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How one girl found God at America’s most infamous divinity school

Harvard Divinity School - Image courtesy of Ryan Ward (
Harvard Divinity School - Image courtesy of Ryan Ward (

Harvard Divinity School – Image courtesy of Ryan Ward (

“Not long ago, Harvard Divinity School stood for something,” First Things editor R.R. Reno once wrote.

The implication is that this infamous divinity school no longer stands for anything. Except perhaps theological liberalism in its most potent form. Many Harvard Divinity professors see the Bible as deeply flawed relic, perhaps worthy of academic analysis but lacking even a drop of spiritually transformative power. They will tell you that Paul was probably gay and Jesus was likely married and that the latter was no more divine than the former.

Is it possible to find a personal, living God in a place like this? Andrea Raynor did. At least in the 1980s and 90s. Andrea arrived to study religion, lived in the dean’s home where she worked as a maid, and left an ordained minister. Here, we discusses her often surprising experiences at HDS and Andrea’s new book, “Incognito: Lost and Found at Harvard Divinity School.”

RNS: The stereotype of Harvard Divinity School (HDS) is a post-Christian, religiously antagonistic bastion of liberalism where only a Unitarian would be comfortable. Is this a complete stereotype or mostly right?

AR: My first response to this question was that Harvard Divinity School was not antagonistic in any way—religiously, socially, or politically.  I think so fondly about my experience there (which was, admittedly, a number of years ago now), that only the best memories remain. But after checking in with my best friend Katherine, who lived it with me, I was reminded that there were moments of conflict, and even what one might accurately call antagonism. Sharp minds can fling sharp words. The challenge was to take these difficult moments and to learn from them. This wasn’t always easy. Even so, I found HDS to be a place where any person of any faith could feel comfortable, if they were willing to engage in genuine dialogue.

Because of its emphasis on scholarship, one might accurately say that the community was more theologically liberal than conservative, but I wouldn’t describe it as post-Christian. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t describe it as Christian at all, which is not a criticism in any way. Harvard Divinity School is not a seminary, whose primary mission is to turn out ministers; rather, it is a nonsectarian institution intent on educating students in the study of religion and to prepare them for leadership in religious, governmental, and service organizations. There were Christians at HDS, certainly, just as there were Jews, Buddhists, and atheists. I did not go to Harvard because I wanted to be a minister—in fact, just the opposite. I went to study and to learn, and to find a pathway to service. That I emerged an ordained minister surprised even me.

Cover image courtesy of Howard Books

Cover image courtesy of Howard Books

RNS: You say there’s “more sexual intrigue than a stereotypical college fraternity house” What do you mean by that?

AR: Oh boy—I thought that question might come up. When you think of divinity school, you don’t usually think of wild times. While HDS was a far cry from “Animal House,” it wasn’t a monastery either. It was not filled with sanitized versions of men and women but real, predominantly young, people exploring who they were and what they believed in. This prompted the usual relationship dramas, as well as some very funny moments, between mostly earnest souls who were struggling to live authentically.

At that time, I always seemed to be entangled in some sort of romantic mess, but I wasn’t alone. In addition, there was a genuine tolerance for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. This freedom added a layer of color and complexity as people moved openly together, and it wasn’t always clear who was attracted to whom. To add a bit of intrigue, there was the occasional unconfirmed rumor of students sleeping with professors in order to garner acceptance into doctoral programs; and as a maid living in the dean of the Divinity School’s house, I had a fly-on-the-wall vantage point from which to witness some of the mischief myself.

RNS: You were at Harvard 1983-1996 and struggled with whether “a pretty girl can truly wear a collar.” What challenges do women still face today in ministry? Are things getting better or worse?

AR: At that time, more and more women were seeking ordination, but we were still a minority. The Episcopal Church had only been ordaining women for about seven years. Catholic women were struggling with whether to keep pounding against the doors of their tradition or to jump ship and become Episcopal priests. Even though United Methodists had granted women the right to ordination in 1956, women were still more likely to be appointed as “associate pastors” than “senior pastors.”

I was the first woman pastor in every church I served. I was always the associate, whose primary duties were overseeing the youth fellowship and the Sunday school, while preaching once a month. At the end of a worship service, I was more likely than my male contemporaries to hear a comment about what I was wearing or how I looked; and I seriously doubt any of them had been mistaken for a “candy striper,” while making a hospital visit, as I had on numerous occasions. They had the luxury of being seen as “that nice, young minister,” while I was often viewed as “that cute little girl.”

Thankfully, all these years later, a woman in the pulpit is no longer an anomaly. I’m gratified to know that women have followed me in at least one of the churches I have served; hopefully the ghost of my presence made their arrival a bit easier. The challenge for young women continues to be carving out a niche for which there is still but a flimsy roadmap. Young, attractive women don’t fit the cliché of the rosy-cheeked priest or the white-haired, grandfatherly minister—images which are familiar and (for the most part) trusted. Therefore, it takes more conscious effort to establish authority and trust.

RNS: When I was studying theology at Emory University, I found that being exposed to a range of views was a great resource. Did you feel like having a range of beliefs colliding in religious education was a strength or not? Did that enhance your education?

AR: It was absolutely a strength, and one of the primary reasons I wanted to go to Harvard Divinity rather than a more traditional seminary. To be in a classroom with students who were Catholic and Protestant, Jewish and Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu, agnostic and atheist, exploded my conception of the Divine and challenged me to go deeper within myself, within my faith, and within my grasp of biblical scholarship. In the end, I rediscovered the deep roots and the beauty of my faith, not despite but rather because of the rich diversity of the Harvard community.

RNS: Okay, dish. What would people be most surprised to learn about the hallowed halls of Harvard Divinity?

Perhaps it would be surprising to know that, in addition to the scholars and the cynics, the community organizers and the left-wing liberals, there are people quietly praying for the world at HDS, whether doing it in drag or in a collar, in a Yarmulke or in a hijab. Even now, right at this moment, I am confident that some of the best spirits, the best minds, the best hearts are working away on behalf of this beautiful, battered planet. And that gives me hope.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • With no disrespect intended, the woman of faith revealed in this interview reminds of the volume, “The Search for God at Harvard,” by Ari L. Goldman, a New York Times reporter who took a year sabbatical to study the ‘Div’ school. Goldman was quite comfortable in his Judaism and describes the school much in the same manner as your interviewee. But as an admitted dinosaur in the matter of faith, I am disturbed by ‘rainbow’ Christians, who in my opinion are entirely too flexible in their approach to the Christian faith. I respect everyone’s right to pursue their religion of choice, but Christians’ are bound to the Bible as a founding document; without a transcendent, absolute, objective rule of faith…Faith means nothing.

  • “Infamous” is Andrea Raynor’s take on Harvard Divinity School. It appears she is driven to belittle those aspects of theology with which she disagrees. That only means that her own theology “deserves” belittling. That seems to be the built-in contradiction between what religion claims to be and what it too often has been throughout its history. Harvard’s theology school may promote respect for individuals and variety, but at least it’s respectful and not “infamous.”

  • And Raynor is fussing about the gender problem in this country–in most countries–that has men consciously and unconsciously belittling women. You know, second-class citizens. That is stupid and usually evil, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Harvard or theology. It’s the gender war, plain and simple. A woman’s place is in the bed and caring for the kids that result from that, not in the pulpit. That fault belongs to all of us, not to Harvard.

  • Borges-Silva is arguing that everything should be identical in religion. As long as religion is a human construct–and it is–that will never come to be. There will always be as much variety in religion as there is in the human race, including the good and evil that religion attends to so eagerly, and with such a lack of ecumenicity. Borges-Silva refers to a Jew at Harvard, but Jews are pursuing a part of the same Bible to which Borges-Silva refers to. However, Jews use only the original part. And Jesus was a Jew, don’t forget. As long as there are humans, there will be religion. And as long as there are humans who pursue religion, there will be many and great differences in religion. They even fight and kill over those differences!

  • I was attracted by the headline; maybe I’ll have to buy the book to find out: just how DID the girl find God?

  • I do not argue that everything should be the same in religion…I argue that for the Christian there is a specific rule of faith which is defined by Sola Scriptura (Solely the Scriptures). Violence solves nothing and I believe a truly faithfilled Christian will never resort to violence, not even in defense of His/Her own life.
    I have every respect for the Old Testament, but I recognize that the New Testament (for Christians) is a more complete revealing of God’s Word.

  • “Infamous was not her take on the Div. School. It is amore generalized take by those who view theological schools in a more conservative light.

  • Don’t let the reality of 500+ different Christian sects fool you. There should only be one according to you and that sect should follow your sole interpretation of the Bible. Your ego has trouble processing differences in opinion on the subject, I guess.

  • “One day, this bus load of tourists crash, die, and all go to heaven. Their Guide offers to show them where they might be staying or where they would want to stay.

    The guide takes them down this long, long pearly white hallway with many-many- many rooms in it, kind of like a hotel hallway would look like.

    So, the guide says, “I am just going to show you the rooms of the most common religions presently, so… lets start your tour.”

    First the guide takes them to the first door. He opens it up. “This is the Jewish room”. All the people wave, say hi, and as with any religion, the very religious are praying to themselves in a corner.

    Then, the man takes them to the next door. He opens it up. “This is the Muslim room”. All the people wave, say hi, and as with any religion, the very religious are praying to themselves in a corner.

    After showing them those rooms, he takes the group of people and goes to the third door. “This is the Buddhist room.” All the people wave, say hi, and as with any religion, the very religious are praying to themselves in a corner.

    Finally, they get to the 4th door, “And this my friends is the Hindu room”. All the people wave, say hi, and as with any religion, the very religious are praying to themselves in a corner.

    Now, all of a sudden, the Guide is tippy-toeing. “Shhh Shhhh ShhhSHH don’t talk!!” all the people are curious, but they do as their tour guide tells them. He quietly tip-toes up to the door, opens it slightly and lets everyone peek in. “Shh! This is the Born-Again Christians room, and they think they are the only ones up here!”

  • Since you often belittle the Bible anyway, I’m surprised you don’t resign your putative Christianity. Your accusations against me are essentially groundless. Among Christians, concord in primary tenets, i.e.: Jesus as the unique and only Son of God, co-eternal with the Father. Jesus born of a Virgin, Jesus raised from the dead, Jesus Judge of all humanity. Forebearance in Secondary issues, i.e.: Mode of Baptism, choice of orthodox sect, Usage of Alcohol. Tertiary issues, liberty. Once again I wll be satisfied for the future and the Lord, to judge between me and thee.

  • I don’t belittle the Bible, just your views of it as having only one possible interpretation. Where every other take on the text or context that differs must be the product of malice or ignorant.

    There are plenty of Christian sects which disagree (some vociferously) with your “primary tenets” or at very least the language you employ to describe them. What you call primary, secondary, and tertiary issues are treated in much different fashions and levels of importance when you go from sect to sect. Again, your ego is talking here first and foremost. That somehow all Christians naturally keep the same priorities in their beliefs as you do. Because God’s word always falls in line with your opinions.

    All Christians are “cafeteria Christians” in one form or another. You are no different in that respect. They all pick and chose which elements they deem important and which ones they do not. Claiming otherwise may make you feel important and bring a sense of security and superiority, but it is a hollow one.

  • Larry, I have specifically read your disparaging remarks regarding passages with which you do not agree. Particularly the Old Testament, further you have been challenged on your sense of the bible by several individuals in these threads. My view of the bible is hardly unique, it conforms to the traditional orthodox view held by most conservative theologians, and it conforms to the classic view held by the most august scholars and commentators going back several centuries. It only conflicts with a post modern view of the sacred texts. The primary tenets I listed are unassailable, or they are a lie, but it can not be denied even by you that they are found in the biblical text.