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This October, when faculty, alumni, and students of the Divinity School gather for their annual convocation, they will have much to celebrate. After three years of construction, preceded by four years of controversy, renovations to the school’s quarters on Prospect Hill are finally complete. Visitors will see a quadrangle restored to the original dignity of its 1932 dedication, when Yale president James Rowland Angell praised the buildings as “lovely structures, unique and unsurpassed in charm and fitness by any of Yale’s great architectural treasures.”
What will not be visible is any sign of the school’s more complicated recent past. Before the renovations began, the buildings were in terrible condition, with paint peeling and roofs leaking. The school’s space needs had changed dramatically in the 60 years since the quadrangle had been designed by the architects Delano & Aldrich (in the style of Thomas Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia), and it was getting difficult to maintain buildings that no longer served their original uses. More than that, Yale had hesitated to commit to a renovation without a clearer idea of the buildings' use—particularly at a time when the school itself seemed unsure about its future direction: Protestant or ecumenical, vocational or academic.
In 1995, after an internal review, the Divinity School confirmed its mission in training Christian leaders, both lay and pastoral. The school and the university then considered relocating the school or demolishing part of it before settling on the final $49 million renovation plan.
Architects Robert Kliment '54, '59MArch, and Frances Halsband of New York converted the series of dormitories at the perimeter of the courtyard into classrooms and offices. They added enclosed two-story hallways to connect the buildings, which were originally linked only by outdoor walkways. The chapel that is the quadrangle’s centerpiece has been restored to its original appearance. The exterior, too, was restored almost to its 1932 form; the quietly elegant connecting corridors are the only visible new construction.
The physical renewal of the Divinity School is the outward sign of Yale’s continued covenant with the school and a reaffirmation of the school’s mission, its leadership, and its future. But, as with any important issue at Yale, there is always debate. We offer 12 diverse views from the school and the larger university community on the place of the Divinity School at Yale and in the world.
Elizabeth Zagatta, third-year Master of Divinity student
In the early '90s, President Rick Levin and Provost Alison Richard asked tough questions about the role of the Divinity School at this university. The admission rates at the time were uncharacteristically high for Yale—up to 85 percent. Was there a mission for this school, they asked, in training the best and the brightest? There was a lot of doubt about whether the Divinity School had a future, or if it did, what that future might be. They pressed the school to engage in self-study.
In 1995, David Kelsey’s report on the school reaffirmed its traditional mission: training leaders for communities of Christian conviction. The core of that mission is pastoral leadership, prominently—but not exclusively—the preaching ministry. In the past few decades, a broader vision of what it means to be a religious leader has been emerging from this place. And so the school trains not only ministers, but also lay leadership, from the nonprofit sector to investment banking to who knows what else. Sixty percent of our alumni are not in the ministry.
Yale gave its assent to this mission. Once it became clear that the university was behind the Divinity School, with the reinvestment in the buildings backing up the efforts that had always been made to recruit great faculty with sterling reputations, the admission rate dropped. This fall it was 49 percent—probably as selective, if not more selective, than any divinity school in the country.
There are two tensive elements in our life. First, our faculty have strong and differing opinions about how Christianity should be conceived and practiced. But as a school, we step back from issuing an opinion. We are committed to an intensive, robust, but ecumenical Christian life. We are a place where people can be authentic and vibrant about their religious commitments, without imposing them on others.
Second, what’s a Christian school of theology doing at a major secular research institution? Our role in the broader setting of Yale is to provide a framework within which the concerns of the secular university can be tested and tried. I was just reading a series of testaments about the influence of William Sloane Coffin, chaplain at Yale in the 1960s and 1970s, by people whose commitment to Christianity was changed or ignited through his example. That’s what a place like this should be doing at its best: pushing the university community to take very seriously the morals and ethics that are available in our larger cultural tradition, and to apply them to everyday life. So the Divinity School has an important task in a society that is becoming more secular. We challenge society to live up to its highest ideals.
My background is more traditional, so you might think the logical choice for me would have been a more conservative seminary than Yale. But for the work I hope to do as a therapist, I felt I needed a grasp of a wider variety of theological traditions, which I’ve certainly gotten here. Exploring faith anywhere is a roller coaster. There have been times at Yale when my belief system has been torn down, but it always gets built back up again. And faith is stronger when it’s challenged and then built up.
Tyler Stevenson, third-year Master of Divinity student
There’s a lot of ignorance and misinformation about the Divinity School. Plenty of folk at Yale who don’t have any religious commitments can’t see, for the life of them, why the university should be sponsoring a theological school.
The principal answer takes two lines. One is simply historical. That’s not necessarily a strong argument but it’s not one without weight. The school is part of the identity of the university. The other is a stronger argument. Religion is an enormously powerful part of American culture, almost as powerful as sex, and it’s part of the responsibility of academic institutions to provide the leadership for society’s institutions. Nobody questions that with regard to the law or medicine, but there’s a kind of failure to see how pervasive the influence of religious institutions is in America. It’s to society’s advantage that its leadership be intellectually well-trained, by which I mean it has been taught to think as clearly as possible and is as well-informed as possible about itself and the society in which it is located. The counterquestion is, why doesn’t Yale have educational leadership for other religious institutions? The same logic would suggest that synagogues, mosques, and other religious groups need the same sort of intellectual discipline that churches need.
It’s hard to have a clear picture of the Divinity School’s involvement in the rest of the university because it happens at so many different levels. What there isn’t is an institutional presence. The Divinity School hasn’t done much on its own or in concert with other professional schools to offer conferences, symposia, or colloquies that would cut across departmental divisions and be of thematic interest to the wider university. I suspect it would be good for everybody if the Divinity School did a lot more of that, because there are an awful lot of issues of interest to society as well as this university that impinge on what the Divinity School routinely does—in matters of bioethics, justice, religious pluralism, and cross-cultural conflicts, for example—that make the Divinity School a natural partner in pursuing such things.
I knew I had to go to a seminary. I just felt it in my gut. Some divinity schools, like Harvard and Chicago, are more like graduate programs in religion than seminaries. Yale has maintained a focus on training people for Christian ministry in an ecumenical, nondenominational way. And they’re looking at the ministry in new and different ways. It’s not only about training people for local pastorates; a large number of students today are thinking about different kinds of ministry, like teaching or working for a nonprofit. Yale does a good job of striking a balance.
Gaddis Smith, Larned Professor Emeritus of History; author of a forthcoming book on the history of Yale
In the first part of the twentieth century, the Divinity School was way ahead of its time. There weren’t many black students at Yale, but more than half of them were in the Divinity School. Most of the foreign students at Yale were in the Divinity School, because of missionary connections. From 1911 to the early 1960s, there were only three deans. They were the religious voice of the university. Now the turnover is very rapid—in one case, the dean lasted just a year. There wasn’t anyone who was a national leader or, indeed, a university leader.
I think the Divinity School is contending with a long-term problem that has no easy solution. On the one hand, there’s the secularization of society; on the other, there’s the rise in popularity of the more evangelical sects, which have their own seminaries. Today the fervor in religious education is with the evangelical groups. Some of them are pretty fundamentalist. It’s extremely difficult for any divinity school to avoid this emphasis on defining your doctrine very narrowly. So far, Yale, with its commitment to an open-minded ecumenical approach, has avoided that very successfully. Moreover, the number of applications has gone up, and the school has gotten through a rather difficult period.
Rabbi James Ponet '68, Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale
The Slifka Center [for Jewish Life at Yale] is not particularly connected to or engaged with the Divinity School. Our relationship is still waiting to be developed. I think there is room for more coordination of efforts, more forms of shared study.
The Harvard Divinity School is a center for the study of world religions. The Yale Divinity School has made the decision to remain largely a Protestant school. That’s a valid decision—but within the ecology of the university, it separates the school from the larger conversation. The question the Divinity School has to face is, What is the role of Christianity in a secular, religiously diverse world? In the 1960s, Yale was still a Christian university, and the Yale Divinity School was in sync at that time with some of the deepest questions being confronted in the United States. Today, the university presents itself as secular in a much more assertive way. But religious life at Yale is still very strong, perhaps stronger than ever.
The Divinity School carries the historic legacy of Yale. I’d hate to see that go. But the challenge is for it to find commonality with the rest of the university while remaining somehow separate.
John Danforth '63BD, '63LLB, U.S. senator (retired)
I am President Bush’s special envoy for peace in Sudan, which has been engaged in a civil war for decades. There are very strong religious components to the war, which is largely between Arab Africa and black Africa. The studies I did in divinity school help me understand the nature of the controversy and the importance of religion in it.
There are those who try to marginalize or trivialize religion. Some argue that the separation of church and state means not only that the state shouldn’t get engaged in religion, but that religion has no place in public affairs. Religious people insist that their voices be heard on all kinds of civic matters, and that’s as it should be. Civilization has fought over religion since biblical times. The serious study of religion could not be more significant.
Letty Russell, Professor Emerita of Theology
The Divinity School has lost the strength of its practical theology program, which was slighted in order to invest in more academic areas. True, the primary role of the school is education, and—although I think the area of interfaith studies should be expanded, possibly by tapping into other parts of the university—on the whole, the school does a good job. It serves a unique function in that it provides a sound ethical, moral, and religious foundation for every possible occupation. But there needs to be a balance. People who are training for careers in the ministry need to have connections in carrying out that ministry. They need experience.
We still have an internship program, but it’s so small compared to what we had in the past. If you look at the churches in the area, you find many students who are involved—but the Divinity School itself could be much more responsive to the needs of the city, much more connected to the community in which it lives. When I get involved in community projects, I seldom see anyone else from the school. There are some exceptions—one is a cooperative project between a team of women faculty from the Divinity School and CIRA, Yale’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS. The Divinity School could have more programs like that.
Yolanda Smith, Assistant Professor of Christian Education
The trend at divinity schools has been for the practice of ministry to fall by the wayside in favor of theory and scholarship. In the past three years, the Yale Divinity School has made a big effort to build up this area. At the same time, you don’t want to slack off on scholarship. How do you balance that so all students are getting what they need? My own answer is to include a practical component in all my classes. Students are required to teach or develop a lesson plan, and I try to develop ways for them to get into the community. It’s important for them to preach a sermon, do a baptism, to see what’s involved in being pastors before they get into a church.
Alvin Novick, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Much of my work concerns the prevention and treatment of AIDS, and I view the religious communities of America from that perspective. Over the years, I have reached out to many religious institutions and individuals. But when it comes to AIDS and drug use, Christians in general have not behaved in a Christian fashion.
I’m not pointing my finger at the Divinity School. I never reached out to the Divinity School per se. But I reached out to some people there, and, while I won’t say no one ever did anything, on the whole, they failed us. I would like to see them add more of their weight—their time, inspiration, and energy—to providing services to stop this dreadful epidemic and to support the people who are ill.
Spiritual counsel at a time when one faces a disease such as AIDS can be very helpful for some people. It’s calming and centering, and it can help them reconnect to their families or their church as they prepare themselves for death. But organized religion has failed us, and to the extent that the Yale Divinity School represents organized religion, they have failed us, too.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology
When it became clear something had to be done about the campus, President Levin appointed a relocation committee, which I chaired. I thought the most sensible thing was to move the school back downtown, to have theological and biblical studies right where everything else was going on. But it soon became clear that people who had long taught at the school and students there would have nothing to do with that.
I think the Divinity School is doing a really good job, in spite of its location. In the '70s, when liberal Protestantism started to lose its cachet, the school began to attract a far more religiously pluralistic student body. The administration has accommodated that well, with a more diverse curriculum and different religious traditions represented on the faculty. This seems to me exactly right.
If Yale were starting from scratch today, would it have a divinity school? I don’t know. But the Divinity School serves a terrifically important function. I’ve taught at universities that don’t have divinity schools, and they tend to be flat, technologized. They lose touch with a large part of humanity.
James Laney '50, '54BD, '66PhD, U.S. ambassador to South Korea (retired); president, Emory University (retired)
At the time I attended the Yale Divinity School, it was clearly the center of major theological education in the country. It never occurred to me to go anywhere else.
In looking back, the divinity school experience for me was a continuation of a very rich tradition of liberal education I received at Yale College. We studied literature, the Bible, history, philosophy, theology, public speaking, rhetoric. It was almost like a classical education in the old-fashioned sense. I feel like the education I received at the Divinity School prepared me in the broadest sense, not only for work in the church, but for larger service to ociety. It was a marvelous education.
The Divinity School is part of Yale’s tradition and legacy, and one doesn’t easily jettison one’s legacy or tradition; one adapts them. We tend to ignore an understanding of religion and its place in our lives. It’s important to have it examined and explicated at the highest intellectual level. I think the Divinity School traditionally has had a very real influence on the university as a whole, on moral tone and self-understanding, that is disproportionate relative to its small size. It raises larger questions about what the university is for. And the generosity of spirit that marks it has made it welcome in the larger community.
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