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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

In memory of Gabriel Vahanian

Michael S. Kogan '63, G'77 remembers his friend and mentor

Sept. 15, 2012, by Michael S. Kogan

Gabriel Vahanian at Syracuse University in 2007. (Photo by Susan Kahn)
Gabriel Vahanian at Syracuse University in 2007. (Photo by Susan Kahn)

Editor's Note: Gabriel Vahanian, world-renowned theologian and religion professor emeritus at SU, died on Aug. 30 at his home in Strasbourg, France. He was 85. The following remembrance is by Michael Kogan '63, G'77, who endowed a graduate support fund in religion at SU in honor of Vahanian. Kogan is professor of religious studies at Montclair State University.  

How do I thank a man who altered my life ... no, who gave me my life?

I was a college freshman of 17 years old when I first met Dr. Vahanian. I had little idea of who I was, what abilities I possessed or what I was going to do with my life. He introduced me to the high drama and intense intellectual stimulation of brilliant classroom teaching, to the excitement of great ideas, and, most of all, to myself. When his first book was published, he inscribed it to me, one of his undergraduate students: “To Michael Kogan, with the hope that he will find in it an echo of my respect for his spiritual conviction and his intellectual quest.” I was astonished. This brilliant thinker had “respect” for little me. With that inscription, he gave me more than a book; he gave me the gift of self-respect. I began to think that perhaps I had something to contribute in the field of religious thought.

I date my whole life in the field of theology from the moment I read that gracious inscription. Coming to see myself as he saw me, I was able to launch a career of teaching and writing which has given me profound satisfaction ... in short, a happy and fulfilled life. He was my second father, and I will love and honor him all my days.

The world does not possess so many men of genius that it can afford to lose even one. Gabriel Vahanian was one of the great religious thinkers of our time. His thought was original, creative, intellectually and spiritually audacious. And he was my mentor and friend. As the years passed, we would visit from time to time, and each time, we would seem to pick up the conversations just where we had left it months or even years before. When Paul Michel informed me of his father’s passing, I thought at once of a poem written by one friend about another on hearing of his death:

They told me Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking, and sent him down the sky.

I will always cherish the memory of our long, rich, wonderful conversations ... or perhaps one life-long conversation, shared one talk at a time over the years. They filled my life with abundance and taught me that the “treasure in heaven” can be had right here on Earth.  A splendid, radiant life has ended. But in his books and in the precious memory of his words, the treasure remains for all of us to share.