In Memory: Ronald F. Thiemann, 1946–2012

Ronald F. Thiemann, Bussey Professor of Theology and former dean of Harvard Divinity School, died on Thursday, November 29, 2012, at the age of 66.

A noted scholar, theologian, teacher, and administrator, Thiemann was a leading voice in discussions about contemporary theology and the role of religion in American public life. Prior to being named, in 2006, to the Bussey Professorship—Harvard’s oldest endowed chair in theology—he was Professor of Theology and Professor of Religion and Society at HDS.

Thiemann was appointed Dean and John Lord O’Brian Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School in 1986 and served in that capacity until he stepped down from the position as Dean in 1999 to devote his time fully to teaching, lecturing, and writing. On the occasion of the School’s 175th anniversary in 1992, he wrote: ‘The challenges for us in the coming decades will include preparing ministers, theologians, scholars, teachers, and religious and social service leaders to reflect theologically on the reality of a religiously plural world; advancing women’s studies in religions; revitalizing interdisciplinary and interprofessional conversation; building a truly diverse faculty and student body; and taking the fervent intentions expressed at the founding of the School that its program of study be genuinely nonsectarian and open to all forms of critical inquiry, and truly making those purposes our own.’

Under his direction, the Divinity School received increasing recognition for its special interdisciplinary programs and curricular reforms aimed at reconnecting theological education to issues of public significance. He was instrumental in re-establishing Religion and Society as a doctoral field of study at HDS. In 1992, Thiemann announced the formation at HDS of the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life, a teaching and research center founded to examine the values that shape public policies and debates. Under his guidance, the Center’s activities expanded to cover three overlapping areas: civil society and the renewal of public life; the environment; and international relations. Since 2006, Thiemann directed the Business across Religious Traditions initiative, an executive education program for business leaders. With H. Bruce McEver, MBA ’69 and MTS ’11, he recently co-founded the Foundation for Religious Literacy, and he addressed the first Religious Literacy Roundtable (produced in cooperation with the Coexist Foundation) in New York City, on October 4, 2012, his sixty-sixth birthday.

A native of St. Louis, Missouri, he earned his doctorate from Yale University in 1976, with a dissertation titled “A Conflict of Perspectives: The Debate between Karl Barth and Werner Elert.” He also held MA and MPhil degrees from Yale. He received the BA degree magna cum laude from Concordia Senior College in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the master of divinity degree from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. In 1998, he received both an honorary doctor of divinity degree from Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus Ohio and an honorary LLD from Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Indiana.

Thiemann’s teaching career began in 1975, when he was acting instructor in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University. Before coming to Harvard Divinity School in 1986, Thiemann served for ten years on the faculty of Haverford College, where he chaired the religion department from 1978 through 1984 and served as acting provost and acting president. In 1982, he received the Christian and Mary Lindback Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching.

An ordained Lutheran minister, Thiemann served on several task forces and committees of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and, as a theologian, he participated regularly and frequently in conversations and dialogues with scholars and professionals from various fields, disciplines, and religious traditions. In 2010 he was appointed the North American representative to the Lutheran Roman Catholic International Commission on Christian Unity by the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican.

He lectured widely, in both the United States and worldwide, in such places as Germany, Greece, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. In 2006 he represented the U.S. National Academies of Science on a lecture tour of universities and research centers in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Thiemann’s research focused on the relation of Christian theology to American public life. His book Religion in Public Life: A Dilemma for Democracy (1996) includes a careful examination of Supreme Court cases on the separation of church and state and an evaluation of religion’s role in a pluralistic democracy. Constructing a Public Theology: The Church in a Pluralistic Culture appeared in 1991, and Revelation and Theology: The Gospel as Narrated Promise (1985; reissued 2005) garnered attention when it was published, because in it Thiemann employed important recent developments in analytic philosophy to shed new light on some of the more intractable problems with which modern theologians struggle. He also edited and contributed to a number of other books: Who Will Provide? The Changing Role of Religion in American Social Welfare (2001), Where Shall My Wandering Soul Begin: The Landscape of Evangelical Piety and Thought (2000), and Why Are We Here: Everyday Questions and the Christian Life (1998). At the time of his death, he had just completed a new book, The Humble Sublime: Literary Realism as Social Critique, which will be published by I.B. Tauris. The work begins with Martin Luther and provides case studies of Anna Akhmatova, Langston Hughes, George Orwell, Albert Camus, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer—all of whom were ‘prisoners of conscience’ who lived according to deeply held convictions which they expressed, publicly, through their art, their theology, and their beliefs.

Thiemann spoke and wrote frequently about communities and common social purpose and the value of religious discourse in the public arena—about “self-critical communities seeking to forge some sense of common aims and purposes from the diverse interests of their citizens.”

He elaborated in his writings on the concept of “connected criticism,” and lived his life as a “connected critic.” In his words: “Connected critics are those who are fully engaged in the very enterprise they criticize, yet alienated by the deceits and shortcomings of their own community. Because they care so deeply about the values inherent in their common enterprise, they vividly experience the evils of their society even as they call their community back to its better nature. Connected critics recognize that fallibility clings to the life of every political or social organization, and they seek to identify both the virtuous and the vicious dimensions of the common life in which they participate.”

A resident of Concord, Massachusetts, Thiemann is survived by his wife, Beth A. Thiemann; his two daughters, Sarah Thiemann Connolly and Laura Thiemann Scales; sons-in-law William J. Connolly and Daniel Scales; and grandchildren Kate, William, Anna, and Nathan.

Visiting hours will take place at Dee Funeral Home, 27 Bedford Street, Concord, Massachusetts, on Tuesday, December 4, from 5 to 8 pm. Funeral services will be held at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, 60 Forest Park Road, Woburn, on Wednesday, December 5, at 10 am. In lieu of flowers, contributions in his memory may be made to the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, 60 Forest Park Road, Woburn, MA 01801, or to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, P.O. Box 849168, Boston, MA 02284-9168.

A memorial service will be held at Harvard University early in 2013.