Breidenthal: Reflection should be part of college life

Since becoming dean of religious life in January, Thomas Breidenthal has been, in his words, "inviting myself to residential colleges," horning in on meetings of campus organizations and saying yes whenever he is invited to speak, all in an effort to get acquainted as quickly as possible with the students, faculty and staff at Princeton.

An Episcopal priest who has been a leader in interfaith cooperation, Breidenthal arrived at Princeton from the General Theological Seminary in New York, where he was the John Henry Hobart Professor of Christian Ethics and Moral Theology. Before that, he was rector at Trinity Church in Ashland, Ore., and senior chaplain at the Harvard School, a Los Angeles high school. He recently discussed his observations of the ways Princeton community members view their spirituality and talked about the path he took in his spiritual career.

In the last few months, you've been spending a lot of time meeting with student organizations and attending informal gatherings of students. What have you observed about the Princeton community?

I'm discovering people are ready to discuss seriously the things that matter to them, what I call transcendent issues: What is the meaning of life? How can justice for everyone best be served? How can peace be achieved? These are not just questions that arise out of our desire to survive; they arise out of a hunger for truth.

I find the more I have the opportunity to talk to students, the more I discover that once an element of shyness and perhaps a certain habit of privacy is overcome, every student I've met or group I've talked to is eager to understand why I believe what I believe. And they are willing to begin to talk about what their questions and commitments are, what their beliefs are, and how they can apply their own spiritual experience and knowledge to their studies, and integrate that into their relational lives.

There is a tendency (in everyday life) to move away from discussion of the personal, the ethical and the spiritual, and I think it needs to be just the opposite. But since it doesn't come easily, we have to figure out how to develop it. We have to teach ourselves, and we have to develop appropriate ways to make sure such reflection is built into collegiate life.

One example at Princeton is the new writing seminars, in which students are writing about a subject that really matters to them and to the professor. It's that personal component that makes the difference in the writing. Raising deeply personal questions about meaning, truth and hope transforms the educational enterprise for both the teachers and the students.

Has your background helped you in your work as a minister?

I had a crazy young adulthood because there were a lot of things I was interested in that seemed to be in conflict: Buddhism and Christianity; wanting to be involved in political life and really being very introverted; loving being an American and feeling uncomfortable being an American; being deeply drawn to religion and very suspicious of its capacity to be just one more way to avoid reality. I think the path I have followed has helped me to integrate what seemed to be at cross purposes.

My interest in interfaith dialogue has arisen out of my fascination with being able to try to imagine being something different from myself, of embracing difference and seeing where that will take us. I've accepted the contradictions in myself and seen how those contradictions don't necessarily have to be a liability. They can be a way in which I can be a bridge to get different groups talking to each other.

You've done a lot of work on interfaith cooperation in your career, especially when you were the head of the Center for Jewish-Christian Studies and Relations at the General Theological Seminary and when you participated in dialogue with Islamic leaders.

I'm interested in healthy interfaith dialogue. It's not a healthy dialogue if politeness keeps us from getting down to why you're a Jew and I'm a Christian – then we haven't really gotten into the dialogue at all. We have to be able to engage those differences in mutually supportive ways. We're not trying to change each other's minds. What we're trying to do is understand what makes each of us tick.

Read the full interview in the Weekly Bulletin.

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601