Thomas E. Breidenthal
takes over as new dean of religious life
"We need prayers everyone can buy into," says Thomas
E. Breidenthal, a scholar, teacher, and Episcopal priest, who took
over as dean of religious life in January. But people also need
to pray out of their own traditions, he says. Breidenthal, who came
to Princeton from the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan
where he was a professor of Christian ethics and moral theology,
has been involved in interfaith dialogue throughout his career.
"We can learn from our differences from each other and gain
spiritually from each other," says Breidenthal, who is soft-spoken
At the General Theological Seminary, he headed the Center for
Jewish-Christian Studies and Relations for several years and participated
in dialogue with Islamic leaders. His longstanding interest in interfaith
cooperation began when he was a teenage actor and singer in a production
by a Jewish community center. He was the only non-Jewish cast member,
and he played a Cossack. (That group of Russian soldiers were involved
in pogroms against the Jews.)"That really had a profound effect
on me," he says. "I realized that my own ancestors and
ethnicity were bound up in a story of exclusion and persecution,
not only against Jewish people, but by extension against Muslims
and other groups. It sowed a seed that showed me I could not live
out my own Christian faith in isolation."
Although he is "very concretely and specifically a Christian,"
he aims to pursue "real fellowship with the stranger,"
by which he means anyone in our midst and people of all religions.
And religious communities, he says, should be a part of the political
and cultural life of the nation: "We need to be involved together
in public work." Breidenthal himself has been active in the
community. As a pastor at an Episcopal parish in Ashland, Oregon,
in the late 1980s and early '90s, he served on the ethics board
of the local hospital and helped found an organization of religious
leaders that provided food, shelter, and services for the homeless.
And a couple years later when he was living in New York City, he
worked with the National Council for Community and Justice to institute
an annual memorial service for indigents who died.
Breidenthal's path to religious leader and pastor hasn't been
a straight one, at least not early on. As a young adult, he dabbled
in Buddhism, dropped out of college after freshman year, and tried
a variety of things in Portland, Oregon: He helped found an experimental
elementary school, joined a commune, started an organic restaurant,
and taught Russian at a public school.
He eventually returned to his Christian roots at age 21, when
he had a "profound religious experience." After praying
one day, he felt as if "I was emerging into a whole new world,"
he says, trying to put words to his experience. A year later, when
he was studying for a master's in English literature from University
of Victoria in British Columbia, he realized that he should become
a priest. So he headed for the Church Divinity School of the Pacific
in Berkeley, California, where he earned a master of divinity degree
in 1981. He was ordained an Episcopal priest a year later. In 1991,
Breidenthal earned a doctorate in theology from Oxford University.
As dean Breidenthal, who is writing a book on contemporary political
theology, hopes to encourage the university to explore what role
religion can play in public life and "deepen and broaden our
understanding of what constitutes the Princeton community"
including the people who cook, clean, and the poor in the
community. He also wants to help students learn how to "balance
their own extremely academic pursuits with a healthy life here,"
so they will steer away from "resorting to sex and alcohol
to deal with stress."