1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar

In Memoriam Gabriel Vahanian (January 24, 1927-August 23, 2012)

by James B. Wiggins, Eliphalet Remington Professor of Religion, Emeritus

Professor Gabriel Vahanian, friend, colleague, creative thinker and theologian, devoted father, relatively mild curmudgeon, determined marcher to the beat of his own drummer—I offer some of my recollections of the characteristics and accomplishments of this remarkable man. 

Born to Armenian parents in France, he received his primary and secondary education in schools in France and his baccalaureate from the Lycee of Valence.  He received a fellowship to come to the United States in 1948.  He took his Master’s Degree in Theology from the Princeton Theological Seminary in 1950 and his Ph.D. from that institution in 1958.  He joined the faculty in the Department of Bible and Religion in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University in 1958, where he taught until 1984. Then he returned to France as a professor at the Universite de Strasbourg where he taught until his retirement as Professor Emeritus of cultural theology from the Protestant Theological Faculty of the Universite Marc Bloch.  He continued his active scholarly life and published widely in France and the USA.

It was my great privilege to meet “Gaby” as he was widely and affectionately known to friends and family in May 1963 when I was interviewed for a position in the Department of Religion.  In preparation for that trip to Syracuse, I read his book The Death of God: The Culture of our Post-Christian Era. With its publication in 1961, his work burst into local and national notoriety.

It was widely publicized in the context of a theological movement that became know as “The Death of God” and connected him loosely and not very appropriately to three other American Protestant theologians.  The attention given to the group and each of the thinkers associated with it caused a cultural furor in 1962.  So it was with great interest and some trepidation that I anticipated meeting him.  

During his first years at SU, he had already established himself as a leader in the Department who effectively agitated to have its name changed from the Department of Bible and Religion to the Department of Religion, which it has remained ever since.  Gaby and I became friends and colleagues during the next twenty-one years as he played a major role in the department and in the emergence of the field of the academic study of religion through a number of associations.  When the American Academy of Religion adopted that name in 1964in place of the National Association of Biblical Instructors, he was elected as a member of the original Board of Directors.  He remained an active, contributing member and participant as the AAR became the major scholarly and professional organization for the study of religion in the United States. 

That involvement stimulated him to creatively imagine what the study of religion at the graduate level should and could be.  He was recruited to join the faculty of the Theology School a Drew University in 1966.  In a great example of his skill and imagination, he instead turned the tables and persuaded the Dean of the Graduate School at Drew, Stanley Hopper, and an assistant professor in the college at Drew, David Miller, to join the faculty at Syracuse.  After that coup, Vahanian enlisted those two important contributors and the rest of the faculty in establishing a brand new Ph.D. program in Religion—one of a very few at that time in a secular university with no school of theology.  In an unprecedented short time, he shepparded the outline and proposal for the new program through the department faculty and then through the vetting process in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Curriculum Committee of the University Senate.  In the fall of 1968 the first students matriculated in the new program and four years later, the first two Ph.D.’s in religion were conferred by Syracuse University.  None of that would have happened without Gabriel Vahanian.    

The distinctiveness of this new program drew widespread attention from other professionals in the field  and students from all across the USA and abroad.  Notable new faculty members were also recruited in the decade of the 1970’s as the college recognized the growing accomplishments of the department.  Among them, for example, Huston Smith and Michael Novak were noteworthy additions.  During the decade of the 1970’s there were also numerous distinguished visiting professors in the department, a practice that had begun early on with the visit of the noted theologian Rudolf Bultmann. The presence of Gabriel Vahanian was a significant factor in attracting such colleagues. 

Professor Vahanian was also a very popular undergraduate teacher.  His courses were always over-subscribed, and although students often commented how difficult those courses were, they were intellectually challenging and stimulating.  So, popular but never easy, his courses were a mainstay of the curriculum of the Department of Religion. 

In recognition of his many accomplishments both within the university and nationally and internationally, Gabriel Vahanian was named by Syracuse University to the Eliphalet Remington Professor Chair and subsequently to the Jeanette Kittredge Watson professorship. In 2000, the Gabriel Vahanian Endowed Graduate Support Fund was established in the Department of Religion and continues to accept donations in his memory to support the educational and research expenses of current graduate students in this program in which Gaby invested so much of his life.

Even while on the faculty at Syracuse University, Professor Vahanian maintained ties with his native France.  He spent summers at a home near Marseilles. When he was on leaves from SU, he usually resided in France and maintained his connections with colleagues there, especially at the Universite de Strasbourg.  Thus, it was not entirely surprising, though very disappointing to us, when he informed the Department in 1983 that he had been invited to and accepted an appointment to the Protestant Theological Faculty in Strasbourg.  He taught there until he retired.  During his early years there, he also remained an adjunct professor at Syracuse University.

Professor Vahanian was a prolific author.  His bibliography covers a wide range of subjects, all related to his profound interest in the relationship between religion and contemporary culture.  Although his book, The Death of God (1961), is the one that many will be most familiar with, he was a major figure in developing the subfield of religion and literature in his early book Wait Without Idols (1964). That interest in the relation between religion and culture continued throughout his career to In Praise of the Secular (2008.)  He was deeply influenced in a formative way by the theological tradition of the Reformed church from John Calvin through Karl Barth.  The theology of Paul Tillich, interpreted in his distinctive way, was also a lifelong interest and influence on Vahanian as shown in his book, Tillich and the New Religious Paradigm (2004). 

Bridging traditions between Europe and the United States as a distinguished faculty member and thinker in a secular department of religion at Syracuse University from 1958 until 1983 and then as a theologian in the Theological Faculty of a major university in France for more than a decade, few figures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries exerted so wide an influence on the study of religion and showed the importance and relevance of theology to the larger secular culture as did Gabriel Vahanian.

He is survived by his wife and their son and daughter.  His daughter, Noelle, and her husband, Jeffrey W. Robbins, both hold Ph.D. degrees (1999 and 2001) from Syracuse’s Department of Religion . They teach and publish in the fields of the theology, philosophy and the academic study of religion today.  Together with professors across the United States and some in Europe who implicitly and often explicitly in citing the work of Professor Vahanian in their own work, they demonstrate the continuing influence of the thought of this remarkable man.

A memorial service for Professor Vahanian was held on Friday, September 7, 2012 in the Église Réformée Saint Paul in Strasbourg, France.

Gabriel Vahanian will long be remembered as a challenging, generous, thoughtful, sometimes enigmatic and always cherished friend and colleague.  He will be profoundly missed.

See also: