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Harvard names first Emerson UUA professor

Dan McKanan, historian of religious left, appointed by Harvard Divinity School.
By Michelle Bates Deakin

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Dan McKanan

Dan McKanan (Courtesy of Dan McKanan)

Harvard Divinity School has named a theologian and historian of the religious left as its first Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer of Divinity. Dan McKanan, an associate professor at the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., will fill the long-anticipated position on July 1.

Harvard Divinity School announced the creation of the Emerson professorship in 2006, on the 203rd birthday of Emerson, the storied Unitarian minister, Transcendentalist, and Harvard graduate. Funds from the UUA, other organizations, and private donors have endowed the chair, for which a search was launched last year.

“I am extremely happy that we have been able to select an exciting young scholar who will bring to Harvard Divinity School a truly wide-ranging, creative approach to studies in liberal religion, especially the Unitarian Universalist tradition, which is so vitally entwined with our institution’s history,” said Harvard Divinity School’s Dean William A. Graham in announcing the appointment.

McKanan’s scholarship has focused on liberal religion in radical social movements in the United States. His books include The Catholic Worker After Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation (Liturgical Press, 2008); Touching the World: Christian Communities Transforming Society (Liturgical Press, 2007); and Identifying the Image of God: Radical Christians and Nonviolent Power in the Antebellum Period (Oxford University Press, 2002). McKanan is also at work on a history of the religious left in America, to be published by Beacon Press.

Though his scholarship has followed the work of Unitarians and Universalists, McKanan, 40, is a relative newcomer to Unitarian Universalism. Along with his wife, Tammy McKanan, he joined the St. Cloud Unitarian Universalist Fellowship around the time of the birth of their daughter, Oriana, now 4. “We realized that we needed to have her in a church that would fully affirm our beliefs and values,” said McKanan, who identifies himself as a UU Christian.

“Much of what I value about Unitarian Universalism is that it allows me to go deeper into my own Christian faith while engaging in dialogue with people following very different spiritual paths,” said McKanan. “I have had the opportunity to learn from many different strands of Christianity—the Lutheranism of my childhood, the Benedictine Catholicism practiced at Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s, the esoteric Christianity that informs the Camphill movement, and the rich prophetic tradition of liberation theology.”

“In each tradition I have found much to affirm, alongside elements that I cannot embrace,” said McKanan. “Because Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal tradition, it has given me the freedom to continue my personal search for the living heart of Christianity. At the same time, Unitarian Universalism has challenged me to explain my Christian faith to folks for whom even liberal Christian language does not sing.”

McKanan notes that, although the denomination includes many lifelong UUs, it is also filled with newcomers like him. “A great many people come to Unitarian Universalism as the result of long spiritual pilgrimages, and I hope to reflect that reality and make sure that reality is part of the conversation,” McKanan said. “I believe that our theological diversity is one of the greatest gifts of Unitarian Universalism—but only if we talk openly about it. As a teacher, I’m bringing both the historical work that I have done on Unitarian Universalism and other liberal religions and my personal experiences as an adult convert.”

McKanan is a summa cum laude 1989 graduate of Harvard College. (He graduated under the name of Daniel Buchanan. He changed his name to McKanan when he married Tammy McKenna, and they blended their names.) He also holds a master of divinity degree from Vanderbilt Divinity School (1993) and a Ph.D. in the history of Christianity from the University of Chicago (1998). He was a Henry Luce III Fellow in Theology in 2004–2005.

HDS announced the creation of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Professorship of Divinity on May 25, 2006. Gifts totaling $500,000 from W. Lowell Steinbrenner and Janice Steinbrenner, and from Alice Schulman and the late Rev. Dr. J. Frank Schulman, provided the final funds needed to establish the professorship. They were added to donations from the UUA, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, on Long Island, N.Y. (formerly the North Shore Unitarian Universalist Society), the Liberal Religious Charitable Society, and other individuals and organizations.

The Emerson professorship reflects HDS’s longstanding relationship with Unitarians, which has existed since the school’s founding. Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing gave the Address of Dedication for the school’s Divinity Hall in 1826. Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” in 1838, delivered at an HDS commencement, is one of the key texts of the Transcendentalist movement. Although interdenominational, the school has continued to be a center of Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, and Universalism, graduating many students preparing for the Unitarian Universalist ministry.

One of McKanan’s hopes for his position is to increase the institutional partnerships among HDS and Meadville Lombard Theological School, in Chicago, and the Starr King School for the Ministry, in Berkeley, Calif. In particular, McKanan is interested in new models of theological education that Meadville Lombard and Starr King offer to ministry candidates who are deeply embedded in their communities and cannot relocate. “I’m really excited to work with my great colleagues at Harvard Divinity School, and also to work with the wonderful theological and pastoral leaders at Starr King and Meadville to enrich our tradition as a whole.”

McKanan is also interested in broader conversations among religious liberals, activists for social change, and spiritual seekers. People come to liberal religious communities for a broad range of personal reasons, he said, and they may not be aware that there is a long history of people thinking like them. “In Unitarian Universalist communities, we have a great opportunity to connect people with a richer heritage—with people like William Ellery Channing, Adin Ballou, Clarence Skinner, or the Prophetic Sisterhood,” McKanan said. “I’m really excited that being at Harvard with a lot of Unitarian Universalists and a lot of others will give me a place to facilitate some of those conversations.”

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