Convention Speaker Innovates to “Liberate” Religious Rituals

Casper ter Kuile, a researcher and fellow at Harvard Divinity School, will give the keynote address at the Diocese of Chicago’s annual convention in November.

Ter Kuile, who holds masters of divinity and public policy degrees from Harvard, is a co-founder of How We Gather, which describes itself as a “Millennial-led spiritual startup collaboration between Harvard Divinity School and the Fetzer Institute.” The project studies how people find meaning, connection and community in an increasingly secular world.

“What drew human beings to religion in the first place has not disappeared,” ter Kuile says. “The consistent yearning for meaning and purpose and connection and the joy of experiencing ritual or something bigger than yourself. All of these elements, marking stages of time and life journeys, all of that is still 100% relevant. And what our research has always focused on is, ‘well what are people doing to fulfill that and how can we help them do it better?’”

Despite his research on secular communities, ter Kuile, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his husband, Sean Lair, is far from finding organized religion irrelevant. Our traditions have great wisdom to offer, he says, in an age when “an undercurrent of stress and disconnection is having massive implications for our health and wellbeing.” He advocates innovating based on tradition to “liberate” religious rituals.

“The words you say at a baptism and the idea of a liturgical calendar, for example. These are things that will practically serve all sorts of people, way beyond those who might see themselves as, ‘I’m an Episcopalian and I’m in the pews every Sunday,’” he says.

To prepare for his convention address on the afternoon of November 22, ter Kuile invites Episcopalians in the diocese to listen to an episode of “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” a popular podcast he co-founded and co-hosts with Vanessa Zoltan. The podcast uses traditional practices for reading scripture to explore J.K. Rowling’s beloved Harry Potter novels as “sacred text.”

“We use these gems of the Christian church, so we now have 65,000 people who do Lectio Divina every week,” ter Kuile says. “We did a live show with [popular young adult author] John Green, who is an Episcopalian. … It shows how things that come from the Christian church or the Episcopal tradition can still be meaningful and relevant to people.”