Professor of Religion Douglas Schuurman passed away on the evening of Saturday, Feb. 15 at his home in Northfield at the age of 64, surrounded by his family.
Schuurman joined the religion department at St. Olaf in 1986. He taught a wide range of courses in the department, primarily focused on Christian theology and ethics. He was teaching the course Love, Justice, and Social Relations, alongside two introductory religion classes, when he fell ill late in the fall semester. The College placed him on medical leave for the spring.
Schuurman led several key courses in the religion department, which included Love, Justice, and Social Relations, alongside The Bible and Ethics, and Christian Theology and the Moral Life.
“Doug represented, I would say, a part of the core of what the religion department has been about,” said Chair of the Religion Department Jamie Schillinger ’93.
Schillinger remembers Schuurman’s constant gratitude and sympathy in regard to any tedious academic or administrative necessities, while always maintaining “the ability to laugh and be amused at the everyday sort of absurdities.”
“He was an incredibly generous and kind guy,” Schillinger said. “Those qualities are always in short supply — you can always use more of them. He will be very, very seriously missed.”
Schuurman completed his undergraduate studies at Calvin College and seminary studies at Calvin Seminary, and earned a doctorate in theology and ethics from the University of Chicago. Schuurman’s doctorate work focused on putting Christian material into conversation with non-Christian ethics and ways of thinking, Schillinger said.
Professor of Religion Charles Wilson ’69 first met Schuurman while they were completing research at the University of Chicago. Wilson lived in the same building as Schuurman, in an apartment directly above his.
“We would yell at each other through the air vents, pound on the wall,” Wilson remembered. “As I say, we shared the same cockroaches in the dorm.”
The two reconnected two years later after Wilson finished his studies, when Schuurman was hired by St. Olaf. They went from sharing an apartment building to sharing a suite in Old Main.
“By randomness it seemed at the time he reappeared when he was a candidate for our position in ethics,” Wilson said. “We’ve been steady housemates here, right down the corridor, the last one in this suite. He was a good, good friend, and a political ally.”
The two shared a commitment in maintaining the Christian tradition at St. Olaf while the institution shifts further away from its religious roots.
Wilson returned to the cockroaches in his old Chicago dormitory for a personal anecdote about Schuurman.
“I learned that if you leave out boric acid, they really disappear,” Wilson recalled. “So we would put a line of boric acid in our kitchen and, of course what did that mean – they all went to Schuurman,” Wilson finished, laughing deeply.
Through his Calvinist studies, Schuurman offered a unique perspective to the religion department. He came to St. Olaf as a sabbatical replacement for current Professor of Religion Edmund Santurri, who remembers Schuurman’s time at St. Olaf well.
“He was an incredibly, theologically and biblically, erudite man. He just knew a heck of a lot,” Santurri said. “He was an exceedingly kind, congenial, helpful professor who spent a lot of time with students. He was patient with them personally, even as he was demanding of them intellectually.”
Santurri expressed a deep respect toward Schuurman for his ability to bring traditional religious scholars to life in his classes, helping students to engage with older, sometimes impenetrable texts in a meaningful way.
Alongside his courses in religion, Schuurman was engaged in both the Great Conversation and Science Conversation programs, leading an ethical focus in each.
Mathematics and religion major Grace Huffman-Gottschling ’20 first had Schuurman as a professor in a Science Conversation course, and immediately felt drawn toward his teaching style and areas of focus. It was his willingness to engage with students concerning a wide range of personal and academic topics with both thoughtfulness and gentleness that made Schuurman stand out. He was instrumental and encouraging in her decisions to pursue a religion major and an independent research project.
“We ended up having conversations his last year here, as well as the year before, about my major and what I found interesting in the religion department, and then anything else, like my life, my future plans,” Huffman-Gottschling said. “He was always there, was always looking out, and very motivating.”
Schuurman was the professor that she talked to most outside of class, besides her advisor.
“This is someone who I had been looking forward to going to speak to this semester about the progress I was making in my research and about the fact that I had finally gotten the religion major officially, because he didn’t know any of that yet,” Huffman-Gottschling said. “I never got that opportunity.”
Schillinger, alongside Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion Kelly Figueroa-Ray, Huffman-Gottschling’s research advisor, passed along information about the progress of her research to Schuurman’s family before his passing. Her research focuses on the impact of God in notions of home among Northfield’s immigrant and refugee populations.
She remembers her last interaction with him.
“I remember I walked in and he had gotten new glasses for like the first time since I had been here, which was just awesome, so we had a little bit of banter about that,” Huffman-Gottschling said. “He told me he wanted me to keep in touch with him and keep updating him about my progress with my research once I started.”
“His gentle spirit is a really good way to put it,” Huffman-Gottschling finished. “His eyes would always be so, sort of shiny and light when you talked to him.”
Central to Schuurman’s studies and student interactions was the concept of vocation, or personal calling. He published a widely-regarded book titled “Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life” in 2004, and gave lectures at churches across the country on the Christian notion of vocation.
This book was the focus of Santurri’s final interaction with Schuurman at his home in early February.
“I said to him, ‘You know Doug, I’m not telling you this just because of the circumstances, but that book may be the most important book the department ever generated.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Get outta here!’” Santurri remembered, laughing. “There was a kind of deep humility about him. That will stick with me forever.”
Schuurman was instrumental in instituting the Ethical Issues and Normative Perspectives (EIN) general education course sequence across the St. Olaf curriculum, alongside now retired Professor of Philosophy Edward Langerak. He and Schuurman collaborated in designing a series of faculty development workshops to introduce colleagues to the teaching of ethics and the history of normative perspectives.
“It was not only fun working together as friends and colleagues, but also it was fun working with other colleagues across the curriculum,” Langerak said. “Many of them have told me, and I presume [Doug] as well, that this was kind of a highlight of their academic career.”
With vocation at the center of his academic focus, Schuurman worked alongside Langerak to analyze the idea of a calling through eight different religious perspectives. This work was published recently in a book titled “Calling in Today’s World: Voices from Eight Faith Perspectives.” Langerak has fond memories of engaging in conversations with Schuurman on trips to and from St. John’s University, where they worked on the book with other contributing scholars.
“We never lacked for conversation,” Langerak said. “It was always very congenial and interesting. He was a very good conversationalist.”
Whether it was in his academic studies, his writings on vocation, his conversations with colleagues, or his interactions with students, Schuurman is consistently noted as carrying himself with an air of geniality, kindness and humility that made him an impactful teacher and a wonderful friend.
“Thoughtful in both senses is a good title for him,” Langerak said. “Thoughtful in the sense of thinking about others and their needs, and thoughtful in the sense of intellectually perceptive and reflective.”
“It’s hard for me to encapsulate what he meant to me as a person, as an individual, but also what he meant to me as a fellow intellectual,” Santurri said. “It was so rich, it was so complex, it was so subtle. It was so personal, as well as academic and intellectual.”
A visitation was held in the King’s Room at St. Olaf on Feb. 22, attended by hundreds of friends, associates and colleagues with whom Schuurman had a lasting impact. A celebration of his life will be held at 11 a.m. on June 27 at Saint John’s Lutheran Church in Northfield.
During his convocation address in 2003, Schuurman spoke in his conclusion about life and about death, in a way that offers a brief insight into the rich and deeply worthwhile life he lead: “Death does not have the final word, life does. Our life came from God, and to God it will one day return. While we have this gift of life, let’s do all we can to be faithful in the tasks and opportunities before us this year.”