Stang Discusses the CSWR’s ‘Peculiar Alchemy’

January 16, 2018
Charles Stang, HDS professor and CSWR director

On July 1, Professor of Early Christian Thought Charles Stang became the seventh director of Harvard Divinity School’s Center for the Study of World Religions, succeeding Parkman Professor of Divinity Francis X. Clooney, S.J. A scholar of asceticism, monasticism, and mysticism in Eastern Christianity, Stang recently discussed his vision for the CSWR, which in 2018 will celebrate the 60th anniversary of its founding.

HDS: CSWR was founded to establish a living dialogue not only between practitioners of different religions but also between practitioners and scholars. That was a radical proposition in 1958. Today, it’s more or less the mission of Harvard Divinity School. Why do we still need a CSWR and what should its role be at HDS?

CHARLES STANG: Although the mission of the CSWR has spread to HDS more broadly, there’s still something about the unique residential community here that isn’t replicated across campus. It’s this idea of having scholars and practitioners—and, of course, scholar-practitioners—at all stages of their careers living together. It’s a different kind of experiment than can happen in classrooms, one that constantly renews itself with every new cohort of residents. It’s hard to articulate what that peculiar alchemy is in the residential community. As the new director, I’m eager to participate in it robustly.

At the same time, it’s true that we no longer need to carry the banner as if HDS weren’t studying world religions. So, I’m thinking about how the CSWR can provide space and resources for students and faculty and other scholars, both at Harvard and abroad, to pause from the day-to-day, week-to-week execution of HDS’s mission and say, “What is the future of the study of religion, and where are we?” I don’t think anybody clearly knows the answers to those questions.

HDS: Say more, if you can, about the center’s “peculiar alchemy.” There’s been a real explosion in online education—best exemplified, perhaps, by HDS’s own Diane Moore, whose HarvardX course, “World Religions through Their Scriptures,” attracted over 200,000 participants from nearly 200 countries around the world. Why is it still so important to have people, particularly people of different religious traditions, actually living with each other at a time when we can “virtually” connect with almost anyone anywhere?

CHARLES STANG: Because we have bodies. My hesitation about online learning is that, although it can be face-to-face and fairly sophisticated in bringing people together, there is still something absolutely unique about being in physical proximity to each other. That’s where I think the alchemy happens. And just as you can’t be married to someone or raise a child entirely through digital means, you can’t live in community just by digital means.

The other thing is that, while there’s an increase in online learning, there’s also been a rise in interest in intentional communities. All around the country, people want to live together in spiritual communities that often don’t fit any classical religious identity. We’ve been doing that at CSWR for more than two generations. We have wisdom to lend that movement. It’s also an opportunity for us to reboot, refresh, and rethink what we’re about.

HDS: You also mentioned questions about the future of the study of religion. What’s your take on where the field is going—and where the CSWR fits in?

CHARLES STANG: Religious studies as an academic discipline began, to some extent, by looking for great common structures across religious traditions. In the wake of that, there was a retreat into particularity and I think we haven’t quite found our way into a study of religion that can ask some of these questions across religious traditions. I think that the CSWR can offer resources and a space where students and scholars can convene and have a conversation about what they think the study of religion needs to be in the future. I’d like us to be a kind of think tank for HDS and wider Harvard.

HDS: Your predecessor, Frank Clooney, was a scholar of comparative religion and theology and brought that focus to much of the programming here. Where do you hope to take the center in the years ahead?

CHARLES STANG: I am probably going to introduce a number of themes which I’m hoping to carry across my four-year term. Let me walk you through them.

I want to do a programming thread on race, religion, and nationalism. I can’t think of anything more pressing or urgent. We are in the grip of a particular ideology around race, religion, and nationalism here in the United States, and we’re seeing it in other countries as well. I want to lean into that and bring the resources of HDS to bear on those questions.

It’s  also  crucial  to  me  that  the  CSWR  include  both  Christianity and  America  in  its  purview.  This is, in  some  sense, work that Frank initiated. The CSWR can’t just be the think tank about other religions. We have to turn all our best intellectual gifts on ourselves. In this country, that means turning them on the predominant religious tradition of Christianity and the way that religion and politics are correlated here.

Another thread is time and technology. I’m fascinated by the way that we experience and conceive of time and the degree to which people are lamenting how there doesn’t seem to be enough.

It’s clearly not just a problem of the hours in the day. We’ve somehow changed our temporality, and it’s pretty clear that technology has something to do with that. It’s also pretty clear that religious traditions can help widen our conception and experience of time, whether it’s the liturgical calendar of the Jewish year, the weekly Eucharist, a Buddhist mandala—there are all of these resources and other ways of conceiving time. Now, I don’t want to sound as if somehow we need to go back to the pre-technological, because there is no pre-technological. There’s no moment in which humans weren’t imagining time. But  let’s  convene  a  conversation about it. I think this is an acute problem in our twenty-first-century life together.

HDS: Can you give us a sense of some of the people you hope to bring to the CSWR?

CHARLES STANG: Well, I’m thrilled to say that the writer and environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams and her husband Brooke have already joined the CSWR community. She participated in our first panel discussion of the year on landscape in the study of religion. The Greeley Lecture on Social Justice is coming up later this year. I’m in conversation with colleagues at Rice University and the Esalen Institute to host a conference here next year on the spiritual but not religious movement. I have some people in mind but can’t confirm yet. I will say this: I want to shoot for the stars.

HDS: You talk about the CSWR including Christianity in its purview. It’s a reminder that Christianity has always been a global religion and, with its growth in Africa and Asia, will only become more of one  in the decades ahead.

CHARLES STANG: One of the things I developed early in my time here was a course about Christianity and the Silk Road, which was very much an attempt to show that ancient Christianity was not just a Mediterranean or European religion. It spread east into Mesopotamia, Persia, central Asia, and China, by the seventh and eighth centuries. So there’s a very rich and ancient story to be told about global Christianity, which is often obscured by the fact that Christianity is regarded as the purview of Europe and the “New World.”

Along those lines, I’m  really excited that Jim Hackett, MTS ’16, gave a gift to the CSWR to promote the study of global Christianity. I just had in my office earlier today a Chinese doctoral student who’s going to spend the fall semester with me working on seventh-and eighth-century Christian texts from a western oasis in China. Thanks to Jim, we have the resources to do this kind of work now.

At the same time, I’m fascinated by the fact that Islam in Europe  is going to be a new chapter in the history of religions. Islam in America is going to be a new chapter in the history of Islam. American Buddhism is a different thing. We’re no longer in this situation where Buddhism is over here, and Hinduism is over here and Christianity is right here. Those traditions exist side by side, and that requires a different sort of attention.

HDS: Finally, at age 42, you’re one of the youngest people to lead the CSWR since it was founded in 1958. You’re recently tenured. You’re doing important research in early Christianity. Why did you feel like this point in your career was the right time for you to take the director’s job?
CHARLES STANG: I got into the study of religion, first and foremost, because I was interested in some big questions, and I felt like religious studies was a place where I could explore them. Over the past 15 years, I developed a focus on early Christianity, and specifically eastern Christianity. You’ve got to go into the mineshaft, so to speak, and find a vein to mine if you want to come out with some really fine ore.

Now, I think there are some scholars who go deeper and deeper into their mineshaft in order to get at bigger questions. I wanted to go back and think broadly again about the study of religion and how my expertise fits into this field. What do I have to contribute? When I learned that Frank was thinking of stepping down, it seemed like a way for me to step back into that space.

I’m not going to make the Center for the Study of World Religions the Center for Eastern Christian Studies. I have no interest in doing that. But I do feel like I have a degree of freedom and support here to dig into some of the questions that brought me into this field to begin with. I’m pretty excited about the new horizons, not least of all because there are other people who are excited by them too.