Humans of the Divinity School

Nestled behind the law school and the Owen Graduate School of Management lies a rather simple building, easily blending in with the sea of brown brick surrounding it to the naked eye. But for those who take the time to venture inside and interact with the brilliant minds housed there, there lies a whole new layer of Vanderbilt’s character and history, which Chancellor Zeppos himself refers to as “the conscience of the University.”

The Vanderbilt Divinity School was founded in 1875 as the Biblical Department of Vanderbilt University, under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1914, the school became Vanderbilt School of Religion, an ecumenical, interdenominational theological school, and it adopted its current name in 1954.

In 1966, the Graduate School of Theology at Oberlin College, a private liberal arts college in Ohio, merged with the Divinity School, providing an increase in access to both faculty and financial resources.

The Divinity School is one of only six graduate schools of religion in the United States that do not have a denominational affiliation, the others being the University of Chicago Divinity School, Harvard Divinity School, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, Yale Divinity School and Howard University School of Divinity.

A novel about the Divinity School, “Vanderbilt Divinity School: Education, Contest and Change,” edited by former professor emeritus Dale A. Johnson, details the school’s transition from Methodist to interdenominational and the school’s growing concern with diversity and inclusion in social justice movements since this switch, especially in the context of the school’s placement in the South.

The school considers its purposes to be to engage in theological inquiry, to help persons prepare for the practice of Christian ministry and public leadership, to encourage personal and spiritual formation, to prepare agents of social justice,and to educate future scholars and teachers, locally and globally.

While the school has historically taken up many social justice missions, they consider their “fundamental task” to be educational. Among their commitments are “the faith that brought the church into being,” “to combat the idolatry of racism and ethnocentrism,” “opposing the sexism that has characterized much of the history of the church and western culture and is still present in our society” and “confronting the homophobia that prevails throughout much of the church and society”

VDS faculty are frequently called upon to consult other campus players, such as the Dean of Students Office, the BCC, the Commons and the administration in Kirkland, especially with the new campus push for trans-institutional learning. Additionally, the faculty host workshops, teach-ins, and listening circles to encourage discussion, as well as craft blog posts in plain English to explain their thinking.

A closer look at the humans of VDS reveals a spectrum of thought: from those who attend to become ordained ministers to those who come to spend the rest of their lives entertaining questions of race, sex and social justice. 


Dean Emilie Townes

Emilie Townes’ hiring as dean in 2013 sparked debate about whether it was appropriate to have a black, openly lesbian woman as the dean of VDS. Townes’ partner and a professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt, Laurel Schneider, was also a subject of some of this conversation.

An article appearing on the Christian News Network website shortly after Townes’ hiring read “Despite VDS’ liberal educational standards, not all seminaries and divinity schools endorse homosexuality. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says that those who promote Scriptural sanctioning of homosexuality must resort to ‘feats of exotic biblical interpretation worthy of the most agile circus contortionist.’” The same article put quote marks around the word “marriage” when describing Townes’ and Schneider’s homosexual marriage.

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“Shortly before I decided I can’t read this stuff online anymore, depending on the site, the same article was either used to lionize me and say this is the best thing since sliced bread, or demonize me and say Vanderbilt is for sure going to hell,” Townes said. “How do you do that with the same article? It’s the same thing, but it just depended on the placement and what the tagline was for it. That, to me, was representative of so much of what we do around gender, religion, and sexuality.”

While the word “divinity” isn’t typically associated with social justice, Dean Emilie Townes explained that to her, social and theological issues are one and the same.

“Social issues are theological,” Townes explained. “They are about the nature of what makes us human, and keeps us from being human with one another. So we have to engage them if we are going to put our theology in action, and not just have it be esoteric. We believe in engaged theology here, and one that’s interactive with all the things that people are going through, questions they have. If we aren’t relevant to that, then we aren’t really doing our job as a divinity school.”

It's a whole lot more interesting to walk into a room of people who come from different perspectives than those who sound just like me. Emilie Townes

Townes explained that VDS has historically taken a role of speaking out on what they believe to be the side of justice and the moral good. For example, VDS has opposed slavery nearly from the beginning, opposed segregation, expressed concern for women’s rights and leadership in the church and have verbalized their pacifism in times of war. More recently, faculty have spoken out against new forms of racism, police brutality, voting rights, rape culture and mass incarceration.

“So we have historically taken stances around the moral issues of the day, and those stances have been more towards the progressive side, and so we are often a resource for students who know about us,” Townes said. “And our students more and more are interacting with undergraduates to act as guides and counselors on what I see as a more engaged undergraduate population than when I arrived four years ago on the social issues of our day.”

The election of president Donald Trump stirred up unease in the Divinity School, Townes said.

“Lively debates, I am sure, were heard across the campus,” Townes said. “Here in the divinity school, that wasn’t so much the case. Folks were primarily appalled at some of the rhetoric from Mr. Trump. But my hope is rather than to start hurling ideological bombs at each other is that we’ll start and continue to look at each other as human beings and try to listen and learn from each other. That’s my hope. And I’m not arguing for agreement. I’m arguing for listening to each other and understanding and respecting our positions.”

Overall, Townes believes that diversity is the backbone of VDS’ accomplishments and successes as an institution, with over seventeen religious traditions represented among the faculty, along with diversity of race, gender, sexuality and thought.

“How do we get along? How do we embrace the diversity we’ve had for a while now before there was a big push in the university for diversity?,” Townes added. “We were doing that here with our student body and now increasing within our faculty, because I think Chancellor Zeppos is right. Diversity makes us better. It’s a whole lot more interesting to walk into a room of people who come from different perspectives than those who sound just like me. The latter may be more comfortable, the former gets you places.”


Ellen Armour, Director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender and Sexuality

After six months of traveling around the world with her family, Ellen Armour walked away with a fascination and commitment to religion and faith. The trip was part of a grant that her father, a teacher of religion, got to help prepare him to teach world religions in a more complete sense. After spending six months on the Harvard University campus living in the Center for the Study of World Religions, Armour, her parents, and her two brothers headed off to spend the remainder of the year in Europe, India and Japan.

“It was not a typical tourist experience,” Armour said. “That was really life-transforming for me and for all of us… But I came away fascinated by religion and also absolutely convinced that although Christianity was certainly true and it was my faith, it wasn’t the only true faith by any stretch of the imagination.”

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After six months of traveling around the world with her family, Ellen Armour walked away with a fascination and commitment to religion and faith. The trip was part of a grant that her father, a teacher of religion, got to help prepare him to teach world religions in a more complete sense. After spending six months on the Harvard University campus living in the Center for the Study of World Religions, Armour, her parents, and her two brothers headed off to spend the remainder of the year in Europe, India and Japan.

“It was not a typical tourist experience,” Armour said. “That was really life-transforming for me and for all of us… But I came away fascinated by religion and also absolutely convinced that although Christianity was certainly true and it was my faith, it wasn’t the only true faith by any stretch of the imagination.”

Armour remained involved and active in her faith throughout high school, singing in the choir and spending time in her church. But when she went off to college (first at Auburn University, and then transferring to Stetson University in Florida), she decided to major in music, and then switched to humanities, an interdisciplinary major that allowed her to take some religion classes. While religion remained her passion, she decided to try a few other jobs after graduation, not wanting to pigeonhole herself.

If you are going to think about that issue, I don’t care where you stand in relation to it–you might be for or against trans people having access to the bathrooms of their choice–but, it’s really important for you to be able to reflect on why you hold the position you do. Ellen Armour

“It felt a little too close, like I would be too much following in my dad’s footsteps, I suppose,” Armour said.

However, she quickly found herself bored, working in the music industry in Louisville, KY. To re-ignite her studies in religion, Armour began taking a class about New Testament Greek at the seminary in town.

“And that was kind of like okay, I got to give in to the religious stuff,” Armour said.

After conversations with her dad and some of her former professors, Armour decided to attend Vanderbilt to get her masters degree in theology.

“And it was a really lucky time to be here then,” Armour said. “The issues, the faculty who were here were very well-known, really smart, very thoughtful––not that we aren’t that now, but particularly so then. And they were very interdisciplinary thinkers themselves, and that’s why I found it to be such a great place for me.”

Another layer in her decision to come to Vanderbilt was that Armour wanted to study with other women. Because VDS is interdenominational and not a freestanding seminary like many other divinity schools, it has more freedom to explore issues of social justice, Armour added.

“And because Vanderbilt had already made great strides in educating feminist theologians,” she said. “That was always sort of important to me. I wasn’t thinking of it was what I would do, necessarily, but there were other women in the program, and that was huge for me, I wasn’t going to be the only one.”

But during her time here, Armour revealed another layer of herself and her fascination in religion.

“Part of what happened when I was here, too, is that I came out myself as lesbian, and that had been part of the issue for me in college, too, and why I was interested in religion and stuff,” Armour said. “And so having gone through that process myself and gone through it with my family, happily, I should say. It took some work, but we came out on the other side in a very good place. So those were issues that were just really central to my own life, it turned out, as well as my academic life. And that mix seemed perfectly natural to me.”

Upon completion of the two-year masters program, Armour also got her PhD at VDS.  She continued her studies of gender and sexuality at the university, eventually becoming the Director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender and Sexuality.

The Carpenter Program understands their mission to be educational, and partners with other organizations on a national, local and regional level in order to advance that mission. Additionally, the program offers a certificate program to VDS students, which serves as a continued focus throughout their education on implementing the ideas of gender and sexuality into their studies of religion.

“I like to say about the program that wherever religion, gender and sexuality come together, you could in theory find the Carpenter program,” Armour said.

In addition, the Carpenter Program offers a certificate to VDS students that has a focus on the intersection of religion with gender and sexuality. To receive the Carpenter Certificate, students must complete fifteen credit hours of courses, composed of core Carpenter courses, independent study, and electives that students commit to taking with a focus on gender and sexuality. According to the program’s website, “to avoid the potential of having the topic of sexual orientation receive only cursory attention, at least one course or independent study must directly address this subject.” Then, students pursuing the Carpenter concentration also need to complete a scholarly project (usually a senior paper) and a community service project.  

“That’s kind of different,” Armour said. “And we like for those service projects to be connected to internships that the students do. We’ve had students do, like if somebody was doing an internship at school, teach a 4-week Sunday school class on feminist theology would be an example. We have had students who have done internships at the KCPC, so they might do lead some group discussions and show a film on religion and LGBTQ issues, things along those lines.”

While gender and sexuality are important parts of Armour’s life and career, she knows that the members of the VDS hold varying perspectives on sexual orientation and gender identity and does not expect them to have the same commitment to these issues that she does. However, she admitted that this does prove to be tricky.

“Because we have students in our midst who have been traumatized by religion because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity,” Armour said. “You have students who are committed to what they understand to be the essence of their faith, which says it’s fine for you to be gay but you can’t act on it, for example, or have real trouble with someone who is gender nonconforming. So figuring out how to work with that is really difficult.”

To address these varying viewpoints, Armour engages students in conversations, ideally over long periods of time, in which she inquires about why they hold the views they do. For example, in a queer theology class she is teaching this semester, Armour assigned a reading that provides a summary of scientific research surrounding gender, sexuality and sex and engaged students in a conversation of why it isn’t as simple as it may seem.

“Often times people come in thinking that basically God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and pretty much we live in a binary world and it’s a binary world and we have two genders and the end,” she said. “And they think science supports that, and then you start reading the stuff and it’s like no, science doesn’t support that exactly. It’s a much more complicated situation. And the bible, too, is much more complicated.”

Armour added that in a more broad sense, while the Bible is an extremely valuable text, there are many instances in which its teachings are more complex than they first appear.

“I could tell you jillions of biblical stories that don’t really fit very well, not to mention the understanding of family values in the biblical world,” Armour said. “It is not the nuclear family of our time and it’s not companionate marriage. And that doesn’t mean we don’t need to take the bible seriously as a real resource when thinking about how we should be and do and live. But we have to do something a little more complicated than simply anachronize it or we miss out on what it could be telling us.”

While the intersection between religion, gender and sexuality is a complicated one that isn’t discussed often due to the popularized resistance Christianity poses to issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, Armour emphasizes that this is the core of why it is essential to study this particular intersectional issue.

“Most of that resistance is religious, or religiously-based,” Armour said. “An awful lot of it is deeply based in religion. Especially, but not exclusively, Christianity. So what I would say the importance of religion is is to help people, if you are going to think about that issue, I don’t care where you stand in relation to it–you might be for or against trans people having access to the bathrooms of their choice–but, it’s really important for you to be able to reflect on why you hold the position you do…So to my mind, I think it’s really hard to overestimate the importance of the study of religion right now in issues of social justice.”


Forrest Harris, Director of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on the African-American Church

After graduating from Knoxville College with a Bachelor’s Degree in sociology and psychology, Forrest Harris went to work as a compliance officer at the Energy Research and Development Commission in Oak Ridge, TN. In this position, Harris was responsible for making sure that government-owned and contractor facilities were in compliance with EO 11246, which required all government contractors to have equity in employment in all areas: officials, managers, laborers, professionals. He would visit contractors and facilities, such as Monsanto corporation, Timex corporation, Boeing, and other places who had contracts with the governments, to make sure they had equal employment and equity in all of thier categories of employment.

“It was an eye-opener for me in terms of equity and gaps and the way in which companies, in compensation and in jobs, are disproportionately applied to minorities and women,” Harris said. “And it was a very interesting time when people were trying to rectify legacies of injustice in the employment culture of America at these major corporations.”

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While he didn’t realize it at the time, Harris now believes that the work he did as a compliance officer was part of what he refers to as a “call” to his faith, an urgency to have his life shaped by and in the life of the church and religion.

“It’s something that has taken root in your sense of self and your spiritual sense of self, a kind of desire, a kind of connectivity with something that is larger than just you and larger than just the things you want in terms of a career,” Harris described. “It is this seed, I might say, that gets planted in your consciousness and your thought, from your parents or your church, and it starts fermenting, like yeast in dough. And once yeast is activated through water, it just keeps fermenting and growing.”

Restless and no longer able to fight this strong urge, Harris decided to attend American Baptist College in Nashville to pursue a Bachelor’s of Theology. He decided on this particular institution because he had heard of many famous scholars who had attended it, including congressman John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, a minister and close friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.

What it means to be black and Christian is that it brings a very strong antithetical reality to the Christianity that we have been oppressing. Forrest Harris

After around a year at ABC, Harris decided to attend VDS as a Benjamin Elijah Mays scholar in the Masters of Divinity Program, where he continued his studies of the intersection of race and religion.

“When I ended up coming here to Vanderbilt, I didn’t connect the dots as tightly as I should have that that was social justice work and that that was the call of the Church and the call of the people who affirm the biblical witness of justice that it must be in the public square, must be in public policy, it must be a structural change where disparities and discrimination and all the things that wreak havoc on people as a result of practices that marginalize people,” Harris said.

After receiving his masters degree, Harris remained at VDS and now serves as the Director of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on the African-American Church, a program within VDS that has a 1.2 million dollar endowment for the perpetuation of theological study and dialogue in African American congregations. He also serves as the Assistant Dean for Black Church Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, as well as the President of American Baptist College.

At the KMS institute, Harris spends time reflecting on what it means to be Black and Christian in America, and helps to organize dialogues and conferences surrounding this intersection. It was once antithetical to be Black and Christian, Harris said, because blackness meant oppression, and Christianity stood for liberation. However, because of dialogues similar to the ones that he continues to encourage at the KMS Institute, this type of Christianity that “vetted the status quo and kept sociopolitical arrangements for people who had oppressed and had a history of oppressing people of color,” has come into question.

“That dialogue gave vent to the fact that it could critique christianity and open it and expose it for what it was, the impurities and the imperialism that it stood for and debunk it for the christianity at the core, that Christianity that we believe that Jesus and the gospels represent, at its core, is liberation and justice. So what it means to be black and Christian is that it brings a very strong antithetical reality to the Christianity that we have been oppressing.”


Amy-Jill Levine, University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies

At the age of seven, Amy-Jill Levine’s classmate came up to her and said “You killed our Lord.”

“At the time, I could not fathom how a tradition that had Christmas trees and bunnies who delivered eggs and Santa Claus could also have charges of deicide,” Levine said. “I initially thought that this teaching was based on a translation error, since I was going to Hebrew school, and I knew in learning Hebrew that translation was not always easy.”

So, Levine announced to her parents that she would be attending a religious education class in the local church in order to find out where this hateful teaching originated so that she could stop it. She has spent the rest of her life doing just that.

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As both a Professor New Testament Studies and a Professor Jewish Studies, Levine is a self-proclaimed “Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Christian divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt.” She has dedicated her life and career to eliminating anti-Jewish, sexist and homophobic theologies.

“I have seen the Bible used to marginalize, demean, and inculcate hate,” Levine said. “Therefore, I seek to help readers  — undergraduates, Divinity students, clergy — find alternative messages of inclusivity, respect, and love. These efforts do not erase religious differences — we should not sacrifice our beliefs on the altar of interfaith sensitivity — but they do provide ways forward toward understanding.”

Religion is not only, and in some cases not primarily, about a belief system; it is necessarily related to what we do, including what we do with our bodies and how we relate to the bodies of others. Amy-Jill Levine

Levine’s 65-page CV lists out her 22 books (the most recent entitled “Short Stories by Jesus: the Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi”), over 100 essays, 20 television appearances, dozens of community involvement experiences and over 200 academic lectures and conference papers since 1987.

She taught at Swarthmore College for nine years before joining the Vanderbilt faculty as both a VDS professor and as a professor in the Jewish Studies department, allowing her to interact with both the graduate and undergraduate student bodies.

Traveling three to four days out of every week, Levine spends a lot of her time giving speeches and putting on workshops and other programs. In her “spare” time, she is writing a commentary on the Gospel of Luke, proofreading the second edition of her “Jewish Annotated New Testament,” which will be published this fall, and approving illustrations for her children’s book on Jesus’ parables. She also spends a large portion of her time preparing, grading, and interacting with students for the classes she teaches at Vanderbilt.

As the founding director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality (now directed by Armour, above), the intersection of sexuality and religion serves as a focal point for much of Levine’s teaching and learning.

“Religion is not only, and in some cases not primarily, about a belief system; it is necessarily related to what we do, including what we do with our bodies and how we relate to the bodies of others,” Levine said. “The Book of Genesis teaches that humanity is in the image and likeness of G-d, and Paul of Tarsus regards the body as a “temple of the holy spirit” (1 Corinthians 6.19).  Therefore the body should be cherished and treated with respect.”

Further, with regards to complicated issue surrounding gender and sexuality and how they play into religious teachings, such as gender identity, sexual activity, abortion, ordination, marriage and divorce, theological language, etc., Levine emphasizes trying to cooperate to understand the other side’s point of view before preaching one’s own.

“Rather than demonizing those who hold opposing views, we do better to listen to them and challenge them based on coherent arguments rather than gut feelings. For example, when I do programs on “The Bible and Homosexuality” (including one in 2016 at Belmont University), I find prejudices break down, people hear arguments they had not considered, and conversations can then begin.”


All photos courtesy of Vanderbilt University.

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