Beyond the School of Management, beyond “The Whale,” way past the food carts, beyond Kroon Hall and the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory, at the part of Science Hill where it stops being a hill and becomes a plateau, beyond even the Leitner Observatory, sits the Yale Divinity School.
The Divinity School is composed of a single main quadrangle, the Sterling Divinity Quadrangle, designed in the early 1930s. The distinctive H-shaped configuration of the campus is built in a style that can best be described as the love-child of Silliman College and the Roman Forum, with Doric columns and semi-circular arches covered in the red bricks of the residential colleges “down the hill” or “downtown,” as the school’s students refer to anything before 314 Prospect St.
But the austere, Jeffersonian layout of the campus has historically been one of its most beloved features, Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge said in an interview this week. In the mid-1990s, when the school considered relocating to an available space downtown — the parking lot near the Joseph Slifka Center — alumni were outraged at the prospect of moving the campus. Finally, history of art professor emeritus Sterling Professor Emeritus Vincent Scully ’40 ARC ’49 stepped in.
“Scully told The New York Times he’d sever his ties with the University if we had the audacity to touch the architectural masterpiece ceated by John Delano Aldrich on the top of Prospect Hill,” Attridge recalled. “The week after, University President Richard Levin said he’d keep the quad.”
Almost intentionally, the Divinity School is a house of conflict and serenity. Ostensibly non-denominational, some students seek to become ministers while others pursue degrees in graduate studies. The division between intellect and belief creates a hotbed of academic thought and spirituality that is both meaningful and explosive for the students who study—and worship—there.
In his 1630 thesis, “A Model of Christian Charity,” John Winthrop wrote: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.” The Divinity School, like Winthrop’s imagined colony, also seeks to set an example for the Yale community from atop a hill, creating a supportive environment dedicated to the pursuit of religious truth. And for many students, the Divinity School does just that.
Judith Dupre DIV ’11 is an author and architectural historian who decided to attend divinity school to provide a liturgical background for her academic writing. Admittedly, she initially chose the Yale Divinity School as a matter of convenience: A single mother of two school-age children, Dupre needed an institution that was a reasonable distance from her home. Plus, her previous involvement at the Institute for Sacred Music — which is affiliated with both the Divinity School and the Yale School of Music and is dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of worship, theology, music and related arts — allowed her to attend free of cost. But the Divinity School soon became more than simply a prudent option for Dupre’s continuing education.
“At the Divinity School I’ve met people of great faith and character. Those interactions, if you’re open to them, can’t help but shape you,” she said. “There is an immense amount of good will and compassion, a willingness to work for a common good.”
Alice Hodgkins ’11 found the same sense of compassion at the Divinity School when she took a course in Biblical Greek there last year. Hodgkins, who was the only undergraduate in her class, said the other students were extremely welcoming and were very excited to see how she was interested in the New Testament and Greek. She maintains relationships with several members of the course, venturing up to the Divinity School as often as possible to attend morning prayer. She is even going to the wedding of one former classmate this summer.
On the first day of “New Testament Interpretation,” professor Jeremy Hultin each year refreshes the memories of his students about how the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) contain conflicting accounts of the life of Jesus. Over the course of the semester, he shows them problems in the text, explains the contradictions and points out which interpretations he thinks are inaccurate and why. Hultin sets out to rattle the foundations of his students’ beliefs from day one, potentially marring what has been a life-defining text for many. He said he feels an obligation to force his students to wrestle with their faith, to help them to achieve mature views about their own history. But it’s not easy for Hultin either. Professors too struggle with issues of faith and with the most effective way to challenge their students.
“Sometimes I wish I were teaching organic chemistry because I wouldn’t be troubling anyone. I could just explain my stuff,” Hultin said. “I know here that if I explain things exactly how I want to explain them, it’s going to be hard on some people.”
Uphill, the coursework is intense. At the moment, the Divinity School is home to 389 students pursuing one of the three different degree programs. The most popular is the masters of divinity, a degree path just as ominous as it sounds: It takes three years and 76 credit hours to complete. At three credit hours per class, and an average of approximately 200 pages of reading per week per class, the 182 students enrolled must keep their heads out of the clouds. In fact, The masters of divinity is the most professionally oriented degree — around 85 percent of the graduates move on to a career in the Christian ministry in a number of denominations.
Then there’s the masters of arts in religion, or M.A.R., for students looking for a program of advanced study in theology. The M.A.R. is essentially a master’s degree in religious studies, the younger brother of the Ph.D. program down the hill at the Hall of Graduate Studies. Except there is no religious studies master’s degree program at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
The third type of degree is the master of sacred theology, or S.T.M. (M.S.T. was already taken). Only students who have already received a masters or bachelors of divinity can apply for this one-year program that offers advanced training for a specialized form of Christian service such as chaplaincy, foreign missions or ministry to the elderly.
But all Yalies are used to academic rigors. The type of learning that goes on in the Divinity School is challenging for reasons that go beyond academia, or the purely intellectual. The real challenge is the constant foundation-shaking exchange of ideas that occurs among the different branches of Christianity present at the school. Students must be ready to defend their own beliefs while studying the topic of faith itself.
Students often come to the Divinity School with a very personal approach to religion, Delfin Bautista DIV ’10, the president of the Divinity School Student Council, explained. Once students sit down in a classroom with 20 other people, religion becomes an intellectual pursuit.
“People start to deconstruct their religion, to deconstruct their faith, which can be overwhelming,” Bautista said. “It’s a culture shock for some because a lot of the things you were told in the past, it’s not like they are not true, but now you see them from a totally new perspective.”
Students said that it can be nearly impossible to set aside completely the emotional component when said pursuit happens to be the single most important thing in their lives.
Sequestered away from the passionately secular Yale community, the Divinity School, in its non-denominational status, is above all a place for Christians. Even though admissions statistics boast a student population representing more than 40 religious faiths, of the 389 people enrolled this year, 140 are either Episcopalian, United Methodist or Roman Catholic, according to Divinity School Registrar Lisabeth Huck. The rest are a mix of Presbyterians, Lutherans, members of the United Church of Christ and other Christian denominations, and a small minority of students who self-identify as Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or Jewish.
But other sources of diversity — including gender, sexuality, political affiliation and denomination — divide the student population in a more tangible way, creating tensions both in and outside of the classroom.
According to Hultin, a certain gay professor regularly leads the discussion in a course on the New Testament about homosexuality. The students debate Romans 1:27: “And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.”
The professor explains the different ways of interpreting the text, mentions what homosexuality was like in the ancient world, and offers suggestions of how to believe in a tolerant way. In creating a space where people are allowed to disagree, to passionately refute each other, and to have a healthy discussion, diversity becomes utilized for learning, Hultin believes.
But controversy is not always handled so smoothly, especially when the debate is over such a hot topic as homosexuality. Three Divinity School students interviewed said that opposing factions of religiously liberal and conservative students are often unlikely to engage in constructive dialogue. While sitting in a classroom with Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Catholics and students who do not belong to a particular denomination should contribute to an enriched learning experience, this is rarely the case, Bautista said.
“I don’t think we’re comfortable enough to say, ‘Well, I disagree with you,’ out of the blue,” Rebecca Lenn DIV ’10 said.
But the slightly blanched nature of some discussions at the Divinity School does not necessarily mean there is no debate at all, Lenn added. Rather, it is an indication of a strongly opinionated and fiercely intellectual community.
“There is a divide, and some of us are trying to bridge it, but it’s very hard because of people’s beliefs and stances,” Bautista said. “And there are people at the Divinity School who do believe that homosexuals are going to burn in hell. And they’re not going to change their mind about that.”
Even still, masters of divinity students have the option of going to a seminary affiliated with a specific denomination, while others can go to a secular theological studies programs. But all Divinity School students decided to attend an institution which, in a fairly healthy state of tension, combines both the seminarian approach to education and a more academic approach to theology.
Ultimately, however, the Yale Divinity School has the potential to become outdated. The simple reality is that the Bible and Christianity are old and the study of theology even older. Even the Divinity School itself is getting up there in years: It was founded in 1822. When the skeptical questioning of Yale College’s liberal-minded undergraduates is added to the mix, the Divinity School runs the risk of becoming archaic fast.
But it hasn’t yet. The Divinity School and the study of theology itself somehow manage to stay current.
It turns out that theological debates still take place on an academic and intellectual stage, and while positions are chosen based on personal faith, the arguments that scholars raise are textually and pragmatically based, Hultin explained.
Theologians start with a question such as, “What is the role of women in the ministry?” There are statements in the Bible that would seem to delineate the role, like in 1 Timothy 2, which states that “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” After consulting the liturgy, there is the “meta-question,” Hultin said, of how we even want to use these texts because they are not merely a set of instructions, but rather are actual letters that the apostle Paul wrote, or that someone wrote in his name. Hultin proposed other possible approaches to the passage: Should the text form a guide for contemporary life? Then the issue of Paul’s relationship to women leaders as compared to others in the first century can come into play, and one might argue that Paul was surprisingly progressive in his beliefs. But others might say that this is wishful thinking, that we’re just taking what we happen to believe about gender roles and are projecting that on to Paul to make him a proto-feminist. And yet another group might simply try to expose how negative these texts are to women, drawing from modern thinking when doing so. It’s far more sophisticated than, “Is this what I like?”
The theological debates in which Divinity School professors and students engage have a stake in current issues of the day. These are the questions discussed not only in the classroom, but also in the dining hall or common room, much like the experience of undergraduates in Yale College.
Greg Griffin DIV ’11 is pursuing his masters of divinity in order to become a minister in the United Church of Christ. Just one year away from graduation, Griffin has tested the waters a bit before settling on this career path. As a man in his sixties, he has been a lawyer, a photographer, a member of the United States Navy during the Vietnam War and a missionary in Turkey.
For Griffin, one of the most widely discussed topics on campus is that of the environment. As the global spotlight focuses on the conservation of resources and biodiversity, Griffin said the Church, too, is going green.
“We are supposed to be the stewards of the earth,” he said. “The question is, are we doing a good job?”
One critical source for the school’s green-ward thrust, Griffin said, comes from Revelations 7:3: “Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees.”
But perhaps the issue with the farthest-reaching consequences is the role religion plays in shaping the way political decisions are made today. From the original Puritan founders of the United States, to the current political atmosphere, religious beliefs have long permeated political decision-making. When asked whom he saw as his most important political philosopher, former President George W. Bush said Jesus.
“Whether Jesus intended to put forth a political philosophy or not, people are finding a political philosophy in his teachings, so it plays a role enormously,” Hultin said.
Indeed, President Barack Obama has said that his favorite philosopher is Reinhold Niebuhr DIV ’14, a Protestant philosopher who advocated for an aggressive stands against the Nazi regime during WWII. By openly citing Niebuhr as one of his influences, Obama is asserting himself as a Christian politician, at least in the eyes of Griffin.
Religious beliefs, with their implications in sexuality, ecology and politics, are hardly out of date in the secular stratum. The Divinity School is Yale’s connection to this world of faith, the place on campus — up on a hill — where belief and academia overlap in quasi-harmonious diversity. An institution that cannot be for everyone, but tries its best to offer students a tolerant intellectual environment.