Erik Owens Brings Religion and Public Life Together at Boisi Center

In an inviting brick house on Quincy road, away from the bustle of main campus, the Boisi Center (pronounced bwa-ZEE) is the perfect place to draw academics in for good food and conversation.

Named after Geoffrey T. Boisi, BC ’69, who, along with his wife Rene Boisi, BC ’69, donated to the University in 1999, the center is a place for research on religion and public life. Erik Owens began working at the Boisi Center as assistant director in 2006, which he considers his first real job. He was promoted to associate director in 2009, and has served as the interim director for the past year, while also working as a professor in the theology and international studies departments.

As of this July, a new director, Rev. Mark Massa, S.J., former dean of the School of Theology and Ministry, will be filling the role. Owens stressed how eager he is to get to work with Massa, especially since they have been talking about a strategic vision to bolster the center’s future for the last six months.

Throughout the year, the Boisi Center has a lot of public programs and events like conferences, lectures, panel discussions, and a lunch colloquium series that includes lunch and an informal presentation on a topic of interest. The center brings in speakers from all over the world.

“It’s an attempt for us to highlight terrific scholarship at the University and have a space where people can come and be stimulated or challenged,” Owens said.

The center avoids political polarization. Instead, it brings rigorous thinkers who are passionate about discussing issues that matter and aims to foster respect. It works toward understanding a conception of the common good on a civic and religious basis. Additionally, Owens stresses that the center is not driven by a partisan background and always tries to bring in diverse opinions.

“Everyone doesn’t leave agreeing, but you leave with a better understanding of the complexity of issues,” he said.

The center also hosts a Visiting Scholars Program toward the end of April. It has brought scholars from 13 different countries over the past 15 years who stay in residence at the center for anywhere from a week to a year.  This year, Scott Spurlock, from the University of Glasgow, will arrive for the program in late April.

Along with its other programs, the center also holds seminars typically for graduate students centered on a non-curricular theme. Next year, it plans to do a faculty seminar series on Religious Resources for Citizenship.

After completing his undergraduate studies at Duke University, Owens went on to earn his masters in theological studies at Harvard. He traveled to the Midwest for his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, and he finished his dissertation while spending a year at the Center for Religion and Democracy at the University of Virginia.

The previous director, Alan Wolfe, an acclaimed sociologist and political scientist, did work on the ethics of school choice. His work was a crucial aid for Owens while he was doing his dissertation on religious and civic education.

Owens grew up in the United Methodist Church in Nashville and studied religious studies at Duke University but never expected to be a theology professor especially since his parents before him worked in business. Although he had spent a lot of time in youth group and church growing up, he had never considered such a future. After taking a few religion classes in college, however, he became fascinated by studies that he felt combined something intellectually challenging but also personally meaningful.

After taking Stanley Hauerwas’ class at Duke, Owens decided to pursue graduate school.

“[Hauerwas] made me so mad that I decided that I needed to keep going to school to figure out why he was both so compelling but also why his particular theological method was not my own,” Owens said.

Along with Hauerwas, Owens cited his first grad school advisor, Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, as a great mentor for him early on in his career. Hehir, one of the world’s leading authorities on peace and conflict, advised Cardinal Sean O’Malley and continues to run the Archdiocese social services. He spent a lot of time engaged in public life, consulted with the State Department, and currently sits on the board of advisors for the Boisi Center.

“Father Hehir represented a model of excellence in multiple spheres,” Owens said.

Along with Hehir, Owens also praised his dissertation advisor at the University of Chicago, Jean Bethke Elshtain, for being a path-breaker as the first woman to become an endowed professor at Vanderbilt. First trained in political theory, she later became a theologian and radiated a passion in all of her exploits. Owens wrote papers and organized conferences with her, and through her help got to visualize what life would be like as a professional in the world. Although she passed away three years ago, they were actively in touch until the very end of her life and he is profoundly grateful to her.

“She represented a model of energetic public discourse while also being a scholar,” Owens said.

He commends BC for being a place where people have a wide range of views and different religious traditions but each of these views are always taken seriously as something meaningful and a rich area for conversation.
“I love teaching and the students here are terrific,” Owens said. “I love the convening aspect of my job because I’m learning all the time and it’s not a cloistered life.”

Featured Image Courtesy of Chris Soldt, MTS Graphics

April 2, 2017