Why Religious Studies Matters

August 29, 2014
Laura Nasrallah

Laura Nasrallah gave the annual Convocation address. Photo: Jonathan Beasley

In her Harvard Divinity School Convocation address, HDS Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity Laura S. Nasrallah recalled her efforts studying a Greek mosaic and her pondering the sometimes obscurity of her work.

"I wondered: Was I a caricature of the academic, researching things that are no good at all for the world," she said. "How can I or we afford such work as we move about in a world where people die in Gaza and Israel, along the border in Syria, in the mountains of Sinjar, in the Ukraine, in West Africa, from war from poverty from disease, and in this country where children await their fates at the border, where black lives are devalued and white privilege ignored, now, as before."

The School held its 199th Convocation on August 28 as hundreds of incoming students, faculty dressed in academic robes, and other HDS community members gathered under a tent on the Andover Hall lawn and listened to Nasrallah deliver the keynote address, "The Matter of Religion and Theology."

"Many consider religion and theology as a matter of the mind or spirit, having little impact on the material world except for the violence that can emerge from religion," said Nasrallah.

To help counter this belief, Nasrallah asked two HDS students to share their experiences of how religion and religious studies are used to affect positive outcomes.

ThD candidate Tyler Schwaller, MDiv '10, spoke about his involvement this summer at a gathering of Iowa United Methodists, during which he took part in a debate over the church's inclusion or exclusion of LGBTQ persons.

"We have the opportunity here, in this place, to cultivate an ethos and practice, relevant even beyond these grounds, of considering and taking seriously how religion and religious experience matter in the multifarious ways they are brought into contact with and so transform and are transformed by all the complex stuff of the cosmos," he said.

Barbara Schreuer, MDiv candidate, works in a supported living community for people with disabilities. She recalled a night in which she sat with a profoundly disabled resident who could not fall asleep, and how the experience influenced her view on religious scholarship.

"Isn't it interesting that some of the words that we use for our academic work—uncover, push, explore, wrestle—these words remind us of the materiality of the stuff of our studies. These objects, these ideas, and these persons offer themselves for our consideration. Let us in return offer ourselves to the work and of examining and understanding studying them for their own sakes and for the sake of this dear, troubled, beautiful world that we inhabit," she said.

Nasrallah, who taught "Early Christianity: The Letters of Paul," the first online course offered by HDS through HarvardX, ended her talk by offering her own take on why religion matters.

"It matters because religion can manifest in violence and in generosity, in bullets sent out punitively in the cause of religious difference that can sink into human flesh that create material conditions of poverty, of injustice. It can manifest in the glittering eyes of mosaic cherubim and human hopes for the fullness of knowledge," she said. "In our theological and philosophical work in our study of religion, we can begin the real and material work of righting what is askew."

Dean David N. Hempton closed out the service by thanking Nasrallah and the students for highlighting the vision of the School to help increase religious literacy across the globe.

"Thank you especially for reminding us that the worlds of matter and spirit are not so easily divided up into conventional categories, that religion matters not just as a utilitarian discipline, and that we learn better about our own assumptions and limitations through our shared studies of community—always eager to ask difficult questions and listen respectfully to the answers of others," he said.

—by Michael Naughton