Alum of the Year: Uriah Kim

by Doug Davidson

When Uriah Kim first visited the Graduate Theological Union as a prospective doctoral student in the spring of 1998, he sensed immediately that it was a special place, pulsing with the vitality of serious intellectual and spiritual discovery. “I remember meeting with GTU students and alumni on Holy Hill, and I could immediately sense the energy. The GTU is a place that stimulates your mind, your spirit—everything.”

Today, just ten years after earning his doctorate in Biblical Studies, the GTU’s 2013-2014 alumnus of the year seeks to bring that same energy and scholarly commitment to his work as academic dean and associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

Dr. Uriah Kim was born to a Buddhist family in Korea, immigrated to the United States at age 10, and became a Christian in his late teens. He went to college planning to study engineering, but soon switched his focus to philosophy, earning his bachelor’s degree from New York University. Before coming to the GTU in 1998, he also earned an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Th.M. from Emory University.

“It was at the GTU where I truly found my theological voice,” Kim recently reflected. “The GTU was the place where my scholarship was shaped, where I deepened my commitment to work that is ecumenical, interreligious, interdisciplinary, and socially engaged.”

After receiving his Ph.D. from the GTU in 2004, Kim took a position as the assistant professor of Hebrew Bible at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. A year later he moved to Hartford Seminary, where he has taught Hebrew Bible since 2005, first as an assistant professor and more recently as associate professor. Kim was named academic dean of the 180-year-old theological school in July 2012. One of his first major projects as dean was leading the seminary through a sixteen-month comprehensive self-study as part of the renewal of the school’s accreditation.

While his responsibilities as academic dean require much of his attention, Kim remains passionate about teaching the Hebrew Scriptures. His approach emphasizes the importance of understanding one’s context and the communities in which one is serving. “I encourage my students to bring their life experience and communities into engagement with the text.” He recognizes the tendency for students to want to jump too quickly to the practical applications. “We need to take the time to interpret responsibly,” he urges, allowing text, critical scholarship, and one’s community context to speak to one another.

Kim recognizes that he is early in his academic career to receive the honor of being named alumnus of the year. After learning that he’d been selected to receive this award, Kim was excited but also a bit surprised. “I remember telling my wife the news, and her saying, “Oh my, isn’t that kind of early?”’ he laughs. “But I am truly humbled by this great honor. I know there are many other GTU grads who have accomplished more than me, and who deserve this award as much as I do. But I am confident that no has taken more advantage of what the GTU has to offer or whose life and career have been more influenced by the GTU.”

Kim believes the Graduate Theological Union plays a unique and vital role within the spectrum of theological and religious education in the world today. “I really think the GTU is a special place, a necessary institution within the field of religious education. The Association of Theological Schools needs a place like the GTU, a place that welcomes students who are creative, students who are willing to take chances and make innovations, students who are not afraid to take risks rather than conforming to the set boundaries.”

Kim acknowledges the pressure within most academic disciplines for emerging scholars to follow the way things have traditionally been done. “Some schools want to say, ‘This is what Hebrew Bible scholars do. And this is what systematic theologians do.’ So that’s the only way to do it. There’s a real pressure to conform to certain categories. But the GTU gives students the space and resources to explore their own scholarship, to find their own voices.”

Ten years ago, when Uriah Kim addressed his fellow graduates at the 2004 GTU commencement, he spoke of the importance of the knowledge that’s generated at the GTU. But he also highlighted another aspect of what is created at the GTU. In addition to groundbreaking scholarship, said Kim “we produce jeong on Holy Hill.” Jeong is a Korean word that describes a ‘stickiness’ in people relations that Kim says forms as “a product of the everyday things we do that form and maintain relationships—eating, drinking, talking, working together, spending time together.” He added that this same connectedness that’s created among people as they work and share time together, is also formed between humans and God, as we worship, pray, and work for justice. Kim contends that it is this jeong, this stickiness in our relationships with one another and with God, that truly enables the vital scholarship that happens at the GTU.

Uriah Kim believe the interreligious nature of the Graduate Theological Union uniquely prepared him for the multi-faith context in which he ministers as dean of Hartford Seminary, an institution known for its founding in the Christian heritage as well as for the niche it has found within the North American Muslim community. He notes that four of the seventeen full-time faculty members currently at Hartford are Muslim, and celebrates the school’s recent establishment of a fully accredited Islamic chaplaincy program.

Kim has written that his work, both as a professor of Hebrew Bible and academic dean, represents his effort “to love God, to know the truth, and to serve others.” That three-part mission is at the heart of Kim’s understanding of his calling. But he notes that his Muslim colleagues at Hartford sometimes joke with him about his tendency to frame things in threes. “They’ll say,  ‘there you go, Trinitarian again,’ I don’t even realize I’m doing it! I guess there’s just something about three for us Christians!” he laughs. “But for me, it’s those three things—loving God, knowing truth, and serving others. That’s why I do what I do.”