In Memoriam: Clark M. Williamson

June 30, 2021 -  

The Disciples Divinity House mourns the death of Clark M. Williamson, distinguished alumnus, trustee, and beloved friend. He died after a short illness on June 26, in Indianapolis. He was 85.

Love of questions brought Clark Williamson to DDH as a student in 1957 and to pathbreaking work as a Christian theologian. A pioneer in Post-Holocaust theology, important voice in Process Theology, and leading Disciples theologian, he was the author of seventeen books, including his systematic theology, Way of Blessing, Way of Life: A Christian Theology (1999), which was recently published in Korean translation. He was the Indiana Professor of Christian Thought Emeritus at Christian Theological Seminary and its former Vice President and Dean. An ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he was also a deeply appreciated member of Central Christian Church in Indianapolis, having served as Elder, a longtime volunteer in the Free Clothing pantry, and as teacher. He was a valued colleague, mentor, and friend, and, for many, a teacher without parallel.  

In 2007, he was elected to the Board of Trustees of the Disciples Divinity House. In 2015, he was honored with the Distinguished Alumnus Award. He served as the Honorary Co-chair, with JoAnne Kagiwada, of DDH’s 125th Anniversary Celebration in May 2019. This April, the Barbara and Clark Williamson Scholarship reached full endowment at $250,000, largely due to Barbara and Clark’s generosity over many years and a magnificent pledge from Clark to the 125th anniversary campaign. It will recognize "excellence in theological thinking that furthers understanding and accountability between traditions," and be awarded for the first time this fall. It expresses the conviction that thinking critically about faith and about the accountability of Christianity to other faiths is essential for spiritual life and leadership.

Clark Murray Williamson was born November 3, 1935, in Memphis, Tennessee. He grew up in the Taylor Memorial Christian Church in Memphis, where his grandfather, J. Murray Taylor, was minister. His grandfather viewed the principal calling of the minister to be that of teacher of the Christian faith, a perspective that animated Clark's own approach to theology, church, and ministry.

When Clark Williamson arrived at the Disciples Divinity House in 1957 from Transylvania College, he thought, “I had finally found a place where I was intellectually and spiritually at home.” He had completed the AB in religion and philosophy at Transylvania that spring. The school’s president, Irvin Lunger, told Williamson about DDH. Lunger was a DDH alumnus. Williamson entered the Divinity School as a Disciples Divinity House Scholar, and earned BD (1961), AM (1963), and PhD (1969) degrees from the University of Chicago. He served as assistant dean of the Disciples Divinity House and as interim minister of University Church. He was also Paul Tillich's assistant for Volume III of Tillich's Systematic Theology. Tillich referred to Williamson as “my Englisher.” For his part, Clark had a raft of stories to share about “Paulus.”

Barbara Unger was a student working in the office of the dean of the Divinity School when she and Clark met. She earned AB (French) and AM (Linguistics) degrees from the University and taught high school French before serving as executive director of the ACLU in Indiana, in the US Attorney’s Office, and in the Federal Court House in Indianapolis. They raised one child, Scott. He graduated from the College, making for six University of Chicago degrees in a family of three. Barbara Williamson died in October 2016. Barbara and Clark are survived by Scott and his wife Eva, and beloved grandchildren Jolie and newly-born James, who live in Washington, DC.

In 1966, Mr. Williamson joined the faculty at Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) in Indianapolis. Advancing quickly to associate and then full professor, he became the first occupant of the Indiana Chair of Christian Thought and served as Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs, retiring in 2002. He also served as a visiting professor at the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches in Bossey, Switzerland, and at the Claremont School of Theology. Transylvania University honored him with the Distinguished Achievement Award (2002) and with the Doctor of Divinity (honoris causa) (2005).

Seeking to identify anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in Christian theology and to correct it was one of the most persistent themes of his life and work. As he said, “I have come to see that loving questions and loving strangers (who bring their questions with them) is a requirement of Christian faith. Even more, it is a requirement of any authentic spirituality or pastoral leadership. After Auschwitz, unquestioning faith is pernicious.” His 1982 book, Has God Rejected his People?, recognized the searing questions put to the Christian community by the Shoah. Later books continued this work, including A Guest in the House of Israel: Post-Holocaust Church Theology (1989) and the three-volume lectionary commentary series co-authored with Ron Allen that provided guidance for Christian preaching without “blaming the Jews” or “dismissing the Law,” as two of the subtitles put it. He served on the Committee on the Church and the Holocaust of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and was a member of the Christian Scholars Group on Judaism. A 2003 conference at CTS discussed his contributions to Jewish-Christian conversations and to post-Holocaust theology.

He described his work, in part, as rethinking Christian faith in conversation with contemporary issues and points of view. Ron Allen, colleague at CTS and coauthor with Williamson of several books, observes that Clark was self-consciously a “church theologian,” that is, a theologian who intended for his work to strengthen the church. “While his published works show remarkable depth and precision, they are written in ways that are immediately accessible. His writings are marked by epigrammatic expressions that bespeak a mind that is simultaneously penetrating, insightful, critical, visionary, restive, and playful. He could devastate a whole argument put forward by a student or colleague with a single humorous expression, and was occasionally too willing to do so.”

In books and in numerous journal articles, Mr. Williamson developed an interpretation of God and the world through the lens of neo-process thought. He interpreted the gospel as the dipolar news of God’s unconditional love for each and all, including for elements of nature, and God’s command for justice for each and all. The dominant witness and animating center of his life was the unrelenting awareness of being graciously loved beyond measure and the consequent mission of enhancing the knowledge of that love in church and world, and calling for love in every heart, every relationship and every circumstance. A favorite characterization of God came from Alfred North Whitehead: that God’s nature “is best conceived, [as] that of a tender care that nothing be lost.” Read more about his work.

We give thanks for his life, his questions and insight, his tenacity, generosity, and wisdom. A memorial service will be held at Central Christian Church in late September. Memorial gifts may be made to the Disciples Divinity House at the University of Chicago, Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, or the ACLU of Indiana Foundation.