Since its founding in the late 1950s, the Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR) has been at the forefront of promoting the sympathetic study and understanding of world religions. It has supported academic inquiry and international understanding in this field through its residential community, its involvement with the study of religion at Harvard, its research efforts and funding, and its public programs and publications.
A generous gift to Harvard Divinity School (HDS) from a group of anonymous donors brought the Center for the Study of World Religions into being. The 1957 gift was intended to "help Harvard University maintain graduate and undergraduate courses in the religions of the world, to train teachers in this field, to give ministers a sympathetic appreciation of other religions, and to stimulate undergraduate interest in the religions of the world."
The Center began with the appointment of Robert H. L. Slater, a scholar of Buddhism, as its first director. Within two years of Slater's arrival, construction of the CSWR building at 42 Francis Avenue was complete. The building offered doctoral students and visiting scholars, many from outside the United States, the chance to enrich their studies of the world's religious traditions by daily interaction with one another.
Guided by Slater (1958-64) and the two directors who followed—Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1964-73), a scholar of Islam, and John B. Carman (1973-89), a scholar of Hinduism—the CSWR also played a major role in the shaping of the study of religion at Harvard University and throughout the world. CSWR directors and other staff members taught courses in comparative religion and world religions, supervised graduate students, and shaped the religion curriculum. Their advocacy helped create an undergraduate honors concentration in the comparative study of religion as well as PhD and ThD programs that incorporate comparative perspectives. The CSWR also reached out beyond Harvard through conferences, colloquia, international programs, and publications. The Studies in World Religions book series was one such effort; in collaboration with Scholars Press, it published six monographs by CSWR-affiliated scholars between 1979 and 1983.
Under the directorship of Lawrence E. Sullivan (1990-2003), an expert on the religions of South America and central Africa, the CSWR embraced a new focus: to promote and initiate world-class research programs. Several major, multi-year research initiatives brought scholars from around the globe together at the CSWR and elsewhere to work on diverse issues at the intersection of religion and the sciences, politics, art, law, and economics. The Religion, Health, and Healing Initiative; the Religion and the Arts Initiative; the Religions of the World and Ecology project; and the Religion and Globalization Initiative were such endeavors, involving hundreds of scholars and practitioners. This era of the CSWR also brought a new emphasis on the religions of indigenous peoples. The Center's outreach efforts during these years included lecture series, which explored specific themes in depth throughout the year, and two book series: Religions of the World, and Religions of the World and Ecology, both distributed by Harvard University Press.
Under the leadership of Donald Swearer (2004-10), a scholar of Buddhism, the Center refocused on its mission to support study, research, and teaching of world religions within the Harvard community, while at the same time working to sustain international connections and collaboration. Replacing the competitive fellows program were two initiatives that support research by Harvard faculty. The International Research Associate/Visiting Faculty program, begun in 2006-07, brought an international scholar to the Center to collaborate with a Harvard faculty member in research and teaching, while a competitive grants program, started in 2004-05, offered monetary support for faculty research. During the Swearer years, an annual program theme shaped the selection of lectures, films, and conferences, forming a vigorous calendar of public events.
Under the leadership of Francis X. Clooney, S.J., Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology, the Center reaffirmed its commitment to the study of the many religions of the world in their classical and contemporary forms in light of current developments in theology and the study of religions, and to the formation of intellectual community at the Center, the Divinity School, the University, and the wider community. Programming, often initiated by students as well as faculty, aims to pursue issues of timely intellectual import in conversations that touch upon our research and teaching, current events, and longer term commitments to intellectual and spiritual awareness. Maintaining many of the commitments of earlier directors, Clooney was committed to the necessary work of rethinking the Center's mission in light of the changing nature of the Divinity School and the University, and in the context of the nearly immeasurable resources now available for the study of classical traditions and contemporary trends in the various religions and cultures of the world. As a sign of commitment to the lived experience of the religions of the world, in 2010 the Center opened a meditation room in a prominent section of its ground floor, and welcomes individuals and groups to use this space as they wish.
Over the decades, the residential community has continued to bring doctoral students and visiting scholars together at 42 Francis Avenue, with the World Religions Café series providing opportunities for them to discuss their research and studies. In every instance too, the staff of the Center is an invaluable resource to its mission in its theoretical, communal, and most practical forms.
The early history of the Center is drawn from Community and Colloquy: The Center for the Study of World Religions, 1958-2003, by John B. Carman and Kathryn Dodgson (Cambridge, Mass.: The Center for the Study of World Religions, 2006).