The CSWR Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

May 4, 2017
Professor Francis X. Clooney, S.J.
HDS professor Frank Clooney / Photo: Mike Naughton

Matthew Weinstein, a second-year master of divinity degree candidate, spoke to Professor Clooney, one of the world’s leading experts on comparative theology, about his tenure as director of the Center and the role it has had and can have within Harvard and the wider world. For comparison’s sake, you can find here the lecture Professor Clooney gave on October 20, 2010, outlining his plans and hopes for the Center.

Matthew Weinstein: It’s sort of amazing to me, this conversation, because we are among the firsts of our kinds to be having it here at Harvard. A Jewish student who studies Buddhism interviewing a Jesuit priest who studies Hinduism definitely wouldn’t have been possible at the School’s founding. I’m wondering if how the School has developed would actually surprise the students and faculty of the past, or if the current diversity was foreshadowed prior in the School’s history?

Francis Clooney: There is much about the Center today that might surprise visitors from the past, but not the fact of interest in the world’s many religions. Once you go looking for it, you find the signs, since scholars here have for a very long time been thinking about the religions of the world.

Just recently, for example, someone told me about C.H. Toy, a Harvard professor who did serious work on the history of religions and comparative religion at the beginning of the twentieth century. Toy’s work was not directly related to the founding of the Center for the Study of World Religions, but it does remind us that when the Center was founded in 1960 it wasn’t a creation out of nothing. The seeds of anything new were premised on all kinds of partial steps and possibilities that were latent here already. To say that the School was monolithically Protestant Christian, and then suddenly opened up, wouldn’t be accurate.

MW: Nor would that be an accurate depiction of what’s going on here now. It’s not as though everyone was once a Protestant and now there aren’t any Protestants here at all.

FC: Excellent observation. Just as the School wasn’t monolithic then, neither is it monolithically pluralistic today. HDS is a place of great variety that still welcomes people who are not beyond or above religious traditions, but still practice particular traditions to which they’re committed. This is true not just of Christians, but across the diverse religious traditions represented at the School today: students and scholars, analysts and practitioners, skeptics and seekers—still wanting to belong, even if in their own way.          

I am glad that commitment is still respected, since connectedness to living traditions is extremely important even for the sake of understanding religions. The Center was founded in part because of a belief that religious scholars need to be in contact with people who actually live out religion.

In 1960, it was still the case that if you really wanted to study Hinduism, you needed go to India. If you wanted to study Buddhism, you needed to go somewhere in Asia. The impetus behind the founding of the Center was to invert this paradigm, as it were, by bringing the world to Harvard Divinity School. The study of religions would be populated by Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and Jews, not only by scholars who cultivate critical neutrality and observe from afar.

As a residential community, the Center was founded to welcome people from other parts of the world to share the Center’s spaces with Americans from various parts of the country. All were invited to live here together so that they could study each other’s religions while living in a community grounded in friendships, as individuals and as couples and families.


Clooney and CSWR residents
Professor Clooney with CSWR residents. / Photo: Kris Snibbe

MW: The project that began here at the Center almost 60 years ago may not have come from nothing, but it does seem to have been something rather unprecedented. This must have been rich and insightful, but I imagine it was challenging, too?

FC: Oh yes, challenges were here right from the beginning of the Center. Its founding was not without dissent; there were debates about if Harvard should even accept the founding gift, or if the Divinity School was the appropriate place for such a venture. At that time, the School was experiencing something of a revival, and not everyone accepted that the study of other religions was appropriate at a progressive Protestant school. Some senior faculty seem to have been very cautious indeed about this new direction.

But the times were changing, and not just in this instance. It is important to recognize that this tension between tradition and the new and unprecedented was present beyond the Center and the Divinity School. Harvard University and universities across the nation were finally beginning to imagine hiring women professors, and to welcome African-Americans and people of other previously excluded identities onto the faculty.

In the same years the Center’s founding was debated, there was the proposal to have a chair of Catholic thought, and some faculty similarly felt hesitant about a Catholic at the Divinity School, since such a professor would have a role in approving people for ordination in Protestant churches. HDS was still deeply Christian, but this was a Christianity that was only beginning to take into account the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. So it is not surprising that there were doubts about whether a Christian institution, even a progressive one, could really make room for the Muslim and the Buddhist and the Hindu, or even for integrating the study of other religions into seminary and university education. This was in a way simply another instance of breaking down walls and widening the community.

The debate about what the Center should be is not finished in our time either. A recurring broad question asks whether the culture and focus of the Center should be more like that of the Divinity School or that of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. This is an important question. Certainly, most of us agree that religion can and should be studied in different ways across Harvard. In some parts of the university this study occurs in a more historical and largely philological fashion, without much attention to the implications for the life and practice of those who wrote and lived the great texts, or of the professors and students who study them. In certain academic circles, there is great ambivalence about having insiders to traditions teaching the traditions, because that could introduce bias into the study of religion—though secular bias seems just as likely a source of distortion. It is fitting that at the Divinity School, there has to be—and largely is—openness to practice and respect for the views of insiders.

Perhaps the Center should be a bridge between two approaches, between “the inside” and “the outside” of traditions. I agree that the Center should be a place where religions are studied in a serious, academic fashion, but also in a community that welcomes believers and practitioners into a manner of study that challenges but never disrespects anybody’s faith tradition, its truths, and its values. This balance has worked at the Center in much of its history, and will work in years to come, if we want it to work.

MW: There were hints and clues a hundred years ago that the School would look the way it does today. Have you found any clues as to what the Center might look like in another century? What might that tell us about the future of religion more broadly?

FC: I can’t predict that future, of course, but I can envision some possibilities. As long as there is a Divinity School, there should be a Center, and both should reflect, energize, and unsettle one another. Each will keep finding its way, balancing the many values and concerns we need to care about. This is where the director’s role becomes important.

In keeping with the issues arising in their eras, directors fine-tune the intellectual-spiritual, theoretical-practical balance. Depending on any given director, there will be more or less emphasis on community or academics, study or practice—just as happened in the past.

Robert Slater convened the Center community in its very first days at the University, setting precedents we still honor. When Wilfred Cantwell Smith became the second director in the mid-1960s, he closed the meditation room on the third floor in order to make room for a library and a seminar room. He was not against prayer or meditation, but he thought that a library and a seminar room were necessary and important for what was being done here at the time.

When I became director, one of the first things I did was to turn the director’s office into a meditation room, since I thought that the Center needed such a space more than I needed a second office. John Carman, the third director, was brilliant in building a community of scholars and students wherein friendships and conversations were prized, even as excellent academic work was being done. Lawrence Sullivan, Carman’s successor, aimed to foster the Center’s role as a leading participant in the academic study of religion at Harvard and globally. My predecessor, Donald Swearer, drew the Center back into the life of the Divinity School, even as he also convened thematic conversations across the disciplines and of global import. I then pulled back a bit more, believing that currents of continuity would emerge simply as we listened to one another. And so on.

But no matter what directors intend and plan, things continue to shift anyway, as society and politics, economics and culture, change how we are religious. Today we can see at the Divinity School and at the Center the emergence of new ways of being religious that may seem to take traditions apart, but at the same time bring them to life again, differently. Even belonging to a tradition isn’t the same as it was just a few years ago; people of younger generations are reinventing faith and commitment, practice and study.

Students like yourself had no choice but to grow up in this kind of environment, to study and belong to religions in new ways. Eventually your generation will become the active shapers of religion in the twenty-first century. For your sake, the Center will need to change yet again in order to reflect different ways of thinking about and practicing religions, yet without ignoring the traditions that flourish even today.


Clooney CSWR reception
Professor Clooney was recognized for his leadership during a reception on May 3. / Photo: Michael Naughton

MW: Might we call this something like a sense of religious cosmopolitanism? I mean this in the sense that this new religious reality contains within it many different religious perspectives and viewpoints, without omitting the differences among religions.

FC: Yes indeed. We must try hard to make this new reality mature and integral. In fact, being able to see and value difference, even while welcoming similarities, makes for excellent scholarship. I think many attentive, sensible people in religious traditions or outside religious traditions, in so many places, are very aware of this need and the possibilities that arise. Examples can be found everywhere. Boston College, where I taught for many years, is a deeply Catholic and Jesuit university, and there is also remarkable diversity on campus, and a growing comfort with the idea that being Catholic does not mean silencing other voices or learning only from Catholics, or even being Catholic in just one right way. One does not need to come to Harvard to learn in a religiously diverse environment.

What is distinctive about Harvard Divinity School, like everything else at Harvard, is the amazing set of resources available to us. What we find in other institutions, we often find in superabundance here. There are more opportunities, an incredible range of professors and students with truly diverse and surprising backgrounds, and a staff impressively skilled in engaging that diversity. As we traverse our new religious landscape, wisdom is abundant, too, as each tradition is taught and researched and lived in so many ways on campus. There is, though, the risk that things can get mixed up here. Diversity and abundance are privileges, but they also require of us to be especially aware, to center, and focus.

There will of course always be a danger of engaging and fostering changes in religion in a reductionistic way. For example, we ought not to give the impression that what we believe personally doesn’t have a place in the classroom, even if some of us will be more conservative or radical than others. We have to be careful not to deny the importance of differences. We need to resist a lazy liberalism that would argue that all the religions are basically the same. We need to resist thinking that what’s interesting about religions is only their past or only the present moment. We need to listen not just to the loudest voices, but to the still and quiet voices, too. Our community needs to be continually self-correcting.

Perhaps it is for this reason that I’ve realized that the “center” of the Center is a kind of centering practice. Today we run the risk of being ever more distracted and hyper-active. Harvard has major obstacles to face—it can be too busy, too frantic, everyone running somewhere else, but rarely managing to be here. The last thing we need at Harvard is to have yet one more lecture, yet one more visitor from elsewhere, one more conference, particularly if we are already too frazzled even to learn from the treasures already in our midst. What we sorely need then is a centering of mind and heart that allows diverse people to learn from and with each other. Let the Center, I decided years ago, be a crossroads, where we double and triple the value of what we do by sitting at the table together, sharing a meal, and sharing our experience and learning together.

Resources for this deeply intellectual and deeply religious conversation can come from many perspectives, since each tradition teaches us about the necessity of intellectual and contemplative practices that will help us not to be distracted about what happens to happen today. Centering means calming our busy minds, stripping away the unnecessary and frivolous, and learning to be single-minded and single-hearted so as to liberate our minds for greater things. We are not all going to become monastics, surely, but I do hope that places like the Center continue to help us to gather quietly, to think and talk and pray together more frequently, discovering communities deeper and larger than the work we do. The Divinity School can be a wonderful reminder of the value of contemplation on the Harvard campus, and the Center can be kind of a conscience for the School, reminding us to do exactly that: center.

MW: What’s your hope for the Center in the next few years?

FC: In 2020, the Center will be 60 years old. How will it rejuvenate itself within a 200-year-old divinity school that needs to keep rejuvenating itself within a university that needs to keep asking how to foster rather than marginalize the humanities due to a naïve overconfidence in technology, the sciences, and “fast learning”? We need to be asking what role the humanities have to play in an American society that is now in crisis, showing how diversity is a benefit rather than a threat, and how respecting diversity nevertheless brings us back together again.

Our best hope is that individually, and in the classroom, and in our ongoing conversations with each other, at the Center and elsewhere, we keep creating instances of an agile new learning, respectable in its rigor, yet always deeply human and therefore deeply spiritual. I am confident that my very able successor, Charles Stang, will continue the great tradition of the Center, and help us to find our way to that 60th anniversary and the opportunities and challenges it will present. And thank you, Matt, for this interview!