By Erica Harris DeValve
For Reunions Weekend 2022, the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal ’72 returned to Princeton’s campus for only the second time in the 50 years since he graduated. A denominational leader, climate activist, and public theologian, Rev. Antal had been invited back to deliver the sermon at that Sunday’s Chapel Service. Rev. Antal shared a passionate plea for Princeton, and our generation as a whole, to live into a new story. This story calls us not only to radical honesty about what Rev. Antal recognizes to be the “greatest moral crisis humanity has ever faced” (the climate crisis), but to deliberate action as well. Reflecting on his time at Princeton, Rev. Antal shares how a recommendation from an advisor changed the course of his life and how his sophomore year sparked his commitment to activism. In this interview, Rev. Antal also discusses his most recent return and his hope for the future of Princeton and the world.
EHD: So first, I'd love to hear more about what initially brought you to Princeton, and what drew you to choose Princeton as the place to do your undergraduate studies.
JA: I come from a family of scientists, so I applied to Princeton in order to study physics and math. And I had several AP credits, that put me into sort of sophomore level classes when I arrived. And what I realized was that the people to the right of me and to the left of me were a lot smarter than I was. So I went to my advisor, who was a professor in the Romance Languages Department. He said, “Jim, what do you like?” And I said, “Well, I enjoy reading Soren Kierkegaard and this German protester Dietrich Bonhoeffer has just been translated into English, and I've been reading Letters and Papers From Prison.” He said, “Jim, listen, you need to spend four years here at Princeton, and next semester, you need to take Malcolm Diamond's course, Religion 204 on Philosophy of Religion.” And that opened me up to the rest of my life. And it turns out - this might shock you - that I actually took that course for credit the first time, but I sat in those lectures for each of the next three years. Because, at that time, Malcolm diamond was widely recognized as the best teacher at Princeton - no matter what department - and he taught me how to teach. So, I became a religion and philosophy major because of that romance language professor and his great advice.
EHD: Is there another event from undergrad in which you see a direct thread to the work that you do now, whether as an activist or a religious leader, or even an author? Is there anything that you look back on as particularly pivotal?
JA: My sophomore year, which was '69-'70, was a year of turmoil in America and also on campus… and by the time Winter came around, the Vietnam War protests were really everywhere in America. I began participating in those protests and on campus. In April, there was an action. I think they took over what was called the New South building, in order to advocate for Princeton to divest its funds in South Africa. Princeton and Columbia, if I recall correctly, were the first institutions in America to begin to advocate for divestment as a tactic to end apartheid. It was just at the beginning of that concept of divestment as an economic tactic and that not only drew my curiosity, but it really drew my internal commitment. Sometime in the Spring there was also a brief occupation of the president's office at Princeton – which I was part of – around apartheid and, as history shows, there was a committee formed. Burt Malkiel, the economics professor, oversaw that committee… So that was one [of the pivotal moments]. About the same time, again, in relation to the Vietnam War, there was a movement in May to go without eating for 10 days. I fasted for 10 days, and it was the longest fast I've ever done. There were tens of thousands of students all over the country that were doing that. Frances Moore Lappe, wrote a book, a year or two after, called Diet for a Small Planet. It was the first major book to connect the fact that if people just stopped eating meat, there'd be more than enough protein available to feed the world. And as soon as I read that concept…I committed to being a vegetarian. But, because I was an athlete, I did eat fish and I have persisted to be what's now sort of generally known as a pescatarian over the past 52 years. Those are my most formative experiences.
EHD: I also want to talk a bit about you coming back this year. You came back for your 50th Reunion and you were able to deliver the sermon at chapel service that weekend, as well. What was that experience like for you? Have you been back often or was this your first time back in a while?
JA: In my years since graduating, I have very rarely been back to Princeton. I think, perhaps, only once other than this past weekend. Princeton was just an incredibly formative time for me. And yet, for whatever reason, the whole thing about Reunions, it just never caught on inside of me. But that being the case for decade after decade after decade, being asked by Dean Boden to come and preach this past Sunday for the 50th Reunion, I readily accepted. And then I just began to email some of my buddies… and I just had the absolute greatest time connecting with them. People who I hadn't seen, in one case, for 50 years and, in another case, for about 10 years. Just spending a couple of hours with several of my very closest friends from a very formative time in all of our lives, it just couldn't have been better. A lot of the folderal of Reunions is not my thing. But connecting deeply with friends who were just foundational at a formative time in our lives was, for me, exceptionally important.
EHD: That's really great! I was able to listen to your sermon from Sunday and, in it, you discuss some of the steps that Princeton is taking towards becoming more eco-conscious in its operation, as well as steps that you would like to see Princeton take in order to “live into a new story.” Oftentimes, when we encounter messages about the current state of the environment, it can feel very overwhelming, even maybe a little bit hopeless. What gives you hope, or what sustains your hope, for a better future in this area?
JA: Well, you know, one of the things I not only said once, but I repeated toward the end of the sermon, is that hope starts with honesty. That very brief phrase comes from none other than 18-year-old Greta Thunberg. And one of the things I've learned with a lifetime of activism is that it's really important for me, as I get older, to take my cues from younger people. So, I've really paid attention over the past four years to what Greta Thunberg and her array of activists have had to say. And it actually has theological depths. The honesty part has to do with the fact that Princeton, being one of the most prominent educational institutions in the world, needs to be out front, in terms of the greatest moral crisis humanity has ever faced. And it almost brought me to tears when I read the article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly a few months ago about the commitment to change the entire heating and cooling system of the University to geothermal… I think Princeton is providing thousands of other campuses with an example of the kind of commitment needed. What I would like to see – and Princeton is doing a pretty good job at this, I want to say – would be a thorough, comprehensive institutional commitment to teaching in a way that prepares students to address the climate crisis. My dream would be to have an institutional commitment that every single course in the university would…either touch upon or actually dive into the climate crisis, and how the focus of that particular course can be used to address it. I know that sounds crazy, but we live in an educational environment with all of these siloed disciplines, and the reality is interdependence and the interconnectedness of all life on Earth is the emergency bell that is ringing for our generation. The academy should recognize that the old way of dividing knowledge up into these siloed disciplines, while it advances all kinds of thinking in all kinds of ways, it ignores the interconnectedness of all of this. Continuing to be on the cutting edge of emphasizing that interconnectedness in the context of the highest level of the academy should be the kind of example that Princeton is setting for all the other educational institutions in the world.
EHD: I really appreciate your reflections on the interconnectedness of different disciplines and areas of experience. In the ORL, we really try to encourage students to explore and reflect on those points where their work and their studies, and their beliefs/values and spiritual life intersect and come together. As I was exploring your website, I saw that in your book, Climate Church, Climate World, you discuss why people of faith should be engaged in efforts to combat climate change, as well as the 'how' behind that sort of engagement. What message do you have for students in these formative years, as they're making sense of their spiritual selves and their values in light of the very real challenges of the world around them?
JA: That's a fabulous question and I think it gets that what is the real core message, which has to do with a vocation. My guess is any of the students involved in the Office of Religious Life at Princeton recognize that the reason they're involved is that they have some vague sense – some of them may have a more clear sense – of being called by God. And the thing that we have to realize (and we have to get this tomorrow, we don't have decades to figure this out) is that if we look at scripture – and not just Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament – if we look at the scripture of all the world religions, what we realize is that God calls communities, not just individuals. So, what I would hope is that those students who have some sense of calling – either that is rooted in a religious tradition or a sense of calling to actually address what I persistently refer to as the greatest moral crisis humanity has ever faced (the climate crisis) – that they come to realize: this isn't just about you, personally, being called to do this. It's about our generation being called to do this. And the extent to which you all can help students to really realize that this isn't just, “well I really want to address the climate crisis, but I know my best friend over there, they just want to make money. So, they're going to Wall Street to just make money.” That's not the world we live in anymore. I'm sorry. And the analogy that I often draw it has to do with America in 1941: even if you were a rich young man from an oil family in Texas - think George Bush - and you could buy your way out of the draft, it turns out, you actually don't have a choice. It turns out, in order to become the greatest generation, that generation actually has to roll up their sleeves and dive in. And that's what our generation is called to do now, and it's not just a personal call. It's a generational call.