Like many first-year Yale Divinity School students, Elizabeth Bonney DIV ’12 has been studying Christianity this semester, taking courses such as “Introduction to Pastoral Care” and “Christian Old Testament Interpretation.” But unlike 97 percent of her peers, Bonney does not consider herself Christian.
According to Divinity School records, Bonney is one of nine non-Christian students who are currently studying at the Divinity School, which, while not an ordaining seminary, is still a Christian institution. The small minority of non-Christian students at the school said they are invested in the academic experience Yale offers but that they sometimes find themselves detached from the rest of the Christian student body of about 400 students.
Bonney is unique even among the Divinity School’s non-Christian students because she was raised in a Presbyterian family.
“I came here knowing I was interested in learning more about Judaism, but I was not necessarily convinced that I would be converting,” she said of her choice to study at Yale. In her first year here, after taking classes at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life, Bonney decided to convert to Judaism.
Most non-Christians choose to follow the Divinity School’s Master of Arts in Religion track, which provides a mainly academic study of religion and Christianity, Associate Dean of Students Dale Peterson said. Bonney, however, is in the program designed for those entering the ministry, the Master of Divinity track, which supplements academic courses with training for religious leadership and preaching skills. She said she applied to divinity schools because she intended to become some type of religious leader; the skills she learns here could be applied to being a Jewish leader as well, she said.
“I figured I liked studying religion, and these extra classes could never hurt,” she said.
Ever since the first recorded Jewish student attended the school in 1956, the Divinity School has become progressively more religiously diverse, even though until 1968 the school’s bulletin said only Christians could be admitted. The Jewish student was admitted anyway because the policy was not universally enforced, Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge said, noting that the school now accepts non-Christians on a regular basis.
“Students who come from other faith traditions bring perspectives to the discussion of theological issues that can enrich the conversation and thereby enhance the ability of the school to prepare religious leaders for the future,” he said.
Jay Ramesh DIV ’11, an agnostic from a Hindu background, said he came to the Divinity School to further his study of religion, which is his passion.
“The Divinity School has a very open attitude to studying religion,” Ramesh said. As a student, he said he enjoys being able to take some of his courses in Yale’s Religious Studies Department, which he said was part of what attracted him to study here.
Like other students interviewed, Ramesh said everyone at the Divinity School has been accepting of his religious background.
The main challenge students like Ramesh face is not quite fitting in to the Christian fabric of the school, which touches many aspects of student life.
“For some people, until they step foot on campus, they don’t realize how pervasive that [Christian focus] is,” Peterson said. “Part of the challenge is that so much of community life focuses on worship and Christian events.”
Rachel Schon DIV ’11, a student of religion and English who is Jewish, said she came to Yale for its academic offerings. But occasionally, she said, students’ focus on their personal faith can interfere with the academics in her classes.
Schon lives in Davenport College as a residential graduate affiliate, and she said Davenport and the Slifka Center serve as her main communities on campus.
“I only go up there for classes,” she said of the Divinity School. “I don’t hang out there much otherwise.”
COMING DOWN THE HILL
Many non-Christian students spend more of their time amid the looming Gothic towers of Yale’s main campus rather than the Georgian Divinity School facilities on Science Hill, where they take classes in other departments, said Anna Ramirez DIV ’93, associate dean of admissions and financial aid at the Divinity School. She added that these students tend to live off campus and are thus less a part of the tight-knit Christian community.
Even as a Catholic, Ramirez said that when she was a student, she sometimes found it challenging to be in such an overwhelmingly Protestant institution.
Bonney said that even though she is in the process of converting to Judaism, she has made an effort to stay closely tied to the Divinity School community, to the point that she still goes to optional morning Christian chapel services. She added that coming from a Christian background makes it easier for her to be part of that community.
In an attempt to create a community precisely for those who do not fit into the school’s Christian community, in 2006 Matt Riley DIV ’08, who described himself as being an atheist at the time, founded the group “Left Behind,” which hosts meetings and other education and dialogue events for Christian and non-Christian students. The group also started a talent show, “Divinity School Idol,” which Riley said shows a commitment to contribute to the broader Divinity School community.
“The Divinity School community immediately accepted us for who we were and recognized that we were a vital part of the community and that we had something positive to contribute,” he said.
Anthony Kesler DIV ’11 splits his time between the Divinity School, the Slifka Center and the Graduate School, where he takes classes related to the Near East. Kesler, who prays at the Orthodox services at the Slifka Center, said he was drawn to the Yale Divinity School partially because the University as a whole has a relatively strong Jewish community. Having graduated from Linfield College and Williamette University, both schools in Oregon with very few Jewish students, Kesler said coming to Yale allowed him to connect with a much larger Jewish community. He is interested in pursuing Near Eastern studies, which he said fits well with the Biblical concentration at the Divinity School.
Kesler said he appreciates that within Divinity School classes, the school takes an academic approach to studying religion.
“It’s a good community,” he said. “Most of the folks here are open to wrestle with new ideas.”
A CHANGING LANDSCAPE
Alex Souto DIV ’12, who identifies with Christianity and Buddhism, said he thinks the school could still improve in terms of catering to students from non-Christian backgrounds. Souto, who has studied Kabala, a mystical branch of Judaism, and has observed Ramadan for four years, said he sees a multi-religious approach as necessary for training leaders of an increasingly global society.
He said the Divinity School must work harder to be open to a variety of theological approaches since students with more conservative theological views, or non-Christian views, might have difficulty expressing their viewpoints in class.
“There’s, at very least, tolerance [of other religious views] but not necessarily an understanding, not necessarily even a conscious effort, because it’s not what this institution is about,” Souto said. For instance, he said, sometimes others see his yoga, which he considers a serious religious practice, as a mere exercise routine.
Over the past five years, however, Peterson, the dean of students, said he has noticed the school becoming increasingly diverse.
But despite increasing diversity, Souto said he thinks the school would benefit from encouraging even more students from a variety of faith backgrounds to enroll.
“Having more students from other traditions would enlighten the understanding of Christianity,” he said.
Ramesh said the school can serve as a space in which non-Christian religious practices and beliefs can be explored.
“Our efforts to understand better the relations between Christian and other faith traditions may well also attract some students from those faith traditions interested in interfaith dialogue,” Attridge added.
The Divinity School was founded in 1822 when the Yale College curriculum was deemed insufficient for preparing church leaders.