Dr. Ronald Thiemann, 66; fostered religious literacy


For Harvard Divinity School professor Ronald F. Thiemann, religious faith and intellectual rigor could live together — if not happily, then at least peacefully.

An ordained Lutheran minister, Dr. Thiemann’s research and writing focused on the relationship of Christian theology to American public life. His career led him to become increasingly committed to promoting understanding across a spectrum of religious traditions.

“He was deeply engaged in those issues and in thinking about mutual understanding and mutual respect,” said his longtime friend David H. Jeffries, managing director at the Royal Bank of Scotland and a former student of Dr. Thiemann’s.


“He changed my life,” Jeffries said. “He enabled me to understand I could continue my Christian faith without surrendering my intellect.”

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Dr. Thiemann, who was dean of Harvard Divinity School for about a dozen years and was the Benjamin Bussey professor of theology, died of pancreatic cancer Nov. 29 in his Concord home. He was 66 and was diagnosed last spring.

Earlier this year, he cofounded the Cambridge-based Foundation for Religious Literacy with his friend H. Bruce McEver, who had founded the investment bank Berkshire Capital. The foundation was an outgrowth of private meetings Dr. Thiemann held for several years with business leaders, mostly from the financial services industry.

According to its website, the Cambridge-based foundation’s mission is “to foster inter-religious literacy and understanding among leaders in business, education, journalism, law, and politics.”

In 2008, Dr. Thiemann held meetings in New York during the financial meltdown on Wall Street, Jeffries recalled. Attendees met in corporate conference rooms and examined texts from their different faiths as they discussed religion’s influences on the workplace.


At Harvard, where he became dean of the divinity school in 1986, Dr. Thiemann also directed an initiative for executives called Business across Religious Traditions.

Dr. Thiemann’s career as a theologian and teacher survived a 1998 controversy that began when he asked Harvard’s technology staff to transfer files to a new disk drive when his computer ran out of space. Technicians found thousands of adult pornographic images on his university-owned computer.

Senior personnel at the divinity school reported the images to Neil L. Rudenstine, who was then Harvard’s president. Rudenstine met with Dr. Thiemann, and they decided it would be in the best interest of the divinity school if he resigned as dean.

Before the reason became public a few months later, Dr. Thiemann announced in November 1998 that he was stepping down for “personal and professional reasons.”

The incident sparked debate about whether Harvard violated the privacy of Dr. Thiemann, who had been credited with elevating the divinity school’s national reputation. He never publicly addressed the controversy and returned to teaching after a yearlong sabbatical.


Many colleagues supported Dr. Thiemann, including Francis Schussler Fiorenza, a professor of Roman Catholic theological studies at the divinity school, who wrote a letter to Rudenstine at the time. “I thought the president’s decision was wrong,” he said.

Among the classes Dr. Thiemann taught upon his return were sessions on religion and democracy with feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, who is married to Francis Fiorenza. Cornel West, who was then a Harvard professor, also taught the class.

At an event at Harvard honoring Dr. Thiemann weeks before his death, the Fiorenzas voiced their appreciation of his time as dean.

“We have always been impressed with Ron’s religious and ethical integrity,” Francis Fiorenza said in his remarks.

“Ron brought an intellectual approach and public theological vision to his deanship,” Fiorenza said. “It stands out in many ways. For instance, after endowed lectures, Ron invited faculty and the speaker to dinner at Jewett House. At a certain point during the dinner he would always bring up a question that would crystallize the central intellectual issue of the lecture.”

Born in St. Louis, Dr. Thiemann was the youngest of three children. His father was a door-to-door salesman and a Catholic. His mother worked in a department store. They raised Dr. Thiemann as a Lutheran, which was his mother’s religion.

“A single-minded perspective was not part of his world view,” said Dr. Thiemann’s youngest daughter, Laura Thiemann Scales, who lives in Concord and is an assistant professor of English at Stonehill College.

In addition to Laura, Dr. Thiemann leaves his wife, Beth; his other daughter, Sarah Thiemann Connolly of Weston; his brother, Robert of St. Louis; his sister, Beverly of Topeka, Kan.; two granddaughters; and two grandsons.

A service was held at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Woburn. Burial will be in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord.

“He was very kind and generous, and always willing to stop, give advice, and have that sort of mentoring quality,” Laura said. “He took our ideas seriously and could be very rigorous. He asked us challenging questions, but not in an aggressive way.”

She recalled that family dinner-table conversations once included a discussion about whether the author Jane Austen was a feminist.

Dr. Thiemann reveled in returning to the classroom after 13 years in administration, she said. “It was fulfilling for him. His teaching really motivated him.”

Dr. Thiemann met Beth Barkow while both were freshmen at Concordia Senior College in Fort Wayne, Ind. They were married 44 years.

He graduated with master’s degrees from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and Yale University. He received a doctorate in 1976 from Yale, where he wrote a dissertation on conflicting perspectives of Swiss theologian Karl Barth and German Lutheran theologian Werner Elert.

Dr. Thiemann spent 10 years on the faculty of Haverford College in Pennsylvania, where he chaired the religion department from 1978 through 1984, and served as acting provost and acting president.

He wrote several books, including “Religion in Public Life: A Dilemma for Democracy.”

Dr. Thiemann once wrote that in the world of religious discussion, he considered himself a “connected critic.”

“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,” he wrote. “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.”

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at