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Divine Cluster

For academic year 2020-2021. 

Montserrat students visiting the Worcester Art Museum.
Visiting the Worcester Art Museum

The theme for the Divine cluster this year is Intersections of Encounter. In our class discussions and activities, cluster events, and the ensuing conversations, we will be attentive to how humans have understood and do understand our access to something greater than ourselves. Does access to the transcendent and the divine come through individual, personal encounters? Or do we approach something greater through shared, interpersonal encounters with others and with the world around us? Or might humans understand and access the divine by looking to the intersections of these personal/vertical and interpersonal/horizontal axes? If so, what might the integration of these different approaches look like?

The seminars in this cluster will engage with these and related questions from a variety of disciplinary approaches. We will address, for example, how different cultures over time and in different parts of the world have approached these questions, while also focusing on our own ways of finding greater meaning through communication with the divine and with each other. Cocurricular and cluster events will complement the cluster’s seminars, as we explore together the variety of approaches to the divine, and the intersections that may connect those different approaches.

NOTE: Some courses (as indicated below in the course descriptions) include a Community Based Learning component. These experiences will be organized as conditions allow in conjunction with the College's Donelan Office of Community-Based Learning.


Divine 1: Freedom of Speech

Common Area Designation(s): Philosophical Studies
C.I.S. Concentration: Africana Studies, Peace and Conflict Studies

Perceptions: Freedom and Truth (fall) 

This class will start with Socrates, who was executed by the state of Athens, because he refused to apologize for speaking freely in the pursuit of truth. For Socrates, our freedom to speak does not depend on whether there are laws in place that protect speech: it depends on whether we are blinded by ignorance, or able to perceive the truth. Being free to say something we don't really mean is no freedom. The class will read texts from the philosophical tradition which engage the questions of perception, blindness, and faith in the pursuit of truth.

Protest: Freedom and Action (spring)  

If the question of the freedom of speech is usually approached in terms of what we may say, this seminar will suggest that it is also about what we must say. If part of what we hear going on around us now is unjust, then that will require a response. In this seminar we will look at the tradition of resistance to racial injustice that consists in speaking freely even when that means breaking the law. Starting with John Stuart Mill, who argued that no opinion should be suppressed, we will go on to study J.L. Austin who challenged the hard and fast distinction between words and acts. We will study a range of protest works, ranging from Malcolm X and Steve Biko, to songs, film and poetry from the U.S. and South Africa.


Divine 2: Identity, Diversity and Community

Common Area Designation(s): Studies in Religion

Exploring Difference (fall)

One of the most important tasks for the human person as a moral being is to come to “know thyself,” as the ancient philosophers recommend. But how do we do this? The African ethic of Ubuntu suggests that persons come to know themselves through other persons, that is, through relationships within diverse communities. Our willingness to place ourselves outside the boundary of our “comfort zone” and compassionately encounter difference, disability, and “otherness” may paradoxically lead us to a more honest and merciful knowledge of the self. Through film, readings in theology and literature, and engagement in the experiences of marginalized communities, we will consider difference and disability and how such encounters with others in their “otherness” bring us to a more challenging and deeper knowledge of ourselves. As conditions allow, we will incorporate direct experience and Community Based Learning into this inquiry.

Modifying Technologies (spring) 

The second half of our seminar will focus on the ways in which advances in modern western reproductive medicine and genetic technologies challenge our notions of “normal” and “disabled” and how we understand the boundary between them. As these advances bring us the hope of cure as well as more choice and control over our bodies and minds, what might be lost with the diminishment of difference and diversity? With the help of readings in bioethics and social ethics, as well as continued engagement in the experiences of marginalized communities, we will consider the following question: Can the human community thrive while those who are outside the “norm” are increasingly stigmatized, isolated, and perhaps eliminated? Students will become knowledgeable about medical and genetic technologies that may be used to diminish diversity and reinforce boundaries between "normal" and "disabled." As conditions allow, we will incorporate direct experience and Community Based Learning into this inquiry.


Divine 3: Immortality in Ancient Greece & Rome

Common Area Designation(s): Literature

Greek Gods & Mortals (fall)

How did ancient Greeks interact with and try to understand the divine? How did many Greek mortals become divine? In this seminar, we will closely read literary texts from the ancient Greek world, with an eye on the authors’ involvement of the gods, and on how that involvement reflects their understandings of the human condition. We will be especially attentive to the variety of ways of contacting and communicating with greater beings and forces. As part of this inquiry, we will consider together how characters such as Homer’s Achilles and the protagonists in Greek tragic plays, as well as real historical figures such as Socrates and the participants in Athenian mystery cults, made efforts to breach the boundaries between human and divine, mortal and immortal.

Roman Lives & Afterlives (spring) 

As we continue our study of human engagement with the divine and the eternal in the ancient Mediterranean world, we will turn to Greece’s geographical and cultural neighbor Rome, whose works of literature also interrogate the nature of deities, and are similarly steeped in the desire for dialogue with something greater. Together we will look closely at a broad range of mythological, philosophical, religious, and a-religious texts. We will also be especially attuned to Roman “afterlives” of another sort – in the echoes and adaptations of Roman ideas in later eras and into our own times. 


Divine 4: Looking for God in all Things

Common Area Designation(s): Studies in Religion

Divinity and History (fall)

“Seeking God in all things” – a Jesuit motto – sums up one of a multitude of ways in which human beings have approached “the Divine” or “the transcendent.” Such terms may refer to one God, or a multitude of spiritual beings beyond ordinary sense experience, or an overall sense of “the spiritual” in the world. During this fall semester of the seminar, we will focus on ways in which ideas of this kind have shaped culture and politics throughout history, and continue to do so. We will use tools from several disciplines, including social sciences, history, arts, literature, and theology, and incorporate direct experience into this inquiry, using the resources of the Donelon Office for Community Based Learning. This course entails a commitment to a Community-Based Learning component or its online equivalent

Divinity and Daily Life (spring)

In the second semester of the seminar, we will focus on ways in which people have recognized, described, and pursued a personal and practical sense of the divine, and continue to do so. We will try to understand how the practice of religion and spirituality has been shaped by the long human development we considered in the first semester. Continuing to make use of a variety of disciplines and practices (including Community Based Learning), we will also look at our own attitudes and experiences regarding “the transcendent,” to deepen our understanding of where we might “fit” into the overall human story. This course entails a commitment to a Community-Based Learning component or its online equivalent.


Cluster Director


Timothy Joseph, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Classics