Ralph Keen

PhD'90

Why did you decide to pursue a degree at the University of Chicago Divinity School?

I was already in a PhD program in classics and became interested in the ways in which classical thought was appropriated in early-modern theology. This wasn’t a Renaissance Studies type of problem but one that I became interested in after working on a Renaissance author (Thomas More). Somewhat perplexed about what my next step was, I went to the inimitable Jaroslav Pelikan for advice, and he said that Swift Hall was the only place for this kind of inquiry. So Chicago was the only program I applied to. I was ready to become a secondary-school Latin and Greek teacher if I couldn’t be trained in the best program in the field.

What were the highlights of your Divinity School experience?

The kindness of some of the senior faculty made a real difference during my first two years, and James Gustafson and Jerald Brauer were two with whom I felt a real bond. There was one reception in Swift Hall my first year when, thoroughly overwhelmed and intimidated, I confessed to Jerry Brauer that I thought I might be better off going somewhere else. He made me promise to give it another year—which was exactly what I needed. Gustafson’s seminar in Reformation Ethics was my first dive into the subject that eventually became my dissertation; but it was his pastoral side that was most valuable to me. He became a wise friend whose counsel and insights offered an example that made me, I think, a more compassionate mentor to my own students.

What is your current job?  How did you get to this position?

I teach history and Catholic Studies at UIC, and hence returned to Chicago in 2010 after 20 years. My interest in the history of Catholicism grew slowly from seeds planted by Susan Schreiner in her course on the Catholic Reformation and by Martin Marty’s wonderful lectures on the colorful tapestry of modern Christianity. I’d taught a wide range of courses at my previous position and this was an opportunity to integrate my research in early-modern Catholicism with my teaching. And the “history” side of my current position allows me to teach the Reformation, which still fascinates me.

How did the program at the Divinity School and the wider University prepare you for your current work?

The range of work that’s done so well there has allowed me to recognize two cultures within the humanities: one focused on close text-based work in which the researcher is in conversation with earlier interpreters of those texts, the other in which scholars in conversation with their contemporaries across the disciplines are finding new ways to understand history and culture.

What’s impressed me most over the years about Chicago is that these two cultures coexist so well. That is, interdisciplinary work isn’t pursued at the cost of the traditional disciplines: these remain carefully guarded and well-taught at Chicago. Close reading of texts, careful analysis of ideas, awareness of the author’s historical conditions (and one’s own): these are marks of Chicago scholarship that stand out as virtues against the backdrop of so much contemporary writing in religious studies.

What would you say about your non-professional life?

I live in the best of both worlds, with the energy and diversity of the UIC community to keep my mind charged, and the leafy tranquility of Lake Forest to serve as a daily refuge from Chicago’s noise. 

Why did you agree to serve on the Alumni Council?

If you care about a place, you don’t refuse a chance to serve in any way you might be useful. And if you care about your field, you’ll take as active an interest as you can in how the next generation of its leaders is being trained. Swift Hall, as it has been for decades, is the custodian of excellence in the academic study of religion. Being asked to help the Dean in even the tiniest of ways is an honor.