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November 2017

Harry Potter and the Campus Chaplain

Over a hundred religion professors held forth at last week’s American Academy of Religion meeting, some to half empty rooms.

Passing up theology, history and politics, I squeezed into the back row to join a standing room only crowd of millenials to unpack the meaning of the first sentence of the first book of the Harry Potter series.

You may have heard about Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, young Harvard Divinity School graduates who began reading Harry Potter, week by week, chapter by chapter in dialogue with each other and a growing group of followers. Eleven million downloads later, their podcast is deep into the third volume of seven. They  are clearly on to something.

Their project, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, could not have interested me more.

Thanks to the generosity of the Luce foundation, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College is creating a program, Campus Chaplaincy for a Multifaith World, to serve religious advisors and others concerned with the spiritual and ethical lives of college students. Like the founders of the Harry Potter podcast, we hear a yearning among young people for meaning, for community and for intentional living. Like the podcasters, we believe the answer lies in renewed attention to spiritual practice.

Although the “canon” is not traditional, the podcast’s listeners share a text in common; many have loved it since they were children. Vanessa and Casper apply themselves to the task of reading with rigor. To do this, they make use of practices from the traditions of their own origins, Judaism and Christianity.

In the sample lesson in which I participated, we explored that first line “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley…. were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”  We employed a Jewish method of text reading known by the acronym PaRDeS. Together, we uncovered the words’ plain sense, their hidden meanings, the moral sermon within and possible mystical secrets.

The leaders shared that they have adapted other traditions, including the Benedictine practice of sacred reading, lectio divina. While Christians have understood lectio divina as “reading toward God,” Vanessa and Casper explain that they are “reading toward love.”

Our program for chaplains poses the question: How can interfaith engagement become an opportunity to “practice toward love?”

It seems the right moment to ask.

Since last November, many are struggling to find their footing in a time of increased polarization and anxiety. The usual pressures of college life have combined with alarming events in our public square to make student life even more challenging. Differences of race, gender and politics can be  fraught. Campus chaplains have always had a key role to play in helping students nurture courage, joy and resilience. We hoped interfaith encounter could be one of the ways to nurture these strengths.

Our program grew out of a desire to supplement the staples of multifaith engagement--the cerebral approach involving dialogue, interfaith literacy and the “sage-on-the-stage” and the action-oriented model of working working-side-by-side on shared concerns.

In Campus Chaplaincy for a Multifaith World, we encourage multifaith encounters in which peers teach one another. A participant will share a trait they find most challenging and explain how a particular spiritual practice helps them to sustain it. They then invite others to join in the practice, as comfortable.

Reflections follow. What does it mean for a Jew to kneel down in the line for Muslim prayers or for a Buddhist to add his voice to a Roman Catholic discussion of a New Testament passage? What is it like to talk about impatience and then invite new friends to chant for an hour with you? Or to simulate a “Shabbat table” while talking about cultivating “enoughness.”

In our experience, shared aspirations and softening edges open a gateway into another faith that transcends theology or politics. Even veterans of multifaith dialogue quickly realize that beginning with vulnerability elicits honesty and depth.

As devoted readers know, Mr. and Mrs. Dursley were not so perfectly normal after all, thank you very much.  Actually none of us are perfectly anything. That is why we need to pray, chant, read, sing, journal, dance, and meditate. And why we need each other. 

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