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Scholarships aid UU doctoral students

Revitalized program increases scholarship amounts; Unitarian Universalist scholars gather at AAR.
By Jane Greer
12.7.07

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Two Unitarian Universalist women received scholarships of $20,000 and $25,000 in 2007 from the UUA’s Panel on Theological Education to help them finish their doctoral dissertations in theology. The scholarships are designed to help Unitarian Universalist graduate students and scholars complete dissertations and books on theological and ministry-related subjects.

This year’s winners are Alison Downie, a UU attending First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, Pa., and Lisa Karnan, a lifelong UU and a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship.

According to the scholarship application form, the panel’s goal is to support “Unitarian Universalist scholars who are committed to strengthening the UU movement through research and publication, excellence in teaching, and educational leadership.” The panel supports UU academics in three ways, said Marvin Ellison, professor of Christian ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary and head of the UU Scholarship Committee—a subset of the panel charged with administering the scholarships. “The first category is for young UU scholars at the dissertation stage,” he said. “The second is for UU scholars trying to publish their first book, often based on their dissertation, and the last is to encourage more experienced UU scholars making a contribution to Unitarian Universalism through their writing and teaching.” So far, he added, only doctoral students have applied for the scholarship.

Since the program was founded in 1987, the panel has awarded more than 70 scholarships.

Alison Downie, a student at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, is completing a dissertation comparing the work of Elizabeth Johnson, a Euro-American Catholic feminist theologian, and Rita Nakashima Brock, an Asian-American Protestant theologian. “I’m looking for real points of resonance between the work of these two scholars,” Downie said. “From differing vantage points, both theologians explore the relationships between human and divine power and the relationship between salvation and community.”

Lisa Karnan, a specialist in New Testament studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, is writing about the Gospel of Thomas and the Gnostic Call. The Gospel of Thomas is a Gospel that doesn’t appear in the New Testament. The Gnostic Call “is a type of Gnostic literature,” Karnan wrote in her scholarship application, which “exhorts the soul to leave its previous spiritual state and become a Gnostic.” Karnan will be trying to determine whether the Gospel of Thomas is a type of Gnostic literature.

Both Downie and Karnan hope to find jobs teaching in university religious studies departments. When asked whether she felt any conflict between her UU beliefs and her academic work as a New Testament scholar, Karnan said, “Not at all. I’ve noticed that there are people of many faiths and no religious adherence at all teaching in Religious Studies departments.”


In the past few years, interest in the panel’s scholarships has waned. The Scholarship Committee awarded five scholarships in 2002, three scholarships in 2003, two scholarships in 2004, and one scholarship in 2005. In 2006, it awarded no scholarships.

“Recently the panel revisited how it could support development of UU scholarship and decided it needed to re-energize the scholarship program,” Ellison said. One of the ways it did this was to decrease the number of awards but increase their value. As a result, Downie received $20,000 and Karnan got $25,000.

“Getting this scholarship makes all the difference in the world to me,” Downie said in a phone interview. “I’m a single mother of three children and need to get adjunct teaching work to support us. This grant will enable me to take the spring and summer semesters off. I’m hoping to get the dissertation finished by the end of the summer.”

Karnan was equally pleased. “This scholarship enabled me to pay my tuition,” she said in a phone interview. “It will allow me to finish my degree. I’ve been a full-time graduate student for almost 12 years.” Karnan hopes to be finished with her dissertation in May.


Along with the revitalization of the Panel on Theological Education’s scholarship program, a new tradition may be starting at the annual Academy of American Religion conference, the foremost conference for professional theologians and scholars of religion.

For the first time, at the most recent meeting held November 17-20 in San Diego, UU scholars gathered for their own panel discussion, “Between the Schoolhouse and the Religious Houses: Unitarian Universalist Theology in Context,” moderated by the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Calif. The panel discussion, which was co-sponsored by Starr King, Meadville Lombard Theological School, Beacon Press, and the UUA’s Panel on Theological Education, drew 25 participants, according to Dan McKanan, panel organizer and associate professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

“There have been informal gatherings of UUs at the AAR meeting off and on over the years,” said McKanan in an email, “but there was nothing happening when I became a UU about four years ago and began looking for opportunities to network with other UU theologians.”

The idea for the 2007 event started at a breakfast for Unitarian Universalists held at the 2006 AAR convention. Its success “inspired us to try for two events in 2007—both a breakfast and a scholarly panel discussion on the contexts for UU theology,” McKanan wrote. Plans are being made for a similar pair of events at the 2008 conference.

The panel discussion is the first time in recent years that a specifically Unitarian Universalist event was scheduled at an AAR conference.


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