A Boundary-Crossing Scholar: The GTU Honors Dr. Judith Berling

by Emily Wu

from Currents Fall 2015

It is an understatement to say that Dr. Judith Berling is a pillar of the Graduate Theological Union.  In her 28 years of service as faculty and administrator within the consortium, she has been instrumental in fostering GTU’s culture of inclusiveness and appreciation for diversity.

As a scholar of Chinese religions, Dr. Berling has led many GTU students on their explorations in Daoism and Confucianism and, more importantly, the religious world where these traditions coexist and mingle.  Her seminal work on the Ming dynasty religious teacher Lin Chao-en (The Syncretic Religion of Lin Chao-en, 1980) provides a detailed analysis of the process and methodology of Lin’s intentional and careful syncretism of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. The now out-of-print case study is an important parallel model for interfaith, interreligious dialogues in our pluralistic global society. 

The uniqueness of Dr. Berling’s later work in religious education lies in how deeply she embodies the spiritual modes of the Chinese traditions—the openness to diverse worldviews and the emphasis on self-cultivation—while also embracing her self-identity as an Episcopalian Christian.  Her most celebrated publication, Understanding Other Religious Worlds: A Guide for Interreligious Education (2004), outlines the process of genuine interreligious learning, a process in which boundary crossing between religious worlds lead to invaluable and irreversible transformations.

Boundary-crossing occurs on all levels of Dr. Berling’s personal and professional life. When she was recruited from University of Indiana to become Dean of the Graduate Theological Union in 1987, the boundary-crossing was between nine Christian denominations that sponsored the member schools of the GTU.  Later, as convener of the area of Cultural and Historical Studies of Religions and the area of Interdisciplinary Studies, the boundary-crossing has been between different religious cultures and between academic disciplines that intersected with religions.  The students Dr. Berling teaches and advises come from a wide range of ethnic, cultural, disciplinary, and professional backgrounds, and she takes joy in both guiding and learning from their individual boundary-crossings.  Most recently, she is training with an acting coach and learning to cross the boundaries from one character to the next, directly embodying their contexts, experiences, personalities, and emotions.

Dr. Berling’s rich experiences and clear articulation of the boundary-crossing processes has influenced the work and personal outlooks of countless students and colleagues who have worked closely with her. Her dedication and holistic participation in boundary-crossing should be recognized as one of the signature models of GTU education—a model marked by effective and inclusive methods in interdisciplinary, interreligious, and intercultural learning, teaching, and communication.

 Confucian elites and Daoist practitioners, with different approaches of course, cultivate themselves to become aligned with both the heavens and the earth. In Dr. Berling’s practice of always crossing new boundaries and her willingness to be constantly transformed, one wonders if she is increasingly aligned with something essential yet indescribable in the cosmos.

On May 25-26, 2016, the Graduate Theological Union will host “Learning as Collaborative Conversation: Celebrating the Scholarship and Teaching of Judith Berling” a two-day symposium marking Dr. Berling’s contribution to the global society, the academy, and our consortium. Her students, colleagues, and friends from near and far will gather to share how Dr. Berling has influenced them in their personal, educational, and professional development. We hope that all those within the GTU community who have been shaped by Dr. Berling’s extraordinary scholarship over the years will plan to join us in Berkeley next May 25-26 for this celebration.


Emily Wu (PhD, 2010) is an Instructor in the Religion Department, and Assistant Director of Community Outreach and Project Development of the Service-Learning Program, at Dominican University of California.