HDS Program Aims to Create New Spaces for the Spiritually Marginalized

March 22, 2022
Garden Blessing
HDS Garden Blessing in 2019 / Photo: Michael Naughton

Historically, professional organizations in the study of religion have ignored the experiences and practices of marginal and new religious movements. The new Program for the Evolution of Spirituality (PES) at Harvard Divinity School is working to ameliorate the marginalization of these spiritual movements through associated courses, ongoing colloquia, and conferences that center the experiences and practices of marginal spiritual communities.

Dan McKanan, PES director and Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer in Divinity, says that one of the goals of the program is to “create an additional space, a more theological space, if you will, for people who want their identity as practitioners, or in some cases as ex-practitioners, to be in the foreground and not the background of their scholarship.”

With the fastest growing religious demographic in the United States as those identifying as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR), the PES has created a home for studying the directions spiritually-inclined people are going outside of mainstream faith traditions. These directions include a variety of neo-pagan, metaphysical, earth-based, and ecological spiritualities. Members of Indigenous and diasporic communities are also renewing their distinctive spiritual practices.

The study of religion from its founding has defined religion on the terms of mainstream faith traditions, and thus the claim to “religion” of other traditions have often been marginalized if they lacked resemblance to the structure held by mainstream faiths. Likewise, those engaged in academic study who are practitioners have also typically been from these mainstream faiths.

The PES aims to work against both of these trends—both in expanding the academic category of what “counts” as religion, and in calling attention to the current and former practitioners of marginalized spiritual traditions.

Top of mind in all PES programming are the spiritual identities of younger generations, ecological spirituality, and the ethics of power in these communities. From reading groups and courses to an ongoing virtual colloquia and an upcoming conference on “Ecological Spiritualities,” the PES is providing space and opportunities for engagement and meaningful discussion in ways that have been previously difficult to find.

The Student Animism Reading Group is facilitated by assistant program director Natalia Schwien, a PhD candidate in the study of religion at Harvard, herbalist, and environmental activist, who explained that the goal of the reading group is to facilitate “an interdisciplinary discussion where scholars from a variety of fields, including the natural sciences, speak about their relationship with their non-human subjects.”

Guests to the reading group have included marine biologist Dr. Denise Herzing, studying dolphin culture; Dr. Mark Wallace, speaking on Christian animism; and Dr. Anna Sun, sharing her research on ritual engagement with ghosts and spirits in traditional Chinese contexts.

Additionally, several courses have been associated with PES over the past two years, including program director Dan McKanan’s “Religion and Ecology” in spring 2020 and “Ecotheology” in fall 2020, as well as Giovanna Parmigiani’s "Earth-Based Spiritualities: An Anthropological Perspective" in spring 2021.

The ongoing virtual colloquia, “Power Dynamics in Alternative and Emerging Spiritual and Cultural Organizations,” has consisted of virtual events on the ethics and abuse of power in alternative spiritual movements. The goal of the colloquia is to provide resources for leaders in alternative spiritual communities in order to proactively prevent abuses of power, and to make space for current and former practitioners in alternative spiritual organizations to sort through questions of abuse they may have experienced in these marginal communities.

“The hope is to make sense of how it so often happens that an organization can provide great benefits and great harm at the same time, and how people who've left such organizations come to a balanced relationship to the benefits and the harms,” explains McKanan.

In an age where new Netflix series, podcasts, and books are released in a near-constant stream about so-called “cult” movements, the PES colloquia attempts to balance the conversations while critically addressing whether labeling these movements as “cults” is helpful for former practitioners who have been harmed in their departure.

McKanan explained that participants and attendees for colloquia events include those who are part of emerging spiritual organizations who lack structures in place to prevent abusive patterns and to create accountability. Plans are already underway for a PES conference in spring 2023 focusing specifically on the ethics and abuse of power, which will expand and bring together the themes of the ongoing colloquia.

Due to the global pandemic, and with the safety and health of all involved in mind, PES programming has been, until this spring’s conference, conducted almost entirely in a virtual environment. Despite the perceived limitations of a virtual series, Schwien says that not only has the response from the religious studies community been strong, but these discussions on power dynamics have resonated in other scholarly and practitioner spaces as well.

“Often, society at large looks at the person who’s exiting these [marginalized spiritual] spaces and either exoticizes their experience or judges them for getting into those spaces in the first place,” Schwien says. “Yet, these spaces are not always entirely good or entirely bad, so how do we talk about the complexity of those relationships? How do we support and discuss transitions in and out of spiritual communities? I think this specific thread of our programming has been generative.”

The inaugural “Ecological Spiritualities” conference will take place in a hybrid form—both online and on the HDS campus—April 27-30, 2022, and will feature presentations from roughly 150 scholars and practitioners from a wide diversity of spiritual identities, scholars, farmers, and environmental activists.

“The conference will bring together mostly alternative but also Indigenous spiritual practitioners and some folks from mainstream religions to talk about what is happening spiritually in the face of climate change, mass extinction, and biodiversity loss,” McKanan says.

“Ecological Spiritualities” is unique in its focus on practitioners presenting from their particular traditions, uniting toward the common cause of ecologically-oriented spiritual practice—whether through farming, ritual, activism, or academic scholarship.

This debut conference is sure to create space for open discussions and fruitful opportunities for deep learning among those who care about the intersection of spirituality and ecology.

by Paul Gillis-Smith, HDS correspondent

Editor’s note: Those interested in participating in the conference, either in person or virtually, can register here. Vaccination and booster are required for in-person attendance.