To Better Serve Our World

Dean David N. HemptonOn its 200th anniversary, Harvard Divinity School rests on a firm foundation— thanks largely to the leadership of its Dean, David N. Hempton. Since taking office in 2012, Hempton has helped lead the effort to restructure the University’s Committee on the Study of Religion, merged HDS’s doctoral program with that of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), and persuaded members of the Faculty of Divinity to devote a quarter of their teaching time to undergraduate education. In line with his vision for the School, Hempton has also tried to make HDS a leader in the study of religion at Harvard by encouraging cross-faculty initiatives with Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School as well as FAS. He’s presided over the hiring of three new full professors and the promotion of six more, reinvigorating research, teaching, and scholarship at the School. Finally, Hempton has been the public face of the Campaign for HDS, which has so far raised over $30M for teaching, research, and student support.

On the cusp of HDS’s third century, Dean Hempton shared his thoughts on the School’s proud past, its standing today, and the challenges and opportunities of the future.

HDS Communications: Harvard University was founded “to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.” Can you talk about the role played by the study of religion in general—and divinity in particular— in the founding of Harvard and in the University’s first 180 years before the establishment of the Divinity School?

Dean Hempton: Harvard College emerged from the model of medieval and early modern universities, suitably remade for Puritan reformers. Religion was a primary element of the curriculum in all areas: moral philosophy, theology, Christian doctrine, training of religious leaders—all of these things were central. But I think there’s something special about the Puritan tradition. The idea of “godly ministry”—with its attention to scripture and to serious study and to proper spiritual formation—really came out of criticism, both warranted and unwarranted, of established churches and their alleged intellectual shortcomings and pastoral mediocrity.

So, it’s not surprising that the first hundred and fifty years of Harvard College—from its presidents through its faculty, students, libraries, and pedagogical aspirations—were really directed toward fields that had been a big part of the Puritan tradition. The study of divinity was at the center of a curriculum that was supposed to prepare students for all aspects of life.

This kind of pedagogy was an artifact of the Puritan frame of mind. The idea was that all knowledge began with conceptions of God and divine revelation. If you look at those great books of divinity that were written by the seventeenth-century Puritan divines wherever they showed up—especially in the more reformed capitals of Scotland, the Netherlands, and New England—the idea is that all we study is a reflection of the divine character. That’s the foundation point. So you start off from there and then look at the natural world and other aspects of human life.

FAS Dean Michael Smith, Dean Hempton, and President Faust
FAS Dean Michael Smith, Dean Hempton, and President Faust


HDS Communications: Fast forward to 1816. Universities like Harvard are beginning to establish separate divinity schools. What changed?

Dean Hempton: Harvard Divinity School’s founding is part of the move among Western universities toward the “Enlightenment project.” There’s an element of separation, an element of specialization, and an element of professionalization. At Harvard, I think these were represented by the fact that the Divinity School was situated at the edge of campus. I think it was a serious attempt to improve the training of religious leaders and ministers, but also a convenient way of allowing the University to separate out vocational religious preparation from the wider university curriculum.

I think the path of higher education during the late eighteenth century and going into the nineteenth century resulted in an immense and useful base of new knowledge, but the separation of vocational training from other aspects of knowledge has made it more difficult to think of solutions to problems in a holistic way. We tend to come at them from our own particular vantage points. We see the legacy of that now, as President Faust talks about facing up to the complexity of modern problems and our inability to solve them within a single discipline or even single school. So, I think one of the challenges facing universities like Harvard going forward is how to make that enterprise more whole again.

HDS Communications: Although HDS was founded as a nonsectarian divinity school, its faculty and students were overwhelmingly Unitarian. They were also all male and all white. Today, the HDS faculty includes 2 or 3 scholars in each of the world’s major religious traditions. Our student body is mostly female and represents around 30 different faiths and denominations. How did we get from there to here?

Dean Hempton: What’s striking about the School is just how the original opening of “nonsectarian, nondenominational” began to broaden out. It was very slow at first. We began to embrace Catholics, and then move beyond Christians to Jews, and then beyond that to other global religious traditions. At the same time, there has been an increasing diversity of race, ethnicity, and gender. That has been true of our students and our faculty.

This isn’t a triumphalist narrative. There were bumps in the road. There was also resistance and limitation. I remember when I first came to HDS, I looked at some of the photographs of our faculty in the 1960s. We were still essentially a white male faculty club. But I think the process of opening out to diversity and inclusion has gathered speed over the past 50 years, so that now we’re at the very top end of Harvard’s graduate schools in terms of gender and racial diversity.

This is really the story that Professor Ann Braude and her research associates tell brilliantly in the School’s bicentennial exhibit, “Faces of Divinity.” It traces the history of HDS, from our founding as a nonsectarian, nondenominational school, through its evolution in the liberal progressive tradition and beyond to other religious traditions. I encourage everyone in the School’s community to come and check it out. It is both an aesthetic and a learning experience.

Dean Hempton with Members of the HDS Racial Justice and Healing Initiative
Dean Hempton with Members of the HDS Racial Justice and Healing Initiative


HDS Communications: Fifty years isn’t a long time for changes as dramatic as the ones you describe. You mentioned “bumps in the road.” What challenges accompany the School’s evolution?

Dean Hempton: One of the things that the School has struggled with is how to embrace its roots in liberal Protestantism, while being open to new people and new traditions. What happens when our interest in diversity and inclusion don’t match up with our interest in the progressive tradition? How comfortable are our faculty and students with people from conservative traditions—whether they’re evangelicals, Catholics, Muslims, or Jews? You can argue that this aspect of diversity is the one with which the School has struggled most. In a sense, the DNA of the School’s intellectual content goes against it.

I think the vital thing at HDS is not where one comes from, necessarily, but the willingness to engage with the other. If you’re so locked into a tradition that you don’t much care about other traditions or other perspectives, Harvard Divinity School is probably not the place for you. It can nevertheless be a challenging and fulfilling place for people with strong convictions that are outside of the historic, liberal progressive trajectory of the School, but they have to be willing to engage with everyone else.

Generally, our students are characterized by curiosity and willingness to engage, a willingness to think and to examine their own presuppositions, as well as engaging with other people’s presuppositions, to see which of them hold water, and which need to be revised and reconsidered. It’s not our job to weaken people’s religious or ideological convictions. It’s our job to engage in open discussion and to interrogate our own presuppositions in the same way that we interrogate those of others.

HDS Communications: The other big shift at HDS in the past couple of generations has to do with the emergence of the academic study of religion. How did a school created to train liberal Protestant ministers become a leader in the kind of critical scholarship that usually takes place at a top-flight faculty of arts and sciences?

Dean Hempton: I think there are a number of factors. One was the formation of the Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR) in 1958, which was one of the first places to think about religion globally and in terms of multiple traditions, as both insiders and outsiders. That was a big impetus for change. A second factor was the formation of the Committee on the Study of Religion. We don’t have a religion department at Harvard, so the Divinity School has always been integrated with the teaching of religion, particularly at the undergraduate level, outside the professionalization of ministry. A third is just the rise of globalism—the ever-growing sense that, with faster communications of every kind, we are living as a global family. That family has many different religious traditions that we need to know about.

In terms of how the shift in focus has changed the School, we now think of our students in terms of three tracks, broadly defined. One is the master of divinity, which still has an emphasis on the ministry track. The master of theological studies tends to attract people on a second track—those who want to prepare for an academic career in the teaching and study of religion. More and more, though, HDS attracts students on a third track of leadership in areas where ethical knowledge or religious knowledge is vital to the career that they’re pursuing—whether that’s leadership in NGOs, international relations, global health, journalism, or even business.

Preston N. Williams and Dean Hempton
Preston N. Williams and Dean Hempton


HDS Communications: Why does the School have this kind of model? What’s so valuable about our “hybrid” mission?

Dean Hempton: Ironically, I think biological metaphors can be helpful in understanding what we do at HDS. There’s a certain kind of hybridity that produces sterility, an animal that can’t reproduce or a floral system that can’t. Certain kinds of hybridity produce the opposite. They produce a whole new ecosystem of creativity.

That’s the way I like to think about our professional and academic leadership training and how we balance them. They produce new kinds of questions and new kinds of engagement. I think this is what makes HDS so special. What we have here is an ecological system for the training of leaders that is tremendously generative.

HDS Communications: It also sounds like a system that’s pretty complex. What are some of the challenges of leading a school with this sort of mission?

Dean Hempton: One big issue for me as dean is how to move in new directions while retaining our traditional strengths. So, on the one hand, the recent promotion of Professor Mayra Rivera is important for us in terms of conceiving of religion and theological study from a Latina perspective, while Ahmed Ragab has brought new perspectives from Islamic traditions on the history of science and medicine. These are new. At the same time, we’ve recently hired a New Testament professor, a Hebrew Bible professor, and we’ve hired and promoted professors in American religious history. Those are areas where we’ve historically been strong. Of course, even in a field like American religious history we’re trying to move beyond the Puritan New England track and teach more about new religious movements, about American Catholic history, about our borderlands history and the West. The challenge for our school is to do this well and in ways that build out from our tradition without superseding it. We want our intellectual engagement to evolve and also to spread out to other parts of Harvard and other areas of study. How does religion shape business, peacebuilding, public health, and other professions? What do journalists, or educators, or diplomats need to know about religion in order to serve our world better?

One of our great problems as a research university is the lack of preparation we give people who will have to deal with the 84 percent of the world who regard religion as a primary organizing principle of their lives. That makes me nervous. I would hate to see a future where the West, with its ever-greater proportion of people unaffiliated with any religious tradition, does not take seriously an important component of the lives of people in other parts of the world. I think that’s a recipe for disaster. We have already seen some of the negative consequences in our approach to world affairs.

HDS Communications: That brings up a topic that’s near and dear to you: religious literacy. When people hear that term, they often think about the basic nuts and bolts of a tradition. We do it differently here. Can you speak to that a little bit? What do we really mean when we talk about religious literacy at HDS?

Dean Hempton: I’m a historian. You can’t really do much history without knowing some facts about dates and so on, but any history that stops there is just useless. What’s really important is interpretation and analysis. It’s somewhat the same with religion. You do need to know the facts, but religious literacy is really about a much deeper, wider, richer engagement with living traditions. It’s a serious treatment of text and of knowledge, but also of all the ways in which religion is enacted: rituals, beliefs, practices, values and structures, relationships with outsiders, and a thousand other things. We’re not just teaching the algebra of religion; we’re teaching something more dynamic and culturally sophisticated. HDS has particular strengths in what we like to call “lived religion,” and religious literacy has to embrace that living complexity. We also want to rediscover some of religion’s traditions of peaceful coexistence and conflict resolution.

HDS Communications: As you look to the future, where would you like to see HDS in five or ten years?

Dean Hempton: If I could wave a magic wand, I’d produce an environmentally friendly campus that was fully up to our aspirations to be a major convening space, so that we can really make the difference we know we can make in the world. Look at the people we’ve drawn to campus in recent years: Toni Morrison, Jimmy Carter, the Karmapa, and the Sultan of Sokoto. Look at the conversations we’ve hosted on the ways religion shapes peace and security, global health, the arts, human rights, and nearly every other topic of intellectual inquiry. So often we have to hold these events off campus because we simply can’t accommodate them here. We have to curb our ambitions for teaching, learning, and public conversation because we don’t have the right spaces. There’s so much more we could do if we had the campus resources. I would also like to see more international students at HDS and to think of more creative ways we can educate people about global religious traditions without them having to enroll in lengthy degree programs. In other words, we are continually thinking of ways to expand our reach and influence within Harvard and the wider world.

HDS Communications: Okay, last question. You’ve joked to prospective students that in 2016–17, HDS will be a “party school” for the first—and perhaps only— time in its history. In all seriousness, what excites you most about the bicentennial celebration?

Dean Hempton: I’m excited about the whole year, really. We’ve already had an outstanding Convocation with President Faust and our speaker George Rupp, the former dean of HDS who went on to lead Rice and Columbia Universities as well as the International Rescue Committee. I’ve mentioned “Faces of Divinity,” our bicentennial exhibition. I think it’s going to be fantastic in helping answer some of the kinds of questions you’ve asked about the School and its history. I’m certainly looking forward to the gala celebration in April with Marilynne Robinson’s Ingersoll Lecture and a whole set of neighborhood and musical extravaganzas. I’m excited to get our alumni engaged again with the School in a deep way, and to read the special bicentennial edition of Harvard Divinity Bulletin, and to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Pluralism Project. There are so many things. This is a year of reflection, aspiration, and celebration.