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John Sanford, News Service (650) 736-2151; e-mail:

New dean for religious life aims to nurture 'common moral language' among faiths

The summer after his freshman year at Yale, Scotty McLennan traveled to India, where he lived with a Hindu priest and the priest's family.

"It was a very formative experience for me," recalled McLennan, who will be welcomed as Stanford's new dean for religious life at an open house scheduled from 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 14, in the Round Room of Memorial Church.

The Hindu priest spoke of religious growth and understanding using the metaphor of a mountain. He knew the Bible inside out, as well as the Koran and Buddhist and Hindu scripture, McLennan said. And he would move easily between these various traditions when discussing them, just as McLennan does now.

"He would say there are many paths up the mountain," McLennan recalled. "There are Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims and Christians, but there are lots of ways to get to the top. And I was so impressed. At the end of the summer, I said, 'Hinduism's it. How do I become a Hindu?'"

Sitting in the gray light of his office at Memorial Church, McLennan put his hand to his forehead, mimicking the priest's exasperation with the question.

"He said, 'Ohhh. You've missed the whole point of what I've been telling you all summer, which is that there are many paths. Your path is the one that you've been on since you were born. It's a Christian path. You've come from America. You've come from a Christian family. Go back and be the best Christian you can be.' And I said, 'Well, those Christians I grew up with condemn you to hell because you know about Jesus, and he's not accepted uniquely as your savior,'" said McLennan, who grew up in a fairly conservative Presbyterian household in Lake Forest, Ill.

But the Hindu priest had some ready advice for the young college student: Find a way to be an open, nonexclusive Christian.

"So I really have considered those my marching orders ever since," McLennan said.

Yale, Unitarian Universalism and 'Doonesbury'

At Yale, McLennan eventually gravitated toward Unitarian Universalism, a religious association that has no official creed and encourages its followers to understand other faiths. McLennan later was ordained in this tradition, and he notes that its hymnals often contain material from other traditions, such as Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and humanism.

For most of his undergraduate career, McLennan lived with a group of schoolmates with equally liberal, albeit more secular, world views. One of these was Garry Trudeau, who went on to create the cartoon strip "Doonesbury." Trudeau has immortalized his friend in the strip as the Rev. Scot Sloan, a character who is an amalgam of McLennan and his mentor, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin. (Coffin, the former Yale chaplain, is scheduled to deliver a sermon at McLennan's installation, which is scheduled for 4 p.m. March 12 in Memorial Church.)

Of course, Trudeau gives his characters exaggerated and comic personalities.

"It's a character that's a caricature, and I really wouldn't want to claim a lot of it," McLennan said, chuckling. "But Garry certainly did take a lot of who I am and a lot of who William Sloane Coffin is and try to build this radical, liberal, open minister ­ and then make fun of him."

But McLennan and his "Doonesbury" doppelgänger still share, in the simplest terms, the same progressive and expansive view of the role faith can play in people's lives. And in his introduction to McLennan's book Finding Your Religion: When the Faith You Grew Up with Has Lost Its Meaning (1999), Trudeau's wry tone ­ the one readers are used to ­ is replaced by one of genuine respect:

"Of all the impressive characters I encountered in college in the late sixties, the most unsettling ­ by far ­ was the author of this book. It wasn't just the sweep of his erudition; it was its maddening functionality ­ the quiet certainty with which he linked the acquisition of knowledge to his personal goals, which were fixed and true."

McLennan and Trudeau remain close friends and see each other several times a year.

"I think he does wonderful art, and I think he's a wonderful human being ­ very insightful and with a razor-sharp wit," McLennan said.

But does he have any bones to pick about how the character of the reverend is portrayed in the comic?

"Substantively, I've had some concerns, and I've complained a little bit. And Garry just smiles," McLennan said.

Jesus Christ, CEO

McLennan is 52 years old. He is tall ­ 6 feet 4 inches, to be exact ­ and has a graying red beard, graying red hair and an easy smile. He also has an acute sense of social responsibility.

After graduating in 1975 from Harvard, where he earned a master of divinity and law degree, he spent nine years with the Unitarian Universalist Legal Ministry, practicing church-sponsored law in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, where he represented low-income residents in various types of cases.

In 1984, McLennan became the chaplain at Tufts University. During his more than 16-year tenure there, the expression of religious faith among students increased dramatically, he said.

"It's extraordinary what the change has been," McLennan said. "And it's not just at Tufts. It's a national phenomenon, and certainly true here at Stanford. There's much more of an appreciation for religion and, if not for religion, then for some kind of spirituality."

While at Tufts, McLennan taught ethics courses in the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, the School of Dental Medicine and the Environmental Studies Program. As a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, he also taught courses in ethics. And he taught several courses ­ Law and Religion, Religion in International Relations and Ethics Through Literature ­ through Tufts' Religious Studies Department.

"People's moral commitments grow out of their religious commitments to a large degree," McLennan said. "There are some people who would say they're atheists, agnostics or humanists, and that they derive their ethics from rational inquiry. But most people are going to be talking Jesus and Buddha long before they're talking Kant or Hegel."

In the professional world, McLennan said, there is a huge movement in what he calls "secular spirituality." This is reflected in the kinds of volumes that appear on the shelves of bookstore business sections these days.

"You'll see books with titles like 'The Soul of a Business' or 'The Spirit of This' or 'The Zen of That' or 'Jesus Christ, CEO,'" he said. "There's a real hunger out there for spirituality in the culture in general, and it gets translated into the professions and into some of the academic disciplines. People are asking how they can live out their spiritual lives in the workplace or in their academic life."

McLennan's vision is to harness some of this religious energy to alleviate what he believes is one of the ugliest facets of modern American society: the tremendous gap between the rich and the poor. Finding ways to close this gap is a theme that recurs constantly in McLennan's work.

"We're losing our middle class in America," he said. "We're losing our sense of what holds us together as a nation. It used to be the middle class that we were all proud to be part of, but now you don't hear people saying that."

The rich are getting richer; the poor are getting poorer, he says. But he hopes that his work at the university will help to encourage more awareness of poverty and encourage people to fight against it.

"How can we, as a great university that has been responsible for so much in the Silicon Valley, work to bridge that gap? First of all, by making sure that people are very well aware of what's going on around them, so we don't live in little ghettos either of wealth or of poverty," McLennan said. "We need to begin to devise creative ways to bridge that gap and to think about what that may mean not just in this area, but globally, as we educate our students to become global citizens."

Going west

McLennan has spent his whole life in the Midwest and on the East Coast. "I thought, 'It's a good time to go west, young man' ­ who's not that young anymore," he said, explaining one of his reasons for coming to Stanford.

McLennan's wife, Ellen, still is living in Milton, a city near Boston, with their younger child, -16-year-old Dan, who is a junior at the Milton Academy, a prep school. Their other child, Will, 18, is a freshman at Northwestern University.

McLennan's family is set to move in with him this summer into the dean for religious life's residence. Meanwhile, McLennan is plunging into his work at Stanford. He said he is lucky to be working with three associate deans for religious life ­ Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, the Rev. D. Maurice Charles and Imam Ebrahim Moosa (a visiting associate dean) ­ as well as the Rev. Joanne Sanders, the assistant minister.

"They're doing great work," McLennan said.

For his part, acquaintances and friends say McLennan is a good choice to head Stanford's religious life.

"What's happening very obviously in America is that we have pluralism in religion. And so the plurality of faith must be taken very seriously," Coffin said. "Scotty's open, he's curious, he's tolerant, he's loving ­ all those good things for a chaplain in this day."

Brad Osgood, a Stanford professor of electrical engineering, was co-chair of the search committee for a new dean for religious life. He said he is pleased that McLennan holds the post.

"He has an unusual and interesting background, given the fact that he is both a lawyer and minister and can wear both hats," Osgood said. "He could talk to one group in two different ways, and offer both a religious and secular perspective. I think people warm to both his intelligence and personality, and will enjoy him as a colleague."

Developing a 'common moral language'

As the dean for religious life at Stanford, McLennan serves, in his own words, as an "umbrella for all religious traditions."

"I'm an advocate and facilitator for all the religious traditions, so I certainly make it my business to know them and understand how they operate," he said.

One of his primary responsibilities is to provide moral and spiritual leadership for the university. This includes a prophetic dimension ­ namely, challenging the status quo in the "name of higher values," especially in matters concerning poverty, race, gender and oppression ­ as well as working in a pastoral capacity, counseling to individuals and groups, he said.

There are also educational dimensions to his job: He said he wants to emphasize the role of ethics and spirituality both inside and outside the university. And he plans to teach ethics courses to graduates and undergraduates at Stanford.

He said he is particularly eager to become involved with the Ethics in Society Program and the Haas Center for Public Service.

"I know many people are out in the community doing social service work and service learning, and they are there because of their religious commitments, but they often aren't able to articulate that for themselves," McLennan said. "And I think that [Haas Center Director] Nadinne Cruz and other people at the center are very open to trying to explore that inner connection."

McLennan also wants to help religious groups on campus to better understand one another's traditions; nonreligious people to know more about religious communities; and religious people to learn more about secular world views.

"I see myself as a real bridging person," he said. "The idea is to help keep that dialogue flowing ­ to help people understand more about each other and listen empathetically to each other, so that they really understand what they're talking about before they critique and criticize."

According to McLennan, Memorial Church should be a "truly welcoming place" that "everyone on this campus can be proud of" ­ a place that does not seem to be only for Christians.

At the same time, he said, he wants to promote "tough dialogue" between the various traditions in an effort to help them come to grips with critical social issues such as abortion, homosexuality and racism.

People need to learn how to talk about their ethical viewpoints in an environment of respect and understanding for various religious ­ or nonreligious ­ traditions, he said.

"The idea, ultimately, is to develop some kind of common moral language that relates back to those spiritual and religious traditions," he said.


By John Sanford

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