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Cut from a Different Cloth

How a radical atheist hippie found religion, and a Stanford calling.

Photo: Peter Stember

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By Nancy Day

It may be an unusual admission for a Christian cleric, but when he first became a chaplain 17 years ago at Tufts University, William "Scotty" McLennan says the gleaming cross on the campus spire made him uncomfortable. The cross might alienate people of other faiths, or those with no faith, he fretted. He wanted Goddard Chapel to be a welcoming place for the entire community.

McLennan had just switched jobs, having been an activist neighborhood lawyer, a Unitarian Universalist who found it hard to reconcile Christian dogma with his respect for other religions. But his own eclectic approach left something to be desired, he now realizes. "I think the way we have to engage in interfaith relations these days is to be so grounded in one tradition . . . that one is then freed to reach out to other traditions. I no longer think it is useful to do a kind of potpourri grocery-store religion, where you take a little meditation here, some Gandhian fasting over there, a bit of prophetic Christianity, a little haiku--and you kind of put it all together."

When he arrived at Stanford in January to become dean for religious life, McLennan was pleased to find a kindred spirit--in Jane Stanford herself. As he observed in a spring sermon, she had vowed that "no creed or dogma will be permitted to be taught" inside the walls of Memorial Church. "There were rabbis and priests and imams speaking right from the start," McLennan says appreciatively. Nevertheless, he adds, she "built an unambiguously Christian church, with Jesus' outstretched arms of love at the very pinnacle of the mosaic façade outside, and Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection gloriously portrayed in 19 large stained-glass windows."

As dean, McLennan leads a team ministering to people of all faiths and even those who disdain organized religion. At his installation ceremony in March, McLennan's longtime mentor, legendary preacher William Sloane Coffin, told congregants: "I am betting on his deanery. He has a great interreligious reverence. He knows that frantic orthodoxy is rooted not in faith, but in doubt. . . . On the other hand, he is no admirer of a spirituality that is a mile wide and one inch deep."

Coffin, jailed more than once for his civil rights and anti-war crusades, touched on another facet of the leadership Stanford might expect from his friend. "The world is full of gentle cowards who think their gentleness offsets their cowardice," he declared. "It doesn't. Compassion frequently demands confrontation. Think of the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the gay and lesbian movement."

In interviews, McLennan has made it clear that he is eager to put his faith into action in Silicon Valley--and that there is much to be done.

"Stanford is dealing now with what America is increasingly going to be dealing with in the next decade or two," he says, referring to widening class disparities. "The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is disappearing. How is America going to hold in the long run? There are lots of pockets of extreme poverty right next to extreme wealth. That's one of the challenges that drew me to Stanford."

McLennan, 51, found his calling almost by accident. Raised in a conservative, business-oriented Presbyterian family in affluent Lake Forest, Ill., he was sent to Hotchkiss prep school in Connecticut. By the time he entered Yale, he was calling himself an atheist, unable to fathom the existence of a God, given the world's disasters and tragedies. Out of curiosity, early in his freshman year he attended a "seminar for friendly nonbelievers" run by Coffin, then Yale's chaplain. The meeting profoundly changed McLennan's life.

"I was like a moth to a candle," he says of his fascination with Coffin's intellect, faith and openness. "He was a huge influence, politically and religiously." McLennan's spiritual journey had begun.

By the end of freshman year, inspired by his reading in Eastern religions, he decided to go to India. While there, he lived with a Brahman, a disciple of Gandhi, who taught him to meditate. "He knew the Bible better than I did, the Koran backward and forward, the Buddhist scriptures as well as his own Hindu scriptures. I was so impressed by his familiarity with other religions and his understanding of avatars . . . ," McLennan recalls. "I was very impressed by his basic metaphor, which was that there are many paths up the mountain."

But at the end of the summer, when McLennan told Sri Krishnamurthy he wanted to become a Hindu, the priest was exasperated. "You've missed the whole point of everything I've been trying to teach you," he said. "The path that you have been on for these 19 years of your life is the Christian path."

McLennan protested that the Christianity he'd been taught condemned to hell those who knew about Jesus but did not accept him as their lord and savior. "So, go back and find a way to become an open Christian," the holy man said.

Returning to Yale, McLennan immersed himself in academic, civil rights and anti-war work, while struggling to heed the priest's advice through frequent sessions with Coffin. "After a couple of years of this, Bill Coffin finally said to me, 'This isn't going to work, your understanding of Jesus as avatar and your struggle with the Trinity. . . .'" Coffin, just back from Boston where he and Dr. Benjamin Spock had been leading anti-war rallies from the steps of the Arlington Street Church, told McLennan: "You sound like a Unitarian Universalist. That's what you should check out. They have this 'many paths' approach."

Unitarian Universalism forswears any specific creed--some members also identify themselves as Christians, Jews, Buddhists or pagans--but espouses an ethical, humanistic, service-oriented faith. No wonder it struck Coffin as a possible match for McLennan.

Since boyhood, McLennan had planned on being a lawyer, "mainly, I think, because my parents used to say I was a really argumentative kid." Inspired by Quakers offering legal counsel to draft-age men who were conscientious objectors to the Vietnam war, he decided to pursue both law and divinity degrees. "I loved that model. It seemed you could use the law as a tool in a ministry."

While McLennan went off to Harvard law and divinity schools, his Yale roommate, cartoonist Garry Trudeau, started syndicating his Doonesbury comic strip. On January 10, 1972, a new character appeared: the Rev. Scot Sloan. His bearded, lanky, laid-back image mirrored McLennan; his philosophy was inspired by Coffin. "I'm the fighting young priest who can talk to the young," said Sloan in his debut balloon, as if foretelling his namesake's future. On the Doonesbury website, Trudeau says of McLennan: "I simply appropriated him, ordaining him on the spot so as to fulfill one of his personal goals before he could."

McLennan earned both degrees in five years, then practiced as a church-sponsored poverty lawyer in Boston, handling welfare, landlord-tenant, immigration and other cases. But he wasn't happy. He later wrote: "My 30th birthday was the low point of my life. Divorced two weeks before. Spiritually fragmented in my work. . . . Suffering from an ulcer. My existence in tatters. What to do?"

A trek. McLennan bought a world map, got out a red marker and traced every place in the world he wanted to visit. It seemed a wild dream at first, but after a year of planning and saving, his "spiritual odyssey" materialized. McLennan spent the next year visiting ashrams, retreats, shrines and holy places, climbing rocky mountains, bathing in warm seas, living simply. On that trip, he realized that the adversity in the natural world appealed to him, while the adversarial nature of practicing law no longer did. He envisioned a conciliatory "legal ministry" rather than a confrontational one, dealing with the whole person, not just the legal problem.

"During one incredible year, I went everywhere in the world I had traced that night in my apartment, and to even more places," he writes in Finding Your Religion: When the Faith You Grew Up With Has Lost Its Meaning (HarperSanFrancisco, 1999). "The year I returned, I married a wonderful woman. Our first child was conceived. I started a new kind of law practice, which I loved, a 'legal ministry' in a low-income Boston neighborhood. I was meditating daily, and my ulcer had disappeared." (He and Ellen, a realtor, now have two sons, Will, who just finished freshman year at Northwestern University, and Dan, a senior this fall at Milton Academy in Massachusetts--and, at 6 feet 6 inches tall, a varsity basketball player--who hopes to attend Stanford.)

As McLennan admits, "this all sounds a little too neat and tidy, even contrived." But the things he saw and did on his travels, the knowledge he gained, the sheer physical exertion, helped him see his path up the mountain in ways that became clearer to him years later as he wrote the book.

His thesis is that spiritual seekers, which so many call themselves today rather than Jews or Muslims or Christians, are making their lives more difficult by whacking through the underbrush looking for answers, making little progress and feeling no better. Mindful of his Hindu teacher's admonition, McLennan recommends starting on a path cleared by earlier generations and learning from philosophers and theologians, while not ruling out the choice of another path or branch later. The important thing is "to pick a path and start walking," he writes, for spiritual life "withers on the couch and in the armchair."

Apart from Coffin, McLennan credits his critical life changes to Ellen, whom he met at a costume ball at the Boston Center for the Arts: "She was dressed as Zelda Fitzgerald, long gown, incredible hat . . . great dancer. She said, 'It's perfect. I'm Zelda, meeting Scott.'"

One day, after they had been married a few years, Ellen showed her husband an ad in the Boston Globe. "It said, 'University Chaplain wanted for Tufts,'" McLennan recalls. "I said, 'Ellen, what is this? I'm a lawyer in Dorchester . . . and what is a university chaplain, anyway, and where is Tufts?'"

She thought it would be a good fit and encouraged him to apply. So began the path that eventually led to Memorial Church.

Although he often uses self-deprecating humor and is generous in crediting others, McLennan is clearly a confident man. Describing the duties of the cleric, he cites the pastoral role, caring for individuals, and the priestly role, presiding at worship and rites of passage. But he sees his most challenging role as that of prophet. "Not the common perception, one who predicts the future," he emphasizes, "but prophet in the sense of prophets of Israel, and Jesus is of that tradition--people who challenge the powers that be, in the name of God or higher values, to look at those who are least attended to. That's how I see chaplaincy--I'm hired to be a conscience, a moral voice within the institution, and to speak truth to power."

Electrical engineering professor Brad Osgood, co-chair of the search committee that recommended McLennan, says he wondered how Tufts President John DiBiaggio reacted to the self-styled "prophet in the king's court." Osgood asked DiBiaggio, "Were you happy with that approach, or did you say, 'Rid me of this pest of a priest'?" DiBiaggio said he had found McLennan's perspective "really helpful," and then-President Gerhard Casper agreed, Osgood says.

While the committee wasn't specifically looking for a social activist, Osgood notes that "Stanford is a very entrepreneurial place, which means if he wants to have a high profile nationally or internationally, he can have it. . . . He'll have a chance to speak out on issues."

McLennan staked out a wide constituency while at Tufts. He taught courses at venues as diverse as divinity and dental schools, Harvard Business School and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts--in addition to, in the words of a former colleague, "saving the comparative religion department." He also co-wrote, with Harvard Business School and Divinity School researcher and teacher Laura Nash, a book called Church on Sunday, Work on Monday: The Challenge of Fusing Christian Values with Business Life (Jossey-Bass, September 2001).

Oliver Wise, a peace and justice studies major at Tufts who took McLennan's Religion and International Relations course, calls him "the best professor I had . . . which is interesting, because Scotty doesn't really do a lot of teaching."

Wise explains: "In that class, I learned more about myself and about my religion than anywhere else. Scotty's ability to listen is something I very much admire." McLennan has a remarkable talent for bearing silent witness and then asking just the right question to illuminate the discussion or take it to another plane, his former student adds.

Empathetic listening, says McLennan, is precisely the tool necessary for people with disparate ideas to understand and appreciate one another. He offers an example. "The fastest-growing religion in America is Islam. The first line of the Muslims' daily prayer is, 'There is no God except God.' Moses and Jesus were prophets [they believe], with Muhammad the greatest of all. Christians believe that the only way to God is through Jesus Christ"--so, he asks, "How do you create dialogues when it seems it's a non-starter?"

He answers his own question: "You allow people to say what they believe in the depth of their soul, and then start asking questions. How do we coexist? What do you as a Muslim really think about Jesus, and what are the points of connection? What do you as a Christian think about monotheism and the First Commandment? What did Jesus say about these things?

"Then you try and open up that dialogue. Empathetic listening has to be at the core. You've got to leave 10 percent of yourself open to change."

A good way to begin, he suggests, is to find areas of common interest. "Maybe working together in East Palo Alto with communities in need--from the prophetic dimensions of each tradition--and recognizing how close you really are, that Judaism and Islam and Christianity grew out of the same soil."

McLennan says his "liberal to radical" politics stem from his religious commitments. Like Coffin, he worries that today's youth are politically apathetic and don't see, much less comprehend, the roots of causes they do care about. He cites ucla's annual survey of incoming freshmen, which showed the 2000-2001 class more interested than ever in community service yet contending they don't like politics. "That means they don't understand the social and institutional conditions that lie behind poverty, hunger, homelessness, malnutrition, faltering public education and other problems," he asserts.

In a January sermon commemorating Martin Luther King Jr., McLennan praised Stanford's Haas Center for Public Service and the Urban Ministry of Palo Alto. Then he recounted meeting a student who told him, "The greatest thing about Stanford is that you never have to leave the campus."

He was appalled. "What a tragedy not to get off campus to East Palo Alto and to other parts of the Silicon Valley where the poverty can be as severe as anywhere in America. . . . To get out, see, learn and then act to make a genuine difference in alleviating poverty--that's honoring Dr. King's legacy."

Indeed, McLennan says he hopes to build on the excellent work already being done by such people as Jim Burklo, a Stanford associated minister who runs a "reality check" tour organized through the Haas Center to show Stanford students the quite different world across Highway 101 in East Palo Alto.

"A lot of students working in San Jose, East Palo Alto and other places are acting out of religious motivation, but do not have much chance to talk about that," McLennan says. "I want to develop programs so students can begin to have a language to describe this--that it's not just something you do to pad out your résumé. It's been very difficult for people generally in secular settings in a pluralistic society to talk about religious commitment. And, for students, we want to address how you remain involved in the long run."

In his first six months at Stanford, he's raised questions more than preached answers. He has eaten in nearly every dining hall, breaking bread with students at all levels. "They are in a dramatically pluralistic environment," he notes, "with a minority-white incoming class. They have some ability to talk about race, ethnicity and national origin, but it is difficult for them to talk about two issues: class and religion."

McLennan sees signs that students are becoming politically active over such issues as labor practices at Webb Ranch, which operates on leased University land; how Stanford manages its land and its workers; and the outfitting of Stanford athletes in Nike gear. "The company has been accused of oppressing Third World workers, so one of the questions is, are they [Nike] better or worse than others? What kind of pressure can be brought to bear on the company? And there is the issue of commercialization of the University, and whether students can opt out if they don't want to be walking advertisements--can they cover the swoosh?" Students' feelings "run very deep," he says, but they are "afraid of explosive emotions, and don't quite have a language or a way to engage in those discussions well."

McLennan himself savors intellectual jousting. At Yale, he was one of 12 seniors chosen as "Scholars of the House." They took no classes and instead worked with faculty on individual projects all year. One wrote a symphony. McLennan devoted himself to exploring "Computers and Infinity." Chapter 1 linked computer design to Aristotelian logic. The final chapter was titled "God."

"It talked about the fact that the computer will never be able to deal with the question of infinity the way humans do naturally," says McLennan of his paper. "We are indeed wired for a lot of things, but what you miss with a mechanistic view is what is most interesting. We are not merely a series of synapses exploding--poetry and music and dance are not easily explainable in those mechanistic terms."

The prophet sounds ready to take on Silicon Valley.


Nancy Day, MA '71, is director of advanced journalism studies at Boston University's College of Communication.

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