Harvard graduate student, but in hindsight I feel a little sheepish about those days. The most important thing I’ve learned in my time at HDS so far is how to prioritize and balance the things in my life, and homework just doesn’t always make it to the top of the list.