Beyond Nations, Beyond Continents, to a New World

April 11, 2017
Robert Slater
Founding CSWR director Robert Slater will be celebrated posthumously as a Peter J. Gomes STB ’68 Memorial Honoree.

Robert Lawson Slater had seen the world at its worst.

After serving as a medical orderly in World War I, Slater, a British Army chaplain, found himself caught in the middle of the Japanese invasion of Burma during World War II. After helping to evacuate women, children, and those most at risk of reprisal in the wake of the British retreat, Slater and his cohorts made the hazardous trek through the jungle toward India … during monsoon season.

There wasn’t much left of the man that arrived—barely 100 pounds. Yet even after the experience, Slater stood by a vision of peace, unity, and religious fellowship of which he had written a year before the war.

“I sometimes dream of a super university formed by … men who join hands, not because they hold their own faiths lightly, but because they hold them deeply—convinced Moslems, convinced Buddhists, convinced Christians, each loyal to his own tradition but anxious to understand others, deriving from his own religious convictions a charity which sees beyond nations, beyond continents to a New World. In such a way the religions of the world which harness the ideals of men may serve to advance that greater unity which is already in sight for mankind.”1

As a cleric, a scholar, and perhaps most of all, the first director of Harvard Divinity School’s Center for the Study of World Religions, Robert Lawson Slater devoted a good portion of his life to the realization of his internationalist vision of religious understanding. In recognition of this work—and of the way it has permeated the mission of HDS—the members of the School’s Alumni/Alumnae Council will celebrate Slater posthumously this April as a Peter J. Gomes STB ’68 Memorial Honoree.

“It was the whole world they were thinking of”

Slater’s son Peter Slater, PhD '64, an emeritus professor of Theology at Trinity College in the Toronto School of Theology, University of Toronto, says that his father's approach to the study of religion was characterized both by a personal pastoral concern for people and their vocations and by a global outlook.

“He was always, in his early days a chaplain—to Boy Scouts, to young men living in Newcastle-upon-Tyne where he grew up, and then to students at Rangoon University in Burma,” says Slater, a former teaching fellow in theology at HDS who will accept the award on behalf of his father, who died in 1984. “He always saw himself as a priest of the Anglican Church. And my mother, who was a medical missionary doctor, and father went to Burma, ended up in Canada, but were very English, so it was always the whole world that they were thinking of, not just parochial concerns.”

The CSWR was established in 1957 with a gift from a group of anonymous donors who wanted to promote the study of world religions at Harvard. They selected Robert Slater, a little-known professor at McGill University, precisely because he reflected both their global concerns and their belief in the importance of studying divinity and theology. It was also the reason that they selected HDS as the location for the new center.

“They—advised by HDS alumnus Kenneth Morgan—thought that having the position at the Divinity School, in particular, would be more influential for the future because clergymen go out and have parishes,” Peter Slater explains. “They were consciously trying to impact the divinity mindset.”

Thanks to the support of Harvard President Nathan M. Pusey, HDS was in the midst of a revival when Slater arrived in 1958. According to Peter Slater, Pusey, a devout Episcopalian, wanted HDS to be a bastion of “living religion,” not merely an ivory tower of scholarship.

Actively supported by (later Dean) Krister Stendahl, Robert Slater wasted little time in translating this vision—and his own—to the new center. To start with, he believed strongly that the CSWR had to include a residential component. He wanted people of different religious traditions to bring their families to campus and experience what it was like to live with one another. He also wanted to inspire dialogue not only between practitioners of different religions but also between practitioners and scholars.

“The idea was always to combine people who lived their faith in a center where they're resident with other people with different faiths and have them meet formally and informally,” Peter Slater says. “They were going to be as rigorous as Harvard ever is on academics, but they would be choosing people who were committed to their traditions and weren't just talking about them. The emphasis was on creating a living dialogue as contrasted with just historical research.”

“One in spirit and one in fellowship”

The CSWR’s model wasn’t just an experiment in innovation. It emerged from the recent experience of two world wars and a deep desire among both the donors and Slater to see how religion could contribute to global peace. In some ways, the new director wanted to extend to the world the pluralism he saw in the United States.

“My father thought that the American model of not having one established religion, but allowing all religions to be part of the public discourse, was a better model than, say, having one particular religion be the religion of Italy, or the religion of Sweden, or whatever,” Peter Slater explains. “Having it in America and making it global, denominational but inter-denominational, was part of the CSWR’s founding vision.”

Slater secured funds both to construct a new building for the center and to supplement the rents paid by residents. In the meantime, he acted as a kind of residential dean for the students and scholars who lived in a rented space in Cambridge. Those who did not understand the new multireligious community called it “Slater’s Zoo,” but for the 12 members representing Japan, Burma, Pakistan, Iran, and India, as well as the United States, it was an enlightening and even transcendent experience.

“One of my outstanding memories was to see Sadr Balaghi, a Muslim religious leader from Iran who visited with us for a period of time, walking to town with Rabindrabijay Sraman, a Theravada Buddhist monk from Chittagong, in then East Pakistan," wrote Alfred Bloom, a student proctor at the CSWR from 1959 to 1961. “Balaghi was in his black flowing robe and black turban and Sraman was in his saffron-yellow monk’s robe. They made a striking pair against the background of snow.”2

The new center was completed in the summer of 1960. Conceived by Jose Luis Sert, dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, the new building’s modernist look earned it the nickname “God’s Motel.” An address from Sarvepali Radhakrishnan, later president of India, during the CSWR’s formal dedication that fall, however, spoke to the center’s lofty purpose:

“It is my hope and prayer that in this Center for the Study of World Religions unbelief shall disappear and superstition shall not enslave the mind and all those who meet here shall recognize that they are brothers, one in spirit and one in fellowship.”3

Always a pastor

Robert Slater’s tenure at the CSWR, while eventful, was relatively short. Already in his 60s when he took the position, Slater had to be granted a special extension to work past the mandatory retirement age of 65 during his years as director. He stepped down in 1964, having established a firm foundation for the center that included funds for scholarships and visiting faculty. His final contribution was to help convince his old McGill University colleague Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who had initially recommended Slater for the director’s position, to be his successor.

“The two things he did at Harvard was really establish the idea of having contemporary scholars in dialogue, as well as the vision of divinity being relevant to part of our civilization,” Peter Slater says. “President Pusey said to him when he retired that the CSWR wouldn't have happened without my father because he had the skills to put it all together, and then he left soon enough to let Wilfred Smith take over.”

After he left Harvard, Slater moved to his home in Georgeville, southern Quebec, Canada where he served as a parish priest in the village church until his death in 1984.

“It's just who he was,” his son says. “He was always a pastor. He linked his academics with his sense of what the church was about. And for him what the church was about was understanding. And peace.”

by Paul Massari


1. Robert H. L. Slater, Guns Through Arcady: Burma and the Burma Road (Sydney and London: Angus and Robertson Ltd, 1941), p. 67.

2. Alfred Bloom, “Reflections on the Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School,” Sciences Religieuses/Studies in Religion 6/5 (1976-77): 497-98.

3. Sarvepali Radhakrishnan, Fellowship of the Spirit (Cambridge, Mass.: Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School, 1961), p. v.

Readers may find an example of Robert Lawson Slater’s approach in his public lectures for Wheaton College, Massachusetts, entitled Can Christians Learn from Other Religions? (Seabury: New York, 1963). The chapter topics are: 1) The Meeting of Believers; 2) How Much Truth Can Anyone Stand? The Song of the Lord; 3) How Much Truth Can Anyone Grasp? The Lotus of the Wonderful Law.