Remembering Fred Streng: Frederick John Streng, 1933-1993

by David W. Chappell

Philosophy East and West

Vol.44 No.2

pIII(4) 1994.04


Copyright by University of Hawaii

On June 21, 1993, Frederick J. Streng, founding member and second president of the Society of Asian and Comparative Philosophy, died of cancer at his home in Dallas, Texas. Fred was a large man, standing well over six feet tall, and a commanding presence in any gathering. But it was the largeness of his vision and the generosity of his understanding that made him a central figure in comparative philosophy and the history of religions during the last thirty years. Although a son of Texas and a professor at Southern Methodist University since 1966, the themes that were Fred's trademark emerged during his graduate study at the University of Chicago under Mircea Eliade, Joseph Kitagawa, and Bernard Meland from 1956-1963. Completing his doctoral at Chicago on the Buddhist thinker Nagarjuna (later published as Emptiness - A Study in Religious Meaning [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1967]), Fred argued that religious knowledge is understood best not as information or new concepts, but as an awareness that is transforming. Accordingly, he asserted that Nagarjuna's intent was soteriological, not speculative, and even though his wisdom lacked an object of knowledge, it was saving knowledge because it removed ignorance and attachment and was a means to ultimate transformation. Because of Fred's insightful interpretation of Nagarjuna and emptiness within the framework of the religious life, his book became required reading for leading philosophers and theologians in America. As a result, there is no liberal theologian today who is not conversant with the theory of Buddhist emptiness, and Fred's book is the single-most important interpretation of this Buddhist doctrine for Christian thought. Fred has always been interested in religious pluralism and comparative religion. His father was a Lutheran minister, but Fred always felt restricted by just one religious identity and in later life was an active supporter of the Unitarian Universalist Church. Beginning in 1969, he launched The Religious Life of Man Series with Dickenson Publishing Company that included separate volumes by different authors on Islam, Japanese Religion, Chinese Religion, Buddhism, Hinduism, Primitive Religion, Judaism, Christianity, and Native American Religions. Fred maintained that we must try to see religion both from inside and outside, both objectively and subjectively. Accordingly, to supplement these works, additional volumes were published to include original materials from the traditions themselves to help students to understand the "thoughts, feelings, and attitudes" of the members of the major religions from within. Many books from the series became the standard textbooks used during the next two decades to introduce these traditions to undergraduates, and have assisted hundreds of thousands of students. As the Series Editor, Fred wrote Understanding Religious Man (that became Understanding Religious Life in the second and third editions in 1976 and 1985). In his 1976 Preface he explained that the reason for making changes was to emphasize "that religious life is a complex of processes through which people are being transformed." This view of religion not in terms of structure or belief systems, but in terms of process, was further supported in a book co-edited with Charles L. Lloyd, Jr. and Jay T. Allen titled Ways of Being Religious: Readings for a New Approach to Religion (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1973). In his Emptiness book Fred had divided Indian thought into three ways of religious apprehension: the mythical, the intuitive, and the dialectical. Now he also included personal encounters with the holy, ritual, and living harmoniously through conformity to the cosmic law. Since this book argued that "any reasonably specific means that any person adopts with the serious hope and intention of moving toward ultimate transformation" should be considered religious (p. 6), later chapters also included methods for self-integration, activities to achieve human rights, the new life through technocracy, and living a fully sensuous and aesthetic life. Accordingly, Fred's definition of religion as a "means toward ultimate transformation" came to be seen as a process within two contexts: either within a transcendent, cosmic context or within a human, deep-structure orientation. By the third edition of Understanding Religious Life, Fred's emphasis on religion as a "means to ultimate transformation" had developed a chapter on "Understanding Through Interreligious Dialogue" because for "any person to know the nature of religious life or of authentic living at the deepest level, he or she must seek out alternate religous forms and compare them" (p. 236). Fred proposed that this may involve either a mystical sense of unity beyond all religious differences, or valuing the alternative and complementary ways of other religions, or to focus on the enriching personal experience of interfaith encounter. "What is the sound of liberating truth?" This question was presented by Fred as his life's koan in his Presidential Address at the Fourth International Buddhist-Christian Conference in August, 1992. Although granting that others might offer many different answers, it is revealing that the place where he found the sound of liberating truth was in "mutual transformation." Three primary areas where mutual transformation offered liberating truth for Fred were in the internal and external pluralism found in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, second in the dialogue between the personal commitments of religion and the objectivity of academic-scientific studies, and lastly in the encounter between religion and the various physical and human problems of our global community. It was the generosity and largeness of Fred that no particular form of liberating truth could ever be sufficient or satisfying for him, but that it must always be evolving and emerging anew out of ongoing encounters. For Fred, religious knowledge had to be understood in the context of the search for ultimate transformation, and enriched through comparative studies and ongoing personal and global dialogue. These insights and values were shared with others through the leadership that he offered various professional societies over the years, such as the presidency of the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy (1970-1972), the American Oriental Society, Southwest Branch (1982-1983), the American Society for the Study of Religion (1987-1990), and the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies (1991-1993). When I asked Fred whether his definition of religion as "a means to ultimate transformation" included being run over by a steam-roller, he laughed and said that for him the adjective "ultimate" always implied something positive. A few days before he died, his wife, Susie, mentioned some local political obstacles to bringing relief to needy children. While supporting her concern, Fred laughed and warned her that he only had room for positive thoughts, not complaints. This has always been his way, and he is treasured by his friends and family for not having a mean bone in his body, for his ready laughter and clear intelligence, and for his generous concern and inclusiveness of others. And should we complain that he left us too soon, we can be reminded of his 1989 publication "Thanksgiving as a Worldwide Response to Life" and be grateful for how he touched and changed our lives. Fred Streng is survived by his wife, Susan Streng, and by his children, Elizabeth Ann Devoll, Mark Andrew Streng, Steven Deane Streng, and Lisa Evans. Although he resided in Dallas, he was a citizen of the world, and he brought the world home to America through his leadership in comparative studies and his deep commitment and joy in the variety of others as the means of our renewal.