|"One of the major reasons I came to Princeton Seminary was that it provided the
ideal context in which to pursue the two tasks that have been central to my academic
life," says Charles A. Ryerson, PTSs recently retired Timby Professor of the
History of Religions. "One was to be a reputable historian of religions. The other
was to draw on my extensive and direct experience of India to aid in the Christian task of
creating a "theology of encounter" with non-Christian religions.
own theology of encounter began when he graduated from Oberlin College in 1955 and
traveled to India as a teaching-study fellow at the American College in Madurai, South
India. There for three years he taught English, fulfilling a passion to discover India
born when he was a five-year-old growing up on a poultry farm near Newport, Rhode Island.
That immersion into Indian culture and the Christian church in India as it encountered
both Hinduism and Buddhism irrevocably changed Ryersons life and gave him a second
home in the world.
He returned to India after earning his M.Div. from Union Seminary in 1961, and again in
1967 with the Overseas Department of the Episcopal Church. From 1970 to 1972, he was
associate lecturer at the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary in Madurai while completing
research for his doctoral dissertation at Columbia University.
Looking back, Ryerson feels fortunate to have attended the founding meeting of the
Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society (CISRS) in Madras in 1956. The
dream of the late M.M.Thomas, it is recognized as the foremost Christian think tank in the
One of the few Westerners related to CISRS as a research associate, Ryerson developed a
"dialogue" project there that issued in his book Encounter in South India.
"I wasnt even a committed Christian when I went to India," he says.
"Not that I was non-Christian. I just wasnt committed. India gave me my
Before India, attending seminary, let alone teaching in one, "wasnt even on
my radar screen," he laughs. India propelled him to Union, where he studied ethics
with Reinhold Niebuhr. That education, punctuated by trips to Madurai to learn the tamil
language, involvement in the student protests in Americas Civil Rights and Vietnam
era, and work as a Peace Corps instructor began to shape what Ryerson calls his
"presence theology. He describes it as evolving a new way to think about
mission to be present in a society, to just be there, not to do
And so a young Christian man studying the 2500-year-old tamil language among students
80% of whom were Hindu or Muslim learned that respect for the other is central to
meaningful dialogue between religious traditions. This truth he took to teaching positions
at Hunter College and Wichita State University, and finally, in 1979, to Princeton
"I came to Princeton for the chance to overtly combine my theological interest
with my interest in history of religions," Ryerson explains. "The incongruity of
such a choice must have been Gods plan! I grew up in a town with the oldest Jewish
synagogue in America, I claim Hindus and Muslims as intimate friends, yet I consider
myself very Christocentric.
"I am an incarnationalist. Christ is present, risen, and working in the world. The
Christian task is to try to discern in humility and faith what Christ is doing in a given
context. If a Hindu converts, it is the Holy Spirit, it is not me or the church. I know
God through Christ, but I think others can know God in other ways. I couldnt be a
Christian if I didnt think Christ was somehow involved in Hinduism."
Most of all, Ryerson has loved his students. He taught only elective courses, and
students wise enough to choose them had an enticing list: Buddhism, Hinduism, Encounter of
Christian Faith with Other Faiths, Eastern Paths and Christian Explorations, God and
Politics, and World Religions through World Literature, among others.
He also pioneered the Cross-Cultural Mission course, in which students spent a summer
in India. (The course later expanded to include groups going to Indonesia, the Middle
East, and Central America.)
"My students arrived in Bombay and didnt see a Westerner for three or four
weeks, Ryerson says. "They studied how faith must adapt and be adapted to, and
they participated in church life. My goal for them was that they gain respect for other
religions. The basic theological question we asked was the relation of faith to
His teaching has been for Ryerson a work of love. "My students have been an
enormous comfort to me, he says, a bit wistful to say farewell to his career. His
hope for PTS? To realize that we do not live in a secular world, but a pluralistic one, a
world full of religion.
"The search for transcendence is very much alive in the world," he says.
"The secular is not evil; we do not need to circle the wagons to keep the world out.
I have never been afraid of the world. I love the world."
And where in that world will Ryerson go next? "Ill catch my breath a
bit," he says, smiling, "and certainly return for some time to India. I
cant conceive of not going. Ive been fortunate to have two lives at