After two fulfilling decades teaching in the vibrant and diverse communities of Sri Lanka, India, and Japan, Richard Fox Young was hesitant to return to the states. But return he did, in 2000, to accept the position of Elmer K. and Ethel R. Timby Associate Professor of the History of Religions at Princeton Theological Seminary. This year, another two decades later, he looks back fondly on his tenure in Princeton as he prepares to enter yet another chapter of his career — retirement — at the end of January 2023.
“I admit that I was initially concerned that I couldn’t teach the living text in Princeton,” he says. “Since my field is history of religions, I’ve always been skeptical of the idea that reading sacred texts is the only way to understand religion.” But, much to his delight, what he found in early-aughts New Jersey was quite different from what he left behind in the late 1970s.
First, his students were significantly more familiar with Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and other global religions than those of generations past. Plus, Princeton Seminary’s close proximity to a diverse faith community enriched the teaching of his courses, which ranged from Buddhism and Hinduism to the encounter of other religions with Christianity. “We could get out of the classroom and visit a shrine, temple, or mosque,” he says. “We could interact with living members of those faith communities as real people in our own neighborhood, instead of reading about these religions as if they’re only taking place in some exotic, far-off part of the world.”
It’s a pedagogical method that has influenced a generation of new professors, including Deanna Ferree Womack, who studied with Young as an MDiv (2007), ThM (2008), and PhD student (2015) at Princeton Seminary. In one of her first experiences with Young, while fulfilling the MDiv Teaching Ministry field education requirement, she organized a church group visit to a nearby mosque at his suggestion. “It turned out to be an extremely rewarding experience for church members who had never met a Muslim,” Womack says. Today, as associate professor of history of religions and interfaith studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, “this is now a common part of my own teaching on Islam and Christian-Muslim relations,” she adds.
For other students, Young’s influence on their research was invaluable, whether they were meeting at the Seminary library or collaborating over lunch in town. “He was a great teacher when it came to research, asking good questions, suggesting resources, and then reading drafts carefully,” says Jonathan A. Seitz, MDiv ’02, PhD ’07, now a Presbyterian Church (USA) mission worker and seminary professor based in Taiwan. “Those conversations were formative for me and I hope that, teaching in Taiwan, I can model his curiosity, kindness, and responsiveness.”
In this next chapter, after helping nearly 20 doctoral students with their dissertations and serving on the editorial advisory board for Studies in the History of Christian Mission, Young hopes to dedicate time to his own research pursuits: a continuation of his PhD dissertation focused on Sanskrit texts from the 1840s, and a look into northern Korean Presbyterians during the Korean War. “It’s been over 40 years since I did my own dissertation,” Young says, “but I feel like I have a book or two left in me.”
In the meantime, his contributions to world Christianity remain significant. “I’m grateful to Dr. Young for the methodical work he did building a program,” Seitz says. “He contributed to the field, encouraged the Overseas Ministries Studies Center’s move to Princeton, saw the start of PTS’ World Christianity Conferences, and was active in the field’s new journals.” And, on a personal note, both Seitz and Womack recognize the valuable network of passionate researchers and teachers he’s fostered over the years. “Over the past two decades or so, Dr. Young has mentored and advised a wonderful group of emerging scholars in world Christianity whose impact on the field is being felt in the US and several other parts of the world,” Womack says. “Most of us know each other, even if our time at PTS didn’t overlap, and it’s always a pleasure to collaborate with one another in conference sessions or writing projects. Our bond to Richard has connected us all.”