A Look Back
from Toward an American Public Theology
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. In tribute to our dear colleague and friend, we print here an excerpt from Thiemann’s 1987 Alumni/ae Day Address, “Toward an American Public Theology.”
Rampant individualism has not only displaced equality as our basic condition, it threatens to create a radical imbalance between self-interest and common interest, between private gain and public good. A society in which individual success and achievement are valued above all else is a society in which the gap between the successful and the failed, between those who achieve and those who do not, between the rich and the poor, can only widen. And that would be a society in which democratic equality—that essential condition of American democracy in the 1830s—is threatened with extinction.
It is important . . . to ask where the countervailing values of communal commitment, of care for the poor and abandoned, of concern for those human values we share in common . . . where those virtues can be nourished. . . . [M]y concern is that the institutions that have traditionally nourished them are increasingly committed to the culture of individualism and egoism. Churches and synagogues have in the past helped to foster those “habits of the heart” which allowed for the development of a civic-minded, public-spirited citizenry. They can do so again if they recover a living sense of their own heritage . . . , as associations of human beings bound together for some common and public good.