Most Influential Students – October 2013

Question: Who have been your most influential students (intellectually, theologically, and popularly)?

Publication Month: October 2013

Since I enjoy recalling and rejoicing in former students, I appreciate this question as a chance to reflect in a distinctive way. My first response is that each of them has found her or his own way to such an extent that ranking them is quite meaningless. For example, I think of some who have given leadership to process theology in Japan, Korea, and India. How great their influence may be I do not know, and I will not include them here. Two Buddhists have worked to develop Buddhist social ethics, and I consider that the increasing global role of Buddhists in dealing with the critical issues of our time to be a matter of great historical importance. The most varied and entrepreneurial career has been that of Rita Brock, and the influence of her current work in moral injury and soul repair may be immensely important. But I will try to stay close to the question.

Intellectually, my most influential student today is Catherine Keller. She has given life to theology in a time when religious studies have almost eclipsed progressive Christian thought, and she has done this in a way that has gained respect far beyond the bounds of theology as a distinct discipline. In her hands, process theology is taking a new, and very promising, form. She is enlarging the Whiteheadian family in quite wonderful ways. I am hesitant to call her “my student” since even when she was studying for her PhD she was my teacher as well.

The questioner separates “intellectually” from “theologically.” My initial reaction to this distinction was negative. Catherine is a highly intellectual theologian. But theology can also be closely related to the church, and there are others whose contribution lies there. Over the years I have been surprised by the number of my students who have served as deans and presidents of theological seminaries. These are influential roles. Off the cuff, I think of Del Brown and Susan Nelson (both deceased), and of Nancy Howell, Riess Potterveld, Rebecca Parker, Marjorie Suchocki, and Mary Elizabeth Moore. They have contributed significantly to the church’s thinking.

I select two of these “church theologians” for special recognition: Marjorie Suchocki and Mary Elizabeth Moore partly because as a fellow United Methodist I am familiar with their contributions. Both have been seminary deans, and both have served the United Methodist Church in numerous roles at national as well as local levels, including as deans of United Methodist seminaries. Suchocki has retired from this role and, in retirement, become a leader in the field of theology and film while continuing to write theology and serve the national church. Moore continues to lead Boston School of Theology very successfully in a time when most mainline seminaries are in trouble. The writings of both are directed to helping lay people and church leaders to think about their faith and its practical relevance in their lives and beyond. Moore has contributed especially to what we know as “practical theology.” As an aside, I add that, of all my students, it was Suchocki who led me to a major change in my own philosophical theology.

I want to mention Susan Lubarsky also. She is Jewish and has helped to keep an interest in process theology alive in that community. However, I list her here because of her creative institutional work in higher education. From a Whiteheadian perspective, I am distressed that the modern research university has abandoned attention to values, made itself the servant of the capitalist economy, fragmented knowledge, and directed its attention away from the most critical issues of the day. Lubarsky has shown that it is possible, despite many obstacles, to create programs in universities that are genuinely relevant to urgent local and global needs. To say her work is “influential” in university circles may be more an expression of hope than a description of contemporary reality, but there is a wonderful potential influence.

In terms of “popular” influence, I identify Jay McDaniel for special attention. His work on ecology and spirituality is thoroughly informed by scholarship and philosophical thought, but he has been able to write in ways that appeal to a wider audience. His website, “Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism,” carries this breadth of influence still further. Much of that influence is in China, where he is a very popular teacher. He is now creating an international movement working for ecological civilization.

David Griffin is probably the most influential of my students. His work has certainly had intellectual substance and he has contributed substantially to philosophy of religion, philosophical theology, and systematic theology. But here I am not featuring these contributions. His most important influence is of two types, neither of which fits the categories listed in the question.

By far the greatest interest in our kind of process thought is in China, and primary credit for Chinese interest goes to David. It was his writing and editing on “constructive postmodernism” that caught the attention of Chinese intellectuals and brought Zhihe Wang to study with him in Claremont. The astonishing consequence has been that Whiteheadian thought is now taken seriously in Chinese governmental, cultural, and university circles.

In a very different sphere, but also of great importance, has been his work on “9/11 truth.” It is probable that without his thorough and persistent research the 9/11 truth movement would have fizzled. Of course, it is still ignored or treated contemptuously in the controlled media, and even now most liberals refuse to consider the evidence seriously. But because of his work, today, two thousand registered architects and engineers have publicly recognized that the official story cannot be true and are pushing vigorously for a serious investigation. The call for truth is growing. Should a public investigation ever occur, its consequences would be revolutionary.

My greatest difficulty in writing this is to leave unmentioned so many others whose work I so appreciate. I do indeed rejoice in my students.