'Cultivating Liberal Institutions': An Interview With Dan McKanan

April 25, 2009
'Cultivating Liberal Institutions': An Interview With Dan McKanan

Dan McKanan / Photo: Justin Knight

Dan McKanan joined the HDS faculty in July 2008 as the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer in Divinity. On Thursday, May 7, he will deliver the lecture to inaugurate the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Chair. This lecture, titled "Unless a Seed Falls: Cultivating Liberal Institutions," will take place at 5:15 pm in Andover Hall's Sperry Room.

Before coming to HDS, McKanan served as department chair and Associate Professor of Theology at the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John's University, Minnesota, where he began teaching in 1998. He is a 1989 summa cum laude graduate of Harvard College, in religion, and holds a 1993 master of divinity degree from Vanderbilt University. In 1998, he completed his PhD at the University of Chicago in the history of Christianity.

His first book, Identifying the Image of God: Radical Christians and Nonviolent Power in the Antebellum United States (Oxford University Press, 2002), explores theological understandings of violence and nonviolence among abolitionists, pacifists, and temperance activists. Touching the World: Christian Communities Transforming Society (2007) and The Catholic Worker After Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation (2008), both published by Liturgical Press, deal with the Camphill and Catholic Worker networks of intentional communities. His current book project, tentatively entitled, "Prophetic Encounters," is a general history of the religious left in the United States.

You attended Harvard College and now, after spending many years away from Cambridge living in Tennessee, Chicago, and Minnesota, you've returned. I'm wondering how you feel Harvard has changed since your days as an undergraduate here.

Let me start with some of the things that have not changed. Many of the professors that I had when I was an undergraduate are still on the faculty here. Diana Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies, was the first professor I had as a religion major in the fall of my freshman year. Dean William Graham was on the committee for my senior thesis. So coming here as a faculty member involved a lot of reconnecting with people who had been important mentors for me in the past. I was joking to somebody the other day that most of the people on the faculty at the Divinity School were either here when I was an undergraduate or have only been here for the past five years or so. As a result, there is an interesting blend between the longer-serving faculty and the new.

When I was an undergraduate student, taking classes at the Divinity School was enormously important for me. Some, not all, of my undergraduate peers were quite ambitious, driven, and focused on their future careers. Being able to come and take classes at the Divinity School and make friends with second-career people who were preparing for the ministry; to understand people's personal religious journeys; and just to be in an environment that valued the wisdom of people of different ages, helped balance my experience as a 20-year-old. I think the Divinity School is still maintaining its place as one of the more humane, hospitable sections of Harvard. It is hard for me to talk a lot about how Harvard has changed because, since coming back, I've been more conscious of the ways in which I have changed. When I was a student here, I was a deeply committed Lutheran. I was very attached to the local Lutheran congregation, University Lutheran, which is probably one of the two or three local religious communities that has had the biggest impact on my life. I was one of the undergraduate co-chairs of the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, which is housed in the basement of University Lutheran Church.

Being part of a community that allowed its identity to be shaped profoundly by its service to the poor was transformative for me. It helped me maintain a three-fold commitment to the church, to the academy, and to popular movements for social transformation. That three-fold commitment has stayed with me, but it has taken me to different places. Particularly, it has taken me away from Lutheranism to Unitarian Universalism. Coming back to HDS has given me the chance to think about that journey and the ways in which the values and the vision that I encountered at University Lutheran are still present for me, even though I have moved very far away from the theological underpinnings of the larger Lutheran tradition and toward a tradition that is more affirming of the divine potential of human nature.

You've touched on some elements of your February 10 'In Conversation' lecture at the Center for the Study of World Religions, in which you examined your service to the church, the academy, and the Left. How has your spiritual and intellectual autobiography unfolded?

The first time in my life when I had three strong institutional anchors was as an undergraduate. One of those anchors was Harvard College; one was University Lutheran as a faith community; and one was the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. Being connected simultaneously to those three places allowed me to let each one correct the other. In doing my academic work, even if I was writing on something fairly academic—such as the poetry of William Wordsworth—I did it with an eye to my own worship experience at University Lutheran and with an eye to my encounters with men and women experiencing homelessness.

When I was at the shelter, I thought a lot about mopping floors as a spiritual practice, but I also brought the critical mindset of academia to bear. People talked a lot about the difference between social service and social justice, and I never saw that difference in the same way. I never saw the homeless shelter as purely a service venue, because it was an opportunity for personal transformation if I listened to the stories of people whose life experiences were very different from mine. It was also an agent of social change—sometimes social change in a negative way. Homeless shelters were springing up all over the United States in the 1980s, and as much as those shelters were necessary, they were, in a sense, legitimizing the idea that we would have a permanent caste of homeless people in this country. I was not comfortable with that, and having those academic tools forced me to ask critical questions. It has been important in each subsequent stage of my life to have that same balance.

When I was a master's student at Vanderbilt, I was active in another Lutheran congregation, and I was also involved in a counseling program for men who batter women. The program used a curriculum that had been developed in Duluth, Minnesota, which took the best thinking about the structure of sexism and tried to help these men see that their problem was not just a bad temper; their problem was the way they participate in a system in which men control women.

We helped these men see how individual incidents of violence were linked to the economic control they might have in their household or to emotional abuse that they might be engaging in. The point was to see the whole structure of male power that undergirded their violent act. Beyond that analysis, we helped them see the ways in which it was possible to live differently, and that one could build relationships on the foundation of equality. Really listening to the stories of people who were not terribly likable or admirable, but who could be quite eloquent about the complexities of their own lives, was important to me, and it helped inform the work I was doing in the classroom.

Typically, academic theological conversations focus more on church and academy than they do on social change movements. For example, as Emerson Chair I am especially responsible to the historical trajectory traced by Gary Dorrien in his three–volume history of liberal theology in the United States. Much of the story that he tells is about how the primary location for liberal theology shifted between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from churches, to seminaries, to university divinity schools.

For him, that is a story that involves some significant loss, because as a greater number of liberal theologians tried to make their message comprehensible in the university setting—as they tried to establish theology as a legitimate academic discipline that could stand up with sociology, anthropology, chemistry, and physics—they lost a connection to the larger public. For Dorrien, that explains why liberal theology in the late twentieth century has been enormously vital intellectually, even though liberal denominations have been in decline. I sympathize with this analysis, but want to enrich it by stressing that social movements, as well as churches, for liberal theology should be part of the public.

In the announcement of your appointment to the Emerson Chair, you said: "I hope to help foster a vigorous dialogue between Unitarian Universalists and the various communities of the 'religious left' that have been the focus of my research." Why is this research so important to you personally?


My own vocation has always been to engage in theological reflection on behalf of the communities in which I am a part, and, more broadly, communities with which I have an affinity. If one defines the distinction between theology and religious studies as a distinction between those who do scholarship from within particular communities and those who suspend their personal commitments in order to gain a deeper understanding of other communities, then I am very much a theologian. I am working from within particular communities and particular groups. If one understands theology as concern primarily with specific denominational structures and their creedal expressions, then I am not much of a theologian at all.

I have looked at a lot of subjects that might seem more appropriate for a religious studies or even an ethnographic approach—the Catholic Worker network of urban houses of hospitality and rural farms, the Camphill movement of rural villages working with people with developmental disabilities. I have approached my research out of a deep commitment to the larger vision of religious community building. How can these alternative communities be more vitally transformative of the larger society in which they live?

When I take movements for social transformation as seriously as I take the church—when I think theologically about the work of intentional communities that are creating a new society within the shell of the old—my theology and my faith are changed. Taking those communities as seriously as conventional churches has led me to a theological position that sees God's presence most fully whenever people are meeting one another face to face and changing the structure of their relationships and the structure of their society.

Because those movements do not typically have their own theological schools the way a denomination would have its own school, there is not always an obvious place for that kind of theological reflection. Oftentimes, people are so deeply immersed in their work of healing and sustaining society in the places where it is broken, that they do not have the space to reflect on the larger meaning of that work. For me, Unitarian Universalism offers such a space because it has many of the same institutional structures as conventional Christian denominations. It has congregations; it has theological schools. Yet, instead of a unifying orthodoxy, it has a practice of radical openness in theology and a willingness to encounter the sacred and the divine wherever it might manifest itself.

When I became active in a UU congregation in Minnesota, I encountered many other people who were drawn to the tradition for the same reasons I was. They had deep commitments to social justice and wanted to be part of a community where those commitments could be at the center rather than at the sideline. Of course, not everybody within social change movements is drawn to Unitarian Universalism. There are congregations in every faith tradition that are equally welcoming, but the Unitarian Universalist tradition does have very rich theological resources for thinking about the divine presence in movements for social change, and the Emerson Chair is uniquely situated to think about those connections.

I have been talking about the kind of tripartite structure of church, academy, and movements for social transformation. In thinking about my work in the Emerson Chair, I have another triad that I like to think about: religious liberalism of the Unitarian Universalist variety; religious movements for social transformation; and the phenomenon of "spiritual but not religious."

What will you take away, or what have you learned, as you reflect on your first nine months back at HDS? 

I have been very impressed by the vital community of students here. Students at HDS care deeply about one another, and they care deeply about the Divinity School. Student organizations are consistently well run. The weekly chapel services, which are shared widely by a variety of student groups, are of the highest quality. Students are creative in finding good ways for the faculty to get to know them beyond the classroom. They take a lot of initiative.

The second thing that has really impressed me is the collegiality of the faculty. I was talking before about the conventional divide between theology and religious studies, and my perception is that what holds this faculty together is a deep conviction that the division between theology and religious studies does not serve anyone well. Just about everybody has a sense that these two enterprises can learn a lot from one another. I am enormously impressed with the work and care that went into developing the MDiv curriculum in such a way that it would be hospitable to Muslims, to Jews, to Unitarian Universalists, as well as to Christians.

At the end of your semester courses, what do you hope your students leave with—whether this be a certain skill or even something more personal? 

It is really important to me that students learn how to engage primary texts. I care deeply about the subject matter of my courses, but I probably put the greatest attention, as I develop assignments, into the skills of digging deeply into a text that is not one's own. The text comes from a different time and place, but one must also bring one's own questions to it.

I sometimes talk about reading primary texts as reading somebody else's mail. You have to be aware that the author of the text did not intend to be talking to you. Especially as people make the transition to graduate study, they have read a lot of textbooks that are written directly to them, and gaining the skill of finding the significance in a text that is not written directly to us is important. Even if it is Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address—a text that thousands of scholars have read and commented on and millions of people have read and been inspired by—each new reader can bring to it questions that nobody has asked before.

I want students to come away from my class knowing that their questions are valuable. When they really listen to the words of the text and to their own questions, new knowledge is created. That, in some ways, is the theology/religious studies connection again: the religious studies discipline of listening to the other and the theological discipline of taking one's own commitments seriously. I want students to bring both of those to the classroom.

Also, I hope students would come away from a class of mine with a deep appreciation that the academic enterprise is really important, even though it is not the most important thing. Karl Marx said: "The point is not merely to understand the world, but to change it." I agree with that 100 percent.

Social transformation is my ultimate commitment, but social transformation does not come from everybody deciding to become a full-time, professional activist. If everyone did this, we would have nothing to eat and nobody to pay the salaries of the activists. Social transformation comes when people are vitally committed to their individual vocations. For many of us here at HDS, that individual vocation is scholarship. For some of our students, that individual vocation is ministry to existing faith congregations.

We can be most effective in those diverse vocations if we see them as the work we are called to do, but not as the most important thing. That is the kind of humility that I think everyone needs, regardless of vocation. And so I will grade students on a lot of things, but I won't grade them on the most important thing, which is whatever personal transformation they can take from the class. I am not here to judge them as a person; I'm here to judge their work, so it might be that the person who's gained the most from the class gets a B-minus. 

Lastly, can you talk a bit about the lecture to inaugurate the Emerson Chair on May 7? What are your expectations?

One of my spiritual disciplines has become an examination of the paradox embedded into my title, Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer in Divinity. The Unitarian Universalist Association is a religious institution with long roots. It is very connected with Harvard University, another institution. Ralph Waldo Emerson was perhaps more famously dismissive of institutions than any other person in the history of the United States. So what does it mean to have a chair that is accountable to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to the Unitarian Universalist Association, and to Harvard? In the inaugural lecture on May 7 here at HDS, I will be getting at that question by looking at some of the people who might be found at the mid-point between Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Unitarian Universalist Association. These are people who were deeply inspired by Emerson's vision of free religion and by his critique of institutions, but who also were committed to creating new and better institutions.

How can we tend to our institutions in a way that recognizes that the institutions themselves are not the ultimate value? How can we put our institutions to the service of our ideals? In asking that set of questions, I hope to honor and expand the work of Conrad Wright, who taught Unitarian Universalist history here for many years and whose major contribution to that field was to call attention to the institution builders within the tradition. I hope that what I have to say will enrich and expand on the insights that he developed.

—by Jonathan Beasley