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William Rainey Harper founded the Divinity School as an essential component of the University, hiring the faculty from the Baptist seminary in nearby Morgan Park and establishing Divinity as the U of C's first professional school. Both a scholar of Semitic languages and a member of the Baptist clergy, Harper wanted to guarantee a place at Chicago for the systematic inquiry into the complex structures of the world's religions.

IMAGE:  Rosengarten leads the Divinity School into the future.More than a century later, Richard Rosengarten continues that tradition of disciplined religious scholarship. Rosengarten, AM'88, PhD'94, associate professor of religion and literature, became the Divinity School's dean in July 2000 after serving nine years as the school's dean of students.

A specialist in narrative theory and 18th-century religious thought, Rosengarten has written and lectured on such authors as Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, and Flannery O'Connor. His recent book, Henry Fielding and the Narration of Providence: Divine Design and the Incursions of Evil (Palgrave, 2000), examines the providential design of history during the rise of the English novel.

The Divinity School is a professional school, but it awards Ph.D.s to two-thirds of its graduates. How does the school walk the line between being a teacher of ministers and a teacher of academics?

Of course the University's motto argues against the distinction-crescat scientia, vita excolatur-but the Divinity School's particular take follows Harper's founding conviction: a divinity school would only do its work well if it had one faculty and one curriculum serving a student body that included those preparing for the ministry and those preparing for careers in teaching and research. So our introductory course in New Testament includes ministry students who will preach these texts, historians of ancient Christianity and Judaism or with comparative interests in Greco-Roman religions, theologians, and ethicists. The pedagogical challenge this combination mandates is one that does full justice to the text as a document of many dimensions and alerts scholar and minister alike to the range of resonances their object of study has in the wider world.

To what extent should the school be a public voice when the nation is in crisis, such as in the current state of world affairs?

It's crucial that we provide accurate, reliable information about religious traditions-their histories, their teachings, their self-understandings in the world. This sort of perspective is easily underestimated in terms of Islam but also in terms of Christian and Jewish traditions. We desperately need frames of reference, and information can help. A distinct but related task: those of our membership who study the moral dimension of human life and activity can and should bring to the fore the resources of various theological, ethical, and philosophical traditions.

As a school, we of course don't take positions on world events but do work hard to facilitate informed conversation about them. One example of that is our Web editorial column, "Sightings," sponsored by our Martin Marty Center. "Sightings" appears twice per week and provides 500-750-word essays on topics in religion. You can visit the column online [divinity.uchicago.edu/ sightings/] to read a collection of writings on September 11 and related matters.

How does the Divinity School relate to Chicago's other professional schools and academic departments?

Those connections are absolutely crucial to our work, and another respect in which this divinity school is truly unusual: good collegial relations exponentially increase what students can do and fundamentally enhance our research.

Three-quarters of the Divinity School faculty hold joint or associated appointments with other departments or schools at the University, ranging from South Asian languages & civilizations and Social Thought to anthropology, comparative literature, history, classics, and sociology. It's extremely rare for a Divinity School student not to enroll for several courses offered elsewhere in the University, and we are delighted to see students from around the campus taking our courses. We have dual-degree programs with the Harris School and with the School of Social Service Administration and are completing a similar arrangement with the Law School. And of course everyone on the faculty holds an appointment in the College, since we offer a small but very popular undergraduate concentration in religious studies.

How has the curriculum changed since Harper founded Divinity as the University's first professional school?

Because Harper hired the very distinguished faculty of the Baptist seminary in Morgan Park, the initial curriculum reflected that group's ideals about how best to train a learned Christian ministry-Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, extensive study of Old Testament and New Testament, church history, theology, and the ministerial arts of preaching, worship, pastoral care, and religious education.

The curriculum was both ambitious and intellectually spry: Harper thought the school's graduates would shape democracy first for America and then for the world, and colleagues such as George Burman Foster grasped quite clearly the much larger world of religions that became visible to the West at the turn of the century and saw its implications for excellence in research and teaching.

Today's curriculum is not solely oriented by the commitment to training ministers-although we retain that commitment-but more by the faculty's judgments about scholarly education in the study of religion. So we have a program in the history of Judaism, we study Buddhism and Hinduism, and we foster comparative work across traditions accomplished through such disciplines as philosophy, sociology, and anthropology.

What we study, and to some extent how we study it, has changed. But we retain the ambition that our work matters for the future, and we certainly hope we're a spry and forward-looking crowd.

What kind of students attend the Divinity School rather than a seminary or a humanities program?

Students attend because our focus is knowledge about religion, and that is the fundamental orientation of their interest and the work they hope to do. They ask-and this is as true of our ministry students as it is of our doctoral students-no special privilege for religion in the marketplace of ideas, but they are adamant that religion is a force in the world and needs to be understood well-and, some would say, practiced with vigor and responsibility.

A nice way to capture the ethos might be the following: if asked whether religion is a force for good or for ill in the world, our students-and our faculty-would provide quite nuanced answers-but we would all concur that it is indeed a fundamental force, one that scholars ignore (and have, in the past, ignored) at their peril.

In what direction is the Divinity School moving?

In three respects, we need to enhance what we do. We need a fuller presence for scholarship on the Islamic tradition in the faculty. We've felt the urgency of this for some time and have appointed scholars whose work addresses aspects of the tradition. They are excellent, but we recognize the sheer size, grandeur, and complexity of Islam requires more than we now have.

I also hope to find ways more fully to integrate work in the social sciences into our curriculum. We boast a long, honorable tradition of work in religion and psychology, but the combination of faculty retirements in that area and more recent developments in the social sciences require that we rethink that aspect of our work. The wider academy has not done it well, and we must.

Last but certainly far from least, I'm quite interested in ways to enhance pedagogy for our graduate students, both in our own teaching and in preparing them to teach. Thanks to a generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, we've sponsored a dissertation seminar for doctoral candidates which emphasizes thinking about how they can bring their scholarship into arenas outside the realm of specialists, with the first such audience being the classroom; they are required to teach a course at a Chicago-area seminary, college, or university under the watchful eye of a full-time faculty member at that school, and then to reflect on the experience through writing and discussion in the seminar.

And we've just launched a program of lectures and colloquia on pedagogy in religion that is off to a fast start. Our recent conference on concepts of curriculum in religious studies brought in five faculty from colleges, universities, and seminaries to discuss their work. I want to do whatever we can to develop our reputation as a teacher of teachers in the study of religion.

 


  APRIL 2002

  > > Volume 94, Number 4


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