Zest for religion seen by new dean of Harvard Divinity School

TALK to Dr. Ronald F. Thiemann and you get visions of an intellectual Atlas. He speaks of holding aloft, and together, the worlds of religious tradition and academic inquiry. But unlike the titan in Greek literature, it is mental muscle that the mild-mannered, soft-spoken churchman-scholar seems intent on flexing.

Already the dual commitment to faith and scholarship has propelled the Lutheran pastor with Midwest roots into the top post at one of the nation's most prestigious ministerial training centers: Harvard Divinity School. The Rev. Dr. Thiemann will assume the deanship at HDS in July. Until that time, he continues to serve as acting president and chairman of the Department of Religion at Haverford College, a Quaker liberal-arts school in Pennsylvania.

In a broad-based interview during a recent visit here, Dr. Thiemann discussed the role of religion in education, a new zest of America's youth for nonsecular learning, and the church's impact on the global quest for social justice.

``Harvard Divinity School has pioneered the integration of the study of comparative religion into professional preparation for the ministry,'' Dr. Thiemann points out. ``Every student who goes through the master of divinity program at Harvard must take a series of courses in comparative religion.

``That means that people who are being prepared for the ministry will bring to their parish ministry both sensitivity to and understanding of other religious traditions.''

Dr. Thiemann defines ``comparative religion'' in terms of contrasting Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Judaism, as well as religious traditions in Africa and the East.

He says this approach is having a tremendous academic impact.

``No longer is the study of religion simply [the teaching] of the great literary texts produced essentially by high culture,'' Dr. Thiemann explains. ``Now we've developed the methods whereby we can understand religious practices -- what religion was like as it was practiced by the people who were most directly influenced by it.

``While the study of the great textual tradition goes on, where explosions have taken place in terms of what we learned is at a level of a kind of combination of history and sociology.''

``Openness'' ``conviction'' and commitment to ``tradition'' are important to approaching the study of religion, Dr. Thiemann holds. And he says that these terms generally describe not only many who are preparing for the ministry but thousands of students who are today enrolling in religious-studies courses at colleges and universities around the United States.

The theologian says that contrary to some reports, those hungering for religion courses are not primarily from fundamentalist backgrounds. And often they even come from families where denominational religion has not been of primary concern.

``This is a phenomenon that is getting too little attention right now: nonfundamentalist and second-generation secular people coming to terms with religion,'' Dr. Thiemann explains. ``That's one of the exciting things about the current generation of students . . . openness to a variety of voices, a willingness to participate in a conversation in which it is not assumed from the beginning that one, and only one, of those voices can be correct . . . a willingness to enter into a variety of different worlds to see what they are like.

``The concept of [religious] pluralism is very important for the kind of student I'm describing.''

Could this approach tend to weaken religious tradition and denominationalism?

Dr. Thiemann concedes that ``it might not be the kind of encouragement for a church-unifying ecumenical endeavor.

``But it certainly helps to provide a context in which serious exchange and mutual respect among Christian denominations, and then even further between [other] traditions, is encouraged.''

The theologian stresses that he sees no conflict between a willingness to weigh a variety of religious concepts and the holding of deeply felt, tradition-bound denominational convictions.

``It doesn't mean that to have an openness to other points of view and perspectives, one is without convictions. And it need not mean the end of specific religious commitment that might be captured somehow in denominations.

``It simply means that there is an openness to hearing the voices of others . . . ,'' he explains.

Dr. Thiemann likes to talk of ``tradition,'' especially religious tradition, as something that is not inherently conservative, but is dynamically alive: ``The concern for tradition is concern for continuing a century of long conversation about what it means to be a religious tradition, what the central convictions of that tradition are, what kinds of practices, both for the community and for the larger society, are appropriate for that community. That is the living sense of tradition.''

The newly appointed HDS dean points out that the commitment of many students today to things spiritual is compatible with their strong concern for the less fortunate members of society.

``There is an increasing interest in questions of social justice, of ministry to the underside of our society,'' he points out. ``It's a much quieter movement than we saw in the 1960s, but it is active . . . and related to a growing intellectual and spiritual interest in matters religious as well.''

Dr. Thiemann stresses that Christians are called upon to ``stand for and with those who suffer innocently.'' And he says they sometimes do so ``at great risk to themselves.''

``For example, congregations that have committed themselves to participate in the sanctuary movement [illegally sheltering Central American refugees] really are putting their own convictions on the line,'' he notes.

Ronald Thiemann is not only a religionist. He's a realist. But his Lutheran training, he says, brightens his outlook on the future. ``There is hope, and that hope is bounded presently in the faith of the fact that human history is moving to some end other than simply self-destruction, moving to an end that God has intended for his people and his world -- that is, a life with God,'' he says.

``That is why [Martin] Luther's `justification by faith' becomes so centrally important, that is trusting in the grace of God even when the evidence mounts up against that trust, and hoping that the future will be a future with God and not against him.

``Sometimes people get intellectually interested in religion,'' Dr. Thiemann says. ``And it has a spiritual effect, and they become practicing members of religious communities. Other times it doesn't work.

``If you ask me to tell you why it works sometimes and better than [at] others, I have no idea. It's the `grace of God,' in my theological language.''

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