Del Brown, PSR dean emeritus and voice of progressive Christianity, dies at 73

September 15, 2009
Author: 
Kap Stann

Del BrownDelwin Brown, dean emeritus of Pacific School of Religion (PSR), died at his home in San Rafael, CA on September 12, of colon cancer. As a lay theologian equally at ease in academia and the public square, Brown was a leading national voice of progressive Christianity.

Born in Indiana in 1935, Brown received a BA from Anderson College, a bachelor of divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York, and a PhD from Claremont Graduate School in California. From 1983 to 2003, Brown was Harvey H. Pottoff Professor of Christian Theology at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, where he served as dean for four years. He had also taught at Arizona State University, where he was elected the first chair of the religious studies department.

Brown joined PSR as dean and vice president for academic affairs in the fall of 2002. Under his leadership, PSR helped shape an innovative new curriculum for its Master of Divinity program and a strategic plan that placed progressive Christian leadership development at its center.

“Del was of the lucky generation to be taught by Reinhold Niebuhr and other Union Seminary giants,” says William McKinney, president of PSR, “and he used his lay status to great advantage, freed from the authority of denominational tradition. He was a true professional: unflappable and approachable.”

The 2004 presidential election was a catalyst for much of his later work. Brown describes waking at two o’clock the following morning “with a stunned realization that the historic tradition of progressive Christian thought and action had virtually disappeared from our public discourse.” As dean emeritus in 2006, he led PSR’s Progressive Christian Witness initiative with hopes of turning the tide for 2008. He went on to launch a blog, “Communicating Christianity in the Public Square,” which became the basis for his book, What Does a Progressive Christian Believe: A Guide for the Searching, the Open, and the Curious.

“Our greatest danger is the absence of effective progressive Christian voices at grassroots levels in our public discussions,” Brown wrote. “Being progressive and Christian is being the former because we are the latter.”

Among other publications, his 1994 book Boundaries of Our Habitations: Tradition and Theological Construction examined the nature of religious traditions in light of culture theory. He also co-authored several books on facets of Christian theology and the role of theology in healthy religious traditions.

PSR Trustee Margie Allen met Brown when she joined the board and ended up serving as his editor. Allen says, “He used the blessings he was given with imagination and discipline, and the world is a better place because of it. His integrity, intellect, humility, kindness, compassion, and unfailing gentle humor were a beacon of hope to me and many others.”

“His dry sense of humor would surface in the most challenging of times,” says Professor Mary Donovan Turner, who succeeded Brown as dean in 2005. “It was his way of saying ‘don’t take this too seriously,’ I listened carefully and watched what he did, because I was learning from the best.

“When I was named dean, he asked me if I had a hobby. I said no, and he advised, ‘Get one.’”

Brown is survived by his wife Nancy, daughters Kimberli, Terri, and Kristen, and five grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at First Congregational Church of Berkeley (2345 Channing Way) on September 17 at 2 pm.