My Humanist M.Div.

In a month’s time, I will be heading off to Harvard Divinity School to pursue a Masters of Divinity (M.Div.). It will be an exciting journey, though what exactly I’ll be doing might not be entirely clear to you. So I feel like I owe it to you to answer some questions you might have.

What is the M.Div.?

Traditionally, the M.Div. is a prerequisite for ordination into professional ministry for many American Christian denominations. Harvard, however, is quite unique in that it offers M.Div.’s to people of many faiths and non-faiths. I am not a Christian — like many Asian Americans, I was raised outside of God-centered ideology. So at Harvard, I will be pursuing the track in secular humanism, with a focus on East Asian thought. My studies will allow me to understand and ultimately help non-religious Hua (華) people like me lead meaningful, ethical lives.

The M.Div. curriculum consists of two components. The first is academic, consisting of regular old coursework. For this component, I will take courses in Chinese thought, on religious life in America, and in philosophy and theology. The second component is professional — supervised field education combined with coursework on the “arts of ministry,” such as preaching, pastoral care and counseling, church administration. The Boston area has promising opportunities to work with Unitarian Universalist and Humanist organizations, as well as clinical pastoral care in healthcare settings, all of which I am likely to get involved with in the course of my field education.

What do you want to do with the M.Div.?

I want to address an overlooked need. The following is adapted from the first part of my application essay to the M.Div. programs:

Some of the deepest spiritual hurt can be found among secular Asian Americans. It’s not always recognized as such: I’ve heard it called “intergenerational conflict” or “Asian American mental health problems.” But for all parties involved, these are crises of faith that must often be endured alone.

Indeed, nonreligious Asian American families face expectations regarding career and family that stem from a tradition very different from that of those around them. Yet the only characterization of that tradition that is available to them are negative caricatures: “Asian values” result in the “Asian parenting” of “Tiger Moms.” The problem is compounded by the fact that many Asian American families (like mine) live in isolation from each other. No outside party—for example, a religious leader—is available for those who so badly need help coming to terms with their values in a world of difference.

It shouldn’t have to be this way. I have come to recognize that a lot of that spiritual hurt stems from a misunderstanding of our ethical inheritance. As long as we believe that our “Asian values” are some rigid set of codes, we fall into the false trap of choosing between the values we see as our parents’ and the values of the society around us. But if we look back to understand the framework that our modern inheritance stems from, we realize the East Asian humanist tradition is far from such a thing—in fact, it is one of the most dynamic, insightful sources of wisdom for living meaningfully.

We should come to understand our ethical heritage—particularly the Confucian tradition—as an asset, not a burden, to our quest to live meaningful lives. And nobody should have to suffer alone, when so many are facing the same problems. That is why I find it so important to build a community around creatively transforming our ethical inheritances to respond to the challenges we face—to draw strength from what we as a matter of fact take as our moral foundations. Over time, I have begun to find ways to do it in my own life, and I’ve seen how powerful it can be. I’d now like to join in respectful communion with others in similar situations, so that together we can build and affirm our own way of living truly.

It’s not yet clear what path I’ll be taking to address that need — the project may see me working through the Unitarian Universalist church, with the budding Humanist movement at Harvard, in Asian American community organizations, across to China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, or to further academic degrees. Regardless of where I go, I hope the M.Div. gives me the tools, the inspiration, and the insight to make a difference.

What happened to medicine?

Choosing a “career” is tough. During my time in college, it became clear to me that my future profession should satisfy two simple requirements: First, it should be intellectually exciting — it should rouse my curiosity and challenge my intellect. Second, it should help people in a visceral, tangible way. I am the sort of person who needs to see the impact I have on people, so I never want to abstract myself from the community I work for. Therefore, any work, no matter how intellectually exciting, should still tie me back to the people I serve.

For four years of undergrad, I knew of one profession that clearly satisfied both requirements: medicine, that supreme puzzle-cracking, people-saving craft. So I relished and excelled in the Human Biology series, struggled through organic chemistry, and pushed through the physics and upper-division biology requirements. For two years I led the referrals department of Stanford’s free clinic, gaining an intimate understanding of healthcare at the grassroots. After I took a quarter off my junior year to write about children with congenital heart disease in rural Gansu, my resolve to become a doctor was firmer than ever.

At the same time, I was deeply engrossed in the subject of my major, philosophy. (I took the track in the philosophy of science.) I came alive in grappling with foundational questions about how we come to know the world. And in my spare time, I fell in love with East Asian philosophy and literature. I knew that throughout my life, even if it was not my trade, philosophy would always be my intellectual passion.

So in the fall of senior year, when I first found out about the humanist M.Div. — I was intrigued. This was the first time I’d heard “ministry” being spoken of seriously as a career, and as something that I as a nonreligious person could do. And in the same way that being a doctor attended to physical health, so ministry attended to spiritual health — a noble enterprise which equally fulfilled my requirements for a rewarding career. Finally, and most importantly, ministry eliminated the gap between my intellectual passion for philosophy and real service to the community — humanist ministry was a way to employ philosophy in the service of alleviating suffering. After consulting with my family, I decided I had nothing to lose by applying.

When I got in, a real choice presented myself. Do I continue the premed track, or do I seize this new and novel opportunity? I knew both paths were something I could be happy with — they both united intellectual challenge with helping people directly. So instead, a different question now had to be answered: where did the world need me?

I made a rough calculation. On the one hand, the world always needs more doctors, no doubt. But a Dr. Seanan Fong would be one of very many doctors rendering the same sort of standardized services — professionally, I’d be more or less interchangeable with the next doctor, who given the stringency of medical school admissions would no doubt be fairly good at his or her job. I thought of all my fantastic premed friends, and I knew that the field was not without tremendous promise. On the other hand, humanist ministry is a completely new concept, filling a need that is just being understood. And I was coming in with an understanding of how I could fit into that growing movement, focusing on the needs of Asian Americans specifically. I had a vision, and I had a passion. If I didn’t step up to the plate, when would the next person?

Ultimately, it was tough to relinquish the idea of being a doctor. But I’m excited to embark on a fantastic new journey, one that I know will take all of what I’ve got.

Are you falling into the wrong crowd?

For lots of people, religion is scary. Some religious people may find those of other faiths, or those with no “faith” at all, to be strange, misguided, or even dangerous. Conversely, many non-religious people find the idea of religion distasteful. That puts me in a weird position for both groups — here I am, a young, impressionable, non-religious student going off to get a professional degree in religion after college. Let me address some concerns by making a few points clear.

1. I want to focus on the here and now, not on the hereafter. Confucius refused to talk about the spirits: “While you are not able to serve men, how can you serve their spirits?” When asked about death, Confucius responded, “While you do not know life, how can you know about death?” (Analects 11.12) I share his sentiment. Then why am I going to divinity school? Well, like some humanists at Harvard, I think there’s a lot of good in the human institutions that make up traditional religion — and I’d like to learn from them. Humanist ministry is new, and there’s no better place to learn how to tend to people’s deepest spiritual needs than from clergy who have been doing it for a long time. We may disagree theologically, but the practical skills — preaching, administration, pastoral counseling — should be applicable across faiths and non-faiths.

2. While I am not going to convert to a sect of Christianity (or Islam, or Buddhism, etc.) I look forward to learning, respectfully and earnestly, more about those systems of belief or practice. I say this to address two concerns: The first comes from my family and friends who are afraid I’ll fall into the hands of dogmatic religion. I can’t guarantee against a bout of personal revelation, but I’m equipped with enough philosophical skepticism that I promise I’ll be fine. The second comes from family and friends who think I really should convert to a particular faith (namely, their own). Here’s my policy on this: I actually do respect your religion, and if your faith inspires you to do good in the world, I respect it even more. I am open to conversations about God, but at the end of the day, it’s His/Her/Its job to show me the way. I’ll keep my heart open to God’s possibility, but in the meanwhile, I’m going to work in this world.

3. I’m planning to be a voice at the interfaith table. I’m not going to divinity school to convert anyone to anything — religious or non-religious. But I will be going to a place where the object of study is religion. I’ll do my best to represent where I come from, what I believe in, and what I think is best for individuals and society, while respecting others’ beliefs and practices. As a secular Asian American, I feel like we are a voice that has long been missing at the interfaith table — consider me your delegate to the conversation! I’ll gladly take on the sticky job of articulating our values in a pluralistic society.

Thanks everyone for reading — if you have any more questions or other reactions, feel free to contact me! With all your support, it’s going to be an awesome next three years.