It is fondly referred to as God’s motel.

And the two-story building on Francis Avenue, with its apartment-style residences and idyllic courtyard, has long hosted religious scholars from near and far.

This year marks the golden anniversary of Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR), which through its diverse programming, faculty appointments, visiting scholars, and research initiatives has broadened and shaped Harvard’s work in religious and spiritual traditions.

Plans for the center were cemented with a gift to HDS from a group of anonymous donors in 1957, and the building was completed in 1960. The bequest was intended to “help Harvard University maintain graduate and undergraduate courses in the religions of the world, to train teachers in this field, to give ministers a sympathetic appreciation of other religions, and to stimulate undergraduate interest in the religions of the world.”

And since then it has done just that, expanding the vision of the Harvard Divinity School from a largely Christian seminary to one that has embraced and expanded the study and exploration of religions.

Take, for example, the center’s faculty grants program. Recent recipients have studied everything from the ways that New Zealand Maori experience biotechnological interventions, to the curricula of madrasas in Pakistan, to the influence of African-American televangelists on the African diaspora.

The center’s directors have left a legacy of religious diversity. Early directors helped to establish an undergraduate honors concentration in the comparative study of religion, as well as a Ph.D. program that incorporates comparative perspectives.

Lawrence E. Sullivan, an authority on the religions of South America and central Africa who directed the center from 1990 to 2003, initiated research programs that brought scholars from around the world to the center to explore the intersection of religion and the sciences, politics, art, law, and economics.

Current director Donald Swearer took over in 2004. A scholar of Buddhism, Swearer has helped to shape the center’s programming around local and global community building.

His efforts include the World Religions Café, where CSWR residents can discuss their research and work with their peers. He has also worked to develop programming with other Harvard departments, such as the thematic lecture series “The Ecologies of Human Flourishing,” created in conjunction with the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, the Harvard University Center for the Environment, and the Initiative on Religion in International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Swearer helped to develop the center’s International Research Associate/Visiting Faculty program, which brings an international scholar to the CSWR to collaborate with a Harvard faculty member on research and teaching, and has fostered collaboration with other institutions.

“I truly see the center here at the center of a mandala that networks out, and involves people from across the University and the globe in the exploration of the world’s religions,” said Swearer, HDS Distinguished Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies.

Francis X. Clooney, Parkman Professor of Divinity and professor of comparative theology, will take leadership of the CSWR in July. Clooney, who joined HDS in 2005, sees his role as continuing the work of his predecessors, and helping the center to expand the work involving different faiths and scholarly endeavors.

He hopes to use his early months as a “thinking year” during which he can explore ways to expand faculty grant programs, involve students more in the work of the center, and continue to broaden its interreligious ties elsewhere.

“By developing quality connections among ourselves and closer to home, we open the way to fresh explorations into the territory of our increasingly interreligious world,” said Clooney.

Two-day symposium
In honor of the CSWR’s anniversary, the center is hosting a two-day symposium, April 15-16, focused on the future of the study of religion. The event will include the creation of a Tibetan sand mandala by scholar and former Buddhist monk Losang Samten. For more information, visit the Center for the Study of World Religions web site.

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