CSWR: 50 Years of Studying World Religions at Harvard

Cambridge, MA. You may recall from Jim Martin’s kind notice in January, that on July 1, I will become director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard. I haven’t done a thing yet, but the Center moves along steadily, and indeed has become venerable, this week marking its 50th anniversary year with a special program of events. Under a series of distinguished Directors — Robert Slater, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, John Carman, Lawrence Sullivan — the Center brought the study of world religions to Harvard, and as this study changed over time, it has flourished and adjusted to new moments in the history of Harvard Divinity School and new trends in the study of religions and interreligious theology. Under the current Director, Donald K. Swearer, who retires in June, the Center has continued to find ways to convene conversations on religion and religions, in relation to evolving religious traditions, and to the issues that press upon all of us today, ranging from Human Rights and the Environment to new understandings of human-well-being and what it means to belong to a tradition today.

The celebration that takes place today and tomorrow is simply arranged, as the program indicates. An opening lecture by HDS professor Leigh Schmidt — Sympathy, Suspicion, and Studying Religion: Historical Reflections — will put the Center’s history in the perspective of evolving understandings of religion in the past century. Thereafter, panels ask some basic questions: What are “world religions” today, when we can no longer merely contrast Christianity with “the other religions,” and when all religious flourish in complex diversity, in myriad forms — as experienced by people who do not necessarily fit neatly into just one religion? What kind of “study” of religions is most adequate to grasping the realities of religions? For we can approach religions from within and in terms of classical spiritual study, or by modern methods of sociology and political analysis, and a host of other ways. And do we honor the words of insiders more than what outsiders observe? whose voices in a tradition count for more? the leaders or the marginalized? But what is a Center, center, at a university? a research center or think tank? crossroads where all the many strands of an institution cross and get noticed? what’s appropriate to a university center — only the academic? how about spiritual practices, indeed centering? After panels dedicated to these questions, Donald Swearer will address us with his reflections after six distinguished years as Director, hearkening back to a theological perspective and the worldview of one of his most famous predecessors: Toward a World Theology: Wilfred Cantwell Smith and the Center for the Study of World Religions.


It is interesting that during these two days of the anniversary event, the Center also hosts the construction of a Tibetan sand mandala by the renowned Tibetan monk Losang Samten — a complex, exceedingly delicate and detailed, and beautiful mandala design. It will be constructed with great care — only to be disassembled after Professor Swearer’s lecture on Friday — as if to say: whatever we do, however we assemble the work and meaning of our lives, at some point we give it over to new models and new ways of assembling reality. (See also pictures and observations on a previous mandala at Harvard.)

Take a look at the website for details. And why should any of this matter to America readers who don’t happen to live in Cambridge or have a Harvard connection? I think we need once in a while to step back, and see a much larger pattern of religious happenings, commitments, practices, and insights. Particularly right now, and even in the blogs at In All Things, we have been particularly focused on the Church, our problems and challenges. Rightly so, but it is not good to be obsessed with ourselves. CSWR, today and tomorrow, takes a longer term look at itself and the vast history of religions surrounding us. It is good for us too to see ourselves, with all that matters to us, as part of that larger history that ultimately God alone can see clearly and understand fully.

More after the events are over...

Francis X. Clooney


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