Reclaiming Harvard's Divinity

June 2, 2015
Melissa Bartholomew
Student speaker Melissa Bartholomew, MDiv '15 / Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Melissa Bartholomew, MDiv '15, was selected by her student colleagues as the class speaker for HDS Commencement 2015. The following remarks were delivered by Bartholomew at the Diploma Awarding Ceremony on May 28.

Like many of you, throughout my time here, I have had to answer some variation of the following question: What do you all do at Harvard Divinity School? Is it a seminary? Are you all preparing to become ministers? What are you going to do with a degree from divinity school?

Now, these are all fair questions. And they are probably questions that some of our family and friends here today are contemplating right now. But I'm pretty sure that students at Harvard Law school, or the Business School, or the Kennedy School do not have to answer these questions. Because of the names of their schools, people are clear about what they will do. Students at the Law School are studying law and preparing to become lawyers.

But what about us at Harvard Divinity School? What have we been studying? What have we been preparing to do? Why is it so difficult for people to grasp hold of what we are about?

I'm sure many of you have offered responses similar to mine. HDS is not a seminary. It is a place where you can engage in the academic study of religion and also prepare for non-academic ministry service, such as in faith communities or non-profit organizations. That response usually puts people at ease. But, is it enough? I don't think so. I don't think it adequately describes the full extent of the work we do here and what makes this learning community so unique. Well, here is how I would describe who we are and what we do.

We are a non-sectarian divinity school that welcomes people from all faith traditions, as well as people who do not claim a faith tradition or belief in God. The word divinity refers to the divine, which is traditionally a religious term referencing God. So, what does this mean for those in our community who do not believe in God? How are we able to create a space for people with diverse ways of knowing and being in the world that allows them to engage in rigorous academic study of religion while wrestling with sacred texts from various traditions, and participating in field education experiences?

How are we able to do that? Well, I contend that we do this by expanding the notion of divinity. My friends, here is what I believe our divinity looks like.

There is a scene in Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple that I believe helps illustrate this point. It's a scene in which Shug Avery and Miss Celie are talking about God. Shug is explaining to Miss Celie how she arrived at a new concept of the divine.

She said her first step "was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people." She explained, "But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being a part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed."  

Shug Avery's theology helps to describe our way of being here at the Divinity School. Our divinity is revealed through our connectedness to each other. When you come to Harvard Divinity School, you come with the intention of stepping outside of your comfort zone and connecting with people from diverse religious traditions, and with those who do not claim a particular faith. While remaining rooted in our own particularity, we are open to exploring the religions and ideologies of others. When you come, you commit to a way of being that creates an openness for these connections in order to feel like you are a part of everything.

We're not perfect, but our way of being is to be intentional about establishing connections with each other across religious divides. And it is in our imperfections that we find our common humanity. Our divinity is alive through our common humanity.

When I first arrived at HDS, I was greeted with radical hospitality and a generosity of spirit. I was welcomed to be who I am, who I was created to be, and believe what I wanted to believe.

There is a sense of freedom that emerges in this place—a belief that anything is possible—because I have connected to people who see me, and they have been willing to interact with me on a deeper level. Together, we are able to engage in a generous, open way that creates a holy space.

It is a space where I can be a Christian preparing for Christian ministry and study Buddhist ethics alongside a Buddhist nun and Buddhist monks, or take a Christian-centered preaching class alongside a Humanist.

My friends along this journey have been Christian, Unitarian Universalist, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Atheist, Hindu, and Humanist. We have participated in the work of discovery together—inside and outside of the classroom. We have developed the ability to be at the table of difference together, listening to each others' perspectives, and inviting others in to consider our own, with humility and grace.

Our training here helps to cultivate open hearts and open minds. We are learning to transform our way of being in the world. As a Christian Minister, I have learned how to lead non-religious healing spaces by opening with silence and words of affirmation that create space for everyone. I have been transformed in these places, which have redefined what holy is for me.

I came to HDS because I wanted to develop the capacity to create a multifaith paradigm for racial reconciliation and healing through forgiveness that connects people of all faiths, and those who do not claim any faith tradition. My training here has equipped me for this work.

Our openness and willingness to meet people where they are, and to engage across theological and ideological differences with grace and humility, is the work of love. This is what our divinity looks like. And this is the disposition we must take into the world to address society's complex, pressing moral problems, including religious intolerance, racism, gender inequality, LGBTQ inequality, and our climate crisis. This involves the work of justice, and integral to justice, is the work of love.

Christian theologian Paul Tillich said: “the creative element in justice is love.”  And I contend that love heals the wounds that create a sense of separateness that shields us from the truth of our interconnectedness. At the root of all of these social dilemmas is our disconnectedness from each other and from all of creation.

This disconnectedness leads to the ongoing killing of unarmed black and brown people by police in this country; it causes us to treat thousands of brown children who cross the U.S.-Mexico border into our country—those escaping violence and seeking refuge—like criminals instead of refugees. This disconnectedness fuels the increase in anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish hate crimes in this country and across the world. This disconnectedness keeps us from bleeding when the trees are cut down. And we no longer feel what Shug Avery described to Miss Celie—that we are a part of everything.

Our way of being here, where we engage in theological discovery and other pursuits while trying to keep our hearts and minds open, helps to ensure that any work that we pursue, whether it is in traditional ministry, the academy, social justice, interfaith work, or climate activism, will be grounded in a sense of justice that is translated into a commitment to remaining in right relationship with each other and with all of creation. This is what our divinity looks like.

It fuels the work of love that breaks down the walls between us. It reflects the South African ethic of Ubuntu, which is the belief that my humanity is completely tied to your humanity. We cannot flourish in our humanity unless we acknowledge the full humanity of others. This is the way of being that we embody here, and one that we must carry out into the world, in whatever place we inhabit, and in whatever work we do.

This has been a year replete with social challenges that remind us of our need to transform systems of oppression that are literally killing us. Our climate crisis, illustrated by the severe drought in California, is an example of a more gradual death, but only in comparison to the striking number of deaths of black and brown people killed by police brought to prominence in the last 12 months.

When people hear that we are from the Divinity School, they expect us to approach these challenges in a different way. At the end of last semester, many of us marched together with other students in the March on Harvard rally and demonstration in support of racial justice and police reform. This was following the non-indictments of the police officers involved in the killings of two unarmed African Americans—Michael Brown, the teenager from Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner, the father killed in Staten Island, New York.

It was a march that involved Harvard students from the college and from the various graduate schools across campus. As we marched, some of us from the Divinity School held signs that said, "Hands up, Hearts Open!" "Hands up, Hearts Open!" It was our version of the popular chant, "Hands Up, Don't Shoot!"

We know that an open heart is the site for sustainable personal, political, and societal transformation. And we know that love keeps our hearts and minds open, ensuring that any form of justice we pursue will be restorative and transformative for all.

The work of love is the work of transforming hearts and minds together, and it ensures that we do not lose sight of the truth that Shug Avery knew so well—that we are all connected to each other and that nothing separates us. This is a truth that I now embody more fully because of all of you. This is what our divinity looks like.

—Melissa W. Bartholomew, MDiv '15