Divinity on the Border?

Harvard Divinity School on the border, surrounded by science

A couple of weeks ago, I visited some people at Harvard Divinity School, and I was reading the web site directions for finding the Divinity School as I walked alongside Harvard Yard. (You can’t walk inside now without a Harvard ID. They are keeping out Occupy Harvard protesters.)

The directions said that the Divinity School is on the northern edge of campus, just past the science center. And I thought to myself, “That’s funny. The Yale Divinity School is on the northern edge of campus, just past ‘Science Hill,’ a huge complex of science buildings.” There is so much symbolism in this coincidence.

1. Both venerable divinity schools are on the edge of major secular universities, renowned for their many fields of research, their wealth of resources, their reputation, their international influence. Is “divinity,” the study of religion, on the far border of all this secular wonder and esteem?

Yale Divinity School, just north of Science2. Both divinity schools are right next to major science complexes. At Yale, it borders a huge science complex that looks like a high tech campus in Silicon Valley (and it is, in some cases). At Harvard, the original Divinity School building is actually surrounded by a large red brick biological lab that has all sorts of animals engraved into the upper edges of the building. What does it say when divinity is literally surrounded by science?

I noted the border location of both divinity schools because of all the talk I have heard recently around seminary about Christianity becoming less and less relevant to Americans. It is on the margins now, on the border, with fewer people going to church or considering themselves Christian. This fact is meant to strike fear in the hearts of seminarians. I can just hear Scarlett O’Hara: “Where shall I go? What shall I do?”

But actually, the border is a good place for the Church to be. It’s where the apostles often stand, it’s where the prophets always stand, and it’s where Jesus usually was. It’s where the women have been for 2,000 years, where non-white Christians have often been, where Christians surrounded by non-Christians find themselves. And those people often inspire the greatest explosions of growth in the Church and in innovations. Look at Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, and Dorothy Day. Look at Desmond Tutu, Gustavo Gutierrez, and  Mercy Amba Oduyoye. Look at the Church in South Sudan, Korea, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles. The border is where we do our best work.

I noted the proximity of the science complexes because people like to say that science and religion are, at worst, diametrically opposed to one another, or, at best, strange bedbellows. But I don’t personally know any Christians who actually think this. Science applies the faculty of reason given to us by God, Christians believe, to help us understand the world, devise solutions, heal the sick, and so on. And the things that scientists study are instances of the amazing, awe-filled glory of God’s creation (according to believers). I delighted in the fact that Harvard Divinity School looks out on pseudo-hieroglyphs of amazing animals.

But before I had these wonderful thoughts about the border being a great place, wondering whether divinity was getting pushed to the edges, I read that the Harvard Divinity School was actually the first school at Harvard. And Yale, founded soon afterward, was also founded first by clergymen to train new clergy.

So I guess what I’m saying is: we got there first. And theology? It was considered a science once upon a time….

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