Bringing Faiths Together

April 20, 2011
Bringing Faiths Together

At the CSWR 50th anniversary. Photo: Pat Westwater-Jong

In the middle of the Braun Room, closely surrounded by onlookers, Los­ang Samten stood over the colorful sand mandala, which he'd spent the bet­ter part of two days creating, and smiled while others swept it away. The creation, and subsequent ceremonial dismantling, of the mandala was part of the events that took place at Harvard Divinity School April 15–16 to honor the Center for Study of World Religion's golden anniversary.

Participants in the two-day symposium considered the future of the study of reli­gion, while celebrating the CSWR's key role in shaping the University's work in world religious traditions and spiritual­ity. The events were focused on the Cen­ter's relationship and contributions over the next 50 years to HDS, Harvard, and beyond.

In many ways, however, the Center's past is just as intriguing as its present and future. The CSWR was established by a financial gift in 1957 from a group of anonymous donors to promote the study of world religions at Harvard. Construc­tion on the building, designed by Jose Luis Sert, then Dean of the Graduate School of Design, was completed in the summer of 1960. Sert's intent was to construct a building with international appeal, or "East meets West," as described at the Center's inaugural reception on November 21, 1960.

Over the next three decades, as HDS and the University began hiring more faculty in world religions—and the HDS curriculum opened wider to the study of world religions—the CSWR continued to play a key role in housing major research initiatives, hosting symposiums and con­ferences across disciplines, and promot­ing the understanding and study of the religions of the world.

"The Center is an evolving entity that, like our various faith traditions, has changed over time, adapting itself to new possibilities and needs," said Francis X. Clooney, S.J., Parkman Professor of Divin­ity and Professor of Comparative Theol­ogy, who will take over as the new CSWR director in July 2010.

Much of the success and importance the CSWR has achieved is a result of the ambition and energies of its directors. A "catalyst of activity," as Clooney explained, "each director has brought his own gifts appropriate for the time."

Robert H. L. Slater, Harvard's first professor of world religions, was also the Center's first director (196064). Wilfred Cantwell Smith led the Center from 1964 to 1973 and placed a strong importance on expanding the teaching of world reli­gions at the University to every degree level. John B. Carman was, like the first two directors, a former missionary. Car­man was also the longest-serving director (197389) and sought even greater diver­sity in the Center's offerings, especially in the areas of African religions. Under Lawrence Sullivan, director from 1990 to 2003, the CSWR put new emphasis on interdisciplinary research and fellowships. Diana Eck, Professor of Comparative Reli­gion and Indian Studies in FAS, served as interim director in 200304 before cur­rent director Donald K. Swearer answered Dean William A. Graham's (literal) call asking him to postpone retirement (he had just ended a long teaching career at Swarthmore College) and take over the leadership of the Center.

"Don has nurtured the vision that the CSWR is a true center, a calm space of centering where the many strands of research, teaching, and conversation at HDS and around the University come together," said Clooney.

Under Swearer, who is retiring from HDS at the end of the spring 2010 semes­ter, the Center has expanded its visibility around the University, supported faculty research through grants and with senior visiting fellowships, and hosted a yearly thematic series as well as the World Reli­gions Café, an informal discussion on Wednesday evenings that brings together residents of the Center for conversation on works in progress.

Former director Robert Slater felt that it was important that learning take place in a residential context, and this ideal has played a tremendous role in giving the Center its unique place at Harvard: it is a center of learning and scholarship, but also one of residence and community.

"At its best, the Center as a residential community is an intellectual village," said Justin Ritzinger, PhD candidate at Harvard and resident at the Center from 2003 to 2007. "It provides a unique opportunity for face-to-face exchange over an extended period of time. Per­haps to a greater degree than anywhere at Harvard, the Cen­ter treats its residents as whole people, not merely as scholars, but also as friends, as neigh­bors, as parents, as spouses."

Since its founding, hun­dreds of faculty fellows, visit­ing professors, and graduate students have formed ties with the Center. During a panel discussion on April 16, former resident Diane Obenchain, who now teaches religion at Calvin College, stated that though she left the Center, the Center has never left her.

"What kind of engagement was this at the Center that stayed with us so long?" she asked. "Anyone who passed through the Center in the 1980s and the 1990s found his or her faith deepened and broad­ened in whatever tradition his or her faith was articulated and cultivated."

As the Center moves into a new phase of leadership, Clooney hopes to continue the work of those before him, expand facul­ty grant programs, and involve students more in the work of the CSWR. As he explained when he was appointed the next director: "The Center, within HDS and as part of the wider University, is very well positioned to recognize and foster some of the best initiatives by which students and faculty will engage the interreligious possi­bilities of our twenty-first century."

—by Jonathan Beasley