Editor's Note: The following article originally appeared on The College of Arts and Sciences' website in 2007 and, in truncated form, in Connections magazine (Spring 2008). It is reprinted here, with updated format editions, in memory of theologian Gabriel Vahanian, who passed away on Aug. 30 at his home in Strasbourg, France. He was 85.
Vahanian's death has also inspired many remembrances, including those by Michael S. Kogan '63, G'77, professor of religious studies at Montclair State University, and James B. Wiggins, the Eliphalet Remington Professor of Religion Emeritus at SU.
Last October, following a ceremony in his honor, renowned theologian Gabriel Vahanian caught up with Dean Cathryn Newton outside the Hall of Languages and made a startling confession. “Each of us is entitled to make one big mistake in our lives,” he told her, pipe swinging from the corner of his mouth. “Mine was leaving Syracuse University.”
If Vahanian, 81, was joking, one cannot help but wonder how much. After a distinguished 26-year career at SU that included founding the graduate studies program in religion in 1967 and directing it until 1975, Vahanian opted to return to his native Strasbourg in 1984 to teach and write. His latest book, "Praise of the Secular" (University of Virginia Press), continues the work he began at SU nearly 50 years ago on the “death of God” movement. “I worry about the future of Christianity because what I see around me isn’t very encouraging,” he later confides. “What we need is an institution that witnesses to Christianity without developing into some kind of political party. How you do this, I don’t know. It hasn’t been devised yet.”
Vahanian still maintains ties with the University. Last fall’s historic ceremony—attended by four SU religion chairs, spanning three decades—was perhaps the first time that both his genius as a thinker and abilities as a teacher were formally recognized. “Professor Vahanian’s vision centered on a critical and theoretical approach, as opposed to a theological and dogmatic one, to the study of religions and their cultural symbol systems,” Tazim Kassam, associate professor and chair of religion at SU, told the overflowing crowd. “He also established a tradition of radical theology in the department that became a signature of the program.”
In a poignant student-becomes-teacher moment, Michael S. Kogan ’63, G’77, chair of philosophy and religion at Montclair State University in New Jersey, made the final payment, in public, to a graduate support fund he endowed more than a decade ago in honor of Vahanian, his mentor. “I came to Syracuse either by accident or by the hand of God,” Kogan recalls privately, in a wry turn of phrase. “Vahanian not only introduced me to epic thinkers, but also to myself. Studying with him was, without question, the greatest thing that ever happened to me.” Kogan had been considering a career in law.
Vahanian’s fame and Kogan’s philanthropy have paid handsome dividends for SU graduate students seeking help with educationally related expenses. Jill Adams, a doctoral candidate, frequently relies on the fund to travel to academic conferences. “Support for our research and for presenting our work allows us to develop as scholars, teachers, and public speakers among our peers,” she says. “It shows a profound commitment to the development of the discipline.” David L. Miller, SU’s Watson-Ledden Professor of Religion Emeritus, agrees. “If you ask our graduate students from over the years, many will tell you they were accepted to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, but chose to come to Syracuse. Michael Kogan’s generosity has not only helped our graduate program, but also helped put Syracuse University on the map.”
Kassam says that two measures of the graduate program’s success are the 80 or so applications it receives each year for a mere seven openings and the fact that more than two-thirds of recent graduates hold college or university teaching positions. “The department has gained a national and international reputation for the quality of its program and faculty. We’ve flourished in productivity and influence,” she explains. Kassam attributes much of the success to the mutual aspirations that grow from the relationships between students and teachers, á la Kogan and Vahanian. “Syracuse University is training its students to have a deeper appreciation for what it means to be human,” declares Kogan. “The humanities—religion, philosophy, languages, literature, and the arts—don’t just prepare us for making a living; they prepare us for making a life."