Former Divinity School Dean Ronald F. Thiemann, a noted scholar whose research focused on the application of theology and religion to other disciplines, died late last week. He was 66.
Thiemann gained acclaim throughout his academic career as an author and researcher, publishing books on the intersection of theology and religion with public life including “Religion in Public Life: A Dilemma for Democracy” and “Constructing a Public Theology: The Church in a Pluralistic Culture.”
Prior to his death he had completed a new book entitled “The Humble Sublime: Literary Realism as a Social Critique.”
The work highlights the connection between individuals such as Martin Luther, George Orwell, and Langston Hughes and the beliefs represented in their art and theology.
As a teacher, students remembered Thiemann as passionate, encouraging, and dedicated.
Michael A. Ball, a student in Thiemann’s seminar on the work of theologian Karl Barth, described the class as “a blessing.” For every class meeting, Thiemann invited all five students in the class to his home to engage in a dinner table discussion.
“It was an incredible experience to be invited into someone’s home and to be able to discuss something that was so clearly important to [Thiemann’s] world view,” Ball said.
Sheehan D. Scarborough ’07, another Thiemman student, described his former teacher as “a very encouraging person.”
Thiemann’s teaching career began at the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University in 1975. He left Yale in 1978 to chair Haverford College’s religion department, a job he held until 1984.
In an email, former Haverford student Kenneth Koltun-Fromm described Thiemann as “a fantastic teacher and steady mentor.”
“He was a model for young students pursuing intellectual rigor with passion, integrity, and commitment,” he wrote.
Thiemann served as Divinity School Dean from 1986 to 1999, when he resigned citing a desire to focus on teaching.
His resignation came soon after a national controversy over pornographic downloads on his University-owned computer. He continued to teach at Harvard until his death.
Those who knew him well said that he will be remembered for his enthusiasm, which they said spread to every aspect of his life.
“It felt like we were a family and there was also a paternal love on his part for us,” Scarborough said. “In a lot of courses here at Harvard you get a lot of the head and not a lot of the heart.”