Breidenthal: Reflection should be part of college life

Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- Since becoming dean of religious life in January, Thomas Breidenthal has been, in his words, "inviting myself to residential colleges," horning in on meetings of campus organizations and saying yes whenever he is invited to speak, all in an effort to get acquainted as quickly as possible with the students, faculty and staff at Princeton.


An Episcopal priest who has been a leader in interfaith cooperation, Breidenthal arrived at Princeton from the General Theological Seminary in New York, where he was the John Henry Hobart Professor of Christian Ethics and Moral Theology. Before that, he was rector at Trinity Church in Ashland, Ore., and senior chaplain at the Harvard School, a Los Angeles high school. He spoke recently on what he has observed about how members of the Princeton community view their spirituality and the time he spent living in a commune.

In the last few months, you've been spending a lot of time meeting with student organizations and attending informal gatherings of students. What have you observed about the Princeton community?

I'm discovering people are ready to discuss seriously the things that matter to them, what I call transcendent issues: What is the meaning of life? How can justice for everyone best be served? How can peace be achieved? These are not just questions that arise out of our desire to survive; they arise out of a hunger for truth.

I find the more I have the opportunity to talk to students, the more I discover that once an element of shyness and perhaps a certain habit of privacy is overcome, every student I've met or group I've talked to is eager to understand why I believe what I believe. And they are willing to begin to talk about what their questions and commitments are, what their beliefs are, and how they can apply their own spiritual experience and knowledge to their studies, and integrate that into their relational lives.

There is a tendency (in everyday life) to move away from discussion of the personal, the ethical and the spiritual, and I think it needs to be just the opposite. But since it doesn't come easily, we have to figure out how to develop it. We have to teach ourselves, and we have to develop appropriate ways to make sure such reflection is built into collegiate life.

One example at Princeton is the new writing seminars, in which students are writing about a subject that really matters to them and to the professor. It's that personal component that makes the difference in the writing. Raising deeply personal questions about meaning, truth and hope transforms the educational enterprise for both the teachers and the students.

How do you view your role here?

My role is to encourage, support, participate in and sometimes implement any opportunities for people to share their spiritual, ethical and religious commitments and questions. Right now, I am in the mode of doing as much networking and alliance-making as possible, so the natural opportunities for workshops and conversations can occur.

You have an interesting background. Before becoming an Episcopal priest, you joined a commune, hitchhiked across Mexico and parts of Europe, and started an organic restaurant.

I did join a commune called the Learning Community, which is in Portland, Ore. Some disaffected Reed College faculty and students bought some houses in Portland and a farm nearby and turned to organic farming. Then the group bought a greasy spoon in a skid row area of Portland and started an organic restaurant, much to the dismay of the poor guys who were used to eating their meals there.

Did the restaurant succeed?

It worked for a while. It ended up turning into a Hard Rock Cafe.

You explored Buddhism during this period as well.

Yes, I was trying to practice meditation, reading a lot of Thomas Merton. He was a Roman Catholic monk who was interested in Tibetan Buddhism. He was kind of a hero to me because he also had a strong concern with social justice. From Merton I learned the relationship between spirituality and social action, and the importance of some kind of poverty in our lives. It's important to have someplace where we are spiritually poor and exposed. If we are unable to experience our own frailty, then I think we become less and less able to experience satisfying fellowship with other people.

We tend to think that if we are to have real satisfaction with our relationships with others, that satisfaction will come in our private lives. But there is a long tradition that says human beings can never be fully satisfied unless there's a public dimension to their lives, unless they are really engaged in institutions and practices that encourage and permit an encounter with a stranger. That isn't necessarily something scary; it's something fun. It was James Madison, I think, who spoke of public happiness, which is the happiness we derive from public engagement.

Has your background helped you in your work as a minister?

I had a crazy young adulthood because there were a lot of things I was interested in that seemed to be in conflict: Buddhism and Christianity; wanting to be involved in political life and really being very introverted; loving being an American and feeling uncomfortable being an American; being deeply drawn to religion and very suspicious of its capacity to be just one more way to avoid reality. I think the path I have followed has helped me to integrate what seemed to be at cross purposes.

My interest in interfaith dialogue has arisen out of my fascination with being able to try to imagine being something different from myself, of embracing difference and seeing where that will take us. I've accepted the contradictions in myself and seen how those contradictions don't necessarily have to be a liability. They can be a way in which I can be a bridge to get different groups talking to each other.

You've done a lot of work on interfaith cooperation in your career, especially when you were the head of the Center for Jewish-Christian Studies and Relations at the General Theological Seminary and when you participated in dialogue with Islamic leaders.

I'm interested in healthy interfaith dialogue. It's not a healthy dialogue if politeness keeps us from getting down to why you're a Jew and I'm a Christian -- then we haven't really gotten into the dialogue at all. We have to be able to engage those differences in mutually supportive ways. We're not trying to change each other's minds. What we're trying to do is understand what makes each of us tick.

Your office in Murray-Dodge is right next door to the Student Volunteers Council, so you've been getting to know those students?

Yes, and I'm amazed at how many students volunteer. I'm very glad to see there is a tradition of service here. I've seen the student leadership working at the grassroots level to encourage students to get involved. They're very creative in making the service opportunities attractive.

A lot of students say the reason they do community service is that it's the one way they can completely break out of their academic work. It reframes everything else they do.

In talking with student leaders and others, what I find at Princeton is a great hunger for sharing with one another what really matters, and working together to further develop Princeton's commitment to education that serves the common good.

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