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Kristin Johnston Largen, Ph.D. ‘02
2012 Alumna of the Year
On January 3, 2012, Kristin Johnston Largen boarded a plane bound for Jerusalem, Israel, the first of a series of four extended trips over a five month period. Subsequent locales included Varanasi, India; Kyoto, Japan; and Istanbul, Turkey. She wasn’t on the travel binge of a lifetime, though she might consider it as such. Rather Largen was conducting research in the form of lived experiences for her new book, Finding God among Our Neighbors: Toward an Interfaith Systematic Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, August 2013), the product of a 2011-12 Lilly Theological Faculty Fellowship.
Largen, an Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, teaches comparative theology, with an emphasis on soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), and liberation theology in addition to Lutheran doctrine.
Prevalent among Systematic Theology textbooks are introductory chapters to traditional loci – God, humanity, and creation – with sprinklings of interreligious dialogue or comparisons to other religious traditions at the end or in a separate chapter, if at all. She equates this approach to building a house – foundation, walls, roof – from the Christian perspective then adding some interreligious decorations. In Finding God among Our Neighbors, Largen attempts to build the house using the interreligious perspective throughout the entire process.
“I went to four holy cities to encounter Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam in majority cultures, in the lives of real people. These experiences on the ground complimented what I had learned in books and conversations I had had with individuals,” she explains. “They push beyond the characteristics and generalities prevalent in books. It makes the study of other religious traditions infinitely more complex, messy, and wonderful.”
One story that Largen loves to tell is that of watching a dozen or more cremations along the banks of the Ganges. “The worship and the experience were unlike anything here – both mystical and profound.”
Though brought up Lutheran, she confesses a long-standing interest in other religious traditions, one she explored while pursuing an English major at Colorado College. She recounts, “I took a course in which we read Thomas Merton, and in several of his books, he discusses his experiences with Buddhism. The religion faculty there encouraged us to see how God is active in other religious traditions. This was before I ever even heard of Comparative Theology.”
Largen believes that the Graduate Theological Union was ideal for continuing this vein of study. In addition to the cadre of ecumenical theologians, she appreciated the access to the Institute of Buddhist Studies and UC Berkeley for studying Buddhism and Hinduism.
“Now in my own teaching at a Lutheran Seminary, I encourage my students to explore other religious traditions and to pass that practice on to their parishioners. I want them to see themselves as theological voices in their communities,” says Largen.
“So many people outside the church see Christianity as legalistic, homophobic, moralistic, and judgmental. Think of the situation in Uganda where the church is leading the charge against LGBT persecution. They see the church as outdated and irrelevant. I want my students and all students in theology to commit to living out and proclaiming the gospel – the love that God has, God’s work for good in the world – to have the courage to say that it matters, that it makes a positive difference in the life of an individual and in the life of the world.”
Largen is grateful to the work that the GTU does because, in her opinion, you can’t train public ministers without talking about other traditions. “We live shoulder to shoulder, cheek to jowl. The GTU has been doing this longer than most – living, studying, confessing, worshipping together, in good and difficult ways. It’s only more important going forward because religion gets at the heart of who people are and what they care about.”
For her ecumenical and interfaith perspective within the Lutheran tradition and commitment to teaching and living out relevant and engaged ministry, the GTU recognized Largen as the 2012 Alumna of the Year at the school’s regular gathering during the AAR/SBL Annual Meetings. Reacting to the honor, she says that she is humbled to be included with former honorees like Richard Payne, Margaret Miles, and Barbara Reed, who were also her teachers at the GTU.
Largen’s blog, happylutheran.blogspot.com, includes chronicles of her Lilly Grant travels and regular reflections.