News Articles

Texas/Baylor group visits Harvard to explore ties with divinity school

EDITORS’ NOTE: Reprinted in full by permission of The Boston Globe. Originally published on March 22, 2001.

BOSTON (BP)–In the chapel where Ralph Waldo Emerson once scorned the Protestant ministry for its conservatism, Harvard Divinity School faculty tonight will break scholarly bread with a group rarely seen in Divinity Hall: a delegation of Texas Baptists.

Top officials, faculty, and students from Baylor University, a prominent Baptist institution that is resisting the rightward shift of the Southern Baptist Convention, are visiting Harvard for a series of private meetings, talks, and scholarly exchanges ending with tonight’s panel on “public theology.”

While the talks are being called exploratory, Harvard and Baylor sources said they may lead to more collaboration down the road, possibly including exchanges of faculty and students.

“We’d like to try to discover areas of common interest and consider opportunities for further dialogue and cooperation,” said Robert Sloan, the president of Baylor.

At first blush, they seem like an odd academic couple.

But each side has reasons for the meeting, which began yesterday with a lunch at Harvard College and included dinner last night at the home of J. Bryan Hehir, chair of the divinity school’s executive committee.

Harvey Cox, who helped organize the meetings, said he has long believed that Harvard needs to reach beyond its liberal Protestant base.

“Evangelical Christians are a very significant demographic group within American Christianity, and we would do well to do more to cultivate that relationship,” said Cox, who has written widely about evangelical Christianity and who is an ordained minister in the American Baptist Convention.

Harvard recently established a chair in evangelical studies.

Baylor, for its part, is seeking more of a national and international profile, and is also continuing to distance itself from the rightward lurch of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

The Baylor delegation’s visit will include meetings today with Divinity School and Kennedy School professors, as well as local Baptist leaders. Students will sit in on classes on subjects ranging from the Jewish liturgical year to radical movements in modern America to “Feminism, Women and Religion.”

A 155-year-old liberal arts college and graduate school with 14,000 students, Baylor is affiliated with the General Baptist Convention of Texas.

In recent years the Texas group has resisted the conservative shift in the national convention, which has affirmed its uncompromising support of male authority in families and its view that the Bible contains no scientific or historical error. Last year, the national Southern Baptists launched a high-profile campaign to convert Jews to Christianity.

As a result, the Texas convention last fall cut funding for official Southern Baptist seminaries, directing money instead to more moderate Baptist seminaries, including the one Baylor established in 1994, the George W. Truett Theological Seminary.

Sloan said Baylor was evangelical “in a broad sense but with a lower case ‘e.'” He noted that about half of its undergraduates are not Baptist, with Roman Catholics and Methodists composing its largest religious subgroups.

He said that he thought Baylor students could benefit from exposure to the value Harvard places on pluralism and social action in its ministerial training.

Ronald Thiemann, a professor and theologian who has written extensively about religion’s public role, said that Harvard Divinity School benefits from such encounters. “The more moderate evangelicals have a role to play in public theology, and one benefit of that role is to remind us that every evangelical position is not to be automatically included under the category of the Religious Right,” Thiemann said.
Reprinted from The Boston Globe. Date: 03/22/2001. Page: B4. Section: Metro/Region. Higgins is a staff writer with The Globe.

    About the Author

  • Richard Higgins