Graduate Theological Union

Crossing Borders

Alum of the Year Nancy Frankenberry

Nancy FrankenberryNancy Frankenberry is the John Phillips Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College. After receiving her Ph.D. from the GTU in 1977, she joined the department of religion at Dartmouth College. She received an NEH Fellowship in 1996 and the Dartmouth Award for Outstanding Achievement in Creative or Scholarly Work in 1991.

She is the author of Religion and Radical Empiricism and co-editor of Interpreting Neville and Language, Truth, and Religious Belief, as well as over twenty-five articles in scholarly journals or books. Her next two books will deal with American pragmatism and the history of the science of religion. A former chair of the department of religion at Dartmouth, she has also served as co-chair of the women's studies program.

For Dr. Nancy Frankenberry, the 2000 GTU alum of the year, crossing borders is both a social and intellectual commitment, and a way of life. Frankenberry began her graduate study career at the GTU in the fall of 1969, intending to stay only long enough to complete an M.A., but she remained to earn a Ph.D. in systematic theology. “I learned my feminism and activism Berkeley-style from the time I arrived,” Frankenberry says. “The GTU was an exciting place, politically and socially.”

Upon her arrival at the GTU, Frankenberry quickly became immersed in the peace and feminist movements. She recalls consciousness-raising meetings in living rooms all around town. “The best liturgies I’ve ever participated in took place in those years,” she says. “JSTB masses and Glide Memorial in San Francisco were the happening places.” The Oakland Induction Center, where draftees were inducted into the army to fight in the Vietnam War, was often a focus of anti-war protests. Frankenberry and other GTU students once blocked the doors of the Induction Center and were subsequently bailed out of jail by theology professor Shunji Nishi.

Frankenberry recalls that women held most of the student leadership and representative positions. “Those were the days,” says Frankenberry, “when sanctity was equated with social relevance. You broke bread with those who lived on the streets. You wanted to bring on the revolution of peace and justice. You thought feminism was going to prevail and patriarchy would just wither away in an orgy of expiation.”

The borders that Frankenberry crossed were not only social ones. Frankenberry studied the philosophy of religion with a focus on Whitehead and process thought, but she became convinced that she couldn’t get by simply with a concentration in Western religious thought. Frankenberry began learning to think comparatively about world religions, a process she continues to this day. “The GTU made me allergic to parochialism in any form,” Frankenberry says.

Upon completion of her Ph.D. in 1977, Frankenberry became the first woman faculty member of Dartmouth’s religion department. In 1978 Frankenberry led the women faculty of Dartmouth in launching the first women’s studies program in an Ivy League institution. Since those beginnings 30 years ago, Frankenberry has seen a dramatic change in the position of women in the field of religious studies. She cites increased hiring and retention of women, feminist scholarship and burgeoning publication venues for books by and about women. “It really has been a revolution,” she says.

Dr. Frankenberry specializes in the philosophy of religion and teaches courses on modern religious and anti-religious thought, reason and religious belief, science and religion, and women and religion. Her students come from a variety of backgrounds, majoring in fields from economics to genetic biology, and many have no particular experience with organized religion. They are interested in learning about many different traditions, histories and ideas. Frankenberry says, “I love teaching undergraduates in a university environment where the study of religion is considered part of a liberal arts education. Maybe because I never felt at home in churches or faith-based institutions, this suits me perfectly.”

Frankenberry and her colleagues in the religion department are committed to dialogue with other disciplines in the humanities and the sciences, seeking and creating opportunities for discussion and co-teaching. Frankenberry calls this the “ecumenical equivalent,” dealing not with denominational identifications, but interdisciplinary ones. “Anyone teaching in the area of ‘religion’ or ‘gender studies’ today has an immediate gateway to interdisciplinarity,” says Frankenberry, “and an obligation to make those border-crossings.”

Sometimes border crossings happen in unexpected ways. Frankenberry says, “My use of the word ‘continental’ reminds me of the parochialism I still have and the way students can puncture it. When I off-handedly referred to ‘continental philosophy’ in class recently, a student asked, in all innocence, ‘which continent?’ Click!”

—Diane Bowers