Benjamin A. Reist, who inspired and challenged generations of students —including this reporter — for five decades as professor of systematic theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary, died peacefully on Sept. 15. The cause of death was complications arising from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 87.
Reist, born Nov. 28, 1926, began his teaching career at Wellesley College in 1952. He joined the faculty of SFTS five years later. His studies covered a wide range of theologians and issues. Early in his career he published works on Ernst Troeltsch and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and upon his retirement he wrote a reflection on John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Reist was always known for his openness to a wide spectrum of theological and philosophical thought. Although he would tell his students, “I'm a loosely slung, left-wing Barthian,” he would explore thinkers of different perspectives than his own and incorporate them into his ever-expanding theology.
John Calvin, of course, was a natural. His original mentors Paul Lehmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth and Ernst Troeltsch. Eventually he added new mentors: Alfred North Whitehead, Michael Polanyi and Paul Ricoeur. And then there were Teilhard de Chardin, Ian Barbour, Thomas Kuhn, and Kurt Gödel.
In all of his work, Reist maintained a strong commitment to social justice. He was involved in the Civil Rights movement and joined the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. He worked closely with leaders in the African American, Native American and Latino communities, and served as a member of the executive committee of the Presbyterian Church’s Council on Church and Race from 1968-1977, chairing the council for two years from 1974-1975. His book Theology in Red, White and Black, which looked at the relationship between Christianity and African American and Native American cultures and theologies, was a pioneering effort to think theologically in a multicultural style.
In the last phase of his career, Reist focused his research on process theology and the interface between religion, science and mathematics publishing his fifth and final book entitled Processive Revelation in 1992.
While his research and writings were important to him, he was a teacher at heart. Thousands of ministers, professors and lay leaders were inspired by the courses he taught at San Francisco Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Their comments about his teaching convey so much of his warm personality, his humor, his grace, his energy and, as one student wrote, “a powerful, Pentecost-like presence.”
Reist played a central role as a member of the faculty of San Francisco Theological Seminary from 1957 until his retirement in 1992, serving as Dean from 1970-1972. He was a major figure in the creation and early development of the Graduate Theological Union and a founding member of the board of directors of the Center for Theology and Natural Sciences.
Reist’s wife of 59 years, Harriet, died in 2007. He is survived by his daughter, Rebecca Reist Martin; sons Stephen Reist and Burton Reist; four grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
SFTS Dean and homiletics professor Jana Childers said, “Ben Reist was one of the mighty lions of God. Our mighty lion of God had a magnificent voice. With it he roared, made rapid exchanges with colleagues and students, and laughed. It was a voice — a teacher’s voice, a theologian’s voice, a voice he practically wore out with great, good use. Yes, it roared, but it also wooed, and it respected and made room for the voices of thousands of others. We give thanks for the scholarship, the profound thought, the leadership that was Ben Reist. We miss him already, and we are grateful for the way his voice still rings, still rings in our ears.”