Searching for Common Ground in the Study of Religion

April 25, 2014
Searching for Common Ground in the Study of Religion

"Studying Religion Across the Disciplines" was a three-day conference that drew scholars from HDS, HBS, HLS, HKS, FAS, and scholars from other universities across the country to the Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR) with the intention of creating sustainable partnerships over common inquiries and understandings of religion.

“My real goal with this conference was entirely born from my own frustrations,” remarked acting CSWR director Anne Monius. “Since September 11, 2001, religion is being studied in every part of every university in this country. All of a sudden political theorists, economic departments, government departments, business schools, and law schools have a newfound interest in religion. Everyone is talking about religion but we don't have a common vocabulary. We aren't even sure we are talking about the same thing.”

Monius hopes the conference, held in late March, will kick-start the vital and interdisciplinary work of discovering how scholars can study and discuss religion across the humanities, the social sciences, and the sciences.

“We are all educators,” said James Nelson, Associate Professor from Valparaiso University, during his presentation on a panel on religion, ethics and psychology. “If we are interested in people who are knowers and learners, we should also be interested in their morality.”

Other panels themes included religion, experience, and neurological imaging; religion, rights, and ethics; religion and economy; and religion, religious law, and secular law. Each panel was comprised of faculty and scholars from science and social science departments presenting their research on religion and religious life to respondents from HDS and the Committee on the Study of Religion, with the intention of cultivating common ground.

In the “Religion, Ethics, and Psychology” panel, Nelson and Joshua Green, Associate Professor of Social Sciences at Harvard, presented their research to three respondents: PhD candidate Justin Fifield, Harvard lecturer on education Richard Weissbourd, and HDS lecturer on religion and society Mara Willard.

Contentious at times but always respectful, the panelists and respondents delved into questions about how religious life and dialogue can influence morality and ethics. Greene shared his research, which included, among many other hypotheses on the nature of human morality, data suggesting that humans are biologically predisposed to decide whether or not to help someone in need based on how close they are to the person geographically. Willard and Weissbourd argued that focusing on morality as a biological function trivializes the role of culture in determining moral actions.

As the conversation drew to a close, attendees, including Harvard professors of law, biology, and divinity, were left wondering if the search for truth is holding us back, or if it could be a place of common ground.

Community and colloquy

The CSWR has been a hub for these kinds of conversations since its founding.  In 1957 a group of anonymous donors asked for Harvard Divinity School 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.”

Their donation was used to build the Center, designed by then Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, José Luis Sert. Under the guidance and vision of CSWR directors Robert H. L. Slater, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, John B. Carman, Lawrence E. Sullivan, Donald Swearer, and Francis X. Clooney, the Center has become a prestigious academic resource for the study of religion, bringing scholars and religious leaders from around the world to Harvard each year to teach, learn, and live in community with one another.

The CSWR has been working to mediate standoffs in the field of religion for over 50 years by offering funding and space for conferences, lectures, and workshops. The Center is also unique in that it has 13 apartments for master's students, independent post-doctoral researchers, and senior faculty.

Residency is a competitive process, not only because of the location, but also because the CSWR is an intentional community. Residents from a diverse range of faiths, cultures, generations, and academic interests share meals and common spaces. They also attend and lead discussions on their academic research and their religious lives. The Center believes that what the residents learn from their personal relationships with each other is a model of a holistic approach to the study of religion.

Master of divinity candidate Leslie Hubbard has been a resident at the Center for the past two years. A Buddhist nun who has been living in Buddhist communities in France and the United States for years, Hubbard was eager to find a place to live where she would feel like part of a community. 

“I love how the CSWR is physically designed,” says Hubbard. For her, residential life at the CSWR has opened up more possibilities for conversation with people who are living and studying other religious traditions.

“I love that you walk out your door and you can see everyone else's apartments. We all have busy lives, so I love running into people when I am locking up my bike or doing my laundry.”

Last year Hubbard was one of the CSWR Junior Fellows. The Junior Fellows program is offered to student residents who are interested in designing and hosting a year-long event series at the Center. Hubbard's series, “Beyond words: Intersections of words and visual arts across religious and cultural boundaries” combined her Buddhist studies with her love of dance and music.

A University-wide resource

These interdisciplinary programs are well-attended by HDS students, but because the Center is tucked away at the edge of the Harvard campus, few undergraduates find their way to the CSWR. Monius, Hubbard, and other members of the CSWR community hope that in pursuing the goals set by the “Studying Religion Across the Disciplines” conference, the CSWR will receive residency applications from students who are studying religion in other areas of Harvard.

“I would love to see more undergraduates and graduate students, faculty, and staff from other schools at Harvard in the CSWR,” says Hubbard.

Monius first discovered the CSWR when she was an undergraduate in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. 

“I first came through the Center doors when I was 20 years old. There was a visiting professor here teaching a class on Hinduism and he invited us to his apartment in the Center. That was the beginning of a long series of events that I attended here as an undergrad.”

Her interest in South Asian religions grew into a passion, and Monius applied to HDS. The summer before she began her master of divinity degree program, Monius took a class at the CSWR.

“The then director John Carmen had a summer course in the South Indian language Tamil. The class was in the third floor space, which was the library then. That had to be the best class I have ever had in my life.”

Experiences like this have shaped Monius's commitment to the CSWR. Today, the space on the third floor is closed off and awaiting sorely needed renovations. Other spaces have already been renovated to make space for prayer and meditation rooms, faculty offices, and common spaces for events. 

Monius and her colleagues anticipate that the Center could be a vital resource for developing conversations on how to find understandings of religion and religious traditions across the humanities and the sciences.

“I think the big standoff now is not between Buddhists and Hindus. It's between people who study religion from a humanities perspective and those who are studying it in social science and science departments,” says Monius.

The “Studying Religion Across the Disciplines” conference highlighted the CSWR's unique role as a gathering place for everyone, from scientists to theologians, to sit at the same table and learn about religion and religious life together.

—by Erica Long