I’ll don it today for the last time. For after almost thirty years in the pulpit, it’s now become a bit frayed and in serious need of repair. It seems particularly appropriate, however, that the preaching robe I wear be the same one I got after receiving my Ph.D. long ago, largely because of this man.
To be clear, Niels Nielsen was not simply the chair of the Religious Studies Department at Rice University, but he was both my mentor and my friend. His was a brilliance wrapped in generosity, and I’ve never known anyone smarter than he was. But I’ve also never seen someone whose enormous intellect was always expressed through a graciousness that spoke volumes about his own faith.
He came to Rice in 1951, joining the Philosophy Department until, that is, he managed to formulate a Religious Studies Department of its own, becoming its first and longest tenured chair. What’s more, he not only raised funds for the program, but he raised both its profile and even its physical presence, as it became housed on the fourth floor of Lovett Hall sitting directly over– as theology, the “queen of sciences,” should— the Philosophy Department itself.
What was still more impressive, however, was how he was able to carve out a real place for religious study at a consciously secular and at times suspicious institution such as Rice. Even those who did not believe in God came to believe in Niels Nielsen’s sincerity and superior intellect.
Likewise, to a struggling graduate student, Professor Nielsen always knew exactly what to say, reminding me at just the right moments that the process of getting a Ph.D. was a bit like joining a fraternity: you simply had to hang on and push through until you got there, no matter how many extensions he had to give me.
And despite his erudition, he nonetheless sometimes summed up the Christian faith by paraphrasing the words of a 1940’s popular song: “Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t My Baby,”that is to say, are you really a child of God or not? For Professor Nielsen, there was no question at all: he loved the Lord with not just his soul and strength, but with all his amazing mind as well.
He once wrote that the church was meant to stand at the “juncture of our world’s needs and the kingdom of God.” Its message, he said, was one of salvation, and it matters very much “that this message be proclaimed with the power of the Holy Spirit.”
I’ll try my best today to do just that as I stand in his church in Houston in a robe that needs a replacement to speak about a professor who plainly professed Christ in his life. Clearly, however, there will be no replacing of this man who forever changed not just my life, but the lives of so many others. His was, in the words of Rice’s motto, “unconventional wisdom” indeed.