New HDS Course Addresses Grief, Joy, and the 'Brokenness of the World'

April 26, 2018
Globe Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj
Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

When Matthew Potts, Professor of Religion and Ministry Studies, and Terry Tempest Williams, Harvard Divinity School’s 2017-18 writer-in-residence, both participated in a panel last fall, they had no idea it would lead to co-teaching a class together.

The fall 2017 panel, titled “Barren Landscapes and Open Spaces,” culminated in a moment of collective silence as everyone in the room contemplated the consequences of climate change. Several days later, still thinking about that profound moment, Potts emailed Williams and suggested that they continue the conversation in the form of a class.

The result has been the spring 2018 course “Apocalyptic Grief, Radical Joy,” wherein each Monday Potts and Williams lead a class of about 20 students in facing the reality of environmental degradation—a reality that will most likely worsen in the near future.

Though the class is oriented toward loss and mourning, it is also about hope and survival. For Williams, the central question of the class is, “what qualities do we most need to cultivate in order to not only survive in this dark time, but to thrive? This is really a class about what it means to be human, and to not walk away.”

Potts echoes this sentiment. Reflecting on the questions that motivated him to teach the course, he discusses his experiences as an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church.

“In my church, people receive bad news all the time,” he says. “They receive a grim diagnosis, or a loved one dies suddenly, and their world is transformed and they need to both accept it and also to live meaningfully through it.”

As a result, Potts recognizes his theological perspective and pastoral experience as being resources for how to responsibly face the future. The rhetoric of climate change often runs up against two obstacles: “tell the truth too frankly,” he says, “and people will be so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem that they will become consumed by denialism or apathy. But undersell or sugarcoat the challenge, and people will remain unmotivated to do the substantial work necessary to make a difference.”

For Potts, one of the goals of the course is to imagine another path forward—one that doesn’t fall into these two traps.

The class is designed to help each student identify their own tools, qualities, and strategies for this task, and it incorporates art, film, theology, and literature in order to model a variety of responses.

MTS candidate Julia Ogilvy says that the interdisciplinary approach is “very different from the normal classroom experience. It has helped me learn the importance of being able to sit with discomfort, which will be relevant to future ministry.”

One of the strategies that the course emphasizes is the practice of community. Each session begins with a “check-in,” in which students share what they have been thinking about over the past week. Sometimes Williams will provide a prompt, but it will always be open-ended enough to leave room for interpretation. One week it was simply the word “edges.”

In a class that includes students not only from HDS but also students studying public policy, biology, zoology, journalism, public health, education, and architecture and design, the ensuing conversations are deeply enriched by the diverse perspectives in the room.

“Each person brings their own gifts,” says Williams, “and in many ways that’s the point. What do we do with our gifts, each in our way, each in our time, to repair the brokenness of the world?”

For Courtney Sender, MTS candidate, this classroom model has changed the way she thinks about being present to others.

“Our professors think deeply and passionately about loss,” she says, “and they’ve helped me find new ways to frame mine: through literature and writing, but also through cultivating a practice of honest meeting, fully present human-to-human, connected if nothing else than by the earth we inhabit together. It’s a new, sometimes scarier mode of being.”

In order to broaden the scope of the course even further, the class has also hosted guest speakers from a variety of fields. HDS alumnus and climate activist Tim DeChristopher led the group in brainstorming concrete actions. Philadelphia-based artist Lily Yeh asked students to create collaborative paintings and poems. Jonah Yellowman, a spiritual advisor and board member of Utah Diné Bikéyah, shared his experiences defending Bears Ears National Monument. All of these guests have demonstrated the power of creating, acting, and storytelling in the presence of community.

Students will show how much they’ve learned from these styles of collaboration when they present their final group projects at the end of the semester. These projects have been in the works for weeks, and include poetry, workshops, zines, and ritual actions.

“That to me is the gift,” Williams says, “when you see the class really become a community.”

With grief as one of the central topics of the class, the semester has not always been easy. Potts and Williams have struggled alongside students as they encounter a harrowing future each week.

But wrapped up in grief, Williams says, is joy. Her hope is that students not only gain “a deeper sense of their capacity to hold grief and embody joy,” but also that they “leave with a feeling that we don’t have to do this alone, that in community, anything is possible.”

—by Claire Laine, HDS correspondent