Web Exclusives: PAWPLUS

A scholar, priest, and public servant

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 and serious.

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."

By Kathryn Federici Greenwood

You can reach Kathryn at federici@princeton.edu