In my last semester as Director (I step down in June), I am just back from three weeks in India — in keeping with the happy but exhausting way we tend to spend the precious weeks of January. I went first to Chennai, which I have been visiting since 1982, primarily to participate in two conferences marking the 1000th birth anniversary of the great Hindu theologian Ramanuja. Both conferences brought together international and local scholars to explore the writings and legacy of Ramanuja, his Srivaisnava tradition, and to inquire into his relevance for today. On the last full day of my visit to Chennai, a small group of us drove out to Sriperumbudur, the town in which Ramanuja was born, to visit the ancient temple and receive darshan of its several deities. While in Chennai I also was able to attend parts of another international conference, on the Bhagavata Purana, one of the great scriptures of Hinduism — yet one which, in generations past, has rarely received the attention from Western scholars that it deserves. Since I have been to Chennai many times, I was happy to connect with friends I have known for decades, and to give three other lectures in my brief two weeks in the city, as well as teach a few classes at our Jesuit national house of philosophy studies, Satya Nilayam. I spent a further five days of my trip in Ahmedabad and Sarangpur in Gujarat, a guest of the Swaminarayan community of Hinduism, and witness to their sacred rites (in such lovely temples), the study program for junior monks, and engaging with scholars in very fruitful theological discussions. (See the photo with this report.)
I am now back in Cambridge and I’ve had to get a quick start, 10.5 hours of jet lag and a dramatic degree change in temperature aside. Like everyone else, I am gearing up for the new semester. In addition to several reading courses, I will be teaching my seminar on the Yoga Sutras, exploring that great text in the context of its commentarial tradition, in relation to the much wider world of yoga as theory and practice in tradition and today, and in a comparative context. I will of course also be catching up on writing, and making about six out of town trips in the spring. But central to my semester will as always be my work as Center Director. My staff is as wonderful as ever — Corey O’Brien (Associate Director, who works with me on every issue, and attends also to important matters I am only vaguely aware of), Ariella Ruth Goldberg (programming), Matthew Whitacre (finance and residential life) — plus the newest member of our staff Dorie (Dorothy) Goehring, who has taken charge of the front desk and from that public position will attend to visitors and myriad other issues that arise. Dorie is a 2016 HDS MDiv, and we are delighted to have her join the Center team.
A major part of the Center’s program for the spring is simply a continuation of programming from the fall. Three colloquia continue, on Material Religion (contact: Professor Giovanne Bazzana), in Comparative Studies (contact: myself), and on Fiction and Theology (contact: Michael Motia, PhD Cand.). Two of our anuual lectures occur this spring. On February 23, Larycia Hawkins (formerly a professor at Wheaton College, Illinois, and well versed in the challenges of interreligious solidarity) will give the Annual Greeley Lecture for Peace and Social Justice, “The Pragmatics of Embodied Solidarity in Theopolitical Space.” On March 6, Robert Neville (professor at Boston University, and for decades a leading figure in comparative philosophical and theological studies) gives our annual Comparative Theology Lecture, “On Comparative Theology: Religion-Specific or Trans-Religious?” (We remain grateful to the Luce Foundation, which has made the comparative theology lectures possible in recent years.)
We continue, as we do almost every semester, our series of discussions of new books by faculty, with discussants chosen by the author: Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (March 27: Congress of Wo/men. Religion, Gender and Kyriarchal Power), Ousmane Khan (April 3: Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa), and Harvey Cox (April 18: The Market at God). Thus the riches of HDS: without trying, as it were, we see the diversity of our faculty and the work we do, across many disciplines; the Center’s job is to highlight this work and bring us together to learn from one another.
Diane Moore (HDS professor and senior Center fellow) and myself, with the expert advice of Michelle Boorstein (Washington Post, and a Neiman Fellow this year), also continue the Center’s new Journalism and Religion series. This semester too we will host conversations with journalists who cover religion and news about religion, seeing how they negotiate the challenge of introducing the unfamiliar and technical aspects of religious traditions and news about them, without being complicated or simplistic either. The first discussion for second semester will occur on February 14 at noon: a conversation with Kalpana Jain, a Neiman fellow several years ago, recently a student in our MTS program, and a Center resident for three years. An experienced journalist from New Delhi, Kalpana is now religion editor for The Conversation.
Our brand-new Poetry Series begins on March 7. This initiative will be led by Ariella Ruth Goldberg, our Center Events Coordinator, who is also a published poet. It will include featured readers and group discussion about the intersections of religion and poetry, poetry as spiritual practice, encountering poetry in religion-based work and research, and the importance of poetry in the HDS community.
Religion in the News is our vehicle for quickly scheduled discussions, usually at lunchtime; in lieu of inviting experts — which often takes months of planning — these conversations draw on the expertise of whoever shows up, and given the local talent, in this regard we’ve done very well. Right after the election in November we hosted a RITN for immediate response and reactions to the surprising news of Donald Trump’s election. As promised then, the first RITN lunch of this semester (February 7 at noon) faces up to the beginnings of the Trump presidency. I am hoping for a combination of honest expression of feelings at this point, and also some hard-headed thinking on what we at HDS and Harvard have to learn from the election as we move forward. All are welcome.
I am always glad also to see our Meditation Room — not on the third floor where it was at the Center’s founding, but inside the Center’s front door at the left end of the building — put to good use. Individuals continue to make sure of this quiet and beautiful space all day long, and some residents gather there for meditation almost every morning. Harvard needs more meditative awareness, to be sure, and I am glad the Center can contribute in this regard. I am particularly glad to report that this semester an HDS staff meditation group will be meeting there two mornings a week where they are led in a 20-30 minute guided practice. It is open to all staff.
The residential community continues to flourish, a wonderful fix of American and international students and faculty working in many different fields. I look forward to our regular Wednesday night cafes, where residents take turns in presenting work in progress, or reflecting on experiences of life and travel. Melissa Coles, a current resident (as well as president of the student government and this year’s head of the HDS Catholics), continues her series, “When We Walked: Pilgrimage across Traditions,” with a conversation on pilgrimage in Judaism on January 31 at 5:15 p.m. There will surely be other social and educational events arising from this extraordinary small community.
And so on. We look forward to an ordinary semester — that is to say, the kind of semester in which we enjoy the extraordinary talents and riches of our extraordinary community. The Center serves as the crossroads where faculty, students and staff, of HDS and from around the university and in the wider community, cross paths. It is a blessing thus to be able to look forward to this my last semester as Director, and I am optimistic that I will be turning over to my successor a Center that is alive and well and connected to what HDS and Harvard are and can be in 2017.