Serving the Common Good: A Tribute to Auburn Dean Robert Wood Lynn (1925-2018)
By the Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen
With the death of Robert Wood Lynn this past Sunday, October 7th, Auburn Seminary lost one of its saints. Lynn, who was Auburn Professor of Religious Education at Union Theological Seminary and Dean of Auburn Seminary from 1960 to 1974, launched and helped nurture Auburn’s research work on theological education. His leadership at Auburn, and subsequently as Vice President of Religion at the Lilly Endowment, not only deeply influenced the future shape of Auburn, but the field of American religion, as well. While we never met in person, we carry on his legacy every day in our work at Auburn, and we give thanks to God for his life and work.
Partly due to the influence of H. Richard Niebuhr, with whom he studied at Yale as a seminary student, Lynn was deeply attuned to the importance of history. As he put it, “Every serious estimate of the future involves, directly or indirectly, sustained and critical attention to the past.” Already in the 1960s, Lynn understood that the cultural dominance of the Protestant church was waning. While its ecology of institutions—churches, colleges, seminaries, camps, and other organizations—provided for the faith formation of generations of Christians, it was clear to Lynn that this was breaking down. Rather than see the loss as a reason for lament, he creatively inquired as to the potential for a renewed vocation for a church from the margins, a place of significance for the Biblical prophets, and for Jesus himself.
His questions deepened as the 1960s ended in great social upheaval across the nation, and in Auburn’s neighborhood on Manhattan’s upper west side. He recalled that the “turbulence of Morningside Heights during the 1960s and early 1970s shook me deeply. The inherited wisdom about ‘class’ and ‘race,’ ‘gender’ and ‘caste’ seemed thin and abstract.” Feeling these shifting realities were opening a very different era for religious institutions, he turned to his conviction that careful historical work should inform visions for the future. He pulled together a research team to explore the history of reforms in North American theological education, sure that lessons from the transformations and upheaval of the past could inform decisions facing us today. Among those gathered in that seminar were Auburn’s future president and founder of its Center for the Study of Theological Education, Barbara Wheeler, and long-time Bangor Theological Seminary professor Glenn Miller, whose three-volume history of theological education in America, begun in that seminar, was just completed in 2016.
Lynn’s departure for Lilly Endowment in the mid-1970s in some ways only deepened his commitment to and connection with Auburn in his unfolding agenda to support research and conversation about the “aims and purposes of theological education.” That work, so influential in the 1980s and 1990s with leading publications by Edward Farley, David Kelsey, Barbara Wheeler, and others, has new life in the present with Auburn friend and partner Ted A. Smith of Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. His project, “Theological Education Between The Times,” is revisiting these questions with a wider diversity of participants and modes of reflection. Lynn’s broad vision for philanthropy in religion also supported a trajectory of work at Auburn that, following Lynn’s own widening commitments, engaged in broadly ecumenical and multifaith research, as well as across a widening racial and ethnic diversity. This trajectory continues in Auburn’s newly-funded five-year Lilly project, “Preparing Prophetic Leaders for a Multifaith World.”
Throughout his long career as a minister, theological educator, philanthropist and more, key features recur: the love of conversation, the importance of being part of a faith community, and the sharpness of a guiding question. His guiding question, he shared later in life, had become: “Are we serving the ‘common good?” Helpfully, he pushed the critical additional questions, “Whose common good?” and “How would we know if we had served the good or not?” As we at Auburn seek to continue Lynn’s work in our own, we too can benefit from seeking, as he did, to tell a more truthful history so that, we and our partners will give voice to more hopeful future stories for our nation and its many peoples. As we do that work, we, too can hold close these questions about serving the common good, the good of specific communities, and with accountability to them for impact that “troubles the waters, and heals the world.”
Christian Scharen is Vice President of Applied Research and the Center for the Study of Theological Education. His main research and writing interests center on practical theology and theological education, with a particular interest in what strengthens leaders of faith and moral courage in facing the big challenges of the 21st century.