Illuminating HDS's "Faces of Divinity"

March 28, 2018
Ann Braude
WSRP director and Gomes honoree Ann Braude. Photo handout.

"The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun. “It's not even past." Faulkner’s sentiment was top of mind for HDS Senior Lecturer Ann Braude when she and her team of three doctoral students took on the Herculean task of telling the School’s story on the occasion of its bicentennial year. Braude wanted to enable faculty, students, staff, and alumni to access HDS’s past in a way that connected to the work being done here today.

“We have a great past with a lot of strength, commitment, and good ideas, that are our foundation for where we want to go in the future,” she says. “I wanted to make permanent and palpable all of the work that the students and the faculty and the staff have been doing over the last 200 years.”

Her labors yielded “Faces of Divinity,” a campus-wide exhibit that chronicles HDS’s journey from a nondenominational Christian seminary with an all-white, all-male faculty and student body to a 21st century multireligious, multiethnic divinity school that enrolls more women than men. For this work—shaped by her 20 years of leadership as director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program (WSRP)—Braude will be recognized by the HDS Alumni/Alumnae Council Thursday, April 12, as a 2018 Peter J. Gomes STB ’68 Memorial Honoree.

“I’m surprised and delighted to receive recognition from a group I so highly esteem—the graduates of Harvard Divinity School,” Braude says. “Curating the “Faces of Divinity” exhibit gave me a chance to get to know alums who predated me at HDS, as well as deeper stories of those I thought I knew. Our graduates are an extraordinary group, and I am truly honored to be selected to stand among them as a Gomes honoree.”

So That All May Be Represented

In some ways, Braude was a natural to lead the “Faces of Divinity” project. The admission of women at HDS for the first time in the 1950s, their growth in the faculty and student body, and the establishment of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program in the 1970s were milestones in the School’s path to greater diversity. A graduate of Vassar, the University of Chicago, and Yale, Braude is a leading historian of American religious history and the role women have played in shaping it. Moreover, the WSRP, which Braude has led since 1998, puts inclusion at the center of its mission.

“The language used in the WSRP’s founding document is, ‘So that all women may be represented, there must be both black and white scholars appointed,’” she says. “Now, today, ‘both black and white’ does not sound like it equals all women, but it introduced the principle of inclusion that continues to guide us.”

Expanding the meaning of inclusion has been a priority for Braude throughout her time at WSRP. The length of her tenure has enabled her to make great progress. The program only appoints five research associates a year, but over the course of two decades, Braude has brought to campus scholars of world religion from countries including Taiwan, Ghana, Nigeria, Bosnia, Israel, China, India, and many others, as well as from across the United States. She says that she gets excited whenever she sees an application from a country never before represented at WSRP.

“This year’s research associates, for instance, include Ferial Khalifa, a scholar from the West Bank, Palestine,” Braude says. “She applied because she thought that HDS would be someplace that a Palestinian scholar would be welcome. The attraction at WSRP—and at the School—has become the breadth of study here: the people, approaches, religions, regions, races, and ethnicities.”

Risk and Reward

Braude says plainly that “I had no experience with exhibit curation,” when she embarked on the project that became “Faces of Divinity.” The closest she’d come was the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the admission of women to HDS, when she commissioned a portrait of WSRP Founding Director Constance Buchanan and posted a handful of photos in Andover Hall.

“That was my sum total experience as a curator,” Braude says, who devoted a semester of her sabbatical to the exhibit. “The School took an incredible risk in allowing me to undertake this project.”

Still, the 50th anniversary celebration demonstrated to Braude the power of the visual environment—particularly at a School that aspires to global diversity.

“I realized that, even before students get into the classroom, their experience has already been shaped by the visual environment,” she says. “If that’s not inclusive, then students enter the classroom at different levels of comfort and possibility and different levels of belonging.”

In art, as in business, the greatest rewards often flow from the riskiest ventures. Braude’s team of doctoral students sifted through thousands of images and worked with an expert in exhibition architecture to create an installation that illuminates the vitality of the many communities that shape the School and its scholarship.

“We wanted ’Faces of Divinity’ to show how the study of religion is different from other academic disciplines,” Braude says. “At HDS, we are accountable to living communities all around the world whose history is so important to them and is part of their future. They need our scholarship for their current life and look to us for knowledge that can help them understand, in a deep way, their scriptures, their ethics, their history, and their theology.”

In so doing, “Faces of Divinity” transcends the tension between the School’s academic, professional, and theological missions to reveal a distinctiveness in HDS’s identity that often eludes description.

“The reason I love teaching at Harvard Divinity School is because we have people who are engaged in the critical study of religion and people who are training for leadership in those same religions, both in the same classroom,” she says. “That is such a live conversation. You can't have it in any other context. And that's the conversation we've been having for 200 years. It's what makes us unique.”

“Finally, I can take a deep breath”

Braude says that her greatest hope for the exhibit was not only to increase people’s understanding of the School’s history, but also to help shape its future. The renewal of HDS’s main building, Andover Hall, is an opportunity to transform the campus visual environment. Braude wants “Faces of Divinity” to inform that effort so that the School’s teaching, learning, and gathering spaces reflect the reality of its 21st century mission.

After the exhibit was posted—but before the official opening—Braude received an email from one of the first people to encounter it, student Amanda Rice, MDiv ’18.

“It has been so affirming to walk around campus and see these many faces, see works of art from multiple traditions,” Rice wrote. “Finally, I feel like I can take a deep breath.”

Braude says the student’s words made her feel as though the months she and her team spent on the project were all worthwhile.

“As we look to the next 100 years, everyone—no matter who they are, no matter their religion, their race, their gender identity, or their background—ought to be able to breathe when they walk down the corridors of Andover Hall. That’s what I want.”

—by Paul Massari

(Join the HDS community Thursday, April 12, for the 2018 Peter J. Gomes STB ’68 Memorial Honors.)