Campus & Community

Graham charts course for oldest grad school

7 min read

Divinity School dean rethinks the relationship between theology and the study of religion

William Graham, dean of Harvard Divinity School, stands in the chapel of Andover Hall. (Staff photo Jon Chase/Harvard News Office)

The secular and the divine at Harvard, once so intertwined as to be indistinguishable, have drifted apart throughout the University’s history. It was, in part, concern for things divine that motivated Harvard’s founders, who anticipated the inevitable demise of the colony’s English-educated clergy and “dread[ed] to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches.”

The establishment of Harvard Divinity School (HDS) in 1816 separated God and University tidily, training ministers and theologians at Divinity Hall, beyond the northern reaches of Harvard Yard, and leaving the academic inquiry of religion to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The distinction between the two disciplines has bred some tension – as well as some fruitful collaboration – ever since.

Now, the University’s first graduate school stands poised to rethink the relationship between theology and the study of religion at Harvard, knitting together the two intellectual strands into a fabric that better suits the changed world around it. Surprisingly, but appropriately, the leader of this new charge is neither an ordained minister nor a specialist in the Christian religious traditions that have been the foundation of HDS’s nonsectarian training. Rather, HDS Dean William A. Graham is a scholar of Islamic religious history; he was appointed dean in August 2002 after teaching in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) since 1973 and serving as acting dean since January 2002.

Graham hadn’t intended to take on the deanship, he says, in part because he felt his academic interests were not ideal for the position. After all, HDS had always been helmed by ordained clergy. But his work with the Divinity School faculty during his interim position convinced him that his unorthodox background might be ideal for a nondenominational divinity school in a liberal arts university at the dawn of a new century.

“I see a particular opportunity for a leading institution in both religious and theological studies to address the issue of their sometimes awkward separation,” says Graham as he embarks upon his sophomore year as dean. “Harvard is poised, if we do it right, to take on a leadership role in how religious and theological studies will be done in the modern university in the 21st century. I think that’s a very exciting challenge.”

‘Seamless unity’ between religion and theology

Graham draws on his own experience as a teacher and a scholar for his quest to reconnect the academic study of religion with theological studies. His Harvard roots are deep: He earned a Ph.D. in comparative history of religion and Islamic studies at the University in 1973 and stayed on for a rich faculty career that included directing the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, chairing both the Arts and Sciences Committee on the Study of Religion and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and serving as master of Currier House for twelve years.

His work with students, particularly undergraduates, has convinced him that the separation between the theological and the historical or social scientific inquiry of religion is largely an artificial one. After all, he says, we are all human beings first, and scholars or ministers or theologians second.

“Every one of us, no matter our personal beliefs or faith position, whether atheist or Christian or Buddhist, still brings presuppositions and a history of personal stances on everything from ethics to metaphysics to our scholarship,” he says. “I think it’s in some ways a repudiation of humanistic values to assume that the human side of the scholar is not going to be engaged in the scholarship, however intellectually and rationally refined the scholar may be.”

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Graham is working toward what he calls “a more seamless unity between the study of religion and theology,” knocking down any bureaucratic roadblocks that might separate the two. He notes that two degrees, the Ph.D. and the Th.D., have been jointly administered by a committee of the faculties of the Divinity School and FAS for nearly 25 years. Students, he adds, have navigated the route from Francis Avenue to Harvard Yard to create their own satisfying patchworks of courses; Graham aims to smooth collaborations between the two schools and faculties, which already overlap.

World religion or the church on the corner?

The bridge between theological and academic studies is not Graham’s only project. He’s also leading a faculty he describes as very willing into a thorough review of the Divinity School’s curriculum, its first in two decades. At the center of the review is the tension between the school’s heritage as a training ground for Christian and Unitarian ministers and its more recent ascension to a leadership role in the study of world religions.

In the twenty-first century, says Graham, Christian versus pluralist is not an either-or proposition. And it’s a question the Divinity School, with its acclaimed Center for the Study of World Religions, is uniquely prepared to grapple with.

“Neither Christianity nor Judaism nor any other religious tradition can be adequately studied in isolation from the wider human experience of many religious traditions,” Graham says. “The strength of the context here is that I would like to think that students as well as faculty do not have to be threatened in their own faith by that pluralistic situation, but rather I hope would deepen their own faith – whatever it might be – by their study and understanding of other faiths.”

HDS’s curriculum is divided into three areas – Scripture and Interpretation, Christianity and Culture, and Religions of the World – and many feel it has outlived its usefulness in our increasingly pluralistic society.

“It’s harder for people to organize themselves under these three rubrics than it was 20 years ago,” Graham admits. He anticipates completing the curricular review this coming year, then reorganizing the faculty to reflect those changes. A major draw to the dean’s job, he notes, was the opportunity to fill several faculty positions already open or likely to open in the short run; the demographics of the current faculty point to several retirements in coming years.

Also under Graham’s microscope are the School’s three master’s degree programs, starting with the master of divinity (M.Div.), which prepares students for the ministry. This program includes, Graham maintains, the nation’s best field education program of its kind, “but I think the faculty all feel we could be doing it better,” he says.

More possibilities than limitations

While a Divinity School dean might be tempted to focus his gaze heavenward, Graham is devoting at least some of his attention to a more worldly matter: money. Although the School is fiscally and administratively healthy, he says, the need to increase financial aid to students is “desperate,” and not only to remain competitive for the very best students.

“I think our students are carrying too large a debt burden into the world,” he says, echoing his colleagues at the Graduate School of Education, Kennedy School of Government, and School of Public Health, which similarly launch graduates into fulfilling, worthwhile careers that generally are not well-compensated. Like those schools, the Divinity School will benefit in part from President Summers’ initiatives to boost resources for student financial aid, but HDS is aiming to augment those funds with its own targeted fundraising appeal that necessarily reaches beyond its own alumni.

As he enters his second year of leadership, Graham, who traded an upcoming sabbatical and completion of a book for the distinction – and to-do list – of a dean, remains sanguine about the challenges ahead of him. Embedded in the tension between the theological and the academic – or the Divinity School’s liberal Christian tradition and world religions specialty – are, he says, far more possibilities than limitations.

“This is the kind of institution – a nondenominational divinity school in a major research university – that has the greatest freedom to really broach all questions that might arise with respect to history, theology, ethics, and public policy,” he says. “That’s the really exciting thing about being situated at this school at this very vexed time in global as well as national, religious as well as secular, affairs.”